In easily dispatching a punchless Burnley outfit midweek and - in doing so, progressing into the Quarter-finals of the Carabao Cup - Everton registered consecutive 3-0 wins at Goodison Park, following a comfortable league win over Bournemouth last Sunday.
This mini-run of form has helped to dispel the impression that the Blues were effective on the road, but less so on home turf.
Making the long journey up to Liverpool on Saturday is Brighton & Hove Albion, who sit in seventh spot in the Premier League table on 17 points, seven above the Merseysiders.
Brighton kicked on impressively last season, getting off to a good start under Graham Potter, before he was headhunted by Chelsea after a mere half dozen league games. The Seagulls had prepared well for the eventuality of losing their manager, however with Roberto De Zerbi appointed as Potter’s replacement in short order. A run of ten wins and four draws from fifteen games across all competitions demonstrated that the Italian had adapted rapidly to a first head coaching job in the Premier League, before a slight drop off in form saw them slip into a final position of sixth, earning the club qualification for the Europa League.
As had been the case in previous summers, the club readied themselves to lose key players to rival teams. This time around, World Cup winner Alexis Mac Allister, goalkeeper Robert Sanchez and Moises Caicedo would be targeted, the latter bringing in an eye-watering €116m fee from Chelsea. The Seagulls would add forward Joao Pedro from Watford, teenage midfielder Carlos Baleba from Lille, defender Igor (Fiorentina), goalkeeper Bart Verbruggen (Anderlecht), free agents James Milner and Mahmoud Dahoud, finally adding wonderkid Ansu Fati on a season-long loan from Barcelona. Even so, the club managed to generate player trading profits to the tune of almost €95m.
The South Coast outfit began the season in fine form, achieving resounding victories over newly-promoted Luton Town, Wolverhampton Wanderers, Newcastle United and Manchester United, with just a lone setback at the Amex against West Ham United. In that loss, David Moyes adopted similar counterattacking tactics to those employed by Sean Dyche Dyche’s Blues in their amazing 5-1 romp last May. Brighton’s potentially-demanding Europa League campaign got off to a poor start as they were surprisingly defeated 3-2 on the road by AEK Athens, but they rebounded domestically with a 3-1 win over Bournemouth.
Since then the Seagulls have entered an unstable period, managing a solitary victory, over a shockingly bad Ajax in Europe, alongside three draws and three defeats. All the losses have come on the road: whilst going down against Manchester City was expected, a Carabao Cup exit to a underperforming Chelsea would have been a disappointment and a 6-1 demolition by Aston Villa could only be described as humbling. Over the past week or so they’ve gotten their continental campaign back on track with victory over the four-time European Cup/Champions League winners, but arrive at Goodison coming off a not terribly convincing home draw with Fulham.
Style of Play
De Zerbi arrived in the Premier League as a breath of fresh air, taking over the reins from Potter - who had really hit his stride with Brighton - without any apparent difficulty. A confident, effervescent type who communicates well, the Italian has pushed the envelope with the team’s already established possession style, adding more end product in terms of goal return and attacking verve. This has come at a cost, as the team now takes more chances and can be prone to being caught out in transition, something which has resulted in most of their setbacks since De Zerbi arrived.
Under their highly-touted young boss, they play in a 4-2-3-1 system, though they have used a 4-4-2 and 3-4-3 in their two most recent outings, likely due to a lack of suitable personnel due to injury. Brighton are committed to playing out from the back - as were Everton’s previous two opponents at Goodison, Bournemouth and Burnley, though obviously De Zerbi’s outfit are far superior to either of those sides - and in fact invite pressure as a means of progressing the ball. They are experts at sucking in the press and playing around it, looking to shift from low tempo possession to direct play with the intent of exploiting space and isolating their attackers one-one-one with the opposition defence.
This style of play has obvious benefits, with Brighton joint-third highest scorers in the league, their 23 strikes actually exceeding the predictive xG (Expected Goals) model, which has them at 18.7. The negative aspects to such a risky tactical approach is that the team can be susceptible to coughing the ball up in compromising positions, if they don’t get the streamlined one-touch passing in their own half exactly right. Only the bottom four teams have conceded more than the 19 goals that the Seagulls have permitted, though in contrast to their offensive efforts their xGA (Expected Goals Allowed) is lower, at 15.4.
Rising star striker Evan Ferguson is Brighton’s leading scorer this term, having fired five goals so far. The sky is the limit for the 19-year-old, who possesses all the attributes necessary to make it to the top level in the game, should events play out favourably for him.
Jason Steele has replaced the departed Sanchez in goal, being stylistically suitable for the way the visitors wish to play - as demonstrated by him being in the bottom two percentiles for long kicks and the 89th for actions outside the penalty area. However, his save percentage of 61.6% put him in the bottom seventh percentile and he’s conceding more than the data suggests should be the case: 12 from a PSxG (Post-Shot Expected Goals) statistic of 8.5, which is a significant underperformance.
Kaoru Mitoma presents a marauding threat on the left flank. The Japanese was a revelation last season, hitting seven goals and he’s off to a strong start this campaign, having scored three in the league and added an equal number of assists. The tricky, pacy attacker leads his team with an impressive 2.98 carries into the opposition area per 90 minutes and despite being on a run of four games without a goal, will have to watched carefully.
On paper, Brighton present ideal opposition for a Dyche-led team at Goodison. They desire control and play the same way whether at home or on the road, looking to impose themselves on the opposition. Notably, they've dominated possession against every opponent this season, with the exceptions of Liverpool and Manchester City, though they were also highly competitive in those games.
They’ll meet little resistance in this aim this afternoon, as Everton will gladly allow them as much of the ball as they’d want - and more besides. We can expect the hosts to sit in their compact 4-4-1-1 shape and look to exploit opportunities to dispossess the visitors in the middle third of the pitch and then to break decisively. Essentially, to carry out a variation on the game plan that brought such resounding success at the Amex back in May.
Brighton appear to be finding the challenge of maintaining a strong domestic campaign with the demands of regular Thursday matches in the Europa League to be a stretch on their squad resources and enter this match in indifferent form. The Toffees, by contrast are enjoying a strong period, having won five of the last seven games, losing two.
It is probable that we’ll see Everton stick with the side that dispatched the Cherries last weekend, though I have a feeling Ashley Young may be preferred to Nathan Patterson at right back. A lack of significant rotation is a worry, with Dyche determined to treat fatigue as something to be overcome by mental resolve, rather than as a real element that could produce late-game slumps, or staleness in the players being pushed out for every game.
Still, I feel the Blues to be well positioned to get a positive result today.
Prediction: Everton 2-1 Brighton