Just in the nick of time, Everton injected some much-needed momentum into their Premier League survival bid on Monday, with a totally unexpected 5-1 rout of Brighton & Hove Albion. A flawless display of ruthlessly efficient counterattacking football shocked the hosts at the Amex, in a game that was virtually won in the first 45 minutes.
Not only did this finally end a winless run of seven straight games, but the manner of the victory, combining solid defence with genuine goal threat will have give the entire side a big confidence boost going into the season’s final three-game stretch. The Toffees finish the campaign with a visit to Wolverhampton Wanderers next Saturday, followed by entertaining Bournemouth on the final day.
First up, however is the daunting prospect of hosting current league leaders Manchester City at Goodison Park on Sunday, at two PM local time.
City came into the new season as defending domestic champions, having collected their fourth title in five years. Still, despite dominating at home, the club had again faltered in the Champions League, losing in the semi-final to eventual winners Real Madrid. The Mancunians splurged €140m during the summer, bringing in Kalvin Phillips and Dortmund duo Manuel Akanji and Erling Haarland, the latter being the definitive statement signing of the transfer window. Still, despite the outlay on new talent, the club actually made a profit of €20m due to the sales of high profile players Raheem Sterling, Gabriel Jesus and Oleksandr Zinchenko.
As expected, Pep Guardiola’s team started the campaign strongly, dropping points in only four league matches leading up to the hiatus for the World Cup: being held by Newcastle United and Aston Villa, whilst losing to Liverpool and - more surprisingly - Brentford. Upon resumption of the action following events in Qatar, the carried on as before, but failed to win a league game at the Etihad for the first time when held 1-1 by Frank Lampard’s Everton, courtesy of a stalwart defensive efforts and a Demarai Gray wonder goal. Defeats to Manchester United and Tottenham Hotspur in away matches ensured the Cityzens continued to trail Mikel Arteta’s impressive Arsenal side, however.
That loss to Spurs, though remains the last time (to date) that the Sky Blues have tasted defeat this term. They’ve won an amazing 17 of the last 21 games in all competitions, drawing just once in the league, against Nottingham Forest at the City Ground, in addition to three European matches. They have won their last ten Premier League games, overtaking the Gunners to seize the initiative in the title race.
City arrive at Goodison coming off a midweek 1-1 tie with Real Madrid at the Santiago Bernabeu, in the first leg of their Champions League Semi-final.
Style of Play
A highly fluid, creative tactician, Guardiola started off the season using variations of his favoured 4-3-3 system, but has deviated from this, adopting an unusual 3-2-4-1 formation since January. The Catalan’s typical approach is a possession style, dominating play in the opposition half, wearing the opponent down with constant shifts, probing for weakness. The side almost invariably post lopsided possession statistics and this campaign has been no different. The Mancunians don’t use much classic wing play, but their wide players do adopt very wide starting positions, in order to stretch opposing defences as much as possible. Though much of the attack is directed centrally, through intricate passing routines, cutbacks from the goal line towards the the penalty spot is a major feature.
When City lose the ball they will counter press in order to regain it, but not to the extent of the Gegenpressing style favoured by the likes of Jurgen Klopp, at Liverpool. They will attempt to win back possession, but will also move into blocking positions, in order to force the opponent to give the ball back cheaply, rather than as a means of attack in itself. Although Guardiola is something of a footballing purist, his side will happily disrupt any counterattacks if they are caught in a vulnerable position, cynically making professional fouls in a rotational fashion.
The arrival of Haaland has brought something entirely different to the play we’ve all become very familiar with, during Guardiola’s time at City, as well as Bayern Munich and of course Barcelona. There was a big question whether the Norwegian, used to Dortmund’s direct counterattacking game, would adapt to his new team’s very different approach and if he would in fact disrupt it by his presence. Whilst there were a few things to iron out during the first half of the season - even as the 22-year old was scoring goals by the hatful - he’s unquestionably added a major new dimension to their play, with his pace, physical qualities and predatory instincts in the box.
There’s a huge amount of uncertainty as to who Guardiola will field on Sunday, given the finely poised nature of the Champions League Semi-Final, the second leg of which takes place on Tuesday evening. In Madrid, he used no substitutions; an indication perhaps that he intends to make a lot of changes to his lineup at Goodison. Consequently, I’ll take a guess at who may feature in this section and hope it won’t be rendered irrelevant by the infamous “Pep Roulette”, beloved of anyone who participates in Fantasy Football.
Haaland. It’s hard to imagine the striker won’t be selected in the starting lineup. Prolific in Germany, he’s taken it up to another level as the spearhead to this powerful City side. He has pretty much everything in his locker: speed, size, strength, composure, movement, clinical finishing and a steely determination to score goals. Still, he was kept fairly quiet by Lampard’s leaky Blues side at the Etihad on New Year’s Day - hard to believe as that is - so is not completely unstoppable, despite his 35 league goals tally for the season.
Riyad Mahrez seems sure to start against Everton. The Algerian has enjoyed another good campaign, contributing five goals and nine assists. The right winger is hardly considered to be one of City’s major players and in fact has only 18 league starts under his belt this season, but rates in the 90th percentile or above in xAG (Expected Assisted Goals), SCA (Shot-Creating Actions), pass completion percentage and in receiving progressive passes.
Likely to be deployed in some manner is World Cup winner Julian Alvarez. The Argentine has netted eight times in the league during his debut campaign and is a quick, mobile and energetic performer. He has started City’s last three league matches, being used as one of the supporting attackers behind Haaland.
Before last Monday’s big result (and performance) against the Seagulls, it was hard to make any case for Everton against Guardiola’s side, which have been carrying all before them over recent months, even hauling down Arsenal in the domestic campaign. But, if Brighton were not exactly in City’s class, they were a potent attacking team on excellent form and they were neutralised by Sean Dyche’s setup at the Amex.
On the South Coast, the Blues showed an excellent structure, marshalled at the back by the returning Yerry Mina (who will surely relish a battle with Haaland), denying the hosts any space through the middle and aggressively confronting them in wide positions. When opportunities presented the Toffees were able to break decisively, with pace and authority. Guardiola doesn’t exactly play identically to Brighton’s Roberto De Zerbi, but there are similarities.
So it figures that Dyche will look to reuse that game plan on Sunday and probably with the same personnel. The only genuine question, assuming there are no late scratches due to injury, is whether James Garner will retain his place, or Amadou Onana will be preferred. Regardless, I expect to see the same 4-2-3-1 formation, with the team retreating into their own half, compressing the space they have to defend and then looking to hit the visitors in transition.
Monday’s game would have been an ideal preparation for the visit of the league leaders, so backed by a raucous home crowd and with minds sharp and confidence high, the Blues can potentially upset an outfit that will have one eye firmly locked in on the Real Madrid game on Tuesday.
Prediction: Everton 1-1 Manchester City