Everton’s fabled seven-game unbeaten streak seems very far off following a home defeat to Manchester United and a comfortable win for Tottenham Hotspur in north London last weekend. Talk (mostly tongue in cheek) of the Blues’ defence being statistically the best in the Premier League seems wide of the mark after the team shipped a combined four goals within six days.
Frank Lampard’s outfit has been conceding far less goals (11) than the data suggests should be the case - the Expected Goals Allowed (xGA) metric is 17.1 - and these things tend to balance out eventually. Jordan Pickford - notwithstanding his error last time out, which gifted a penalty to Harry Kane - has been outstanding and the defence, whilst allowing a high volume of shots has been conceding relatively few dangerous chances.
Of concern, however is how relatively low-yield Everton’s attack has been: the team has scored just eight league goals from an Expected Goals (xG) total of 10.4. This is partly a product of the individual players Lampard has available, but if the side is set up as conservatively as has been the case recently, then it is going to be tough to improve output.
Going up against two teams that will be in contention for Champions League spots this campaign somewhat justifies a defensive approach, but this will probably not be the case with tonight's opponents, Newcastle United. Let’s take a look at the opposition in more detail.
The installation of Eddie Howe as the man to oversee the the Saudi Arabian-led new era for Newcastle raised a few eyebrows last November, considering the former Bournemouth man was not high profile. He’s proven his doubters wrong so far, as he approaches his first year at the helm, guiding the relegation-threatened team to an impressive eleventh-placed finish last campaign.
This term the Magpies have continued to flex their new-found financial muscles. In January, Howe’s prospects were considerably enhanced by the addition of around £91m in talent; notably the shrewd captures of quality operator Kieran Trippier from Atletico Madrid and elite midfielder Bruno Guimaraes from Olympique Lyonnais. The club from the north-east has splashed a net £120m during the summer, adding former Burnley goalkeeper Nick Pope and outstanding young talents Sven Botman and Alexander Isak to bolster the defence and forward line, respectively. This level of spending cannot go on forever, even allowing for Newcastle’s low wage bill and strong financial position before the Saudi takeover, but they are laying the groundwork nicely.
Howe’s team has begun the season solidly, though they are finding it tough to register wins. They started with a routine dismantling of a chaotically-assembled Nottingham Forest “team” and a couple of creditable draws against Brighton and Manchester City, but failed to take their chances next time out, drawing 1-1 with an underwhelming Wolverhampton Wanderers. The Magpies suffered their sole reverse of the campaign to date, going down 2-1 to Liverpool at Anfield, though they were hard done by in seeing Isak’s second goal unfairly chalked off for offside. They were the better side in draws versus Crystal Palace and Bournemouth and then crushed ten-man Fulham and - more surprisingly - Brentford. They come into this match off of a goalless draw with Manchester United at Old Trafford.
Style of Play
Once Howe had his recruits in, he went with a 4-3-3 formation all the way last term and has continued in that fashion during the new season. Against stronger opponents, Newcastle cede possession and play on the counter, but otherwise are happy to get on the ball and play. Regardless, they are a disciplined outfit that are not at all easy to play against. Their defence is very solid, with the additions of Trippier, Dan Burn, Botman and Matt Targett, as well as the impressive form of holdover Fabian Schar.
A midfield trio of Guimaraes, Joe Willock and Joelinton is hard-working and physical (and talented, in Bruno’s case) and average around 30% success rate in pressuring opponents. They like to block off passing lanes and force turnovers which they can exploit. Offensively, they are quite balanced in terms of how they attack and their passing is similar, with about 12% of their passes being long (by comparison, Everton go long 16% of the time).
Guimaraes is key man for this Newcastle outfit. The Brazilian is a class act and a real coup for the Magpies. Technically gifted, the 24-year old is an intelligent all-rounder who has energy, positional defensive attributes and a range of passing in his game.
England international Pope was a clever signing and is performing to a level that could be expected. The ‘keeper has shipped nine goals this season, 2.2 less than his Post-Shot Expected Goals (PSxG) total. Dominant from crosses (in the 78th percentile per the top five leagues and European competitions), he’s also well-versed in patrolling his penalty box and his distribution is strong (64.8% passing accuracy).
Miguel Almiron is not normally one of the standout players for Newcastle, but has started this season in fine form. The Paraguayan has scored four goals already, matching his best efforts over an entire campaign. The winger’s application and energy has never been in doubt, just his end product and he’s answering some of his critics up to now, at any rate.
Callum Wilson’s ability has never been in doubt, just his capacity to stay fit. With his long-term replacement, Isak currently struggling himself with injury problems, the ex-Bournemouth man has a solid chance to fight for his spot in the Magpies line-up and with 3 goals in six league starts, the 30-year old is putting up a strong argument. He lacks Isak’s pace but is a hard-working all-round striker who has had Everton’s number in previous encounters.
The Blues fell apart at this venue last time around in what was Lampard’s league debut as Everton boss, going down to a 3-1 defeat. The visitors were beset by problems from the start, losing two players to injury within the first 35 minutes. With the hosts backed by a raucous crowd at St James’ Park, the Toffees crumbled in the second period. Everton improved in solidity as the campaign wore on and have demonstrated improved cohesion this season.
It is unlikely that Lampard will set up anything like he did that night back in February but what his approach will be is tough to assess. The hosts are not easy to prise open and Everton have looked short of both creativity and goals, so it appears their best route to success may be a disciplined, counter-attacking set up. Unlike at the Tottenham Hotspur Stadium, or against Manchester United, Frank may fancy his chances in a game of few clear-cut opportunities, as the Magpies lack the efficient finishing qualities possessed by the likes of Kane and Cristiano Ronaldo.
I feel a repeat of the 5-3-2 that fans suffered through at the weekend would be a mistake and anticipate a return to the 4-3-3 that ground out a draw at Leeds. The hosts have drawn six of their ten league games so far and may be anxious to secure all three points tonight and that could play to Everton’s advantage.