Following Everton’s Tuesday night Carabao Cup disappointment, the Blues return to Premier League action on Saturday. Injuries to starting players continue to dog the team, but there are still four games left to play between now and the fourth of January, at which point they’ll receive a well-earned break.
In the meantime, the Blues must ready themselves for a visit to the capital, to face Tottenham Hotspur.
Spurs spent big last season, but saw an unhappy Antonio Cote gradually implode and talk himself out of his job, the club ending up with ex-player and coach Ryan Mason holding the fort as they slumped to an eighth-place finish. In preparation for a stronger campaign this time around, they appointed Celtic manager Ange Postecoglou during the summer and then embarked on a net transfer spend of €130m.
In preparation for the imminent departure of talismanic striker Harry Kane, Tottenham invested heavily in their squad, bringing in significant players in Leicester City playmaker James Maddison, Wolfsburg centre back Micky van de Ven, Nottingham Forest winger Brennan Johnson and goalkeeper Guglielmo Vicario from Empoli. In addition, loans from the previous season of Dejan Kulusevski and Pedro Porro were made permanent.
Going the other way were several expensive flops in Davinson Sanchez, Sergio Reguilon and Tanguy Ndombele, along with former academy product Harry Winks (finally ending links between the player and Everton) and veteran Lucas Moura. But the only story that mattered in terms of outgoings was the will-he-won’t-he transfer saga involving Kane’s eventual €95m exit to Bayern Munich.
Much interest surrounded how a post-Kane Tottenham would fare; so reliant has the club been on the forward for many years, as well as on relative unknown in European footballing circles, Postecoglou. As it happens, pretty well actually. Following a away draw at Brentford, the team embarked on a great run of eight league wins from nine, the lone exception being a creditable 2-2 stalemate against Arsenal, at the Emirates Stadium. Most of the victories were of the expected variety, though an early season success over Manchester United and a home win against Liverpool stand out.
The North Londoners had enjoyed a spectacular start to the campaign, but received their first big setback in early November, being reduced to nine men in suffering a first defeat, 4-1 to Chelsea. Injuries and suspensions impacted form significantly and Spurs would then fail to win in the next four - losing three - as they watched their lead at the top of the table evaporate over the next month. That slump was ended with a 4-1 demolition of an equally injury-blighted Newcastle United. The club await Everton coming off a routine dispatching of a hapless Forest side.
Style of Play
Postecoglu makes no apology for the no holds barred attacking football he espouses, despite attracting plenty of sideways criticism from pundits sceptical of his team’s high defensive line. The Australian has employed a 4-2-3-1 formation almost exclusively since arriving in London and figures to do so this afternoon.
Spurs push up and play with energy and attacking intent, which has seen the side generate an xG (Expected Goals) statistic of 29.1, though they’ve overachieved that figure considerably in scoring 35. As could be expected from a team set up to control games and play on the front foot, they are dominating possession, enjoying a 60.4% share and completing 8.0% of their passes, being third highest in the league in both categories. They are producing the second-highest numbers of attempts on goal per 90 minutes, with 16.2. The hosts are amongst the better teams in scoring from set-piece situations.
Tottenham’s very open style of play does leave them relatively susceptible down the other end of the pitch, as can be seen from an xGA (Expected Goals Allowed) metric of 28.1, though they’ve actually only conceded 23. They are permitting 13.4 attempts on their goal per 90, which ranks them 13th in the league. The Londoners are active in trying to win the ball back, as despite enjoying possession against most opponents they average more tackles per game than anyone else - 20.2 per game.
Stepping up after a subpar prior campaign, Son Heung-Min has helped to fill the gap left by Kane’s departure. The wide forward has scored ten league goals this term, already matching last season’s tally. Now 31, the South Korean retains his speed, makes intelligent runs and is a composed finisher from the left flank.
Former Blue Richarlison has recently ignited his faltering career at Spurs, scoring three goals in the last two games whilst playing as a centre forward, as he does for Brazil.
Operating from the right, or behind the striker, Kulusevski has picked things up after a slightly disappointing first full season in North London. The 23-year-old has five goals this term and - in the absence of the injured Maddison, who was streets ahead of anyone else - he’s leading the side in SCA (Shot-Creating Actions), with 4.53 per 90. The Swede attempts more take-ons than any other player: 4.61 per game, succeeding in 38.2%.
Vicario has been kept busy guarding the Spurs net, but is stepping up to the challenge. Much involved in the team’s passing game out from the back, the Italian has conceded only 23 times from a PSxG (Post-Shot Expected Goals) total of 26.0. He has a save percentage of 71.4% this term.
The hosts are a formidable outfit, boasting an array of attacking talent complemented by a swashbuckling style of play implemented by Postecoglou. Injuries have robbed the club of much of its early season momentum, however. The team’s creativity had revolved around Maddison, so it’s taken time for Spurs to adjust to losing him. They continue to miss the impressive van de Ven at the heart of the defence and will also be without dominant defensive midfielder Yves Bissouma, suspended for Everton's visit.
The Toffees of course have issues of their own, with Abdoulaye Doucoure, Ashley Young and Seamus Coleman effectively ruled out of the encounter and Vitalii Mykolenko a doubt. Everton’s approach is pretty easy to guess as it rarely varies, so we’ll see the team set up fairly deep, but with the intent to exert targeted pressure which can spring direct transitional attacks.
One question that will have tasked Sean Dyche is whether to retain the back four he prefers, or to try the back three that gained victory on the road at Burnley last weekend. If Mykolenko can start, then it’s a no-brainer. Otherwise, either option involves using players in unfamiliar positions: either Ben Godfrey or Jarrad Branthwaite as conventional left backs, or Dwight McNeil at wingback. Both have limiting factors from offensive and defensive standpoints.
The other major concern is who to replace Doucoure with in the attacking midfield position if Dyche uses any variation of a 4-4-1-1? None of the alternatives can replicate what the Malian brings to the table.
I’m inclined to think that the Everton boss will revert to the 5-4-1 deployed at Turf Moor, if Mykolenko is still out. The team’s only weak spot against Burnley was the channel in between McNeil at wingback and James Tarkowski, playing on the left of the back three, so I’d put Branthwaite there instead, for his mobility and shift Tarkowski to the right side, to support Nathan Patterson.
The Blues midfield, spread out in a four-man line in defence looked solid last weekend, yet flexible enough to get close enough to support the striker. Everton basically didn’t bother attacking after going two goals up on Burnley by the 25th minute, so it could be a more potent offensive system that the raw data suggests.
If this game had come a couple of weeks earlier, I’d fancy Everton to pull off an upset, but the hosts have regained some of their composure since, whilst the Blues are showing signs of fatigue from what’s been a demanding schedule. The visitors have an outside chance to snatch a draw, but I feel Spurs may have a little too much firepower.
Prediction: Tottenham Hotspur 2-1 Everton