So here we are, into the final month of the campaign, one that - according to those who offer prediction models - is likely to see the Grand Old Team fall into the second tier for the first time since the 1950-51 season. Twenty-one days from the time of writing, we’ll know Everton’s fate; or possibly earlier, depending on how results go.
I cannot help but feel that the Blues missed a massive opportunity last Monday in only coming away with a point from a “relegation six-pointer” at the King Power Stadium against Leicester City. Viewed in isolation, an away draw was a decent result, but it extended the winless run to seven matches, at a time the club has to be picking up wins and in reality didn’t help the Toffees all that much.
Now, the side has two extremely tough matches coming up, hosting current league leaders Manchester City at Goodison Park on May 14th, but first up, a trip to the Amex Stadium on Monday to face high-flying Brighton & Hove Albion.
The Seagulls gained ground last term, a ninth-place finish on 51 points representing their best effort since returning to the top flight in 2017, demonstrating the upward trajectory established under Graham Potter. The club had made a small player trading profit the previous season, yet still improved, but last summer saw a spend of only €45m on new recruits - most notably Pervis Estupinan - whilst stars Marc Cucurella and Yves Bissouma exited for big fees. Brighton had lost established players before, yet managed to dig up replacements courtesy of their outstanding scouting and recruitment departments, but would this be a step too far?
The answer, it appeared was “no”, as the side raced off to an impressive start to the season, winning four of their first six league matches, before further disruption arrived, in the form of Potter departing to take up the vacant Chelsea job. Two points from five games followed the appointment of Roberto De Zerbi but, although the results were far from brilliant, the performances were encouraging and the underlying numbers positive. Heading into the enforced suspension of the domestic football calendar, for the World Cup, results turned, the Italian picking up two wins from three, including a no doubt (for fans) satisfying 4-1 thrashing of former boss Potter’s Chelsea.
The South Coast side returned to action in inconsistent form, but were certainly impressive at Goodison, carving up Frank Lampard’s Blues with ease. Starting with that 4-1 win over the Toffees, they’ve shown impressive form, losing only three from 16: squandering chances and succumbing to a late goal at Fulham in a game they otherwise dominated; to Tottenham Hotspur when the Seagulls fell victim to some terrible officiating; and most recently, when fatigue played a major factor against Nottingham Forest, the game coming as it did just three days after their penalty shootout FA Cup semi-final exit to Manchester United.
Brighton rebounded fantastically following that uncharacteristic display at the City Ground, annihilating a Wolverhampton Wanderers outfit that themselves had been on a decent run, scoring six unanswered goals in what was a rout. Last time out saw De Zerbi’s men win with almost the last kick, via a penalty awarded deep into stoppage time. The Seagulls await Everton sitting in seventh position, two points behind Tottenham Hotspur, aiming for European qualification and with an outside shot at the Champions League.
Style of Play
De Zerbi arrived at Brighton as something of an unknown quantity to most unfamiliar with the goings-on in Serie A. The Italian built his reputation at relative minnows Sassuolo, who he guided to consecutive eighth-placed finishes, all the while playing exciting, expansive football. Surprisingly overlooked by the more established Italian clubs, perhaps due to his distinctive attacking style of play - definitely an outlier in his native land - he left for Shakhtar Donetsk, only to end up unattached following political events in Ukraine last year.
Initially, he maintained the back three system that had been in vogue under Potter, but swiftly transitioned to a 4-2-3-1, which he’s generally employed since late October. De Zerbi plays a possession style and is quite prepared to patiently probe for advantage, using width and technical interplay to open up a defensive opponent. Against more proactive opposition, his side will look to trigger the press and evade it with one-touch passing, exploiting resulting formational gaps in order to create goal-scoring opportunities. Given the emphasis energetic pressing enjoys in current tactical circles, this has given Brighton a lot of practice, enabling them to refine their technique to devastating effect.
Defensively, the Seagulls are highly flexible, happy to press those uncomfortable with possession, otherwise to sit in a mid block and look to create turnovers. They have generally outplayed almost all opposition, as evidenced by them winning the xG (Expected Goals) battle in fourteen of their last sixteen matches, including against Everton. Brighton are currently one of the most creative attacking sides in Europe, their accumulated 61.8 xG this term behind only Manchester City, Arsenal and Liverpool domestically, while having played less matches. They’ve exceed 2.0 xG in eleven of the last 13 league matches.
Moises Caicedo, once on Everton’s shortlist of transfer targets, has replaced Bissouma effortlessly this campaign. The 21-year old is nominally a defensive midfielder, but in reality is an all-rounder, his 88.92% passing accuracy being in the 92nd percentile amongst players in his position in top European leagues and a perfect match for Brighton’s possession-heavy game. Defensively, the Ecuadorian leads his team, making 7.21 recoveries per 90, in addition to a combined 4.76 tackles and interceptions. He demonstrated his versatility in lining up at right back last time out, though drifted inside a lot, contributing to build-up play.
World Cup winner Alexis Mac Allister is a major creative and attacking threat for the hosts, his nine league strikes leading the team this term. The Argentinian is involved in 3.19 SCA (Shot-Creating Actions) per 90 minutes, contributes defensively and is highly press-resistant in possession, vital for the smooth transition game that the Seagull’s rely on.
Kaoru Mitoma is enjoying an astonishing debut season, moving seamlessly from Belgium to impress hugely in the English top flight. The Japanese has scored seven goals and is a massive threat operating from a wide left position. He’s an extremely active player, putting up great defensive numbers (such as 1.90 tackles per game), in addition to terrorising opposition backlines, as evidenced by the winger being in the 95th percentile for progressive carries (5.71) and 96th for touches in the opposing penalty area (6.88).
Recently breaking into the Seagulls first eleven is Julio Enciso, a quick, mobile forward who, at just 19 is looking like another gem turned up by Brighton. He has four goal contributions in six games and has started the last four matches.
Left back Estupinan has replaced the departed Cucurella and already looks an elite level operator. Much like his fellow Ecuadorian Caicedo, the 25-year old is an athlete who plays with intelligence and excellent technical ability. He ranks in the mid-80th percentile in all offensive metrics, is very solid defensively and his attacking surges down the flank are a feature of Brighton’s play, as shown by his 3.06 SCA per 90.
De Zerbi is clearly on track to enter the elite category of manager very soon, so impressive has been his move to the Premier League, where he’s taken Brighton to another level and already largely eclipsed Potter. So attractive have been the Seagulls under the Italian that many fans of other teams are rooting for them to qualify for European competition.
If the South Coast outfit can be held up as the model for how middling-sized clubs can compete with the monied giants of the English game, then their methods of shrewd player recruitment (and backroom staff) stand in sharp contrast to that of Everton. Brighton have survived the raiding of their manager partway through the season, the loss of major squad assets, generated sizeable player trading profits and somehow improved on the pitch.
The Blues of course, have hired and fired managers and directors of football seemingly at random, spent large sums unwisely and gotten substantially worse as an actual footballing side, over the past several seasons, culminating in the perilous position the club finds itself in right now, staring relegation in the face. In many ways the two sides are trains heading in opposite directions. For Brighton, this looks like an exciting campaign of European football; for Everton, the destination is nebulous.
Are Brighton unbeatable? No. They’ve won seven, but lost four of their 13 home games under De Zerbi, albeit none of their last five. What’s absolutely certain is, if the visitors play anything like they did against the Foxes last Monday, they will be cut to pieces and badly beaten. The energetic approach and high press Sean Dyche has employed in most matches would be exactly what De Zerbi would like to see and would expose what could charitably be described as a shaky Toffees defensive unit.
Everton’s best strategy would probably be to sit back in a low-mid block and play entirely on the counter, hoping to hit the hosts on the break with pace. Where that pace would come from is anyone’s guess, as Demarai Gray appears out of favour currently. Otherwise, a lot rides on Dominic Calvert-Lewin’s ability to hold the ball up and to bring his teammates into the game during direct transitions. Brighton are not some soft, lightweight team though, so this will be easier said than done.
Ultimately, this game has the potential to end in a scoreline that could be embarrassing for the Merseysiders, given their inferiority in talent, tendency to commit unforced errors and habit of leaking goals at an alarming rate. With four games to go, none can be written off, however, so the Blues have to hope that Brighton have a subpar day and that they can somehow avoid shooting themselves in the foot and handing goals to their opponents. Dyche seems likely to go with the same team that took to the pitch against Leicester, with the exception of the injured Seamus Coleman, who will hopefully be replaced by Nathan Patterson and the fit-again Amadou Onana, probably at the expense of James Garner.
It’s tough to make much of an argument for Everton taking any points from this game, though I guess stranger things have happened. Although it pains me to admit this, given the situation the club finds itself in, I can’t see it happening.
Prediction: Brighton 3-1 Everton