Everton face another critical game in their bid to qualify for Europe when they host Aston Villa on Saturday.
Unusually, the Blues have yet to face Dean Smith’s men this season, with January’s reverse fixture at Villa Park postponed due to a Villa COVID-19 outbreak and yet to be rescheduled.
It means this will be the first of two Villa meetings for Everton in the next few weeks before the season ends on May 23.
While Everton are eighth and still on the tails of those in the European places, Villa’s season has petered out a little after a bright start, and they currently sit 11th.
Ahead of Saturday’s game, we spoke to Phil Vogel, from SB Nation’s dedicated Villa blog, 7500 to Holte:
RBM: Firstly, given Everton’s previous meeting with Villa was last July, how much have Villa changed since then?
Phil: July seems like another world. What a strange and crazy time we live in. In brief, improvements have been made in goal, at full-back and up front.
Emiliano Martinez is my player of the year for Villa. The former Arsenal man has been fantastic. Matty Cash solidified the right-back slot and will be back against Everton from a red card suspension.
The defence is much better than in previous years with Tyrone Mings and Ezri Konsa forming a very good partnership. Though, Mings is prone to a terrible mistake about once a game, it will be up to Everton to pounce on it.
Ollie Watkins is the main man up front and has been a joy to watch. Even in games he doesn’t score, he works really hard and leads the pressure from the front line. Brazilian striker Wesley played last week for a few minutes after being out for 480 days with a nasty knee injury.
Also, Ross Barkley (more on him later).
RBM: Europe seems unlikely for Villa now after such a good start to the season. But given they barely avoided relegation last term, should this campaign be deemed a success regardless?
Phil: I, along with most of the Villa faithful, am trying to wrestle with that very question. Yes, all of us would have jumped at the chance to finish tenth at the beginning of the season. Yes, all of us are frustrated with the way we have played of late and the failure to turn this year into one of legend.
But perspective is important to me. When Dean Smith took over in October 2018, Villa were a mid-table Championship side. Now, supporters are bummed we are on the outside of fighting for Europe. That is a mighty large improvement.
RBM: What do Villa need to make a more sustained challenge for Europe next season?
Phil: Villa will spend a large chunk of change this summer looking to improve the attack, specifically wide players.
Trezeguet (now out for an extended period after a knee injury), Anwar El Ghazi, and Bertrand Traore haven’t done enough to create. Also, look for Villa to bring in some midfield competition for John McGinn and Douglas Luiz.
Then there is Jack Grealish...
RBM: Jack Grealish may miss Saturday’s game through injury, which has kept him out since February 13. Villa have only won two of their ten games since then; are they too easy to nullify without him?
Phil: I could have written about Grealish in every answer. But yes, you fairly note the massive difference the captain’s absence makes.
This campaign can easily be split into ‘Before Grealish Injury’ and ‘After Grealish Injury.’ I know the narrative and I don’t agree that Villa are a one-man team, because there are other players who should be stepping up. I do believe that Villa are a Grealish-centric team, though, and the players and coaches have not adjusted well enough to playing without him.
Without Grealish, Barkley doesn’t have space and time on the ball (plus his form fell off a cliff likely, due at least in part to COVID). Matt Targett loses his partner in overlapping moves down the left. Without the defence shifting to the left where Grealish usually attacks from, Traore can’t take as many touches to set up moves cutting in from the right. Luiz and McGinn have to do much more in the middle, with less space. And the entire defence loses the main outlet.
Villa also can’t regroup after Grealish gets fouled. Their entire strategy from September to February centered on opponents concentrating on Grealish and the rest of the team taking advantage. The adjustments haven’t been good enough to create a different line of attack without the best player I’ve seen for Villa in my lifetime.
RBM: Given Villa seem set to finish mid-table, have you also sensed any lack of motivation about them during their recent run? Is there a sense of just wanting the season to end now?
Phil: No, there is plenty of motivation and effort! That isn’t quite a true statement, though there is some sense of deflation lately, both in the supporters and, from the looks of it, some of the team.
RBM: Villa loanee and former Everton midfielder Ross Barkley started their 2-2 draw with West Brom on Sunday, but his previous six outings were all from the bench. Barkley has managed just three goals and one assist this season; what have you made of him?
Phil: I think the Barkley experiment has failed.
It was a bright start with him and Grealish playing very well together. It is assumed Barkley was one of the players hit by COVID in the winter. After the COVID break, his form and energy were gone. So, everyone has connected those dots and made the assumption.
That said, the last game against West Brom was his best performance in a while. He didn’t give the ball away as much and earned a penalty.
RBM: How do you expect Villa to set up on Saturday?
Phil: There is only one real question mark in the starting lineup provided Smith keeps the same shape as he has in pretty much every match, no matter who is available: Martinez; Cash, Konsa, Mings, Targett; Luiz, McGinn, ?; Traore, El Ghazi, Watkins.
The question mark is likely to be Barkley or 19-year-old Jacob Ramsey in an attacking midfield role.
Villa will defend well and try to break with a long pass from McGinn or cross from the full-backs. Over and over Villa will hit crosses; it is plan A, B, and C right now.
RBM: Who do you think could cause Everton the most problems?
Phil: Watkins will press your defenders and try to force a mistake. He is starved of service most of the time, but he is the clear goal threat.
When Smith makes his first subs at 80 minutes and Ramsey (because I’m presuming Barkley will start) and Keinan Davis come on, look for Villa to actually look like an attacking side from then on.
RBM: Finally, what’s your prediction for Saturday’s game?
Phil: 2-1 to Everton.
Our thanks to Phil for his time.