If early season home reverses against Fulham and Wolverhampton Wanderers could be somewhat attributed to the Everton squad being in a transitory phase, the same could not be said about last weekend’s grim 2-1 defeat to freshly-promoted Luton Town. The Blues started that game in confident manner, coming off a couple of positive away results, but lost their way after conceding two awful first half goals to basic set-piece routines.
The story of the season so far for Sean Dyche and his men has been underperformance in terms of converting chances - which have been comparatively plentiful - combined with an inability to keep clean sheets. The pressure is mounting on the Everton boss, at least in the sense of fan expectation, if not from his absentee employers and he must show that he is able to transform xG (Expected Goals) into the hitting-the-back-of-the-net variety.
Next to arrive at Fortress Goodison are Bournemouth, currently winless and sitting in 19th position in the table.
Following two years in the Championship, the Cherries made it back up to the top flight for the 2022-23 season. The club backed then-manager Scott Parker rather meagrely during the summer and the under-equipped side floundered badly under the former Chelsea man and his replacement Gary O'Neill. Reinforcements were signed in January and O’Neill managed to drag Bournemouth clear of the relegation battle by the end of April. With safely assured, the team finished the campaign off with four straight losses, ending up in 15th place.
Whether the late-season slide had any bearing on the decision or not, the club’s owners decided to part ways with O'Neill during the summer and appointed Andoni Iraola as the new manager on July 1st. The club’s new owners had splashed around €56m during the January transfer window, in a bid to safeguard the team’s Premier League status and backed their man handsomely in preparation for the new term, to the tune of €126m - which is some going for a team of Bournemouth's size. Of the new additions, only fullbacks Max Aarons, Milos Kerkez and left winger Justin Kluivert have yet to feature substantially.
So far it has been tough going under Iraola. A creditable draw with West Ham United was followed by a bruising experience at Anfield; the Cherries grabbing an early lead only to succumb 3-1 to a Liverpool side down a man for the last half hour. Defeat to Tottenham Hotspur was unsurprising, but Bournemouth were leading Brentford at the Vitality Stadium until the hosts drew level in the 93rd minute. A goalless affair with Chelsea gave the team three points from their opening five league games, but they saw another early lead slip against Brighton & Hove Albion, in a game where they’d competed well in the first half.
Carabao Cup victories against Championship sides have constituted the South Coast outfit’s sole successes to date and they arrive at Goodison Park off a 4-0 home mauling at the hands of Arsenal.
Style of Play
Iraola first caught the eye in his homeland, when guiding Spanish minnows Mirandés all the way to the semi-finals of the Copa del Rey in 2019-20, eliminating La Liga sides Celta Vigo, Sevilla and Villarreal en route to eventual defeat against Real Sociedad. The young Basque took over Segunda División outfit Rayo Vallecano in the summer, attaining promotion during his first season with the Madrid side. In the following campaign, he managed a 12th-place league finish and again reached a cup semi-final, this time going down to Real Betis. The next term, Rayo added another seven points and finished eleventh.
The 41-year old is a relatively inexperienced manager, but has drawn plaudits for his high energy, attacking style of play, which emphasises heavy pressing. His philosophy is influenced strongly by that of Marcelo Bielsa, but tempered by that of fellow countryman Ernesto Valverde, who coached Iraola as a player, both within Athletic Bilbao’s youth setup and during two separate spells with the main team. From the former, he has gained an appreciation for intensity in pressing, aided by a high defensive line and the requirement for his players to exert superiority in individual defensive duals, as well as a commitment to the transition and an appreciation of space on the pitch; the latter has tempered the more cavalier elements of the Argentine veteran’s approach.
Utilising a 4-2-3-1 formation in each game this season, Iraola’s ideal system requires active closing down from the front, applying pressure on the opposition backline as they attempt to pass out and measured triggered pressing from the midfield, activated from within a mid-block scheme. Fullbacks are required to be energetic and combative in dealing with opposition wide men, with the central defence providing cover for the whole structure. The aim is to turn over possession in the central or - preferably - final third, in order to create scoring opportunities during transition. It is necessarily a high risk, high reward strategy.
On offence, the Basque likes to utilise a lot of player movement into the half-spaces, looking to create overloads, the idea being to draw focus there in order to stretch defences and open up spaces out wide, or through the centre. Though passing combinations enabling the team to progress up the pitch and during counter-attacking phases are well rehearsed, direct play is also emphasised.
However, it’s very much a work in progress at Bournemouth, with elements of Iraola’s demanding system not yet gelling as he’d have hoped. The side is not generating the offensive numbers required by such an attacking style of play: just five goals to date from an xG of 8.1 (much lower than Everton’s 12.3). Defensively the side has looked suspect, already conceding 15 goals from an xGA (Expected Goals Allowed) of 16.2 - which is the second-highest in the league; by comparison the Blues xGA is 9.5. Whether the Spaniard will be granted enough time to implement his style effectively is open to question.
Dominic Solanke is leading the line effectively and is blossoming under Iraola. He’s scored three league goals, already halfway to last season’s total and presents Bournemouth’s main threat. He’s hard-working, which is an absolute requirement for a front man within this system and is an intelligent link-up player, as well as one possessing good movement, though his demanding role causes him to lose possession on average 5.86 times per 90 minutes.
Philip Billing provides the physical, high-energy midfield presence necessary for Iraola’s setup to work. He’s making a combined 3.73 tackles and interceptions per 90, as well as 2.54 blocks. The tall Dane is also winning 63.2% of his aerial duels.
Attacking midfielder Ryan Christie has drawn high praise from his manager as one who has more quickly adapted to the style of play than others. The Scot is tied for most key passes amongst his teammates (eight), leads the side in progressive carries (2.41 per 90) and has won 60% of his dribble attempts.
This match represents the last of Everton’s “easy” home fixtures for quite some time - until the arrival of Crystal Palace in February, illustrating just how many decent opportunities the side has blown during the early stages of the campaign. Whilst a win today would put the club on seven points from eight matches, which isn’t horrific, unless they can continue their solid away form and get home results against consistently strong opposition over the next four months, the picture could look glum by the time Palace show up at Goodison.
So, in a sense this game is a “must-win” scenario for the Toffees.
Bournemouth are a decent side transitioning from one style of play to another, very different one and in theory should be vulnerable today, but as always with this Everton side the chances must be taken and errors eliminated, or at least minimised. Iraola is committed to working through this troublesome phase and will stick to his principles, meaning that the Blues will be coming up against an opponent who will look to pressure them heavily out of possession.
Arguably, Iraola’s system is well-designed to disrupt teams who wish to play out from the back, in a controlled style, but Dyche has never shown much interest in this manner of play. The former Burney man’s possession-shy approach, which emphasises moving the ball from front to back in as short a time as possible, should bypass a lot of Bournemouth’s efforts and target their defence directly. The Blues must be defensively alert, as they will be tested by the visitors’ attempts to move them around and open up spaces to exploit.
In terms of personnel, I expect that Jack Harrison will line up on the right wing and that Dyche may either field James Garner at right back, or insert him into midfield, possibly at the expense of Idrissa Gueye. Personally, I think the latter move would be an error, as the veteran glues a lot together in the team’s engine room and would be sorely missed if absent this afternoon and that full back may get the best from the energetic 22-year old at present.
It was noticeable that of all Everton’s attacking options whom Dyche namechecked during his pre-match press conference the other day, Arnaut Danjuma was the sole omission, which leads me to think that he is not favoured by the manager. Again, I think this is an error as the former Villarreal man offers qualities generally lacking in the side, though Dyche clearly favours running and contributing defensively over those. I’d like to see him replace Abdoulaye Doucoure behind Dominic Calvert-Lewin, but don’t see this happening.
This should be a game the hosts are capable of winning. They’ve actually generated solid attacking numbers - as pointed out by Dyche to a fair bit of resultant mockery - but not converted that into goals. The Cherries give up a lot of good chances, so this has to be the time for Everton to take some of those opportunities, at last.
Prediction: Everton 2-1 Bournemouth