Once again Blues fans will be congregating at Goodison Park in the aftermath of a creditable performance (if not result) down the East Lancs Road in Manchester. This time, under pressure manager Frank Lampard will have had more than a week to absorb lessons taken from the FA Cup loss to Manchester United, and to rest his players ahead of what could prove to be a defining game, both for him on a personal level and for Everton’s future prospects.
Despite assurances on Friday from majority shareholder Farhad Moshiri that the boss has his backing, another defeat could surely force the unpredictable absentee owner’s hand, given the team sits in the relegation zone approaching the halfway point of the campaign. Off the pitch matters aside, Lampard’s record this season makes for grim reading: four wins, six draws and eleven losses in all competitions and the recent form book shows just a lone draw across the last seven matches.
Whatever the underlying causes for Everton’s appalling performance levels - and they are many - football is a results business and another setback on Saturday, against bottom of the table Southampton would leave the ex-Chelsea man in a perilous position.
Let’s take a look at the visitors in more detail.
After posting back-to-back 15th placed league finishes the Ralph Hasenhuttl era came to an end this season, amidst talk that the Austrian had lost the dressing room, a 4-1 home thrashing by a soaring Newcastle United proving to be the final straw.
Three days later, Nathan Jones was appointed as Hasenhuttl’s successor, but he has endured a torrid time so far. Succumbing to a 3-1 defeat by Liverpool at Anfield in his first game in charge was hardly a disgrace and a home loss by the same scoreline against Brighton & Hove Albion was perhaps a little unfortunate, as the visitors took full advantage of the few chances they’d created.
However, Southampton showed very little successively losing on the road at Fulham and then allowing Nottingham Forest to register their first away win of the season at St. Mary’s. Four consecutive league defeats, scoring three goals and conceding nine has brought early pressure on Jones, who is under extra scrutiny as a manager taking his first steps in the top flight after a career in the English Football League.
The Saints sit rock bottom in the Premier League with twelve points and on a dreadful run of six straight defeats across both managerial regimes, though they arrive at Goodison Park on the back of two morale-raising successes: an FA Cup win at Crystal Palace and on Wednesday registering a huge 2-0 EFL Cup Quarter-Final upset over Manchester City.
Style of Play
Jones built an early reputation as an attacking manager with Luton Town, favouring the 4-4-2 diamond formation and a passing game. This approach unravelled during a disastrous spell with Stoke City and upon his return to The Hatters he abandoned the diamond in favour of a back three and a direct style of play.
Under Jones, the 2021–22 EFL Championship Manager of the Season, Southampton have adopted the same tactics, favouring a high press from the front line and a counterattacking system emphasising quick play from the back, hitting a target man up top and looking for the midfield to win knock downs. He’s used a different formation in each of his four league games in charge and has switched up plenty during matches as he’s searched for a winning formula. It’s still very early days for the Welshman at St. Mary’s but if the team set up has varied, the way of playing has proved consistent.
The new man used a 3-4-3 in the team’s last league outing - a desultory 1-0 home loss to Forest - but reverted to a 4-2-3-1 for the two cup wins, so will probably stick with that for Saturday’s big game.
The Saints had a net spend of €80m in the summer, focusing on bringing in a raft of young prospects, including three from the Man City academy. They’ve been busy in January too, adding another talented youngster in addition to experienced winger Mislav Orsic, a fast and direct attacker possessing a good shot who may feature this weekend.
An ever-present in the visitor’s side, James Ward-Prowse is maintaining his usual high standards during what has been a depressing season for the club. The captain is a competent technician, offering a threat from open play, but is truly dangerous from direct free kicks. He’s scored three league goals for his side during the current campaign. The midfielder is not quick but can run all day long and will drift out wide to the right at times looking for opportunities to put in a delivery (he attempts 7.83 crosses per 90 minutes).
Gavin Bazunu is a promising young goalkeeper, but he’s being beaten at an alarming rate. The 20-year-old Irishman has faced a PSxG (Post-Shot Expected Goals) of 21.5, but has conceded 33 goals, although three have been put past him by teammates. The youngster only has a save percentage of 53.5, which puts him in the bottom one percentile across the big five European leagues (Jordan Pickford is up at 76.1%). He is is adept aerially, however stopping 9.5% of crosses.
Teenage striker Sekou Mara bagged his first goal for the Saints last time out against Man City and looks to be primed to take up a bigger role in the team than he has to date, whereas 18-year-old Belgian midfielder Romeo Lavia is proving an exciting prospect.
Southampton will set up to play without the ball and invite the Blues to attack them on their home turf. Nathan Jones’ side will not hesitate to play direct up to a designated target man, which in theory should suit the Toffees. The visitors will look to press the Everton defence, aiming to channel play into the centre of the park, where they will set traps and look to steal possession, with the aim of exploiting the transition with as few passes as possible.
Lampard knows that this game is a must-win. A trip to fellow strugglers West Ham United awaits next weekend, followed by a couple of daunting affairs in the shape of a home tie with league leaders Arsenal and a mid-February Anfield derby. The temptation will be to revert to type at Goodison Park and to go on the front foot on Saturday, but I feel Frank should stick with the 3-5-2 and not play a high defensive line, or press too much in midfield.
Pairing Demarai Gray with Dominic Calvert-Lewin (who showed encouraging signs that he’s regaining sharpness and timing in a cameo against Manchester United) in attack seems Everton’s best route to goal at the moment. A midfield three of Amadou Onana, Idrissa Gueye and Abdoulaye Doucoure (assuming the injured Alex Iwobi does not start) offers physicality in support of both attack and defence. Wingers Anthony Gordon and Dwight McNeil have frustrated in conventional positions this season, but deploying one or both as wing-backs, as we saw late on against United could add some needed threat from the flanks.
I believe that if this team plays too aggressively then they lose structure, leaving themselves open to the counter, whilst not actually creating many chances offensively. This is really playing into the hands of a side like Southampton and should be avoided. A more balanced plan, sitting in a mid-block, sweeping up long balls and looking to build from there may pay dividends, given the visitor’s shaky defence. The Saints are a side that has looked short of belief in the league and despite the big win in the EFL Cup the other night could easily revert to form this weekend.
Prediction: Everton 2 Southampton 0