Everton picked up a valuable away point at the weekend, one of only ten secured on the road all season, in a gritty, dull 0-0 with Crystal Palace. Not one for the purists, in a game painfully short on thrills and spills, both sides combined to put up a mighty 0.90 xG (Expected Goals).
Poor fare indeed, but the Blues are shamefully the puniest offence pro rata in the entire English Football League system, so we are at the stage where a goalless draw at Selhurst Park has to be celebrated - not quite like winning a cup - but you get the picture. The team’s league position wasn’t improved any, though they are at least still in contact with those around them, offering the possibility that a couple of wins could propel them up the table and so, to safety.
A two game losing run was ended, but worryingly the Blues have just one win from their last nine, after managing two from Sean Dyche’s first three in charge. The Toffees have improved markedly since Dyche replaced Frank Lampard, but have gained only 13 points from 12 matches and if the same rate is maintained over the six that remain, then they will end the campaign on 34 or 35 points, which will leave them highly vulnerable to being relegated.
The Merseyside outfit have three fixtures left at Goodison Park this season: Manchester City; Bournemouth, in the season closer; and on Thursday night, against Champions League aspirants, Newcastle United.
Following on from securing an eleventh placed finish last term, Newcastle, majority owned by the sovereign wealth fund of Saudi Arabia, backed manager Eddie Howe heavily in the market in preparation for the new campaign. Close to €134m net was splashed on new additions, primarily England Goalkeeper Nick Pope, from newly relegated Burnley, Lille’s touted young centre half Sven Botman and - most intriguingly - Real Sociedad striker Alexander Isak.
So strengthened, the Magpies got off to an underwhelming start, winning their opener against new boys Nottingham Forest, but then only one more of their next six league matches. They lost just once - to Liverpool at Anfield - but so many draws killed any initial momentum. Any doubts over the team’s potential and Howe’s ability to guide this project, however were soon dashed as the North Easterners put together a highly impressive run of results: eight wins - including over top four aspirants Tottenham Hotspur and Chelsea - and a draw from nine.
A Boxing Day stalemate with Leeds United, in which Newcastle failed to capitalise on their superiority was followed by another, rather more creditable goalless effort, against league leaders Arsenal in the new year. A run to the EFL Cup final, in which they were dispatched fairly routinely by Manchester United saw the team’s league form dip, resulting in one win in six, capped off by losses to Liverpool and Manchester City. Again, the Magpies responded, embarking upon a sequence of five consecutive victories ended surprisingly by their heaviest defeat of the season, a 3-0 mauling at Aston Villa.
Howe’s side responded to this setback in imperious fashion, smashing Spurs 6-1 at St. James’s Park. They arrive at Goodison in ominous form, having won six of seven, scoring 19 goals in the process, which is only five short of Everton’s tally for the whole season.
Style of Play
Howe has implemented a 4-3-3 formation throughout the campaign, not deviating from it once; a remarkable demonstration of a consistent tactical approach. Pope and full backs Kieran Trippier and Dan Burn have started every match, whereas centre back pairing Fabian Schar and Botman have missed only two games each. A settled unit has reaped its own rewards, in just 25 goals conceded (the tightest defence in the league) from an xGA (Expected Goals Allowed) metric of 31.8. A hard-working, disciplined three man midfield has helped enormously, breaking up play and providing effective cover for the backline.
The Magpies allow 10.3 shots per 90 minutes, fifth best in the league. They rarely leave themselves exposed, being one of only four sides to have conceded no goals from counterattacks (Everton have shipped eight, the highest in the division). The visitors have allowed a relatively low six goals from set-piece situations, which is possibly the only measure in which the Blues are their equal. They are a highly adaptive, balanced side, willing to play on the front foot, or to concede ground, lay traps and play in transition.
Offensively, they are well short of the sort of fireworks that Man City and the Gunners are capable of, though their 54 goals from 31 matches is a strong return and right in line with an xG (Expected Goals) statistic of 54.2. As mentioned above, however they have been picking up attacking momentum recently and have posted xG tallies of 1.8 or more in five of their last seven games, which will be a concern for Dyche. Since the ex-Burnley man arrived at Everton, in 12 games the highest xG attained by the Toffees is 1.7. The Magpies can vary their attack, going long when required (12.4% of their passes) as they have the pace to stretch defences and exploit a high defensive line.
Trippier has been an inspired signing by the new regime on Tyneside. Now 32, he’s shown remarkable durability in playing all but 72 minutes of the league campaign. A title winner in Spain with Atletico Madrid, he brings composure and leadership characteristics to Newcastle, in addition to plenty of other attributes. Amongst those with meaningful playing time, he leads the side with an SCA (Shot-Creating Actions) per 90 statistic of 4.94, both from open play and as the team’s primary set-piece man. He has an xA (Expected Assists) of 9.5, is miles ahead of anyone else with 0.83 crosses into the opposition area per 90 and contributes 3.02 key passes (those that lead directly to a shot) per game. Defensively he is no slouch, winning an impressive 60.8% of aerial duels and combining for 3.22 tackles and interceptions per 90.
Joelinton has experienced a remarkable transformation under Howe, morphing from an underperforming striker into an indispensable midfielder. The Brazilian puts in 1.86 blocks and tops the Magpies with a combined 3.97 tackles and interceptions per game. With 2.12 aerial duels won per 90, he’s in the 92nd percentile for midfielders amongst top European leagues. A true box-to-box player, in addition to pressing relentlessly he joins the attack and progresses the ball, his 1.82 successful dribbles ranking him in the 96th percentile.
Isak hit only six league goals in Spain last season but this term, despite missing considerable time through injury, he’s fired ten to date and is in fantastic form, with seven in his last seven matches. An unusual combination of technical skill and pace the Swede is looking like displacing Callum Wilson as Newcastle’s primary striker and could emerge as one of Europe’s top hitmen if he continues to develop. An xG per 90 of 0.66 puts the 22-year old in the 95th percentile for forwards in top leagues.
Bruno Guimaraes adds class to the visitor’s midfield unit. The Brazilian is a pretty complete player, possessing technical ability, physicality and an understanding of the game. He leads the team in progressive passes per 90 (6.91) but still manages an 82.9% completion rate. The ex-Lyon man leads his side in ball recoveries (8.07) per 90 and makes a combined 3.65 tackles and interceptions per game.
Unlikely to feature from the beginning, considering his current position in the Newcastle pecking order, is ex-Blue Anthony Gordon. The winger has made the first eleven only twice in nine appearances since his €45m move to the North East and has so far looked like what he is: a talented prospect in need of significant development. Rather than being an ever-present for Everton, he’s very much a squad option currently at the Magpies, though will probably receive a hostile reception from some quarters should Howe decide to use him from the bench at Goodison.
Everton sit, following last night’s games, second from bottom in the Premier league table. An unexpected win for Forest over Brighton, along with a draw between Leicester City and Leeds United on Tuesday leaves the Merseyside club two points from safety, albeit with a game in hand, but with time running out to right the ship.
Dyche was brought in to do just that and there have been improvements, in performance and results since he took charge, but the talent cupboard is almost bare at the old club these days and rescuing the Toffees from the position he found them in would challenge the finest football minds in the game today. Still, he must do better.
To stand any chance of survival, he needs to get his best eleven players on the pitch. The squad’s strongest defender, Yerry Mina continues to be puzzlingly overlooked and at this stage it appears unlikely that the big Colombian will feature again. Dyche was his usual Sphinx-like self in Wednesday’s pre-game press conference, so whether Dominic Calvert-Lewin, Seamus Coleman and/or Amadou Onana will make the starting lineup is anyone’s guess, though at least Abdoulaye Doucoure is back from a three game suspension.
On paper, the Newcastle side is not overwhelmingly powerful, replete with superstars. Around half the side that Howe will likely select date back to before the big money arrived and to the manager’s credit have been coached up to a higher standard. On their best day, Everton’s strongest eleven have the ability to be competitive with the Magpies. The gulf in quality isn’t unbridgeable and with a sound tactical plan and receiving the fulsome backing of a Goodison crowd pushing them on, this is not a swing and hope kind of game.
It is one that the Blues have the potential to win and boy, do they need to do so. The situation has now officially reached a state of emergency, a time for desperate action. A conservative game plan may not be enough, given Everton’s rivals are picking up the occasional victory, sometimes against the odds. Already some, including Crystal Palace and Wolverhampton Wanderers have moved almost clear of danger; West Ham United and Bournemouth are close to joining them.
Victory tonight will propel Everton to 16th and instil some much-needed belief ahead of a trip to the King Power Stadium, where they will face Leicester City on Monday night in what is clearly a relegation six-pointer. Tonight, the Blues must show their best selves, one through eleven, playing with energy, commitment, discipline and desire to test the Newcastle defence. Defeat is not an option.
I hope to see Coleman, Onana, Doucoure and DCL lining up in a 4-5-1, with Alex Iwobi on the flank. If the club captain cannot go, then Nathan Patterson should be in the side, for his energy down the right. If Onana is absent, then James Garner should retain his place alongside Doucoure, ahead of Idrissa Gueye.
Against my better judgement, as an optimist that cannot believe it has finally come to this dire predicament, I am backing the team to upset the odds. COYB.
Prediction: Everton 2-1 Newcastle United