Everton kicked off their congested December schedule on Saturday with a solid, if unspectacular 1-0 win over Nottingham Forest, at the City Ground. The team were without Dominic Calvert-Lewin for the first time in a while and also continued to miss Amadou Onana, illustrating how the demands of this run of games could test the depth of the squad in the coming weeks.
The Blues at least don’t have to travel for the next two matches and will then get more than six days to prepare for a return to Sean Dyche’s old stamping ground at Turf Moor, where they’ll take on Burnley. However, the club will be entertaining Chelsea on Sunday at two PM local time, approximately 64 hours after their midweek evening game concludes, allowing little time for recovery and none for any tactical work.
Arriving at Goodison for what should be an atmospheric Thursday night game will be Eddie Howe’s high-flying, if banged-up Newcastle United.
The Magpies have been spending like a Saturday night drunk - or, more accurately Everton during the early years of Farhad Moshiri’s chaotic reign - since being acquired by Saudi Arabia’s Public Investment Fund. Actually, a comparison with the Blues is more than a little unfair, as Newcastle have allocated funds in a considered manner, far removed from Moshiri and company’s erratic transfer dealings. Still, it’s fair to say that the new owners have planted their seal on the North East club.
During the winter transfer window of the 2021/22 season, €101m in reinforcements arrived, helping new boss Howe to a solid mid-table finish and the following season they really got to work, pumping in a further €181m. Last term they performed unexpectedly well, finishing fourth and attaining Champions League qualification, probably exceeding even the club brain trust's expectations.
The rebuild of Newcastle’s squad into one capable of both maintaining its progression in the Premier League and attacking a European competition continued during the summer, with a net spend of €108m. Major additions in the form of Milan’s metronome Sandro Tonali, Leicester City’s quality winger Harvey Barnes and talented Southampton full back Tino Livramento arrived, strengthening key areas of the team. Offsetting this spend, the club somehow wangled €17m from Nottingham Forest for 31-year-old striker Chris Wood and were able to fortuitously find a home in Saudi Arabia for winger Allan Saint-Maximin, generating a handy €27m.
The team started the new campaign in hugely impressive fashion, dismantling the fancied Aston Villa 5-1 at St. James’s Park, but were quickly brought back down to earth with a trio of league defeats; admittedly against high-calibre opposition in Manchester City, Liverpool and Brighton & Hove Albion. The Magpies rebounded nicely however, going on an eight-match unbeaten run, the highlights of which being a 4-1 dismissal of PSG in the Champions League and an 8-0 slaughter of a hapless Sheffield United.
Subsequently, Newcastle have been a bit up and down, scoring some strong wins against the likes of Manchester United (twice), Arsenal and Chelsea (4-1), but losing to Bournemouth and by a combined scoreline of 3-0 in two European nights against Dortmund. Their mixed form has largely been due to the new experience of dealing with the added fixtures inherent in playing in Europe, abetted by an unpresented injury crisis and not helped by star signing Tonali receiving a ten-month ban for gambling activities.
They arrive at Goodison on the back of a dominating 1-0 win over United, during which they lost yet another key player, in goalkeeper Nick Pope. They sit sixth in the table, on 26 points.
Style of Play
Howe has impressed during his spell on Tyneside, demonstrating that his achievements on the South Coast with Bournemouth were probably underrated. He’s stuck with his 4-3-3 formation again throughout the campaign, despite losing almost a whole starting eleven to injury. Important members of the squad, in Pope, Tonali, Barnes, Sven Botman, Callum Wilson, Dan Burn, Sean Longstaff and Joe Willock are currently missing, but Howe - a boyhood Everton fan once considered for the position of manager with the Blues - has adapted without compromising his formation, or style of play.
The Magpies set up in a balanced, structured fashion, but as the squad has grown stronger over time, they have gradually increased their assertiveness and how much control they desire. So far this season, the North East outfit rank seventh with a 53.5% share of possession and eighth in passing, completing 84.3%. Their offensive output is mid-ranking, surprisingly, the team only getting off 13.8 shots per 90 minutes, lower than Everton. However, Newcastle own the third-highest xG (Expected Goals) total in the league, on 28.1 and the team is exceeding that statistic, having scored 32.
Without the ball, the visitors are very solid indeed, permitting just 11.6 efforts by the opposition per 90, ranking fourth and an xGA (Expected Goals Allowed) metric of 14.2 (third); they’ve shipped 14. Howe’s worked wonders with a defence missing important personnel, holding each of Arsenal, United and Chelsea to an xG of 0.6 or less during the last five weeks.
One of the first and quite possibly the most important signing Newcastle have made in the PIF era, Kieran Trippier brought a level of professionalism, a big-game mentality and quality to the team’s backline. The veteran is a threat from open play, with his precise crossing and as the Magpies’ primary set-piece man. He leads the side with seven assists and an SCA (Shot-Creating Actions) statistic of 4.59 per 90.
The visitors’ main threat is Alexander Isak, who has scored seven league goals so far this campaign. The Swedish striker came off the bench at Goodison back in April and ran riot as Everton fell apart late in the game. Fast and possessed of great off the ball movement, Isak will present a major problem for the Blues defence.
With Pope sidelined indefinitely, former starter Martin Dubravka will be guarding the nets on Thursday. Soon to be 35, the Slovakian has played just five league minutes this term and only saw limited action last season. He did play Newcastle’s Carabao Cup victory over Manchester United at the beginning of November and is his nation’s regular international goalkeeper, but the drop off from Pope to him is considerable.
This will be the Magpies’ fourth match in 12 days and - assuming Anthony Gordon is good to go, following a minor knock he suffered at the weekend - using the same starting outfield ten. For a side that plays with intensity, this is going to prove difficult to sustain. Newcastle have no real options on the bench, demonstrated by them using just two substitutions in their last two matches - one of those being Dubravka for the injured Pope.
The visitors will look to dictate proceedings from the off, which will suit Dyche and his charges. With Isak and Gordon, Newcastle possess ample pace in attacking areas, so Everton will not want to push up too high, leaving space in behind. Howe’s side also press energetically from the front, but the hosts are comfortable with going long under pressure and shouldn’t prove too susceptible to being caught in possession.
Newcastle are a side playing with a great degree of confidence, but they are without a doubt stretched to their limits currently and potentially could crack at any point. By comparison, Everton are bearing up reasonably well as regards injuries, with only Onana likely to miss the game - excepting long-term absentees such as Dele and Andre Gomes. It’s encouraging news that Calvert-Lewin is likely to be back, though whether he will start is unknown at time of writing.
Everton will play their usual style, sitting fairly deep in a compact shape and looking to dispossess Newcastle in the middle third, aiming to break with speed and directness. Though the Geordies have some class in their side, players like Isak, Trippier, Bruno Guimaraes and - more painfully - Gordon, the rest of the side is comprised of more workmanlike operators. The gap between the two teams may not be as large as the league table would imply.
The Magpies will play in a way that suits the Toffees and should the home side find a bit more composure in front of goal than has been the norm at Goodison this season, a result is within their grasp.
Prediction: Everton 1-1 Newcastle