Everton have ploughed on like the (mythical) fighter Rocky Balboa during December, warding off off the blows inflicted by a relentless schedule, untimely injuries, unprecedented deduction and some questionable officiating to nevertheless put some valuable rounds (points) in the bag.
There’s just two more fixtures left before the team will be rewarded with a short, but well-earned break, much like an ice cold bucket of water dumped - possibly unhelpfully - over Rocky’s battered and bloodied noggin.
An FA Cup Third Round tie against Crystal Palace awaits on Thursday, but before that the Blues must travel to Molineux to face Wolverhampton Wanderers.
The Black Country outfit salvaged a disastrous campaign by appointing Julen Lopetegui 15 games into last season, when sat bottom of the Premier League table. The talented Basque soon knocked a ramshackle side into shape, guiding them to a 13th-place finish. An acrimonious summer between manager and club hierarchy followed, with the former Villarreal man deciding to quit his post in the week leading up to the start of the new season, leaving Wolves scrambling around again.
They alighted on the out of work Gary O’Neil, himself freshly - and unluckily - dismissed by AFC Bournemouth, after successfully steering the South Coast outfit clear of relegation. The 40-year-old was presumably under no allusions as to what funds would be available for strengthening the side, but was desperate for a return to top-flight management, so was far less concerned by the tightness of the budget than was his predecessor.
After spending an enormous amount last term, the tap was switched off during the summer, the club recouping €75m in player trading. The only significant arrival - Matheus Cunha - was already on loan at Wolves last season and it cost an eye-watering €50m to make the move permanent, by obligation, hoovering up what little room for manoeuvre they had in the market. Of the other additions - other than the Brazilian forward, once linked with Everton - only midfielder Jean-Ricner Bellegarde has seen much action this term.
A slew of other players headed in the opposite direction, as Wolves sought to bring in transfer fees and to reduce a swollen wage bill. Another one-time Blues target - Matheus Nunes - improbably headed to Manchester City for €62m following a decidedly average debut season in the West Midlands. Disappointingly, their talented 26-year-old captain Ruben Neves opted for a fat contract in the Saudi league, rather than making a shift to a top European side. Veterans Joao Moutinho, Diego Costa, Conor Coady and Raul Jimenez departed, along with young defender Nathan Collins, Daniel Podence and Adama Traore.
Wanderers got the campaign off to a poor start, losing their opening two matches, before beating a toothless Everton at Goodison Park. A further three defeats ensued, halted by a shock home win over a wasteful Manchester City. They appear to have gained confidence from that result and have looked a capable midtable outfit since, winning five and drawing three from their last 12 matches. They await Everton fresh off a midweek 4-1 away trouncing of Brentford and sit in eleventh spot, on 25 points.
Style of Play
O’Neil is still a very inexperienced, developing boss and gives me the impression that he’s someone who will experiment with different styles and formations as required. He started the season playing a variety of mainly back four systems, but has settled on a 3-4-3 from around the time of the Man City game. This probably suits the personnel he has available, Wolves having been a back three team mostly for several years. The former Portsmouth player’s most obvious strength as a head coach appears to be his unshakeable self-belief, which has clearly spilled over to his players, as it did with the Cherries.
He’s quite pragmatic and doesn’t appear to be (not yet, anyway) someone wedded to a tactical system or a style of football. Wolves set up in a mid-block and look to profit from turnovers via direct play, not unlike Sean Dyche’s Toffees. Shy of a genuine number nine, they must rely on team effort in the offensive third, ranking 14th with an xG (Expected Goals) of 24.7, which they are exceeding by 2.3. They are 13th in terms of possession, with a 47.3% share.
Defensively, the Midland outfit rank 15th in xGA (Expected Goals Allowed), with 32.6, conceding 31. They’ve been caught out of shape at times, leading to them shipping four goals via transition - tied for most in the league with Brighton. Along with Everton, Wolves have conceded a league-high five penalties. They aren’t too hard to play against, having allowed almost twice as many goals from open play as have the Blues.
Hwang Hee-Chan has unexpectedly propped up the Wolves attack almost single-handedly this term. After making his move to the Midlands in the summer of 2021, Hwang had started brightly, before looking increasingly like he may develop into yet another flop for the remainder of his first two campaigns at the club. This term, playing along the front line, he’s been a menace, firing ten league goals, including a brace last time out. He was forced off on Wednesday but is likely to be available in some capacity this weekend.
The most dangerous man per minute in the home team is probably winger Pablo Sarabia. A classy operator at Sevilla, the Spaniard was relegated to a bit-part contributor at PSG. In and out of the Wolves side since moving - initially on loan - in January 2022, he’s found fitness and form recently, starting the last five games and providing three assists. He leads the side with 5.14 SCA (Shot-Creating Actions) per 90 minutes. He did still make the Spanish national squad as recently as the 2022 World Cup.
At home, I feel O’Neil will naturally look to take the action to the visitors more than maybe is wise. If Hwang can start, then they are a more threatening outfit, seeing as the South Korean is responsible for 37% of their goals. They have some players who can score sporadically, like Cunha or midfielder Mario Lemina, but none are consistent. Everton aren’t quite as reliant on the still unavailable Abdoulaye Doucoure (25%), but the Malian’s absence is keenly felt.
Dyche has been resolutely sticking to his guns and making minimal changes to his lineup, regardless of the obvious fatigue affecting some of the players. Beto came in for Dominic Calvert-Lewin midweek, but I’m sure the latter will be back in the starting eleven this afternoon. Otherwise, I’m expecting we’ll see the same side that chased Man City for 90 plus minutes on Wednesday.
So far, the team has held up pretty well, all things being considered, but they will hit the wall at some point if they continue to be physically pushed in this manner. Sure, they may be able to run and harry the opposition, but sharpness, both of mind and body may be lacking. Still, if they can hold it together for one more match, then Wolves will give the Toffees plenty of opportunities to do damage.
Without the points deduction, Everton would actually be ahead of the hosts in the table and the underlying data suggests that they are a superior side on both attack and defence, so a trip to Molineux should not be too foreboding. The Blues generally had the better of it against Tottenham Hotspur in their last road match and Spurs are a much stronger team than the Midlanders. But please, Sean, use the bench. Give Arnaut Danjuma more than ten minutes!
Prediction: Wolves 1-2 Everton