Everton kicked off the new campaign last weekend with a frustrating 1-0 home loss to ex-Blues manager Marco Silva’s Fulham. It was a game which the home side largely dominated, in terms of creating good chances, but an inability to convert said opportunities left the team vulnerable to a knockout blow.
Even more galling was the realisation that the visitors, who had been a surprise package last term, looked an eminently beatable outfit. Other than bossing possession, the Cottagers offered little, but when a side finds ways not to put the ball in the opposition net, all it takes is a momentary lapse in concentration in order to end up with zero points.
Next up for the Toffees is an early Sunday afternoon visit (2 PM local time kickoff) to the Midlands, to face Aston Villa.
An ill-fated dalliance with ex-big name player turned manager Steven Gerrard ended last October, following a sixth league defeat from 12 games, after the former Liverpool star had received substantial backing in the transfer market. Unai Emery was drafted in as Gerrard’s replacement and swiftly oversaw a rapid turnaround in the club’s on the pitch fortunes., before hitting a slump, consisting of three straight losses heading into a meeting with Everton at Goodison Park. Unfortunately, the toothless Blues attack of last season was on fulsome display, as the side ended up unable to score, allowing Villa to take their chances and gallop off into the sunset courtesy of a 2-0 win.
Thereon in, the Midlanders picked up momentum, winning six from the next seven in an unbeaten run, before finishing a bit more modestly, to end up in seventh spot and obtaining qualification for this season’s Europa Conference League, which commences with a first leg play-off match with Hibernian on August 23rd. All in all, a tremendous achievement by Emery.
In preparation for a season offering an expanded fixture list, due to a likely lengthy participation in continental competition - knowing Emery's history in such things - the club backed their man with some exciting signings, to the tune of (so far) €90m. Most noteworthy, and making an immediate goal-scoring impact in Villa’s otherwise stunning 5-1 reversal to Newcastle United to kick off the campaign, is Moussa Diaby. Other major additions include centre back Pau Torres - recruited from Emery’s old side Villarreal - free agent Youri Tielemans and on-loan attacker Nicolo Zaniolo. The only significant departure has been Ashley Young, picked up by the Blues on a free transfer.
Preseason expectations for Villa were high and nobody quite saw a result such as that which unfolded at St. James’s Park, during which the side fell apart quite dramatically in the second half of what had been a competitive match until that point. The loss of influential centre half Tyrone Mings with a serious knee injury, to add to that of Emi Buendia has gotten proceedings off to a negative start, but Emery will be determined to right the ship as soon as possible.
Style of Play
Emery stuck with a narrow 4-4-2 formation for most of his time with Villa last season, though he did shift more towards a 4-2-3-1 after the win at Goodison. He’s started the new campaign off in this fashion, though whether there will be an adjustment due to the manner of the team’s defeat at Newcastle remains to be seen. The Spaniard is hardly a reactive manager, but he is not dogmatic either, so will absorb the necessary lessons as required.
He is a believer in an organised system of play, requiring a high level of tactical understanding from his players, so will not be pleased with what unfolded at St James’s, where Villa’s unusually high-line was shredded by Newcastle’s pace after the interval. The side do not typically play with such an approach, but were chasing the game at that stage. Normally, they set up in a narrow defensive style, compressing the midfield in front of a mid-block defence. From that position they will set traps, hoping to turn over possession and break on the opponent.
Offensively, Villa have plenty of talent and pace in the side. They rely for width on their progressive fullbacks, the flanking attackers opting to cut inside looking for shooting opportunities. They are a well-balanced team that can open up opponents quite adeptly, as they did against the Magpies - a strong defensive outfit themselves - at times.
Exciting new acquisition Diaby made a positive impression last weekend. Normally a right winger, the French international set up in a central attacking midfield position against Newcastle and showcased his blinding pace and attacking threat, which the Blues will have to be wary of. The 24-year old arrives in England fresh off some excellent campaigns in Germany, for Bayer Leverkusen, having racked up 26 league goals and 31 assists over the last three seasons. He carries the ball fluently and at speed, winning 49.0% of his dribbles (77th percentile amongst wingers), registers an xG (Expected Goals) per 90 minutes of 0.36 and and xAG (Expected Assisted Goals) of 0.23 per 90.
Ollie Watkins has transitioned very well indeed in three top-flight campaigns, following a breakout season in the Championship during Villa’s promotional run, in which he fired 25 league goals. In the Premier League, Watkins has hit double figures each time of asking, registering 15 last term, his highest tally to date. An energetic, hard-running forward, the 27-year old is mobile, yet sturdy and takes up clever positions, making himself a nuisance for defenders. He is particularly skilled at working the channels. Under Emery, he’s attained his best form and will present a major headache for Sean Dyche and his staff as they prepare for Sunday’s game.
Dyche and his men will take encouragement from what was a largely positive opening day performance against Fulham last weekend. Additionally, though his Blues were ultimately beaten by Villa last season, they were unlucky to have been so. If he can get the same degree of intensity from the side at Villa Park, he will be happy. Of course, he will be even happier should the team take even half the good chances they squandered last time out.
Ultimately, Everton are limited by the abilities of the players they have available, notably in attacking areas. Should Dominic Calvert-Lewin be fit to start the match - and he completed a 90 minute practice game against Manchester United midweek - then the chances of troubling the Villa defence goes up immeasurably. Neal Maupay did get on the end of a lot of chances against the Cottagers but failed to take them. With Everton likely deployed deeper away from home, the likelihood of the Frenchman, who lacks pace, getting as many opportunities is reduced.
Other than the possibility of Calvert-Lewin’s involvement, the Blues lineup figures to be largely unchanged, given that Dyche has cast doubts about the readiness to start of fullback Vitaly Mykolenko and winger Arnaut Danjuma. Mind games? Maybe so, in which case an argument could be made for James Garner to drop in at right back, in place of Nathan Patterson, who played poorly in the opener; or possibly Young to shift over in place of the Scot, with the Ukrainian in at left back.
Without knowing if someone as key as Calvert-Lewin will be coming out at 2 PM, it’s tough to guess what the best approach for the Toffees will be. Without genuine pace in the side, or goals, it could be a case of hanging in and seeing if the breaks fall the right way, which isn’t exactly a stratagem, but could well be the most effective route to securing a vital away point.
Predication: Aston Villa 1-1 Everton