A last-gasp equaliser last weekend was not what Everton wanted heading into the game with Wolverhampton Wanderers, as a win would have secured their top-flight status prior to the Premier League’s last date in the calendar. Still, a draw provided a cushion against one chasing side -Leeds United, who trail the Blues now by two points and with an inferior goal difference - and requires the other rival, Leicester City to beat West ham United in order to force Everton to do likewise.
How it has come to this, following on from last season’s travesty of a campaign that saw the Toffees only fight clear of the drop in game 37, is a question for another time, but regardless of what occurs at Goodison Park tomorrow afternoon, answers must be provided by the club’s hierarchy, none of whom will be expected to be in attendance for the visit of Bournemouth.
Sunday’s match is an existential one for Everton, in many ways. The club’s future status, as a functioning entity - not just in terms of its Premier League continuity - is at stake, given its precarious financial position. This piles on the pressure, for the players and the tens of thousands of fans that will be present at the venerable stadium, as well as the millions looking on from afar, from all corners of the globe.
Let’s take a look at tomorrow’s opposition in a little detail.
The Championship runners-up seemed ill-prepared for a return to the top division, spending just €27m net during the summer, leading a clearly frustrated Scott Parker to publicly question the ownership’s support amid gloomy forecasts for the team’s prospects. Despite beating Steven Gerrard’s Aston Villa to kick off the campaign, hammerings against Manchester City, Arsenal and an embarrassing 9-0 rout by Liverpool saw the manager effectively talk himself out of his job, in the manner in which he criticised his superiors and dismissed the quality of his own players.
So, a mere four games into the new campaign, the Cherries were without a permanent manager and en route to enduring the chastening experience of being horribly exposed at top level. Gary O’Neil stepped in as interim boss and - at least initially - made the gloomy Parker look a little silly in guiding the side through a six-game unbeaten run. The new man talked up his players, in stark contrast to the approach of his predecessor and, while they only picked up a pair of wins, this was certainly an improvement.
Ominously, results took a dip, with the South Coast outfit losing four on the bounce, suggesting that any new manager bounce lay firmly in the rear view mirror. Enter Frank Lampard's Blues who cooperated in giving the struggling team a shot in the arm heading into the break for the World Cup, being destroyed by a combined 7-1 across consecutive EFL Cup and league matches. Returning from the six-week club football hiatus, however the Cherries embarked on a terrible run, losing five on the bounce in all competitions, failing to win in eight.
Like most clubs embroiled in the relegation battle (guess the exception!) Bournemouth spent in the January Transfer Window, to the tune of €56m, in an effort to fight clear of trouble. Only a couple of the new recruits, namely Lorient winger Dango Ouattara and Roma left back Matias Vina have contributed meaningfully, but the extra competition for places has had an effect. By mid-February, O’Neil was getting a tune out of his side, a 1-0 win over Wolves at Molineux commencing an unusual extended run of 15 games without a draw. Ominously, the Cherries won three away games in a row at one point, against Leicester City, Tottenham Hotspur and Southampton.
Since securing their Premier League status, by crushing Leeds 4-1 at the Vitality Stadium, they’ve understandably gone off the boil somewhat and arrive at Goodison off of three straight losses. They sit in 15th spot in the table, on 39 points.
Style of Play
O’Neil has impressed during his first stab at management. Considering he only started coaching two years before being appointed as Bournemouth’s interim boss (made permanent last November), the degree of success he’s enjoyed has been unexpected and - it has to be said - well-earned. Bright, enthusiastic and full of ideas, the 40-year old has tried out various formations and tactical approaches, though has recently preferred a 4-2-3-1 system.
However they set up, O’Neil has them playing with a fair bit of freedom, trusting his players to perform, which has ensured they’ve been able to shrug off setbacks and poor performances without it appearing to dent morale overly. Even coming off three losses on the bounce, I expect the visitors tomorrow to arrive in buoyant mood, relaxed and positive, even if they have nothing at stake except for the desire to play well as a team.
O’Neil, whilst a confident individual, is aware of the limitations inherent in his side and sets them up to make things difficult for the opponent. Bereft of a lot of individual creativity, they look to play in transition, taking best advantage of the pace and athleticism they do possess. Defensively, Bournemouth set up in a deep compact shape, forcing the opposition wide, hoping to create turnovers in possession which will allow them to spring forward on the break, particularly on the flanks.
Their 37 goals ranks joint 15th in the league and is in line with their accumulated xG (Expected Goals) total. Only Leeds have shipped more than the 70 goals they’ve permitted this term, which is quite a bit more than their xGA (Expected Goals Allowed) of 62.8. Everton are the worst side in the league defending the counterattack, having conceded ten times in this fashion, but mercifully Bournemouth are the joint-worst in scoring during transition, with one goal.
The Cherries eschew possession, ranking above only Nottingham Forest and their pass success percentage of 77.3 - marginally higher than Everton’s - ranks 16th. Offensively, they attempt the fewest shots, just 9.5, whilst allowing the most by opponents at 16.5 per 90 minutes. Although O’Neil’s side often favour attacking down the left flank, they attempt the lowest number of crosses in the division (13 per 90). Around 15% of their passes are classed as “long”, making them among the more direct sides in the league.
Dominic Solanke enters the game in good form, with two goal contributions in consecutive matches. He has only six strikes this term, but has provided seven assists and his intelligent linking play is important to the way Bournemouth go about things. His 2.44 shots per 90 lead the Cherries.
The visitors have active options on the flanks and in attacking areas. Ouattara and Ryan Christie contribute 3.36 and 3.35 SCA (Shot-Creating Actions) per 90, respectively, though each has only a single goal this season.
Brazilian goalkeeper Neto has proven fairly effective, commanding his area well and his save percentage of 74.6 is in the 76th percentile amongst top European leagues.
Jefferson Lerma has exerted an element of control in midfield, completing 81.5% of his passes, leading the side with 7.38 ball recoveries and contributing a combined 2.76 tackles and interceptions per 90. He’s also chipped in with five goals, including two against Leeds last month.
Tomorrow’s opponents will be playing without pressure, but equally getting a result is not all-important to them. I anticipate O’Neil will select his strongest side and send them out with every intent of spoiling Everton’s party - not that there will be much merriment on display at Goodison, even if all goes well. The Cherries are a well-organised team who seem to enjoy playing with each other and for their boss, which counts for a lot and masks a lot of deficiencies in terms of talent level.
Everton are the favourites to avoid the drop, based on current league position, but will have to show up and give their best effort; beating Bournemouth is not a given. The Blues have failed to win any of their last four at Goodison and have lost the last three, so cannot simply rely on what will no doubt be an enthusiastic home support to get them over the line.
Getting this right will be an immense task for Sean Dyche. There can be no errors in setting the team up correctly, or in using the bench to react during the match. It is far from ideal that Everton will again be without Dominic Calvert-Lewin, or Nathan Patterson, but the manager must find solutions.
Almost nobody would have guessed how the Blues would set up at Molineux, with Dwight McNeil as a conventional left back and James Garner at right midfield, or that Dyche would elect to replace the injured Patterson at right back with Michael Keane. Whatever his intentions, or the limitations inherent within the squad, it looked problematic throughout and we cannot have such a lack of control and structure on Sunday.
Everton must resemble a well-oiled machine. Mercifully, it appears that Vitalii Mykolenko will be available, freeing Everton’s most effective attacker, McNeil to inflict damage further forward. Dyche’s choices, consequently consist of who to play at right back and up top. The answer for me is to use Mason Holgate in the former position and Demarai Gray as a false nine, with Abdoulaye Doucoure, Idrissa Gueye in the centre, with Garner to retain his place ahead of Amadou Onana.
Having Onana, Ellis Simms and Neal Maupay on the bench would at least give Dyche something to throw on if Plan A is not working.
The Blues must not concede first; this is imperative. I feel it highly possible that Leeds and Leicester could find themselves both trailing at half-time, so it is essential for the morale of the team and the fans for Everton to come out after the interval in a positive frame of mind. I’m expecting a fast start, as has been common under Dyche, to get the crowd animated and in order to put the Cherries on the back foot. As discussed above, Bournemouth are shaky defensively and can be put under pressure.
I want to see Everton take the game to the visitors, whilst operating from a strong defensive structure. Calvert-Lewin is a big loss, but the hosts do have goals in the side, from the likes of McNeil, Doucoure and from set-piece situations, where Yerry Mina and James Tarwkowski can do damage.
The Blues have to push for the win and get themselves ahead and cannot rely on the failure of their relegation rivals to save them. We must assume that Leeds and Leicester will win - even if I personally don’t see that happening - and command our own fate with a display that earns us the right to be called a Premier League outfit. I choose to believe that this will happen and that the old club will dodge disaster at the last opportunity.
Prediction: Everton 1-0 Bournemouth