In the aftermath of what ended up as a disappointing result in Sunday evening’s 3-0 loss to Manchester United at Goodison Park, Everton must now deal with what promises to be an arduous December schedule. A run of eight matches across a 28-day period, kicking off tonight, represents a tough ask for what is a small squad.
The Blues have been fortunate thus far in avoiding significant injury woes this season, but already - right at the beginning of this demanding run - the alarm bells are beginning to sound, with the news that Dominic Calvert-Lewin is a doubt for today’s match after experiencing muscle tightness. It can only be hoped that this will not be an indicator that the problems that have dogged the striker for two years are returning.
Amadou Onana continues to be absent, stretching the team’s midfield options.
First up for the Toffees is this evening’s trip to the East Midlands, to face Steve Cooper’s Nottingham Forest.
Forest’s return to the top-flight last season was a captivating story, certainly for those of us of sufficient vintage to remember the club’s transformation into a genuine force, both domestically and most memorably on the European stage, in the late 1970s and early 1980s under the legendary duo of Brian Clough and Peter Taylor. To support Cooper, the team’s hierarchy splashed €190m net in the summer and winter transfer markets - essentially rebuilding a squad that had been heavily dependent on loan signings during their promotion push - by adding an unprecedented 30 (!) new players.
Such a bloated, unwieldy first team took Cooper some time to gel into anything resembling a cohesive unit, but ultimately he was able to do so and to keep the club up by a reliance on their strong home form, finishing safe on 38 points, in 16th spot. Last summer was almost similarly hectic, with many failed signings from the previous influx of players departing on loan, or released on a free. Most noteworthy of the latter group was one-time Everton target Jesse Lingard; the ex-Manchester United man was such a flop at Forest that he remains without a club.
The club spent a net €57m during the summer, notable additions being Ibrahim Sangare, a defensive midfielder from PSV Eindhoven, Arsenal goalkeeper Matt Turner, Torino left back Ola Aina and Man United winger Anthony Elanga, who snubbed an approach from Everton in favour of the midlanders. In total, Forest signed another 14 players, although a host departed, leaving a slightly trimmed squad. A major loss for the team saw wide forward Brennan Johnson - scorer of all three of Forest’s goals against the Toffees last term, incidentally - head to Tottenham Hotspur courtesy of a €55m fee.
Forest commenced the season in decent fashion, with home wins over Chelsea and the newly-promoted Sheffield United offset by away losses to Arsenal and United. A winless run of six followed, anticipated defeats on the road against Manchester City and Liverpool, and four draws, only one achieved away from the City Ground, however. A surprise 2-0 victory in Nottingham over high-flying Aston Villa, wherein Forest managed only 27% possession and got off five attempts on goal, came out of the blue somewhat. The team welcome Everton on the back of two subsequent 3-2 setbacks, the last to Brighton & Hove Albion a week ago. They occupy 15th place in the table.
Style of Play
Cooper’s brief experimentation with adapting his favoured, attractive progressive style of play to a new level of competition in the Premier League had faded away long before the campaign was interrupted by the World Cup, held in Qatar. The manager, on the back of heavy defeats and with an unreliable attack, shifted towards more pragmatic tactics which enabled the team to get over the line and survive what had been a tough return to the elite division.
It’s been a similar tale this season, with Forest ranking a lowly 18th in terms of share of possession (one place behind Everton) with just 39.3%. This season, the Midlanders have only enjoyed superiority of ball control over Luton Town and parity with Sheffield United, both at the City Ground. Cooper eventually reverted back to a 3-4-3 formation towards the conclusion of the previous campaign and he retained this at the beginning of the new season, before moving to a 4-3-3 a couple of months ago.
Offensively, Forest are putting up mediocre numbers, obtaining an xG (Expected Goals) metric of 15.1, which ranks 17th in the league, though they’ve scored 16. They tend to sit fairly deep, laying traps and playing a direct counterattacking game, which doesn’t really suit Sean Dyche’s tactics. Cooper’s side are marginally more accurate in their passing than today’s visitors, completing 78.1%, ranking 17th. Like Everton, they win a lot of aerial challenges, so we can expect the ball to be in the air quite a bit. They are a shot-shy outfit, attempting only 11.2 per 90 minutes, 3.5 less than the Blues. The hosts try few dribbles, as befits their cautious nature.
On defence, Cooper has his side set up to sit back and react, which is also exactly how Dyche wants to play. They are middling in terms of attempts allowed on goal, permitting 13.7 efforts by the opposition per 90. In terms of xGA (Expected Goals Allowed), they've registered a statistic of 20.2 and conceded 21 times.
The key creative force for the hosts is Morgan Gibbs-White, (another!) former transfer target for Everton. The attacking midfielder has an SCA (Shot-Creating Actions) metric of 4.65 - which is far in excess of any other Forest regular and he contributes both from open play and dead-ball situations. He’ll likely be stationed on the right flank, but has license to roam freely in search of the ball.
In lieu of the injured Taiwo Awoniyi, Forest’s leading goal threat, Chris Wood will be leading the line. Once a consistent bet to hit double figure league goals during a four-plus year stint under Dyche at Burnley, the Kiwi has struggled for form and minutes since departing the Clarets. Now almost 32 years of age, the target man has three goals this term - albeit all against promoted sides - but has started just three league games.
Given Everton’s tough schedule heading into the end of the calendar year, they really need to pick something up at the City Ground. Forest have only lost once at home in the league this term - against the Seagulls last time out - and will be tough to beat. Cooper has them well-drilled and they’ll give little away, even if their offensive threat is much diminished in the absence of Awoniyi and the departed Johnson.
Gibbs-White will have to be watched carefully and it may be worthwhile tracking him with Idrissa Gueye, so crucial to Forest’s approach is he. Otherwise, the hosts will look to hit Wood with direct play, crosses and set-pieces, though in terms of personnel Everton should be well positioned to neutralize the big veteran striker. Elanga will present a danger on the left flank, with his pace.
A big hole in the Forest midfield will be left by Sangare, should he not recover from illness in time to take to the pitch. The Ivorian leads the team in defensive metrics and the hosts don’t really have a direct replacement for him. Even without Onana, the Blues figure to have the edge in any engine room battle.
Scrutiny will be on Dyche after Ashley Young’s latest error-strewn performance on Sunday. It’s possible he’ll stick to his guns and retain the veteran, instead of giving Nathan Patterson a chance to stake a claim for the right back berth, but more probably we’ll see Seamus Coleman plugged in instead. Though the Irishman’s return is welcome, he is now 35 himself and hasn’t played senior football since picking up a knee injury seven months ago, so what he has left at this stage of a long career is unknown.
Dyche doesn’t really vary things tactically, so we can envisage how the visitors will set up this evening, hoping to draw Forest on into congested areas, with the intent to recover possession and to break with pace on the opposition defence. It’s worked well on the road, though whether Cooper will play ball is a major doubt. He’s displayed an ability to shut out any criticism of his pragmatic approach and still enjoys widespread support from the home fans, despite rumours regarding his position as manager circulating recently.
A potential big loss for Everton will be Calvert-Lewin, should he be held out of the match today. If there is any doubt over his fitness, he has to sit, given his struggles with muscular injuries in recent years. This, after all is why Beto was bought during the summer, in order to pick up the slack should the team’s main man be unable to play. The big Portuguese is fit again and raring to go, eager to demonstrate his worth to the traveling fans. He’s linked up well with Abdoulaye Doucoure previously and also with Arnaut Danjuma, who I’d like to see given a start ahead of Dwight McNeil, who hasn’t hit last season’s heights thus far.
This is going to be a tactical battle and figures to be a tight game, but I feel that the Blues can get the better of a Forest outfit missing some influential operators.
Prediction: Nottingham Forest 1-2 Everton