Everton's last outing divided the fanbase to a degree: was it a point gained, or two thrown away? Regardless, before kickoff most would have agreed that a draw with Brighton & Hove Albion represented a decent result, as the opposition are one of the teams lying in the strata just short of elite level.
In addition, the club was able to extend its run of games without defeat to three, which can only be seen as a positive. In fact, the Blues have lost only twice over the last eight fixtures in all competitions: to Liverpool at Anfield and - in what can only be regarded as an outlier - at Goodison Park against Luton Town.
Next up, the Toffees make the long trip down to the capital to face Crystal Palace this afternoon.
Palace’s bold new era under Patrick Vieira ended rather abruptly last season, with the Frenchman being dismissed after only a year and half reshaping the team, following a lengthy winless run. With the club sliding down the table, the owners got nervous and brought in the man Vieira himself had replaced: Roy Hodgson. The veteran - now in his mid-70s and all but retired from the game after a dismal rescue attempt at Watford during the prior campaign - steadied the ship and unexpectedly even had the Eagles playing some attractive football in guiding them to an eleventh-placed finish.
Many expected - with Premier League status secured - that the club’s American owners may decide to make a managerial change, but instead the now 76-year old incumbent was retained for an additional year. Much like the previous summer, Palace spent modestly, recouping no fees for outgoing players and spending only €39m on new additions. Half that total was splashed on teenage Brazilian forward Matheus Franca, who has played minimally and a similar amount on competition for the goalkeeper position, in Dean Henderson, who is currently injured. Arsenal squad player Rob Holding was brought in, but has barely featured. The only unqualified success has been Jefferson Lerma, signed on a free from Bournemouth.
A significant loss for the team saw the eventual departure of Wilfried Zaha; something which had been an ongoing saga for several years, with the forward virtually carrying Palace offensively for pretty much all of that time. Once a target for Everton - during the club’s free-spending days - and once valued as an £80m player by the Eagles hierarchy, this summer saw the then 29-year-old leave without much fanfare on a free, as he sought the opportunity to play Champions League football in Turkey, with Galatasaray.
Arguably a weaker side entering the new campaign, Palace have fit the pattern of a mid-table outfit, losing to the better sides and beating those they’d be expected to - a 1-0 win over Manchester United at Old Trafford at the end of September being something of an outlier; notwithstanding the Red Devils’ ongoing problems this term. Their home record is underwhelming: one win over Wolverhampton Wanderers, draws with Nottingham Forest and Fulham, set against losses to Arsenal and Tottenham Hotspur.
Last time out the Eagles dispatched struggling Burnley 2-0 on the road and sit in eleventh place in the table, with 15 points.
Style of Play
After reversing expectations that he’d be bringing defensive-oriented football back to Selhurst Park upon his return in April, this term Hodgson has reverted to type. The veteran has alternated between 4-3-3 and 4-2-3-1 formations, though has played other systems when required. He’s had to deal with quite a lot of injuries and Palace don’t have the biggest squad, with relatively few additions and many veterans leaving over the past few years.
Offensively, the side play direct and are heavily reliant on the skills of Eberechi Eze, Michael Olise’s pace and crossing ability and the hard running of Jordan Ayew. Sadly, Eze has missed plenty of games and Olise has been out since June with a bad hamstring injury, so it’s no surprise that the team has struggled to create a lot of attacking opportunities. The Eagles have generated an xG (Expected Goals) of 12 (which ranks 15th in the league), but only scored ten, underlying the ongoing issues they have up front.
On defence, the side has fared somewhat better, conceded 13 times against an xGA (Expected Goals Allowed) metric of 15.2, which ranks them ninth. By comparison, Everton rate sixth defensively and tenth in attack.
We know what to expect from a Hodgson side by now: a conservative approach, emphasising shape and defensive responsibility. He does not value possession overmuch (Palace rank 15th, two spots ahead of the Blues), and stylistically there’s not much to differentiate him from Sean Dyche, actually. In many ways the two sides will be almost mirror images of each other today.
Cheick Doucoure will be key for the Palace midfield. An industrious presence, he’s making 7.19 ball recoveries, in addition to a combined 5.42 tackles and interceptions per 90 minutes. The 23-year-old also takes good care of the ball also, managing a 86.6% pass completion rate.
Sam Johnstone has conceded 13 times from a PSxG (Post-Shot Expected Goals) statistic of 10.8. The 30-year-old is an experienced operator, but relatively unproven at Premier League level, having started only nine games for Palace last term, along with a season as number one at West Bromwich Albion (who would be relegated) in 2020-21, prior to his run with the Eagles this season.
This match is relatively similar to Everton’s last away day match against West Ham United a couple of weeks back, from a stylistic perspective, in that both teams are set up to play reactively, with emphasis on being defensively responsible. Against the Hammers, the Blues got that all-important opening goal and it’s quite apparent that both sides will be aiming to do likewise this afternoon.
The Blues - until a recent uptick in home form - have fared better on the road, as playing on the counter suits the team’s style far moreso than attempting to force the issue. The Eagles are in a similar position, so much like with the West Ham game, the winner today may be determined by which side deviates from their preferred way of playing.
Palace may have Olise and Eze available, pending late returns by the pair to training at the end of the week, but whether either will be in a position to start is unknown at time of writing. On paper, Everton are in a stronger position with respect to goal-scoring capacity, with Dominic Calvert-Lewin in good form and Abdoulaye Doucoure always a threat. The hosts’ forward options - Ayew, Jean-Philippe Mateta and Ordsonne Edouard - are an inconsistent bunch by comparison.
The visitors have nothing to fear here, despite some potential injury worries themselves and can take advantage in what figures to be a gritty, low-scoring affair of few genuine chances, but much industry. I feel a win for the Blues going into another (!) international break is on the cards.
Prediction: Crystal Palace 0-1 Everton