Everton host Premier League new boys Nottingham Forest in one of this weekend’s traditional three o’clock matchups with pressure starting to mount for the home side to get some points on the board.
Losing star striker Dominic Calvert-Lewin to a knee injury just days before the season commenced has undoubtedly disrupted the team’s start and exposed deficiency in depth up front. Salomon Rondon is the only senior striker - other than DCL - and is nobody’s idea of an adequate replacement at this stage of his career.
Director of Football Kevin Thelwell and his scouting department team have seemingly spent much of the past two weeks assessing every available forward in France and England, but the Blues will line up against Forest without additions who could make a difference at the top of the pitch.
In fact, with the Idrissa Gueye transfer saga dragging on apparently with no end in sight, Frank Lampard will have to find a way to carve out a win with the same players that have so far failed to pick up a point. A draw would at least see Everton get off the mark; a loss would signal an appalling start to the season.
The visitors finished fourth in the Championship last season, winning promotion via the playoffs after a turbulent campaign. Inheriting a squad that had been bottom-half makeweights in 2020/21 (finishing 17th) and that were languishing in 23rd place after eight matches, Steve Cooper oversaw a remarkable turnaround. The addition of a few players such as forwards Sam Surridge and Keinan Davis, plus experienced centre half Steve Cook in January helped the team to an impressive run of 14 wins from their last 21 league games culminating in three knockout victories (one via a penalty shootout).
All that goes by the wayside though, such has been the squad churn at the Midlands club this summer, one which has seen an astonishing 15 players arrive (soon to be 16 once Morgan Gibbs-White’s £35+m transfer from Wolverhampton Wanderers is confirmed) and performers key to their promotion run such as James Garner, Djed Spence and Philip Zinckernagel return to their parent clubs. Cooper’s men started their first game back in the top flight for 23 years with a visit to the north-east where they suffered a 2-0 loss to Newcastle United, but followed that with a 1-0 shock win at home against West Ham United. In that game Forest bossed play in the first half, playing with far more intensity than the sluggish Londoners, but had to ride their luck after the restart and rely on the woodwork, last-ditch defending and some impressive saves from Dean Henderson - most notably keeping out Declan Rice’s weak penalty - to get them across the line with all three points.
Style of Play
Cooper has stuck mostly to a 3-4-1-2 formation since taking over the reins at the club and has deployed in that fashion so far in the Premier League. The boss has firm principles as to how he wants his team to play and this looks to be capable of absorbing a lot of new arrivals without breaking the system. Indeed, Forest appeared more cohesive than the Hammers last weekend, which is counterintuitive on the face off it. Cooper’s side largely dominated possession in the Championship and although they’ve only managed a 41% share in their two Premier League games to date, they’ve nevertheless been competitive as regards controlling play. Crucial to this are the defined roles assigned to the players, with one midfielder screening the defence, the other box-to-box, with a free-floating number ten.
Width is provided by dynamic wing-backs, who see a lot of the ball, relatively speaking. The front two consist of a nice mixture of pace, in Brennan Johnson and strength in new signing Taiwo Awoniyi. The players Cooper has at his disposal are not world-beaters but, as he demonstrated last season, he’s capable of maximising performance from good and mediocre alike. The former England youth setup manager is able to communicate a game plan and style of play easily to his team, keeping things clear and giving them a solid platform to succeed within an overarching system. Even when Forest came under intense pressure in the second half against David Moyes’ experienced and well-drilled West Ham outfit, they creaked but did not fall apart. This resilience in the team’s structure could serve them well and will not be easy to overcome on Saturday.
The recently signed (and heavily linked to Everton, at least earlier in the transfer window) Emmanuel Dennis will surely be an important player for Forest during the season, but is unlikely to make the starting line-up at Goodison Park, as Cooper will surely not want to disrupt a winning team. Gibbs-White, previously a target of the Blues won’t be registered in time to make the matchday squad.
Another player linked to Lampard’s outfit this summer, Jesse Lingard is the star name and creative hub of Cooper’s side. He posted a team-high 89.7% passing accuracy in the loss to Newcastle and was second on 78.3% against West Ham. He leads the side in Shot-Creating Actions with four in each match. The former Manchester United man is adept at finding spaces and will drift over to the flanks to link up play.
Spence’s replacement at right wing-back, Neco Williams has big boots to fill and so far is looking capable of doing just that, albeit at a higher standard of competition. The 21-year old is a lively presence and was impactful last time out, driving forward with the ball and beating his man on the dribble (winning all three attempts). He was always an outlet and put in some dangerous crosses, in addition to clearing a goal-bound shot off the line.
One of last term’s heroes, Johnson presents a danger the Blues will have to keep an eye on. The youngster will offer a constant threat to a backline not endowed with much pace and loves to drift wide into the channels. He was caught marginally offside against West Ham, but finished neatly before his goal was struck off.
What trouble Everton will encounter will depend on which version of Forest shows up: at St. James’ Park they offered little threat, but at the City Ground it was a different story; the Blues will hope they will be poor travellers. If Lampard cedes possession then the visitors will happy embrace the opportunity to dictate the game. Should the Blues push forward then Cooper’s side have the pace and passing quality to expose potential vulnerabilities in Lampard’s men.
The visitors can be got at, as demonstrated by their conceding an xGA (Expected Goals Allowed) of 2.0 or more in both matches to date. Whether the Toffees have the guile to create such opportunities is debatable and the team is seriously lacking in the firepower necessary to reliably finish chances. With transfer rumours circulating around Anthony Gordon and Dele Alli - both of whom trained normally this week - it remains to be seen what Frank decides upon at the top end of the team. The Gordon-as-striker experiment has been a failure, so Rondon will surely lead the line on Saturday.
In lieu of much in the way of threat from the front three, Everton’s best route to goal may be by set-pieces. They’ve looked quite dangerous from corners in both matches and against Villa caused the home side some difficult moments with delivery improved over last term and more aggression in attacking the ball. This promises to be a tight affair and it’s imperative the Blues keep it solid at the other end, with left-wing-back Vitalii Mykolenko and James Tarkowski in particular not allowing Johnson or Williams to get in behind.
All quoted stats courtesy of fbref.com
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