It’s “only” been a month and a half since Everton were booed off the pitch by much of their own travelling contingent, in the aftermath of consecutive drubbings within 96 hours by Bournemouth at Dean Court. This marked a low-point in the fans’ relationship with the players - and by extension, Frank Lampard - since the Chelsea icon took over the reins at Goodison Park at the end of January.
An unedifying spectacle, no doubt and one that the team will be hoping to put behind them as the Premier League season recommences, following a bizarre winter hiatus whilst the World Cup has been played out to its epic conclusion in Qatar. The Blues boss has hopefully put this time to good use, seeing as he’s had the bulk of the squad available to work with during the interim.
The games come thick and fast over the holiday period and first up are Wolverhampton Wanders, who arrive at Goodison Park on Boxing Day under new boss Julen Lopetegui. Let’s take a look at what the visitors offer.
It’s been a strange season for the West Midlands outfit. Two seventh-placed finishes following their return to the top division in 2018, under Nuno Espirito Santo raised expectations, leading to the Portuguese favourite’s departure in June 2021, after the team slumped to a disappointing 13th. Countryman Bruno Lage did marginally better the next season but whereas Wolves were defensively solid, a meagre one goal scored per game and a winless run of seven to end the campaign proved poor fare indeed.
Entering the 2022-23 season, Lage was under pressure to get off to a good start, particularly so considering the amount of cash (almost €140m) splashed on expensive new recruits such as Matheus Nunes, Goncalo Guedes and Nathan Collins. Consequently, just one win from the opening eight league fixtures proved Lage’s undoing.
The decision makers at a club seemingly adrift dragged their heels in finding a perfect replacement and the team drifted rudderless under interim boss Steve Davis, suffering a further five defeats during his seven games in charge. The side showed slightly more offensively than was the case with Lage, scoring five but leaked goals (15) at an alarming rate.
Finally, the club got the man they wanted, in Lopetegui and he kicked off his tenure with an perfunctory Carabao Cup win over fourth-tier Gillingham on Tuesday. The Midlanders sit rock bottom in the league entering Monday’s visit to Goodison.
Style of Play
The Basque is best known for his days as manager of Sevilla, during which time he favoured a progressive style using a 4-3-3 formation. Lopetegui developed his system of play during his stints at FC Porto and with the Spanish national team, before his career hit a roadblock prior to the 2018 World Cup, where he was famously dismissed due to agreeing to take up a new role at Real Madrid without the knowledge of the Spanish Football Federation. The plumb job at Madrid proved a disaster and he was sacked in turn after a mere 14 games and a dismal 42.9% win rate.
In Andalucía, Lopetegui rebuilt his tarnished reputation, re-establishing Sevilla as a major force in Spanish football with three consecutive fourth-placed finishes and claiming the Europa League title in 2019, beating teams such as AS Roma, Manchester United, Wolves (!) and Inter Milan in the final. A dismal start to the present campaign, during which the side won only once in ten in all competitions saw the Basque dismissed from his role; that his successor is faring no better suggests the problem lay more with a disastrous recruitment strategy during the summer, than any failings in the manager.
Lopetegui favours technically competent players well suited to a short passing game, as well as being positionally intelligent and hard-working. His teams adopt a mid-high block and press intensely, typically forcing the opposition towards one side of the pitch, or the other. The three central midfielders block of routes through the middle of the park and screen the defence. In possession, patient build-up play is utilised to probe for openings, whilst progressive fullbacks offer support and width on both sides. A defensive midfielder will drop back, providing cover and retaining a strong defensive structure. Wide players will cut inside looking to combine with the midfield and create overloads.
It’s going to be interesting seeing how Lopetegui attempts to fit the players he has available to him at Molineux to his preferred tactical setup. Rumours of a new round of heavy investment in support of the new man in January abound, but for the Boxing Day fixture he’ll have to work with what he has.
Key man for Wolves is Ruben Neves and he’ll surely be one that the ex-Sevilla boss relies on. One of the very few to have performed so far this season, the 25-year old is the goal-shy team’s leading scorer this term and is a threat from range (of five shots that have hit the target, four have beaten the goalkeeper). Much like his veteran midfield partner, Joao Moutinho, the Portuguese orchestrates play from a deep position in front of the defence, utilising his wide range of passing.
José Sá was a revelation guarding the net last season, managing an impressive 75% save rate and conceding 7.3 goals fewer than could be expected, considering the quality of shot he faced. This term, it’s been almost the reverse, as he’s shipped 3.9 goals more than should be anticipated and dropped to a 61.9% save rate. The 29-year old seriously overperformed last campaign, but is a better goalkeeper than he’s shown over the first 14 games this season.
One-time Everton target Matheus Nunes has underperformed since arriving at Molineux in the summer, but there’s undoubtedly a player in there and Lopetegui will certainly take advantage of his physical characteristics, which appear well-suited to a pressing game.
On the face of it, a game between the two lowest scoring teams in the league, currently sitting in 17th and 20th position in the table promises little. However, such is the anticipation amongst both sets of fans - in Everton’s case, hoping for a reboot following an alarming dip in form; whereas those of Wolves will be backing the new man to reinvigorate a stale outfit - that there’s a lot riding on it. Both face daunting opponents on New Year’s Eve: the Blues travel to face Manchester City at the Etihad, whereas the West Midlands outfit entertain Manchester United.
Neither can afford to lose, but the Toffees are the home side and really must take all three points on Monday. Lopetegui is undoubtedly a major upgrade on Lage and he’s had a little time to work on getting his approach over to his new charges, but his style of football is very different to how Wolves have played since returning to the Premier League and quite demanding, physically (in terms of intensity) and requires intelligent and technical operators. Wolves do have a few of those, but it may take them a while to adapt to pressing heavily and playing a higher line.
If they are operating to the levels Lopetegui will demand, then Everton could be in trouble, for the Blues have struggled to consistently beat the press and pass the ball out from the back. Lampard has to hope that the visitors are not yet the finished article and that the work his side will have put in over the past month or so will reap benefits. Dominic Calvert-Lewin looks likely to be absent once more, so the side have to attempt to play to likely starting striker Neal Maupay’s strengths and cannot play too direct, or over rely on crosses.
I can foresee a tight game, tactical in nature. The Blues must remain solid defensively (without the services of loanee Conor Coady) and utilise both Idrissa Gueye and Amadou Onana to shield the centre backs and block Wolves’ passing game. This could be decided by a single goal, from a set-piece, a ball over the top, or by forcing a mistake. Everton have to use the edge they will receive from the home support and maintain their composure.
Prediction: Everton 1-0 Wolves
Stats provided courtesy of fbref.com and transfermarkt.co.uk