Everton have gotten off to a unexpectedly brilliant start to what had promised to be a very demanding December. A untidy, low quality, but disciplined road win over Nottingham Forest on Sunday, was followed up with a much more action-packed Thursday night game against Newcastle United, which ended up as a 3-0 rout for the hosts.
That midweek victory was just the tonic required to pick up the mood at home, one to convince the doubters that the Toffees had in fact been playing well at Goodison Park, just failing to take their chances. Or, in other words that their multi-game xG (Expected Goals) totals weren’t a pile of statistical nonsense, but a reliable indicator of underlying performance.
Next up the Blues entertain big-spending Chelsea, in what will be a Sunday afternoon kickoff.
The London outfit experienced considerable tumult last season, as the long Roman Abramovich era ended, to be replaced by BlueCo, headed up by Todd Boehly. The new owners made their presence felt immediately, spending a net €225m during the summer transfer window, followed by an eye-watering €318m in January, for a combined outlay well north of half a billion euros. Despite, or maybe because of this staggering expenditure, the side endured an awful campaign, ploughing through three permanent and interim managers and finishing 12th, far closer to the relegation zone than to qualification for any form of European competition.
In preparation for the new season, Chelsea headhunted the well-respected Mauricio Pochettino and spent heavily again, this time to the tune of €198m. If that sum sounds modest by comparison to the wild excess of the previous campaign, it is worth nothing that this time the club were able to recoup huge sums for outgoing regulars such as Kai Havertz (€75m), Mason Mount (€64m), Mateo Kovacic, Kalidou Koulibaly and Christian Pulisic, amongst others.
As in January, the focus on incomings was on younger players, in Brighton & Hove Albion’s star midfielder Moises Caicedo, Southampton teenager Romeo Lavia, Manchester City academy product Cole Palmer and Villareal striker Nicholas Jackson, with a smattering of more experienced types in the 25-year-old trio of Christopher Nkunku, RB Leipzig’s attacking midfielder, Monaco defender Axel Disasi and Seagulls goalkeeper Robert Sanchez. All told, this continuing splurge represents an almost complete rebuild of the Chelsea squad, which has proven a difficult challenge for Pochettino to coalesce into a coherent unit.
An injury to Nkunku, who impressed in preseason and was considered to be a key component of this reconstructed side, appeared to derail the team at the beginning of the campaign. They struggled to just a single league win from their opening six, over freshly promoted Luton Town and suffered three defeats. The team hadn’t played as poorly as results would indicate, but the curious lack of a proven striker - despite the vast sums lavished - hurt them badly. Things stabilized from early October, Chelsea winning three and drawing two, losing only to Brentford at Stamford Bridge.
Most notable during that run was a crazy 4-1 win over a nine-man Tottenham Hotspur and a wildly exciting eight-goal stalemate with City. Subsequently, the Pensioners have suffered a humbling 4-1 setback against Newcastle United, a solid home win over Brighton and last time out, defeat to Manchester United at Old Trafford.
Style of Play
Pochettino emphasises intensity and control, which can be gleaned from Chelsea’s 57.4% share of possession, which ranks sixth in the Premier League and an 87.4% pass completion (fourth). They aren’t creating many chances per 90 minutes - just 13.4 (eleventh), but their xG is high, at 29.3, behind only Liverpool and Newcastle. Like Everton, they are underperforming statistical offensive expectations, scoring 26. The West Londoners play a relatively low-tempo game, with slow build up play, though are more than capable of going direct to their fast attackers, in Raheem Sterling, Jackson and Mykhailo Mudryk.
The Argentine boss began the season playing mostly three at the back, but quickly switched to a 4-2-3-1 formation, with the occasional 4-3-3 variation thrown in.
On defence, the side have appeared relatively open at times, conceding 24 times from an xGA (Expected Goals Allowed) of 22.6 (ranking tenth). They allow 12.9 efforts per 90. Chelsea like to play out from the back and through midfield in a low-tempo manner and have been guilty of some costly losses of possession. This was certainly the case against United, who should have punished them to a much greater degree than they did.
Sterling has kicked on after a disappointing first season at Chelsea, following many years of success at City. The winger is second (behind Palmer) in SCA (Shot-Creating Actions) per 90, with 3.66 and has scored five league goals, one less than his total last term. Having recently turned 29 he still is blessed with pace and is a vertical threat who leads his side with 5.91 progressive carries per game.
Palmer is looking to be an inspiring signing. The 21-year-old wanted to play regular first team football, rather than being sent out on loan by City and pushed for a permanent move, which shows desire and ambition. He’s making good on his intentions and is already a regular in his new team. The attacker has shown plenty of creativity and ranks highly amongst his teammates in xAG (Expected Assisted Goals) with 0.36 per 90.
Former Everton target Conor Gallagher was suspended for the United game, but will likely be restored to the starting lineup. He’s grown from being made available for sale during the summer to be one of Chelsea’s mainstays under Pochettino, even captaining the side on a number of occasions. A box-to-box midfielder, he’s making 7.09 ball recoveries, in addition to 4.57 combined tackles and interceptions per 90.
The visitors will certainly improve under the guidance of the ex-Spurs boss - if he’s given sufficient time - and have shown signs of gelling since his arrival. They’ve brought in so many new players, the churn has been so great, that it’s a tough ask for anyone to try to assemble such a disparate group, drafted in from many and varied locations, into a side capable of playing with togetherness and understanding. The individual talent and potential is obvious, but Chelsea are not a team, - yet.
Sean Dyche has had the opposite problem, in having limited transfer options and having to largely work with an existing squad. Sure, there’s been some turnaround in the summer, but nothing on the scale of Chelsea. Some players, new and old have worked themselves into becoming reliable members of the first eleven; others have failed to make an impact, as least initially, in the case of the new signings.
However, with a full preseason under his belt, the former Burnley chief has worked his magic and given this Everton side more genuine team spirit, organisation, energy and fighting qualities than we’ve seen for a very long time. That he’s done this with almost no transfer budget and a small squad that had seen much of its quality shorn away before he was installed, is of enormous credit to him.
This campaign has been one of twists and turns, on and - most crucially - off the pitch, but the Blues have solidified in recent weeks and turned a corner, largely transforming solid performances into actual points. Coming into this weekend’s fixtures, Everton would sit in tenth place, ahead of today’s opponents, were it not for the harsh ten point deduction the club has been hit with, pending appeal. That shows how much progress has been made by the coaching staff and the players.
In terms of individual quality, this game should be a no-contest, but football is a team sport and one side is miles ahead in this vital characteristic. If Everton have the legs, given the shift they put in on Thursday, then I expect them to harass an uncoordinated Chelsea into errors and to capitalize on those opportunities.
Prediction: Everton 2-1 Chelsea