On Thursday evening, Everton’s next opponents Leicester City faced the crushing disappointment of defeat to AS Roma at the Stadio Olimpico, ending their continental campaign at the semi-final stage of the Europa Conference League. By the time the final whistle sounded late into the Italian evening, the tired visitors faced a flight back home and only two full rest days before they entertain Everton at the King Power Stadium. There is likely to be heavy rotation away from Leicester’s starting team, whereas the Blues will have enjoyed a full week to rest and work on their approach to the match. This is the last opportunity that Frank Lampard will have this amount of preparation and recovery time between matches, as the season ends in a rush, so he needs to take full advantage of these favourable factors and end Everton’s dreadful away run on Sunday. We only took a look at Brendan Rodgers’ outfit a few weeks ago, so much is still relevant such a short time later, but let’s examine some pertinent data here.
Since Richarlison’s dramatic last-gasp equalizer against Leicester at Goodison Park on May 20th, the Foxes have played four times and failed to win each time; in fact, they’ve not won any of their last six matches going back to a 2-1 victory over PSV Eindhoven in mid-April. Rodgers’ team enter their meeting with Everton off back-to-back losses, 3-1 against Tottenham Hotspur and Thursday’s 1-0 loss to Roma. In the latter match, the midlands outfit struggled to get going in the first half and an attempted second-half rally was easily contained by Jose Mourinho’s side. This season, with its extended continental campaign (14 European matches in total) has been a real test of Leicester’s depth and it’s fair to say it has been found wanting, as evidenced by their relative underperformance in the Premier League, where they currently sit in eleventh spot.
Sunday’s game will be the eleventh since the last time they enjoyed more than a five day interval between fixtures and this is a punishing schedule for even the strongest, deepest squads. Even with rotation, many players must be mentally and physically drained. Like Everton, they conclude the domestic campaign with five matches left to squeeze into a two week period, though the two sides differ in the relevance these fixtures hold. For the Blues, it is everything; for the Foxes, there is little at stake other than pride in personal performance as they seek to play out the season.
Style of Play
What formation Rodgers goes with on Sunday will depend largely on which players have recovered sufficiently to be available for selection; it is highly unlikely he will take risks with anybody, given there is not much on the line for the home team. Ideally, given the appropriate personnel, he will probably go with a variation on his preferred 4-3-3 although it is possible the Northern Irishman could experiment with a back three, as he did against Spurs recently. Whatever the setup, the Foxes play in a set way, which is very much a possession based system at this stage under the former Liverpool and Celtic boss. In their last seven matches, Rodgers’ men have dominated possession (between 58 - 68 %) but secured victory only once, losing three. This easy control is a strength, a testament to the technical qualities the team enjoys, but can be seen as a weakness when results and goal threat are examined. Again, against Roma this was apparent.
Starting out in a 4-3-3, the midlanders failed to generate much in the way of chances and this didn’t improve much after the interval, when Rodgers made two proactive substitutions and switched to a 3-5-2 as the visitors chased the game, after falling behind early. A number of hopeful long-range efforts were all the offence they could generate as the Serie A side held them comfortably at arms length. Faced with Mourinho’s 3-4-2-1 setup, they had no answers and were repeatedly troubled on the flanks by Roma’s aggressive wing-backs, particularly the impressive Polish youngster Nicola Zalewski on the left. This vulnerability forced Rodgers’ hand as he abandoned his initial approach at halftime but it was another long-term problem that holed them below the waterline, as terrible marking allowed Tammy Abraham to power home a virtually uncontested header from a corner, another black mark to add to the 17 set-piece goals the team have shipped in the league this season.
With considerable rotation of the team that lined up on Thursday night in Italy almost inevitable it is difficult to highlight key players that should start against the Blues tomorrow afternoon, so I’ll focus on just one who’ll most probably feature. Kiernan Dewsbury-Hall has seized his chance to break into the Foxes side this season and has started 19 consecutive matches. He was withdrawn after 76 minutes last time out and offers boundless energy and running that no other of Rodgers’ midfield options possesses. The 23 year old caught the eye at Goodison three weeks ago with his movement, clever interplay and ability to draw fouls. A weakness, again evident on Thursday is a lack of end product, highlighted by the several hopeful long-range shots he took that night.
Leicester will doubtless dominate the ball, so Lampard will be able to employ the counterattacking style that Everton have favoured in recent games. Ceding possession to Rodgers’ side in unimportant areas of the pitch should not be seen as a problem, given their proclivity for harmless recycling of the ball. Everton should conserve their energy to press the opposition aggressively in the middle third, in order to turn the ball over and spring rapid counters, or to take advantage of any sloppy play. The Blues boss will have doubtless noted how vulnerable the Foxes were against Roma’s wing backs and could seek to emulate that tactic, though the Blues lack natural attacking options for those positions.
The home side have been dreadful defending set-piece situations for a long time - albeit they are a little better at the King Power - but this should be an area that Lampard and his staff, particularly Paul Clement, should seek to exploit. It is reasonable to expect some slackness in Leicester’s structure and shape given the high likelihood that there will be a lot of changes from their last line-up and the Blues, who are showing signs of being a more cohesive unit recently can take advantage tomorrow.