Everton, in scoring comfortable 1-0 victories over league leaders Arsenal and relegation rivals Leeds United, are showing encouraging signs under Sean Dyche that they will be no pushovers at Goodison Park. Both wins saw the Blues restrict the opponent to sub 1.0 xG (Expected Goals) totals, while generating a combined 27 shots themselves (eight on target).
It’s early days to be making sweeping predictions, but the manner of the team’s home wins appears to be built on solid foundations, a repeatable formula that will be difficult to crack, even with Dominic Calvert-Lewin out of commission. The Toffees have seven games remaining at Goodison - some against tough opposition - and I feel they need to really be winning at least four of them, in order to give the side the best chance possible of avoiding relegation given how timidly they play away from home.
First up is Aston Villa, who sit firmly midtable in 11th spot.
Last season, their third back up in the top flight, the Villans dispensed with the man who’d brought them promotion - Dean Smith - after a poor start, handing the reins over to ex-Glasgow Rangers boss Steven Gerrard. The team’s form picked up in the short term, only to collapse down the stretch, resulting in a 14th-placed finish; safe but hardly the kick-on that had been expected after managing 11th the year before.
In the summer, Villa spent €70m on new signings, primarily on centre back Diego Carlos from Sevilla and Barcelona attacking midfielder Philippe Coutinho, Gerrard’s old Liverpool teammate, plus an astute free transfer signing in Boubacar Kamara, from Marseille.
The West Midlanders got off to an underwhelming start to the new campaign, continuing in the manner they’d ended the previous, winning only once from their opening six league fixtures (against... you guessed it, Everton), losing four times. A fortunate draw with reigning champions Manchester City, followed by a win over Southampton eased the pressure on Gerrard somewhat, but a winless run of four, including consecutive defeats to Chelsea and Fulham (by a combined scoreline of 5-0) was the final straw for Villa’s ownership group, who promptly fired the ex-England star.
A short, topsy-turvy caretaker period, consisting of a 4-0 win, then a 4-0 reverse, was ended by the appointment of Villarreal boss Unai Emery. The new man got off to a positive start with a 3-1 victory over Manchester United at Villa Park, although he would exit the EFL Cup to the same opponents just four days later. In his first seven league games in charge, Emery guided the Lions to five wins and a draw, losing only to Liverpool at Villa Park.
Villa arrive at Goodison Park on Saturday, however on a three game losing streak, the last of which being an injury time collapse which saw them end up 4-2 home losers to Arsenal. They’ve conceded an alarming eleven goals during this spell.
Style of Play
Under Gerrard, Villa used a 4-2-3-1 or 4-3-3 formation, but since Emery’s arrival they’ve shifted to a narrow 4-4-2 favoured by the new boss. In this set-up the team tend to use three central midfielders and one winger, or wide playmaker - usually Emi Buendia. This gives them considerable strength in the centre of the pitch, with the widest of the midfielders (typically Jacob Ramsey) drifting across when out of possession to give cover to the full back on that side.
Offensive width is provided by the full backs, as Buendia, Coutinho or whoever lines up as a nominal winger will naturally drift infield. In Ollie Watkins and Leon Bailey, the visitors field forwards who will naturally from play out-to-in; the former is more of a natural front man, but likes to use his pace to run the channels.
Emery will set his team up to play primarily on the counter, though they are capable of getting on the ball if required, enjoying a 46.5% share of possession in the league under the Basque. The team’s basic defensive posture is a mid-low block, with the midfield sitting quite deep, allowing little space in between the lines. They will press the opponent in the middle third of the pitch and look to spring attacks in transition. Crossing is not a particular objective, although in some games they’ve put in a lot of deliveries from the flanks.
Offensively, Villa are averaging eleven shots at goal per game under Emery, generating 1.12 xG per match under their new boss, whilst giving up an xGA (Expected Goals Allowed) rate of 1.76.
World Cup winning goalkeeper Emiliano Martinez will be guarding the visitor’s net on Saturday. Despite his heroics in Qatar and generally being considered an outstanding ‘keeper, the Argentinian is actually experiencing a slightly subpar season in terms of shot-stopping. He’s conceded 2.1 more goals than could be expected - given the shots he’s faced - and his save percentage is at 65.5%, his lowest in three seasons as Villa’s number one. He is commanding his box well, being in the top percentile in terms of stopping crosses.
Watkins presents the main attacking threat for Villa. He’s blossoming under Emery, scoring in each of the last four matches and leads the team with an xG per 90 minutes of 0.33. The forward is a hard-working operator who defends from the front and carries the ball well.
Douglas Luiz and Kamara form a very solid, balanced midfield partnership. The latter leads Villa with 3.92 combined tackles and interceptions per 90, and the pair tie for 6.67 ball recoveries per match. Deep-lying playmaker Luiz averages 67 touches per game and generates 3.11 SCA (Shot-Creating Actions) per 90, marginally behind Buendia.
Despite playing as a much more cohesive, organised unit under Emery, Villa are actually giving up quite a lot of chances - conceding 18 league goals in ten matches, in line with an xGA of 17.6. Offensively, they are considerably outperforming expectations, having scored 17 times from an xG of just 11.2. The team unquestionably has pace in attack and guile in midfield, but could be defensively suspect.
The two teams are surprisingly similar in most team data categories, such as possession, passing accuracy, aerials won, tackles and interceptions per game and attempted dribbles. Where they differ, is how they are scoring and conceding. Villa rank highly in goals scored via counterattacks, whereas Everton have been poor in transition and open-play. Alarmingly, the Blues are the worst team in the league in conceding from counters. However, the visitors have shipped 12 goals from set-pieces, one behind worst in the league Bournemouth.
It is highly probable that Dyche will set up in the now familiar 4-5-1 formation and Emery in his narrow 4-4-2. Neither side will push up, or overly press the attack, so we may experience something of a “phony war” in the opening period, as both sides feel their way into the match. Villa will want to invite the Blues on, in the hopes of springing a rapid counterattack, but Dyche will certainly be wise to this gambit.
It’s unlikely to happen, but I’d like to see Yerry Mina rolled out against Watkins, as the prospect of him running at Conor Coady worries me.
Everton’s best route to victory may be to congest the midfield, leave no space for runners in behind, isolate the Villa forwards from their midfield and press the attack on the flanks, disrupting the visitor’s sometimes erratic backline with lots of crosses. The more corner kicks Everton can generate, the better.
I can see the Toffees once again being very solid and up for the battle at Goodison.
Prediction: Everton 2 Aston Villa 1
Stats provided courtesy of fbref.com, transfermarkt.co.uk and whoscored.com