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The Opposition View: Everton at Leicester City | Two teams, three points, relegation

At least one if not both teams are in real danger of the drop.

Everton FC v Leicester City - Premier League
NOVEMBER 05: Alex Iwobi of Everton battles for possession with Wout Faes of Leicester City during the Premier League match
Photo by Nigel Roddis/Getty Images

Everton have been quite awful over the last few matches, and as the season winds down, this is proving a difficult stretch for the side and its supporters to handle. Points are crucial right now, and three would take the Toffees out of the relegation zone for now, while a loss to Leicester City tonight would leave the side needing to make up even more ground on the likes of Leeds and Nottingham Forest.

Sean Dyche versus Dean Smith. Two new bosses, looking to keep their new sides in the Premier League for another season, will likely result in quite the battle at the King Power on Monday night. Who will win? Both sides are looking for three points, and none or even one single point at this stage would be disappointing - even with the poor form both sides have been in.

Ahead of Monday night’s match, we spoke to Jake Lawson, Foxes fan and writer for SB Nation’s dedicated Leicester site, Fosse Posse:

RBM: First off, it’s always a pleasure to speak with you; I know the season has been unkind to this side, but what would you describe the feeling around this Leicester City side and the supporters right now?

The pleasure is all mine. I’d say the feeling is “cautiously optimistic with a strong dose of denialism.” There’s been a sense that this club, the manager, and the players were too good to go down but the table says otherwise. The supporters who have been here for more than a decade have seen this too many times and were sounding the alarm bells in September. The newer fans have never seen us in a relegation scrap, and I sense it’s only now sinking in that this thing could happen.

RBM: Was it the correct move to sack Brendan Rogers? What went wrong with the boss’s tenure?

I have to say it was the right call. I’m not sure any manager has ever been given as many opportunities as Rodgers has this season. Outside of an uncharacteristic run in October and November when other clubs forgot how to finish chances and Danny Ward was piling up clean sheets, we’ve been poor all season. We picked up 16 points from 8 matches over that span as opposed to 12 points from the other 24 matches.

As for what went wrong, that’s tough to pin down. The Wesley Fofana thing hurt us badly; Chelsea convinced one of our top players to seek a transfer and then didn’t make a bid until 48 hours before the deadline and, critically, one month into the season. That plus a poor balance sheet, meant we didn’t have a chance to reinforce the squad. Rodgers had an aversion to playing any of the players brought in under his tenure and, bafflingly, Çağlar Söyüncü, who was clearly superior to the options he was using.

So, we had a thin squad, hit by injuries, and a manager who refused to use what depth he did have and instead complained about the owners. In the end, I think it was more “what took them so long?” as opposed to “should he have been sacked?”

Leicester City v PSV Eindhoven: Quarter Final Leg One - UEFA Europa Conference League Photo by Catherine Ivill/Getty Images

RBM: How much of this season is down to injuries and failure to find a positive replacement for Kasper Schmeichel?

The injuries certainly played a part, but the failure to use the resources at hand to make adjustments may be a bigger factor. Rodgers was very flexible with his tactics; his way of dealing with injuries was to try to find a system that would allow him to use the eleven players he trusted, even if he had to use them out of position and they were in unfamiliar roles. Contrast this with what your neighbor, Jurgen Klopp likes to do: He has a system, all players at all levels are taught that system, and if a player is missing, their backup will know the expectations of the role. I’m not saying one method is better than another, but if I see James Maddison on the wing again, you may hear me scream all the way from Texas.

Schmeichel’s departure was an odd one. We were told that he “wanted a new challenge,” but we’re now hearing he may have been ushered out the door. Regardless of which it was, for whatever reason, Danny Ward never seemed to win the confidence of his defenders. We saw far too many cases of verbal confrontations between the keeper and the players in front of him. It’s unfortunate, because he’s waited a long time for his chance and his form wasn’t nearly as bad as it looked. Daniel Iversen certainly looks more commanding between the sticks, and he’s a fine stopper, so it seems as though Ward’s opportunity has passed.

RBM: Is Dean Smith an emergency fix or a long-term solution? If not a long term fit, who are Fox fans eyeing in each instance - relegation and remaining?

Smith is, without question, and emergency fix and, I think, a solid one. There aren’t enough matches remaining to implement a new system. It’s all about man management, and Dean Smith is a master of that. It doesn’t hurt that he’s brought Craig Shakespeare and John Terry with him. If he can get the team playing as a team, and simplify things so that everyone knows their roles? That’s about all you can ask.

Long term? I have no clue. We missed out on the Champions League on the final day two years running, and then finished just out of Europe last season. Knowing that, you’d think we’d want an up-and-coming manager from the continent, perhaps someone like Franck Haise at Lens. This season has probably banished all talk of getting anyone like that; not just that we’ll be near the bottom of the survival pack assuming we survive, but our finances are not in great shape, and the club is going to need a huge rebuild.

If we’re relegated, I expect we will keep Smith (assuming he wants to stay) to try to shape the squad for a promotion campaign, but even then, I suspect we’ll be in the market for someone who get us back on the road to being one of the “best of the rest.”

Manchester City v Leicester City - Premier League Photo by Michael Regan/Getty Images

RBM: What is the team doing better now?

The easy answer is “nothing,” but it’s not quite accurate. The back line feels more solid with Iversen, Söyüncü, Harry Souttar, and Victor Kristiansen. We can build from that. More importantly, I think the fact that Smith has brought Söyüncü in from the cold sends a message to the squad that he’s going to pick the players who give us the best chance of winning regardless of any personal issues. At the risk of beating a dead horse, it is truly bizarre that the Turkey defender wasn’t good enough to play for Brendan Rodgers when the team is leaking goals. Still, he’s almost certainly going to play for Diego Simeone in a rock-solid Atletico defence.

RBM: How do the Foxes get back on track with their recruitment and budget management so that this situation doesn’t creep up again in the coming years?

The system that had been successful for so long was to sell one-star player per year to finance upgrading the squad. In order to do that, you have to trust your recruitment process, and you can’t afford to miss on any big-money purchases. Selling Riyad Mahrez, Ben Chilwell, Wesley Fofana, and, of course, Harry Maguire at huge profits kept the engine running.

Where we stumbled was, after those consecutive 5th-place finishes, we felt like we could get over the top if we spent without selling. We got away from our model and tried to buy players who could immediately slot into a squad pushing for the Champions League. We bought Jannik Vestergaard, Patson Daka, Boubakary Soumare, and Ryan Bertrand, and it didn’t pan out. We didn’t get the money we were counting on from European football to make up for the purchases, and, well, here we are. Here’s hoping we learned from the experience.

RBM: Who is being sold this summer, whatever the team’s final position on the league table?

Fewer players than you’d think, but that’s because so many are out of contract. Söyüncü, Amartey, Jonny Evans, Youri Tielemans, Nampalys Mendy, and Bertrand are all free to leave and I expect most of them will do just that. It’s hard to imagine that there won’t be huge interest in James Maddison, and, as he hasn’t signed an extension to his contract, the club may feel the need to cash in on their best player, rather than lose him on a free.

Beyond that? It will depend heavily on whether or not we survive and who we bring in as a permanent manager. Luke Thomas and Danny Ward will probably press for a move since they’ve been replaced by younger players in the starting XI. Wilfred Ndidi may feel like he needs a new challenge, which worries me as we don’t have a ready replacement for him.

Hull City v Leicester City - Pre-Season Friendly Photo by George Wood/Getty Images

RBM: The biggest question, of course: Can this team beat out the pack and remain up in the Premier League going onward?

Oh sure, they can, but that’s true of all of the relegation-haunted squads. There are only six matches remaining, and it’s extremely tight, so luck will almost certainly play a part in deciding who goes down. Each of these clubs needs to keep their heads down, focus on the next opponent, and fight for every point as though their lives depended on it because, in a sense, they do.

The Foxes can do it, and I think they will, but we may not know until the last day of the season.

RBM: How do you expect Leicester to set up on Monday night, and who do you think might cause Everton the most problems?

Great question! With a new manager and players popping in and out of the lineup with late-season injuries, it’s almost impossible to know. If it were up to me, I’d set up in a 5-3-2 with Maddison in front of Soumare and Tielemans in the midfield and Iheanacho playing behind either Daka or Vardy up top. The single-striker system hasn’t worked for us at all this year: Vardy, Daka, and Iheanacho have combined for 10 league goals in just under 3,500 minutes.

Iheanacho is the player to watch out for. He’s an agent of chaos in that he’ll produce some of the most bizarre touches you’ll ever see for 75 minutes and then suddenly pop up for a goal or an assist out of absolutely nothing. If he’s allowed to operate between the lines, he’ll produce something... eventually.

RBM: Finally, what’s your prediction for Monday’s game?

It hurts to say it, but given the form of both of our clubs, I’m going to say a 2-2 draw with a calamitous late equalizer for one side or the other.

Our thanks to Jake for his time.