The Sean Dyche Express, so powerful and assured pulling out of the station at Goodison Park against Arsenal, ran out of steam at the next stop - Anfield - last Monday. There, it was a case of a new man at the controls, but the same hesitant, uncertain team taking to the pitch in a road game, confidence fragile, bereft of belief. Away from home, Everton have been a stunningly awful side for more than a year and a half and this is something Dyche is going to have to fix.
For the time being however, the Blues are restored back to home turf for their next two fixtures: Aston Villa next weekend and today, Leeds United. It is to be hoped that we get to see the steely resolve, aggression and structure that the manager revealed against the Gunners, for the Toffees really need to be maximising their points haul at Goodison.
Let’s take a look at the team’s next opponent.
The West Yorkshire outfit survived the drop on the final day of the last campaign, under Jesse Marsch, who had taken over at the end of February from club icon Marcelo Bielsa. The side were unravelling, suffering four straight losses, conceding 17 goals in the process and the owners pulled the plug on the veteran Argentinian. Marsch lost his first two outings, but then picked up eleven points from the next five to seemingly pull Leeds clear of the drop zone. A run of three defeats on the bounce plunged them back in deep trouble, only for Marsch’s team to show great fight in securing a point at Brighton & Hove Albion and a win against Brentford; courtesy of goals in the 92nd and 94th minutes, respectively.
The Leeds ownership splurged the cash in the summer in support of the American boss, banking big money from Barcelona and Manchester City for Raphinha and Kalvin Phillips and ploughing those funds back into the squad.
The newly rebuilt Whites started the new campaign in solid form, avoiding defeat in their opening three games, including wins over Wolverhampton Wanderers and Chelsea. They then embarked on a winless run of eight, suffering six defeats en route, which killed off any early optimism. A couple of wins, against Liverpool and struggling Bournemouth restored them to midtable, only for form to again collapse. Another seven match stretch without a victory was enough for the club to pull the plug on Marsch, who remained defiantly upbeat about the performances, even while the side headed towards a relegation battle.
Former Under-21’s boss Michael Skubala has taken the reins whilst the search for a permanent replacement has proceeded, so far without success. Under the caretaker, Leeds have bizarrely faced Manchester United in consecutive league games. In the first they took a two goal lead before being pegged back to hold onto a point; last Sunday they suffered a 2-0 defeat at Elland Road, though created plenty of chances and were unlucky to lose.
Style of Play
Under Marsch, Leeds played attacking football from a 4-2-3-1 formation, though without the unique touch of Bielsa, epitomised by his patented man-to-man marking system. The American was at the cutting edge of current football tactical thinking, in that he was an advocate of intensity, the counter-press and a high defensive line - as was Frank Lampard in fact - and unfortunately for the ex-RB Leipzig man things ended in a similar fashion. Marsch had far better attacking options than Frank however, so has less of an excuse for his failure to get results.
Under interim boss Skubala, the Yorkshire outfit have retained the same formation and base way of playing, which aligns with director of football Victor Orta’s preferred approach. In the two games against United, the Whites enjoyed only 34% possession, but Skubala’s Under-21’s played very attacking, free-flowing football and it’s to be expected that Leeds will resemble that style against a less formidable opponent, such as Everton. Despite not having a lot of the ball, they demonstrated intent last time out, generating an xG (Expected Goals) of 1.8 from 16 shots.
The side appears to use width moreso than under Marsch and will look to put in deliveries from out wide; they attempted a combined 25 crosses in the two United games. It’s a small sample size to draw significant conclusions from, but Leeds appear happy to go direct under the interim boss: 18.7% of their passes are of 30 yards or more. Their passing accuracy is poor under Skubala - just 64.2% - which is indicative of a frenetic style of play and a desire to play the ball forward, in preference to retaining possession, or slow build-up play.
Defensively, the side presses quite energetically and they are pretty aggressive in their defensive play, racking up a lot of challenges and will present a physical challenge for the Blues today.
Goalkeeper Illian Meslier is a talent: in his third campaign guarding the net in the Premier League at just 22 years old. The Frenchman is nowhere near his peak yet and still has areas of his game that need work, namely shot-stopping and positioning. This season he’s conceded 38 goals from a PSxG (Post-Shot Expected Goals) of 31.2, which is quite a substantial underperformance. His save percentage is 65.0% and he’s facing 4.7 shots on target per match.
Degnand Gnonto has been a real livewire on the left flank. Quick and possessing a low centre of gravity, the Italian is dangerous in space, particularly on the counter. The 19-year-old is mobile and always looking to be involved, willing to dribble - though he consequently loses the ball a lot as a result. Still, he is a danger, full of flair and imagination and will have to be watched carefully.
Another youngster, Crysencio Summerville will likely start on the right side. He scored in four consecutive games before the break for the World Cup and looked dangerous last time out, accounting for half of his team’s six shots on target against United, completing two of four dribbles also.
Tyler Adams will almost certainly start in midfield alongside newly-arrived USMNT teammate Weston McKennie. Both offer an industrious presence in the centre of the park and will be up for the fight: Adams leads the team in combined tackles and interceptions per 90 minutes, at 5.45.
Dyche has earned three points from his opening two games in charge, both of which I’d almost written off beforehand, so he has credit in the bank so far. What he must do now is to collect points from winnable games and today is definitely in that category. Confidence has taken a hit - not so much from the disappointing away performance at Anfield, which is almost par for the course, but rather the news that the Blues will be without Dominic Calvert-Lewin again for today’s game.
The striker will be a major miss and his absence creates additional problems for Dyche, as the 4-5-1 formation utilised against Arsenal is difficult (maybe impossible) to replicate using the limited alternatives he has available. Neither Ellis Simms, Neal Maupay or Demarai Gray are target men; all however have their own attributes however and the question is: can the boss find a way to play to take advantage of those?
Leeds are a very decent side, possessing some good players and exciting young attackers. Their form has been poor however, which is why they sit just above Everton currently in the table and they do have a novice manager still at the helm. Defensively, they can be got at - but does Everton have an attack that scares anyone?
I can see a variation of the game plan that the Toffees used against the Gunners, though perhaps tweaked to a 4-4-2 formation. Gray offers the “x-factor” that none of the others do, in terms of his pace, ball-carrying and ability to hit the back of the net from range and Dyche has to find a way to get him on the pitch. He is not great defensively, so is unlikely to be used out wide, but could be played up front, off either Maupay or Simms. Other than Gray on the counter, it looks like set-pieces will be the order of the day once more.
I see a potentially rejigged defence and gritty midfield display frustrating the visitors and the Blues, encouraged by the Goodison crowd, just about getting over the line today.
Prediction: Everton 1 Leeds United 0
Stats provided courtesy of fbref.com and transfermarkt.co.uk