It’s back to the familiar confines of Goodison Park for Frank Lampard’s Blues this weekend, following their 0-0 away trip to Craven Cottage. Today, Everton play host to Leicester City in the early evening kickoff and will be looking to heap more pain onto former Liverpool boss, Brendan Rodgers.
The Toffees have been looking much more confident on home turf this campaign, playing something like the way Lampard intends as he continues a rebuild of the demoralised, shapeless squad he inherited from his disaster of a predecessor, Rafael Benitez. On the road, it’s a work in progress - the modus operandi for the moment being to stay defensively solid and accrue points that way.
Let’s take a peek at the visitors:
Rodgers has enjoyed a successful period of stabilisation with the Foxes since taking over from unpopular incumbent Claude Puel towards the end of the 2018-19 season. A fifth-place finish in his first full season in charge brought back the good times to the east Midlands club and the northern Irishman repeated the feat in 2020-21, only missing out on Champions League qualification due to consecutive losses to Chelsea and Tottenham Hotspur at the conclusion of the campaign. Still, he added silverware in the form of an FA Cup triumph over the former outfit and back-to-back stints in the Europa League is nothing to be sniffed at.
Last season, however things took a downward turn. Despite Leicester eventually making it all the way to the semi-finals of the inaugural Europa Conference League, they fared poorly domestically, though a late rally, in which they won three of their last four matches saw the team finish a creditable eighth in the Premier League. Still, there were murmurs of unrest in the stands and the first vocalised criticism of Rodgers. Inertia in the summer transfer market did not help matters and set the midlanders up for an uncertain start to the new season, particularly in the wake of the sale to Chelsea of touted centre back Wesley Fofana for a huge fee late in the window.
Dreadful performances ensued: the side losing six of their opening seven league matches, after securing a 2-2 home draw against Brentford to kick things off, Leicester shipping an astonishing 22 goals in those seven games. Since then, there’s been a levelling-off, the team securing much-needed wins over the likes of Nottingham Forest, Leeds United and Wolverhampton Wanderers and a point against Crystal Palace, albeit hardly in impressive fashion. The Foxes arrive at Goodison on the back of a creditable 1-0 home loss to Manchester City. They sit at 18th position in the league currently, though are only three points off Everton, in 12th place.
Style of Play
Rodgers generally is comfortable with switching up formations, though he favours a back four. This season he started off with a back three for the initial two games before reverting to a variety of back four systems, finally getting his best results in a 4-1-4-1 with either Wilfred Ndidi or Boubakary Soumare operating in the anchor man role. This, plus an improved attention to defending set-pieces and the strong form of new central defender Wout Faes has halted the deluge of goals that were threatening to swamp Leicester and potentially end Rodgers’ term in the hot-seat.
The ex-Liverpool chief likes to play on the front foot and for his team to dominate the ball. Despite their troubled start to the season, the Foxes have still generally been bossing possession, though interestingly their share has dropped for four straight games, perhaps unsurprisingly against Manchester City.
Defensively, the visitors have been in disarray, conceding 1.9 goals per match, though only that single Kevin de Bruyne free kick across the last four matches. They had been conceding at a rate far in excess of their Expected Goals Allowed (xGA) metric (the opposite of Everton), so a levelling off is to be expected. In terms of stats, they’ve been pretty average, although they have been scored against four times through counter-attacks and shipped six via set-piece situations, which is indicative of a long-standing problem dating back to last season and a certain vulnerability when turning the ball over in enemy territory.
Leicester under Rodgers are a possession team and a criticism has been that they show a tendency to keep the ball without threatening opponents too much; in fact they lead the league in terms of how much time they spend in the middle third of the pitch (44%); they rank 17th in the opposition third, indicating a lack of penetration, or progression. That 41% of their shots are taken from range confirms this. Their shooting stats mirror the notoriously goal-shy Wolves, which says it all. Leicester are a technical side, with only 9.5% of their passes going long (Everton are at 16.4%). They attempt few crosses and sit bottom of the league in terms of attempted dribbles.
The danger man for the visitors is unquestionably James Maddison. The playmaker has carried on from an outstanding 2020-21 campaign, in which he racked up 30 goal contributions in all competitions and - no doubt with one eye on the World Cup next month - has been on fire this term, scoring six and assisting two in eleven league matches to date. Mysteriously overlooked for an England call-up, he will operate off the right flank with a licence to roam.
On the opposite flank, a more conventional inverted winger in Harvey Barnes presents a goal threat with his pace and direct running. The 24-year-old has scored in two of the last three matches and has an Expected Goals (xG) per 90 minutes of 0.23, behind only strikers Jamie Vardy and Patson Daka.
A major issue for Leicester has been replacing title-winning goalkeeper and captain Kasper Schmeichel. Danny Ward has stepped up but has been found wanting so far. The Welshman has conceded 5.6 goals more than could be anticipated, considering the quality of shots he’s faced.
The Blues did not fare too badly last weekend against Fulham in grinding out a goalless draw, but will be looking to be more proactive at home. The opposition have stabilised after making a terrible start to the campaign, but underlying stats hint at unresolved problems. They haven’t generated an xG above 1.0 in any of their last five matches and less than two weeks ago posted an xGA of 2.1 against Wolves, who of course failed to find the back of the net. They are defending set-pieces better.
Encouragingly for Everton, the visitors have scored all but one of their goals from either open-play or set-pieces and the Blues defend both situations very well: they actually lead the league in only letting in four goals from general play so far this season and just one from a dead-ball. The hosts have conceded a league-high (this is bad!) five on the counter, but Leicester have scored none from this route.
A game-plan similar to that which we saw utilised against Palace could see Everton harry Leicester into errors. Movement and some combination play between the midfield and wide players should put pressure on a vulnerable defensive unit. Bringing Dwight McNeil in for Anthony Gordon may facilitate some more linked-up play. Vitalii Mykolenko can shut down Maddison on the flanks, but will have to pass him on to a midfielder when he drifts inside.
If Everton can block off easy passing routes through the centre, whilst maintaining an aggressive, forward-thinking style of play, then they can pick up another home win today.