Everton are back at it before the New Year is upon us all, and a proper match against Gary O’Neil and Wolverhampton is set to test a side that has passed plenty over the last several months.
Even with difficult defeats to Tottenham and the three-time defending Premier League champions Manchester City, the Toffees’ year has been fruitful; yet three points against a midtable Wolves side that are playing quite well right now would be a pleasant holiday gift for Blues across the world. It would help the side climb back up towards the middle of the table themselves as well.
But who will ultimately win? Only time will tell.
RBM: Straight off, Wolves have bounced back from a difficult start to a place of positive form at the end of December; tell us about the feelings around the club and its supporters please.
TB: Compared to where we were at the start of the season, it’s all very upbeat. We sold £150m worth of players and swapped a big-name coach for a much less experienced one, so expectations were modest at best. But the squad has shaped up nicely, and Gary O’Neil has done a great job. His remit was survival, so we’re overachieving in our current position. Lots of positivity going into 2024.
RBM: How has Gary O’Neil changed this team from past bosses? It feels the most comfortable side since Nuno’s departure some time ago.
TB: It feels like we’ve caught up with how Premier League football should be played. Nuno, Bruno Lage and Lopetegui - to an extent - set up defensively, low block, and hardly any pressing. It’s much more front foot under O’Neil. We’ve got pace and energy in the team, so we can close spaces, win the ball higher up, and create more chances.
RBM: Talk to us about the team’s injuries and names that should be better known by those outside of the fan base.
TB: We’ve done relatively well on the injuries. Losing Pedro Neto for a few months was a blow because he was arguably the league’s form player at the time. But he’s coming back, and other than a few niggles with Dawson and Hwang that could rule them out of this game, we’re well set.
One player I would point out is João Gomes. He gets around the pitch very well and makes a lot of tackles. It wouldn’t surprise me if the vultures were circling in the summer.
RBM: Where does this team do well on the pitch, and where can play be improved across the side?
TB: We’re strong in those pockets of space between the opposition’s midfield and defence. If we can collect the ball in those areas, we have players who make good runs and can move intelligently. I think we’re weak defensively in full-back areas, and high balls to the far post are always a concern.
RBM: What are the expectations for this side moving forward this season and in the short term beyond that?
TB: At the start of the season, it was just about staying up, but now I think midtable is a realistic ambition. If we want to get into the top half we have to either become more ruthless in attack or stronger at the back. We have spells of promise in both areas but can fall apart at times too - classic midtable side.
In the longer term, it’s just about upgrading different areas of the pitch and trying to get back into European contention, but the completion makes that incredibly difficult.
RBM: Where will Gary O’Neil and company turn to this January to beef the team up further for the rest of the year?
TB: He’s said he wants a number 9 and another winger. Hopefully, we can get that business done.
RBM: How do you expect Wolves to set up this weekend, and who do you think could cause Everton the most problems in the match?
TB: It will be a 3-4-3-type shape. Likely team if players are fit - Sa, Semedo, Dawson, Kilman, Toti, Ait-Nouri, Gomes, Lemina, Sarabia, Cunha, Hwang.
Cunha is a key player for us. If we get him into the game, it opens everything up in attack. He’s a powerful runner and a creative force. Definitely one to fear if he’s heavily involved.
RBM: Finally, what’s your prediction for Saturday’s game?
TB: I’ll go for an entertaining 2-2. If you hadn’t had that penalty, you’d be right next to us in the table, so I don’t think there’s much to choose between the sides.
We thank Tom for his time as always!