Everton kickstarted the resumption of their Premier League campaign on Boxing Day - and promptly found they had engaged the reverse gear, succumbing to a 2-1 home loss to bottom of the pile Wolverhampton Wanderers, courtesy of an entirely avoidable last minute goal.
Any hopes that a six week break culminating in a Goodison Park meeting with the lowest-scoring outfit in the division would result in a much-needed win and a return of good feeling directed from the fanbase to the team and - by extension - to manager Frank Lampard, were abruptly dashed.
Personally, I wasn’t thrilled to hear the boos directed at both manager and team at the game’s conclusion; there was no lack of effort on the pitch, just maybe a deficit in quality, but this can hardly have come as a surprise to most Blues fans. Lampard’s post-match comments, in which he implied that the Goodison crowd may in some way have contributed to the defeat certainly didn’t help matters.
Next up for Lampard's beleaguered side is a trip to the Etihad Stadium, to face Pep Guardiola’s Manchester City.
Last season, City pipped Liverpool to the post by a point to capture another league title for the former Barcelona and Bayern Munich boss, though Champions League glory once again eluded this super-talented squad. A place in the final of the competition most coveted by the immensely successful Guardiola seemed within his grasp, as they led Real Madrid by a two-goal margin with the clock ticking down, only to then crumble in the closing minutes of regulation, and then lose in the extra time period.
These days, a campaign in which their only silverware is a Premier League title counts as an average one for the Mancunians. Consequently, there was some change at the Etihad during the summer, with three significant players departing for hefty fees, countered by the the arrival of über-striker Erling Haaland for a knock-down €60m from Borussia Dortmund, along with Manuel Akanji, also from the Bundesliga outfit, in addition to Kalvin Phillips. Whereas defender Akanji (a bargain at €17.5m) has been a regular, the former Leeds United midfielder has been a bust so far, managing only a combined 53 minutes of action for his new team.
The Sky Blues have been in familiar imperious form this season and the acquisition of a prodigious goal scorer in Haaland has added a new dimension, if one were needed. Few games this term have presented a genuine challenge. If it were not for Arsenal’s surprising, near flawless efforts to date, they would be sitting top of the league table, having lost only 1-0 at Anfield and, in a shocking reverse, to a 98th minute Ivan Toney goal at the Etihad, which saw Brentford triumph 2-1 before the break for the World Cup.
Since the restart, City have emerged victorious from a 3-2 Carabao Cup shootout over Liverpool and on Wednesday dispatched a spirited Leeds 3-1 at Elland Road. The team sits 2nd in the table as they await the arrival of Everton on New Year’s Eve.
Style of Play
Guardiola enforces a highly disciplined attacking-based possession system at City. Typically, he will utilise a 4-3-3 formation, though occasionally the Catalan will use a 4-2-3-1 or, more rarely 3-4-3. His approach is one that emphasises control of the ball and playing in the opposition’s territory; when City lose possession they will attempt to regain it immediately via a counter-press, whilst simultaneously blocking passing lanes by intelligent player positioning. This can create a suffocating atmosphere for opponents, who will find it physically and - particularly - mentally exhausting in resisting the pressure created by Guardiola's side.
City do not really favour the use of dribbling to unlock defences: they attempt only 17.0 per 90 minutes as a team, compared to Everton’s 15.9. Considering the former enjoy a league-leading 66.8% possession advantage and the latter just 45.4%, this illustrates that beating a man one-on-one is a secondary approach to the use of clever movement and incisive passing. The side relies on creating overloads against the opposition defence, pulling players out of position and getting in behind for pullbacks to incoming attackers.
Defensively, the Sky Blues play a high line and rely on their intense counter-pressing to keep opposing teams penned deep inside their own third. When attacks break down, or possession is lost often the result is an aimless clearance, or long ball which is easily dealt with by the side’s elite, quick defenders. The hosts allow a league-low 7.4 shots against per game; Everton are the most generous team in the division, permitting an appalling 16.3.
Kevin De Bruyne experienced a torrid, demoralising time out in Qatar with Belgium, but in the English Premier League he ‘s been his usual immaculate self. The world-class midfield playmaker has three goals to his name this term and generates an astounding 0.49 xAG (Expected Assisted Goals) per 90 minutes. In a team full of outstanding attacking talent, he is the tempo setter.
Haaland is a phenom. Fast, big, powerful, clinical and intelligent the Norwegian almost seems as if he’s been put together in a high-tech footballing laboratory dedicated to constructing the ultimate number nine. His Expected Goals (xG) is an impressive 12.9 (over approximately 12.5 league matches), yet he’s exceeding that number by an amazing 7.1 goals. Whether he can maintain this level of overperformance is anyone’s guess, but it’d be a brave person to think the Everton defence will deny him this weekend.
Local lad Phil Foden is probably approaching his peak at 22-years-old and is enjoying his best campaign to date. He is another who is exceeding expectations, netting seven times this season (compared to an xG of 3.7). The academy product appears to have struck up a strong initial understanding with Haaland, which is bad news for Premier League defences.
In all honesty, this is a tough one.
Everton’s underlying performance numbers are not great, both offensively and defensively, even if the side has not shipped the goals the data suggests they should have: 19 compared to an xGA (Expected Goals Against) of 26.1. Partly this discrepancy can be attributed to Jordan Pickford (he’s stopped 2.7 shots that should have gone in, on average) and some strong last-ditch blocks. Worryingly, the Blues have conceded seven over their last three league matches, demonstrating that perhaps the defence is starting to unravel, or that the numbers are evening out. Whilst it’s true that the team contained Wolves to a mere 0.8 xG last time out, they are the lowest scoring side in the division and even they exceeded their xG, as did Bournemouth before the World Cup.
Everything points to a heavy defeat, maybe even an embarrassing one. Lampard will surely do the only sensible thing and use a variation of the tactics and formation that saw Everton unluckily lose 1-0 at Goodison last season, a positionally disciplined low-block 4-3-3. The Toffees defence, at least has a more solid look than the one that lined up back in February - comprising Jonjoe Kenny, Michael Keane, Mason Holgate and Seamus Coleman. It’s even possible that Frank may opt for a back three - particularly if Yerry Mina is fit to go, but I feel it will be a four with a densely-packed midfield, aiming to deny the hosts space. Anthony Gordon and Demarai Gray have the speed to exploit space on the break and probably both are better suited to a simple counterattacking game, in reality.
If Lampard sets up correctly, the team plays mistake-free football, and takes the rare opportunities they will get, then they have a chance of getting something. Not much of one, admittedly, but expecting any more than that is hopelessly optimistic.
Prediction: Everton 0-3 Manchester City
Stats provided courtesy of fbref.com, transfermarkt.co.uk and whoscored.com