Following a humbling, deflating collapse against high-flying Newcastle United on Thursday night at Goodison Park, Everton sit in the relegation zone, having taken seven points from their last ten fixtures and just one from the last four outings. It’s fair to say that the new manager bounce experienced in those first few weeks under Sean Dyche is now firmly in the past.
Worryingly, with the exception of the absent Seamus Coleman, the Blues were, ostensibly at full strength, but after putting in a spirited effort for more than an hour were easily dispatched by the Magpies. The visitors are a strong side, but the nature of the home team’s surrender over the final 20 minutes suggested a lack of belief in their ability to respond to going behind by more than one goal.
Time is running out for the Toffees if they are to preserve one of the few claims they can still be proud of these days: 69 unbroken seasons in the English top flight. Games against Brighton & Hove Albion - rampant 6-0 victors over Wolverhampton Wanderers - and current league leaders Manchester City, await.
First up, Everton travel tonight to the East Midlands, to face relegation rivals Leicester City at the King Power Stadium.
The Foxes endured a strange 2021-22 season, experiencing a continental cup semi-final by virtue of a strong run in the nascent Europa Conference League, but undergoing a difficult domestic campaign, eventually securing eighth position by winning three of their last four matches. Criticism of Brendan Rodgers could be heard from some sections of the supporter base and the mood around the club was not helped by reticence in the transfer market, which saw only the last-minute addition of defender Wout Faes, as replacement for the Chelsea-bound Wesley Fofana. All told, the club made a player-trading profit of €64m; not something fans generally want to see ahead of a new campaign.
The team promptly embarked on a terrible start to the season, failing to win any of their opening seven matches and tasting defeat in six. Along the way they endured some serious beatings, conceding eleven goals combined in games against Brighton and Tottenham Hotspur. They finally found some form at the beginning of October and had picked up three wins from six heading into a visit to Goodison to face Frank Lampard's Everton on November Fifth. The Blues encountered a much-improved opponent, one that dominated play en route to a comfortable 2-0 scoreline.
Another victory followed, over West Ham United and the Foxes appeared to be on the right track as the league took a six week sojourn for the World Cup. Surprisingly, the Foxes reverted back to their early season form with recommencement of the action, falling to four consecutive defeats. Again, mirroring the pre-Qatar section of the campaign, they recovered, gaining a creditable draw against Brighton, then scoring eight in back-to-back wins over Aston Villa and Spurs. This mini-revival came to a shuddering halt, however, with the side wide open - registering an xGA (Expected Goals Allowed) of 4.4 - in a 3-0 loss to Manchester United; then anaemic up top in posting a glum xG (Expected Goals) tally of 0.0 in succumbing to Arsenal.
Four more defeats and a draw from the next five was enough for the Leicester owners to end Rodgers’s stint as boss, with the side now firmly embroiled in a complex, many-sided relegation battle. New man Dean Smith - sacked in December by Championship outfit Norwich City - faced a tough initiation in the hot seat, with a visit to take on Man City at the Etihad, but emerged with pride intact, courtesy of a strong second half fightback, losing 3-1 as City took their foot off the gas. The Foxes have subsequently shown improvements, both qualitatively and quantitatively in beating Wolves 2-1 at the King Power and drawing 1-1 away at Leeds United, in their last outing.
Ahead of tonight’s match, the hosts sit in 18th position in the table, on 29 points, one place and a single point ahead of Everton.
Style of Play
Under Rodgers, Leicester were a mess, particularly defensively. Disorganized and with questionable use of personnel in positions that did not suit, the manager’s term had reached its natural end point as he scrambled around for solutions to the team’s ongoing issues. Attempts to reinforce the defence during the winter transfer window, with the addition of Harry Souttar and Victor Kristiansen, for a total spend of €31m, failed.
There’s not much of a body of work to analyse what a Dean Smith Leicester City side looks like, but we can infer a bit from the three games so far, as well as the manager’s history elsewhere.
Smith’s first match, against Man City could be seen as something of an outlier, given the strength of the opposition and the 3-4-3 employed at the Etihad being shelved in favour of a 4-2-3-1 subsequently. It’s highly likely, with Kelechi Iheanacho apparently out for the season that Jamie Vardy will lead the line. Under the new boss, the team are trying to play more directly, not long-ball, but emphasising getting it forward more quickly. The slow build-up evident under Rodgers had grown stale, wasn’t utilising the pace the side has in forward areas and an insistence in playing out from the back was exposing a shaky defence to costly errors.
The former Villa boss has simplified play, provided a solid midfield structure in an effort to shield a defence that still appears vulnerable and given the outstanding James Maddison a free roaming role in which he can influence the game all over the pitch. Crucially, and it must be said in contrast to Dyche’s Everton, Smith has made changes from the bench in all three matches to alter the pattern of play, bringing improvements. Leicester have outscored the opposition during each match under the 52-year old, by a combined 3-0, demonstrating the effect of tactical tweaks and proactive substitutions. The side are finishing matches strongly, which should be a concern to the visitors tonight, who have tended to fade around the hour mark.
One area of deficiency, which was apparent against Leeds is a vulnerability to set-pieces, which plagued the side under Rodgers, going way back to last season. Only Bournemouth allow more shots on goal from dead ball situations, which is something the Blues should be looking to exploit.
Predictably, Maddison is the conductor of the orchestra at Leicester. Strangely overlooked by England manager Gareth Southgate, the midfielder is enjoying another excellent campaign, bagging nine goals and seven assists to date. He picked Leeds apart last Tuesday, making four key passes. Smith deployed him as a number ten in that match, but the team’s creative fulcrum has license to roam and will find space using his clever movement, which is sure to cause the Blues all manner of problems tonight.
Vardy is back in the side and back amongst the goals, netting last time out, just his second in what has been a dreadful campaign on a personal level. The striker is now 36, but is still quick and a dangerous runner off the shoulder of the last defender and it appears the more direct style of play under Smith will get the best of him.
Boubakary Soumare adds defensive solidity to the midfield. In the last two outings, the 21-year old has led the team in ball recoveries (nine and 13) and combined for five and seven combined tackles and interceptions, respectively.
On the face of things, it looks pretty bleak for the Toffees and a far worse prospect than if Rodgers had still been at the helm of what appeared very much to be a floundering vessel. There was always the suspicion that Leicester would have too much talent in their squad to be seriously embroiled in a relegation battle, but as the campaign progressed with results worsening, that assumption appeared to be false. Enter Dean Smith and a revival, albeit one that has only produced four points from three games and that leaves the Foxes still in the drop zone with five to play.
Leicester are still a work in progress, as could be expected given the limited time the new man has been in the job. They have a fragile look at the back and though improved have conceded in each match so far and allowed Leeds to generate an xG of 1.5 last week.
Offensively, they are transitioning away from a possession-based system that had, under Rodgers grown turgid and towards a faster tempo. They have goals and creativity in the squad, vital in any survival battle. They’ve scored 44 goals - 19 more than Everton and have surpassed the 2.0 xG mark in each of Smith’s games. Despite Dominic Calvert-Lewin’s return, the Blues have failed to hit an xG of 1.0 in each of their last two, underlining the gulf in attacking prowess between the two clubs.
So far, we have not seen a great deal of variety in approach from Dyche, other than a disastrous switch to a 4-4-2, from a 4-5-1 formation whilst Abdoulaye Doucoure was suspended. He will set the team up in a compact shape and rely on energetic pressing from the midfield and forwards to shield what has proven to be a poor defensive unit. Attacks will rely on exploiting turnovers in possession in the opposition half, the odd spark of vision from Alex Iwobi, corner kick routines and providing crosses for Calvert-Lewin.
Given Leicester’s defensive issues and susceptibility to set-pieces, that could well be enough for the Toffees to bag a goal, even two (though that could be being a trifle optimistic). For Dyche’s standard game plan to work, however goals must be prevented at the other end and this is what concerns me. The side have managed four clean sheets in 13, but have committed ample individual errors which have cost them dearly. The back four that lined up against the Magpies did not inspire confidence before kickoff and so it proved.
A few days ago, Dyche swatted off questions from the press regarding Yerry Mina and the ad-hoc solutions he’s used to cover for Coleman’s unavailability at right back, so I do not expect the manager - who is nothing if not stubborn - to use either the Colombian or Nathan Patterson at the King Power, at least in the starting eleven.
Consequently, I find it tough to make a case for an Everton win tonight. I do believe the Blues will find the back of the net and they will need to score first if they are to take anything from this game, because assuredly the Foxes will dominate increasingly as the match progresses. I expect their greater squad depth and more proactive management will peg back any early advantage the visitors may enjoy.
Prediction: Leicester City 1-1 Everton
Stats provided courtesy of fbref.com and transfermarkt.co.uk