Everton, fresh off a bruising midweek mauling at the hands of Arsenal, travel to the City Ground for Sunday’s early afternoon kick off, where they face Nottingham Forest.
The Blues’ away record this season makes for bleak reading, now standing at seven defeats, set against four draws and a solitary win against Southampton back in October. With the campaign about to enter its final third however, the hourglass is starting to run out of sand and with it, opportunities for Sean Dyche to salvage the Blues’ top-flight status.
The team has picked up two-thirds of its points at Goodison Park, but has only six home matches left to play and will need to win at least four more games to stand any chance of avoiding the drop. Seven of their remaining 13 fixtures take place on the road, so the Grand Old Team have to find a formula capable of increasing their points haul from away games.
On paper, 14th placed newly-promoted Forest offers as good an opportunity as any, though the East Midland outfit are far from a pushover on home turf.
The club made its return to the top tier last season, ending an absence of 23 years, then promptly went about reconstructing its first team during the summer transfer window, signing an astonishing 23 new players which must have set some kind of record (I haven’t checked this, admittedly, but it sounds likely). Media mogul Evangelos Marinakis, also the owner of Greek titans Olympiacos, bankrolled spending to the tune of €162m in an attempt to give manager Steve Cooper enough tools to form a competitive Premier League side.
It goes without saying that putting together a cohesive starting eleven, given such a vast influx of signings was going to be a gargantuan task, full of false starts, missteps and revisions and sure enough Forest, after coming away with four points from their opening three games (including a draw at Goodison Park) soon hit a rough patch. Five defeats on the bounce saw the side ship 18 goals and started a winless run of eight, confirming the difficulty job Cooper had on his hands.
A shock 1-0 win over Liverpool ended the slide, but the midlanders were crushed 5-0 by Arsenal in their next match. Two home results followed as Forest managed some stability, heading into the World Cup break, where the manager would finally have some time to work with most of his squad at the Wilford Lane training ground.
Forest resumed the campaign with a 3-0 loss to Manchester United at Old Trafford, but then held Chelsea to a draw and registered consecutive league wins for the first time this season, over Southampton and Leicester City, the latter in mid-January. The Reds have managed just one win since, against Leeds United a month ago, with two draws and two losses. At home they’ve been impressive since last tasting league defeat at the City Ground - all the way back in September - a run of eight matches, including holding Manchester City two weeks ago.
They entertain Everton coming off a 4-0 mauling by West Ham United at the London Stadium.
Style of Play
Cooper arrived in the top division with a reputation for favouring progressive, direct football from out of a solid structure, with a 3-4-1-2 formation and this is how the side attempted to play early on, particularly at home. Heavy defeats in the autumn forced the manager to adopt a more pragmatic approach, along with a shift in setup to first a 4-3-3 and finally, in recent months to a 4-3-1-2. At the City Ground, where Forest have performed fairly well, they last enjoyed a possession advantage way back in September (52%) when losing 3-2 to Bournemouth; in nine league home games since they’ve average just a 34.6% share.
Forest now set up in a low block defensive line, compressing midfield and looking to spring attacks on the counter, using the vision and technical skills of Morgan Gibbs-White and the pace of Brennan Johnson. Like Everton, they are shy of goals and are significantly underperforming in converting chances, having scored just 18 times from an xG (Expected Goals) of 25.5. Defensively, they are conceding at a slightly higher rate than they should, having let in 42 goals from an xGA (Expected Goals Allowed) of 38.1.
They are a direct team, with 16% of their passes being defined as “long”; by comparison Everton are at 14%. Partly as a consequence of this style of play, Forest have the lowest passing accuracy in the league, at 74%. Along with a poor rate of converting chances, the home side attempt a low number of shots per match (ten) with 29% on target. They don’t try a lot of dribbles, but do attract a high number of fouls. Cooper’s side do look to attack the flanks and put in an average of 16 deliveries from out wide, with a 20% success rate. Despite their compact shape and deep defensive line, the Reds give up a lot of shots, which is almost inevitable given their share of possession in most games.
A major outlet for Forest in transition is leading scorer, right winger Brennan Johnson. Pacy and direct, the 21-year old has three goals in the last three league matches at the City Ground. He is adept at carrying the ball forward at speed, averaging 3.5 progressive runs per 90, over the past eight league games, though his success rate on the dribble is poor at 28.6% over the same run of matches.
Gibbs-White, operating as one of two central attacking midfielders, is the creative hub of Sunday’s hosts. He has five league assists and is posting an xGA (Expected Goals Assisted) of 0.30 per 90, almost three times higher than any other Forest player. His through balls into space for runners like Johnson is a particular strength. He carries the ball well (53.8% successful dribbles) and also offers a threat with his long-range shooting, registering an xG per 90 of 0.18.
Remo Freuler has added a bit of defensive solidity to what has appeared a lightweight Forest midfield, making 5.71 ball recoveries and contributing 3.24 combined tackles and interceptions per match. The Swiss international demonstrates some needed composure on the ball, managing a 79.7% passing accuracy.
Forest have made themselves hard to beat at the City Ground with a conservative style, inviting pressure and looking to hurt teams on the counter. It is likely that Everton will enjoy more substantial possession than was the case at the Emirates on Wednesday night. The challenge for Dyche is to deny Cooper’s side the opportunity to exploit what is generally a slow, cumbersome Blues backline, whilst getting enough bodies forward to offer a serious goal threat.
Dyche will (hopefully) have learned some valuable lessons from what was a structural meltdown in the last half hour against Arsenal. The possibility of some involvement from Dominic Calvert-Lewin is encouraging, but more than likely it will be Neal Maupay once more leading the line this weekend.
Whether the boss will stick with the 4-5-1 he’s used exclusively so far at Everton, or will shift to a 4-4-2 or 4-4-1-1, perhaps pairing a striker with Demarai Gray is another question with no obvious answer. Another is what role - if any- Yerry Mina has, given he was the only central defender not used at all midweek.
My approach would be to go with a 4-4-1-1, move Alex Iwobi in behind Maupay, trust veteran Seamus Coleman to hold down the his flank in a purely defensive role with Gray ahead of him on the right, drop one of of the three midfielders and start Mina. Iwobi should be more impactful in this space and Everton would be able to actually get their leading scorer, Gray on the pitch.
With the added threat of Mina on set-pieces and Gray’s pace and flair, I feel Everton can cause a bit of a surprise and take all three points.
Prediction: Nottingham Forest 0 Everton 1