Frank Lampard’s Everton demonstrated guts and resilience to withstand Manchester City on New Year’s Eve, snatching an unexpected point which may prove invaluable come season’s end. If this was a major positive, it must be balanced out with the recognition that Everton dropped one-three points at home on Boxing Day against a very beatable Wolverhampton Wanderers side.
It could be argued that, in two matches since the resumption of their Premier League campaign, the Toffees are two points down on the haul they may have been expected to pull in.
With that sobering knowledge, and sitting precariously in 16th position in the table, just a single point above the relegation zone, the Blues tackle Roberto De Zerbi’s Brighton & Hove Albion at Goodison Park on Tuesday evening.
The Seagulls ended up a very respectable 9th last term, their best Premier League finish in their third full season under talented boss Graham Potter. They concluded that campaign with a lot of momentum, winning five of their final eight matches, with just one defeat to eventual champions, Man City.
The new season had picked up where the last left off, the side losing just once - to surprise package Fulham - and taking 13 points from six matches before Potter departed to Chelsea, where he replaced the outgoing Thomas Tuchel as Stamford Bridge chief. Ten days later, the club appointed De Zerbi, who had left Shakhtar Donetsk back in May, as a result of the ongoing Russian invasion of Ukraine.
The Italian endured a rocky initial managerial period on the south coast, failing to achieve victory in any of his first five league games in charge, losing three. Despite the meagre points return, the side had played some good football, including a 3-3 draw with Liverpool at Anfield and dominating both the shot count and share of possession in losses to Tottenham Hotspur and Brentford, and in drawing with Nottingham Forest.
If Brighton had been a little unlucky during De Zerbi’s initial run of games, a 4-1 hammering of Chelsea, helmed by Potter, marked a turnaround in their fortunes. Victories over Wolves, and Arsenal in the Carabao Cup followed, before momentum was stalled by defeat to Aston Villa and a League Cup exit via penalty shootout to Charlton Athletic.
The Seagulls have not actually been too impressive since the league restart, defeating Southampton 3-1 despite an xG (Expected Goals) advantage of 1.9 to 0.6 in favour of the losing side and being beaten 4-2 by league leaders Arsenal on New Year’s Eve at the Amex. They arrive at Goodison Park sitting in 10th spot in the table, nine points ahead of Everton, having played a game less.
Style of Play
De Zerbi deviates heavily from the archetype of the defensively-minded, pragmatic Italian manager, favouring possession play and attacking football, giving him something of a maverick reputation in his homeland. After gaining experience in the lower echelons of the Italian football pyramid, his first taste of the big time saw him abruptly sacked by Palermo after less than three months. He spent almost a year on the sidelines before being hired by newly-promoted Serie A side Benevento. Although the team would be relegated during his only season in charge, De Zerbi drew praise for his efforts and was appointed as boss by Sassuolo in June 2018.
It was whilst at I Neroverdi that the then 39-year-old built his reputation, drawing plaudits for both the team’s swashbuckling style and overachievement. In his final two seasons in charge, before leaving to take up a position with Shahktar, Sassuolo managed back-to-back eighth-placed finishes and scored a combined 133 league goals.
The Italian, still a fairly young manager at 43, favours a 4-2-3-1 formation and emphasises patient build up play through the thirds. Brighton resolutely play out from the back, often intentionally drawing the the opposition up the pitch, using quick one-touch passing to bypass the press and create space to break into. In ten league matches with De Zerbi at the helm, Brighton have averaged 61% possession, losing out only to Liverpool and Chelsea. They are averaging eleven shots per match, though only an xG of 12.5 over those ten games; they’ve scored 17 goals however, so are exceeding xG by quite a bit and also in each of their last six. Whether this is sustainable over a season is questionable.
Defensively, De Zerbi will instruct his players to press the defence and midfield when opportunity presents, particularly if opposing players are hesitant on the ball. At other times Brighton will drop back into a mid-low block in order to maintain a solid defensive shape. Regardless, they have been relatively easy to create chances against, as shown by the 19 goals conceded during the Italian’s ten league games in charge; interestingly their xGA (Expected Goals Allowed) is only 14.4.
Belgian winger Leandro Trossard is in a rich vein of form currently, hitting the back of the net seven times in the league, including a memorable hattrick at Anfield in De Zerbi’s first match in charge. He’s a genuine threat either operating from the left flank or more centrally and has an xG per 90 minutes of 0.30 this season.
Pascal Gross, operating in midfield has been Brighton’s primary creative force, producing an xAG (Expected Assisted Goals) of 0.25 per 90. The German is also clever at popping into dangerous areas and has contributed five goals this term.
One-time rumoured Everton target Moises Caicedo is another low-cost jewel that the Seagulls have managed to dig up. The hard-working midfielder is a solid passer (86.9% accuracy) and a stalwart defensively, racking up a combined 4.39 tackles and interceptions per 90.
Alexis Mac Allister, who may be available for Tuesday’s game is entering a significant phase of improvement, as demonstrated by his recent performances for Argentina out in Qatar, where he certainly did not look out of place in a star-studded team. The 24-year-old is an outstanding all-round midfielder, neat on the ball (88% pass accuracy), a goal threat (netting five times with an xG per 90 of 0.26) and industrious in defence (8.86 ball recoveries, in addition to 4.57 combined tackles and interceptions per 90).
Everton hunkered down in a 5-3-2 formation behind a low block at the Etihad and whilst they reduced Manchester City to surprisingly few clear chances they were probably a little lucky to just concede once. The team mounted almost no significant attacks, scoring off a piece of individual magic from Demarai Gray. Whilst it was encouraging to see a Blues player actually hit a shot like that, especially after squandering far clearer chances a few days earlier against Wolves, a defensive template offering so little going forward is not a system of play that can be utilised on Tuesday, or against most of the other 19 teams in the Premier League.
First off, playing so negatively relies on clinically finishing when chances present; not something much in evidence with this side. It is also unlikely to be greeted warmly by the fans packed into Goodison Park who, whilst aware of the team’s shortcomings will still want to see some attacking play. Thirdly, it relies on a certain degree of luck, as well as impeccable mistake-free defending, game after game.
I will be surprised if Lampard sets up so defensively against Brighton. He may stick with the 5-3-2, particularly if Anthony Gordon is unavailable, though I’d expect to see a slightly higher line and more bodies getting forward when the Blues have the ball. Amadou Onana is suspended, so the unfavoured Abdoulaye Doucoure or Tom Davies will have to step in and perform. The visitors are certain to dominate possession, but can be got at in transition and Everton did show this capability on the rare occasions they had the ball at the Etihad.
This is a much tougher match than the last home game against Wolves. Everton, however are going to have to try to maximise their points haul at Goodison and really do need to pick up a win here.
Prediction: Everton 1-0 Brighton