Everton head to Villa Park in what feels like an (admittedly, very) early crunch match in Saturday’s 12.30pm local time kick-off to this weekend’s Premier league round of fixtures.
Although a loss in Everton’s opener against a strong Chelsea outfit was hardly a complete longshot, it nevertheless was a home tie and the visitors came into the match as something of an unsettled outfit, given what they’ve been going through both behind the scenes and in terms of losing some key performers such as Antonio Rudiger. Any chance for Frank Lampard’s men to get at a partially restructured visiting defence was neutralized by the loss of primary striker Dominic Calvert-Lewin to injury a couple of days beforehand, leaving the Toffees looking lightweight and shy of goals at the top end of the pitch.
Despite the arrival of exciting 20-year midfielder Amadou Onana during the week, the club has been so far unable to bring in reinforcements in attacking areas, so find themselves largely treading water in terms of attacking options, save for the return of backup striker Salomon Rondon from suspension.
It’s early days, but neither team wants to find themselves with no points after two matches.
Steven Gerrard took the reins of an unexpectedly struggling Aston Villa side in November last year following Dean Smith’s removal. The former Glasgow Rangers boss oversaw an initial uptick in results, before things levelled off somewhat. Three consecutive wins culminating in a 3-0 dismissal of Leeds United in mid-March was the high water mark of the ex-Liverpool icon’s run at Villa Park to date, as by that stage he’d won eight of 16 league matches. However, in the twelve games since, Gerrard’s outfit have registered only two victories, both over teams no longer in the Premier League, in the relegated Norwich City and Burnley.
The home side have kicked off the season in unimpressive fashion, succumbing 2-0 to newly promoted AFC Bournemouth, who are widely considered to be strong relegation candidates. The midlanders controlled large portions of the game, but without creating significant chances and were undone by poor organization in defending set-piece situations - something painfully familiar to Everton fans last season.
Style of Play
Villa have employed a 4-3-2-1 consistently since Gerrard's arrival, with the occasional use of a 4-3-3. The new manager initially focused on improving the team’s defensive structure, fitness and aggression - and to some effect - as under Smith they’d become easy to play and create chances against. Subsequently, he’s worked on aspects of control and offensive play, highlighted by Villa’s greater share of possession from the New Year onward. Not that they are at all an overly attacking team, as the former England stalwart takes a balanced approach, focusing more on negating the opponent and taking advantage of perceived weaknesses in their setup or personnel.
With highly technical operators such as Philippe Coutinho and Emi Buendia at their disposal the Villans are quite capable of orchestrated build-up play, particularly through the middle. Equally though, they can go direct to the likes of the quick, strong and mobile Ollie Watkins, or play on the counter. One notable feature of their approach is how high the fullbacks push up the pitch, offering width and providing good crossing opportunities by Matty Cash on the right and former Everton favourite Lucas Digne on the left.
The Villa Park hierarchy have backed their man in the market so far. They’d splashed almost £90m last summer - which probably explains their impatience with Smith - and reinforced in the January window with the £27m addition of Digne and Coutinho on loan from Barcelona. This summer they confirmed the Brazilian on a permanent basis, added Real Betis centre half Diego Carlos for £28m and talented 22-year old midfielder Boubacar Kamara on a free transfer from Olympique Marseille, which was something of a coup.
One of the key men for the home side is arguably newly-appointed captain John McGinn. The Scot obviously has the backing of his manager and provides a solid presence in the centre of the park, racking up 3.0 tackles and 4.9 progressive passes per 90 last season.
Former Liverpool man Coutinho presents the main creative threat, popping up in dangerous areas and the half-spaces he loves to frequent. The playmaker has been a near ever-present since arriving and figures to remain so; albeit largely at the expense of big-money signing Buendia, who has seen his role diminish accordingly. The Brazilian has scored 5 goals since January from an average of more than two shots per game and 56 shot-creating actions (SCA), highlighting his influence. He is something of a passenger in defensive phases of the game, however and can disappear for long stretches of play.
Despite Villa’s poor result last weekend, this away tie is a tough one for the Blues. Following the embarrassment of losing to what are perceived as weak opponents in the Cherries, Gerrard will want to rebound in front of expectant supporters at a packed Villa Park; he’ll for sure have put his players through the wringer this week. However it’d be a mistake to write off that result as a fluke, for the hosts have been in poor form stretching quite far back into the last campaign. Captain Tyrone Mings has lost the armband - and apparently his place in the starting eleven - which is sure to cause some problems in the dressing room, such things being what they are. Still, they are a talented outfit and have recruited shrewdly.
Lampard’s task is how to go about getting at least a point on the road - not something he found easy last term - against what is a very decent outfit. Due to Everton’s well-known financial problems, which have only been partially alleviated, it has been a slow, sometimes tortuous process rebuilding the squad and as it stands the task is incomplete. Shorn of a serious striker option, he has to choose between Rondon, who offers little threat, but is at least a natural centre-forward, repeating last weekend’s failed Anthony Gordon experiment, or trying Dele Alli as a false nine. None are massively appealing options. On the plus side the defence was tight against Chelsea, the midfield competitive and both have been reinforced in the interim by the arrival of Conor Coady (despite the loss of Yerry Mina and Ben Godfrey to injury) and Onana.
I foresee Frank setting up exactly as last time out, with the exception of Rondon leading the line. Personally, I would use Dele up top, as I’d have done last Saturday and drop one of Demarai Gray or Gordon to the bench, hoping that Dwight McNeil and Dele can link up play and spring attacks. The best route to goal for the Blues may well be exploiting the susceptibility to set plays that Bournemouth profited from. James Tarkowski showed he can be an effective threat in the opposition box last time out and could be a match-winner given decent delivery from Gray (who put in a few nice balls versus Chelsea), or McNeil.