Only a couple of weeks ago, Everton were riding (relatively) high, buoyant on the back of a four-game unbeaten run, which had seen the beleaguered Merseyside outfit pick up a valuable six points. Back to back defeats to Manchester United and Fulham, by a combined score of 5-1, have changed the picture somewhat and with it the mood amongst the long-suffering fanbase.
Now, the narrative surrounding the firefighting Blues boss Sean Dyche is one of a flawed 4-4-2 setup going into both games, changed before the interval in each and of just a solitary win in eight matches. Such is life in the bottom reaches of the Premier League table.
Just seven games remain in what has been a bleak season for Toffees fans. The remaining schedule can be broken up into three blocks: the vital next three matches, the two against Brighton & Hove Albion and Manchester City, and then the final pair - away at Wolverhampton Wanderers and the season curtain call against Bournemouth, at Goodison Park.
It’s tough to see Everton gaining anything from the Seagulls and City, but the Blues cannot afford to go into the final two matches without increasing their current points total considerably. Newcastle United at home and a struggling Leicester City at the King Power Stadium lie ahead and I feel a win and a draw are required from those matches.
Next up, however is a visit to Selhurst Park, to face a resurgent Crystal Palace.
Roy Hodgson was considered yesterday’s man in South London less than two years ago as his contract at Palace was not extended. Instead, the powers-that-be at the club brought in an exciting new man - and name - in former Arsenal star Patrick Vieira, a man almost 30 years younger and armed with a progressive, modern approach to the game. The Frenchman was backed generously in the transfer market during his first campaign, but far more modestly last summer, to the tune of just under €30m net. Of the new recruits, only Cheick Doucoure - a midfield addition from Lens - has been a major factor.
Vieira managed to gain 48 points and guide the team to a comfortable 12th-place finish during his first campaign and expectations were high that the Eagles could improve on that this time around. The season got off to a slow start, which saw Palace win just one of their opening seven league matches, but they soon turned it around with four victories from the next six, against just a single defeat, a 3-0 dismissal by Everton, in what was probably the finest effort from the Blues in Frank Lampard’s first full campaign in charge.
The Londoners went into the break for the World Cup off an away defeat to Nottingham Forest and upon resumption of the season were hammered 3-0 by high-flying Fulham. Victory next time out over Bournemouth on New Year’s Eve saw Vieira’s team firmly ensconced in midtable, but this would be the high point for the 1998 World Cup winner. A terrible 4-0 pasting at Selhurst Park at the hands of Tottenham Hotspur started the team off on an awful run of results which saw them plummet down the table. 12 games without a win, including seven defeats panicked the club’s owners sufficiently to call time on their bold new era and invite Hodgson back to steer the ship until the end of the campaign.
The 75-year-old, famed for his pragmatic approach has surprisingly got the Eagles firing again on offence. Three straight wins, during which the team has scored nine against relegation battling sides in Leicester City, Leeds United and - last time out - Southampton, has pushed them back up to 12th spot and with 36 points in the bank, within a hair’s breadth of cementing their status in the top flight, once more.
Style of Play
Since arriving back in the hot seat at Selhurst Park, Hodgson has implemented a 4-3-3 formation and brought Eberechi Eze back into the starting lineup, in a central midfield position. During that abysmal final 12-game run by Vieira, the side scored only five goals and on eight occasions failed to attain an xG (Expected Goals) of 1.0, but under the “new” man they’ve racked up a combined total of 6.2.
Defensively, Palace have been as tight as you’d expect for a team helmed by the veteran gaffer, giving up just two goals and an accumulated xGA (Expected Goals Allowed) of 1.9 across the three games.
Last time out, against Southampton was probably the most typical Hodgson performance to date, as the Eagles only commanded a 42% share of possession and mustered “just” ten efforts on the Saints net. Roy is using a stable defensive platform and relying on the pace and skill of Eze and Michael Olise to punish opponents on the counter.
Eze has been on fire since Hodgson returned. The talented 24-year old’s rise was derailed by an Achilles tendon injury suffered almost two years ago, but he’s picked up where he left off this term. Surprisingly omitted from the starting lineup by Vieira since the turn of the year, he’s been installed into central midfield by the wily veteran boss and is flourishing, firing three goals from eleven shots. He’s Palace’s leading scorer now with seven league goals and is right behind Olise with 3.86 SCA (Shot-Creating Actions) per 90 minutes.
Olise is another who is enjoying a new lease of life under Hodgson. The right winger contributed three assists in one game (versus Leeds) and leads the team with an SCA of 4.50. Pacy, skilful and unpredictable, the 21-year old attempts 3.35 progressive carries and 4.83 dribbles per 90 with a success rate of 40.4%.
Doucoure adds combativeness to the midfield, making a combined 4.74 tackles and interceptions per game and leading Palace with 6.92 ball recoveries. The Malian is also composed in possession, with a 82.4% passing success rate and loses the ball only 1.66 times per 90 minutes.
Marshalling the defence is Marc Guehi. A mobile, ball-playing centre half, the 22-year old has played the most minutes of any Palace player. He’s making 6.30 recoveries and a combined 2.77 tackles and interceptions per 90 and playing out well from the back, completing 85.2% of his passes. Just under six feet tall, he’s not fantastic in the air (48.5% aerial duel success), but luckily his defensive partner Joachim Andersen is on hand: the tall Dane wins an impressive 72.1% of his aerial contests and makes 6.64 clearances per 90 also.
The hosts are on a high currently, courtesy of the unexpected injection of positivity provided by their former - and now current - manager. How long this will last, especially as the Eagles are now almost safe with seven games left to play, is anyone’s guess. After the fireworks of Hodgson’s first game back, when Palace blasted Leicester with an unprecedented 31 shots, the side have settled back down to relative normalcy, with 16 efforts against Leeds and a mere ten last weekend. In the last two matches they’ve actually started off fairly tentatively.
The red card received by Abdoulaye Doucoure for violent conduct against Spurs on April 3rd has had a destabilising effect on Everton, resulting in Dyche changing from his 4-5-1 (or 4-1-4-1) system accordingly. In addition, an injury to Amadou Onana has robbed Everton of much of their industry in the midfield engine room. Rumours of an impending Dominic Calvert-Lewin return have given a little hope to Blues fans, but as ever the manager remains inscrutable, so it’s equal parts likely the striker will start the game, or be nowhere near the matchday squad.
The Toffees defence, expected to be solid and resolute under Dyche has looked anything but in recent outings: in fact, they’ve shipped eight goals across the last four matches. The ex-Burnley chief will be missing Seamus Coleman again and I’d like to see the fit-again Nathan Patterson in at right back. He looked rusty coming off the bench last weekend, but provides pace and energy and is at least a natural in the position, unlike Ben Godfrey, who has been awful deputising at fullback. Personally, I can see no reason why Yerry Mina should not be preferred over Michael Keane, either.
Everton have to set up with a midfield three, or risk being overpowered by Palace on Saturday afternoon. Dyche has limited options, so unless Onana is fit he should probably move Alex Iwobi central, alongside James Garner with Idrissa Gueye sitting deeper. Young Stanley Mills, on great form for the under-21’s would be my choice for the right wing berth.
The visitors have to makes themselves a tough nut to crack here. I don’t want to see a pushed-up line, or a high press, as this could allow the Eagles to tee off on Everton’s slow defense. This has to be a battling performance, one of few clear chances. The Blues have more to fight for than do the hosts, but this also was true against Fulham and we saw how that game unfolded. We have to hope that DCL is good to go and that the team will redouble their efforts and be strong mentally in a game that they have to take something from.
I feel they will do just enough.
Prediction: Crystal Palace 1-1 Everton