Last weekend, Everton suffered a loss to the calibre of team to which such setbacks have become customary, even at Goodison Park. Sadly, Manchester City, probably the best club side in world football currently, didn’t have to move all that far up the gears to dispatch Sean Dyche’s outfit.
The Toffees put up a creditable showing for 37 minutes, until the all-conquering visitors took the lead, putting the finishing touches on an unexceptional performance early in the second half and running out easy 3-0 winners, whatever the xG (Expected Goals) tally suggested. The Blues could only muster an open play xG of 0.05, which put the extent of City’s control into perspective.
That match was never going to be a defining one from Everton, however. Two winnable games do wait just over the horizon, the first of which is a visit to Molineux, to face Wolverhampton Wanderers.
Bruno Lage guided Wolves to a solid 10th place finish last season - the Portuguese manager’s first at the helm - but although the team were defensively sound, a haul of 38 goals scored did not make for particularly engrossing viewing. Worse, they stumbled across the finish line, failing to win any of their last seven fixtures, so the mood amongst many fans was sombre as the side geared up for the new campaign. Unlike previous summers, the Midlands club spent quite heavily in an effort to freshen up the squad, particularly in attacking areas, to the tune of €81m net, with forwards Sasa Kalajdzic, Hee-chan Hwang and Goncalo Guedes arriving, in addition to high-priced midfielder Matheus Nunes and Burnley centre half Nathan Collins.
With such backing in the market, there was little patience at ownership level for a poor start to the season, but unfortunately this is exactly what happened. Lage won only once in the opening eight matches and was summarily dismissed, but the delay in securing a replacement underlined a lack of planning at the club; something which Evertonians are all too familiar with. Amazingly, interim boss Steve Davies was left to steer the ship for seven league games, during which they lost five, leaving them propping up the table by the time Julen Lopetegui arrived.
The Basque wasted little time in correcting matters, ambushing Frank Lampard's Everton at Goodison in his first league match in charge, but found things a little more difficult thereafter, exiting both domestic cup competitions (whilst fielding weakened sides) and tasting victory only once from four attempts in the league. Consecutive wins over Liverpool and Southampton added a little momentum, which the Midlanders were finding it tough to maintain, a lone victory from their next seven leaving the club firmly embroiled in a multi-sided relegation battle as we entered April.
Five major signings during the January window - in addition to free agent striker Diego Costa, acquired in September - gave Lopetegui options with which to juggle his pack and have helped him to finally pull clear from the remaining clubs struggling down at the bottom of the table. Four wins from six pushed Wolves up to the 40-point mark, comfortably enough to stay in the division. With their Premier League status secure, the side performed very poorly last time out, losing to Manchester United without putting up much of a fight at Old Trafford. They sit in 13th spot currently.
Style of Play
Lopetegui carved out a reputation in his homeland for a progressive, attractive footballing style, leading him to first the Spanish national job, which ended in unfortunate circumstances and subsequently - and not at all unrelatedly - to a dreadful stint at Real Madrid. The Basques’ reputation had taken a bit of a battering following the ignominy of his dismissal from the Spain job on the eve of the 2018 World Cup, with him and his side actually in Russia at the time, followed by a chastening experience at the ever demanding Los Merengues.
He rebuilt in Andalucía, guiding Sevilla to regular Champions League qualification, in addition to claiming the Europa League trophy in 2019. Lopetegui was a casualty of the turmoil going on at the Rojiblancos this term, being fired in early October with the team floundering in La Liga. After a delay relating to personal circumstances, he eventually took over at Wolves in mid-November, during the the Qatar World Cup, allowing him some time to work with most of the squad prior to the league resuming. Arriving with him was a preference for front-foot possession play, energetic pressing and his favoured 4-3-3 formation.
The former goalkeeper has found it tough going getting everything to his liking in the Midlands, where he found a squad that had been allowed to settle into an ingrained defensive system, despite his predecessor's best efforts and that had become stale, with key personnel either ageing or - in the case of primary striker Raul Jimenez - rendered ineffective due to injury. On top of that a whole new host of seemingly random players had been thrown into the mix in January, in what looked to the outside observer to be a scattergun recruitment policy.
Consequently, Lopetegui has found consistency and a winning system to be elusive, only recently settling on a 4-4-2 which has brought solid results, along with the occasional setback, such as an out-of-the-blue 6-0 rout by Brighton & Hove Albion at the Amex three weeks ago. He clearly intends to implement his progressive style on the side, but a look at Wolves’ xG totals over the last eight matches, during which run they’ve hit 1.0 or above just twice shows this is still a work in progress. Defensively, over the same span they’ve kept four clean sheets, but have allowed an xG of more than 1.0 by opposing teams seven times and 2.4 or above in three of the past five.
Odd as it seems for a striker who has scored just once since signing last autumn, Costa has gone from being a figure of fun, looking every inch the washed-up veteran, to resembling at least an approximation of the formidable player he once was. Clearly now in much better physical condition than when Lopetegui first arrived, the 34-year old is showing much of the intelligence and movement of yesteryear, even if he’s clearly lost speed and is not getting on the end of chances he used to put away with regularity.
Whilst rumours of his future circle, Ruben Neves is still for the moment a key man at Wolves. The midfielder contributes on the defensive side, as shown by him leading the side with 7.17 ball recoveries and in combined tackles and interceptions, with 3.89 per 90 minutes. Dangerous with his shooting from distance and free kicks, the Portuguese generates 2.34 SCA (Shot-Creating Actions) per 90 and maintains control with intelligent passing, completing 82.3%.
If it comes down to who wants it more, then it should be a no-brainer that Everton will get the win that they need on Saturday, but football rarely resolves so neatly. The hosts have won their last four straight at Molineux, by a combined scoreline of 6-0, whilst losing three in a row on the road, leaking ten goals. Clearly, they are a different animal on home turf. The Blues, contrary to usual expectations have not tasted defeat away from Goodison in three matches, whilst their home form has dipped disastrously, losing three in a row.
The Toffees should absolutely be the more motivated side and as they play before all their relegation rivals this weekend, can ramp up the pressure on them by winning. Three points, with other results going their way, could secure Everton’s Premier League status before heading into what would be a tense home game against Bournemouth on the final day.
Lopetegui’s outfit have proven themselves to be a decent, if flawed side in recent months, capable of solid defensive performances, but that still struggles to create and put away chances themselves. Much will depend on the injury status of Dominic Calvert-Lewin, about whom Dyche was typically opaque during Friday’s press conference. If he’s good to go, then with him leading the line, Everton should be able to move up the pitch into areas that threaten the Wolves defence.
Another concern is the absence of left back Vitalii Mykolenko and the disruption this may cause to the Blues structure. With no direct replacement, Dyche has the choice of fielding a centre half at full back, as was tried unsuccessfully last weekend, or switch to a back three, which would probably require the in-form Dwight McNeil to play wingback with Michael Keane in the backline. Neither solution appeals.
There are many intangibles surrounding this match, both mentally and tactically, but when it comes down to it I have to back the team that needs a result, over one that would merely like to get one. That extra five per cent should make all the difference.
Prediction: Wolves 0-1 Everton