Fresh off Everton’s brush with humiliation midweek, squeaking past Doncaster Rovers - a side sitting dead bottom of the English Football League pyramid - in the Carabao Cup, comes a return to top-flight action.
The Blues finally located their scoring boots, following an exhaustive search across four matches, courtesy of exciting new signing Beto and Arnaut Danjuma. Everton had weakened their team slightly, but it was a concern watching them thoroughly outplayed for 65 minutes by such a low-ranking opponent.
Even more alarming is the club’s inability to get any further players in to strengthen what is clearly a weak squad, despite losing a key man in Alex Iwobi on Transfer Deadline Day. The Toffees travel to Bramall Lane for Saturday’s early kickoff, where they face newly promoted Sheffield United.
The Blades finished second in the Championship last season, on an impressive 91 points, trailing only runaway champions Burnley. During the summer, the Yorkshire outfit sold star forward Iliman Ndiaye, who was responsible for 25 goal contributions, to Marseille for €17m and midfielder Sander Berge to Burnley for €14m. Consequently, the club needed to add replacements and in terms of number they have, with ten new faces arriving, including former Toffees midfielder Tom Davies. All told they’ve spent a net €34m in preparation for the new campaign.
The newcomers commenced the season with a home game against Crystal Palace but were outplayed en route to a 1-0 loss. Next up was a first road trip of the campaign, to face Nottingham Forest at the City Ground. United fell short, conceding early, fighting back but succumbing to a late Chris Wood winner. They again came close to snatching a point last weekend, this time against Manchester City, holding the reigning league Champions at bay for over an hour before giving the visitors a scare, pulling level with five minutes left and then wasting a clear chance to go ahead, but failing to hold out for more than a few minutes, Rodri’s 88th minute strike putting them to the sword.
Sheffield remain winless in all competitions, having been knocked out of the EFL Cup on penalties midweek by League One outfit Lincoln City, despite fielding a strong side. Although dominating possession (72%) the home side were able to muster only ten attempts at goal, displaying an anaemic attack which has dogged them so far this term. They’ve managed only 21 shots across all three league games combined, generating a total xG (Expected Goals) of 1.7.
Style of Play
Paul Heckingbottom used a 3-5-2, or 3-4-3 formation throughout last season and has so far stuck with this setup in the Premier League. In style, they eschew possession (32% at home versus Palace), preferring to either go direct to their front men, or to one of their progressive wing backs. Their back three splits wide when the Blades have the ball, right-sided centre half Amel Ahmedhodzic in particular often overlapping the wing back. They have been heavily lop-sided in focusing their attack down the right, with 54% of their touches in that area. Passing accuracy has been poor: just 69%.
Clearly, as is shown by their underwhelming attacking numbers this season, the Yorkshire side are still adapting to life without Ndiaye, though the recruitment of striker Cameron Archer is intended to help in that regard.
Defensively, they set up in a low-mid block and when in the Championship pressed effectively, which may be on show on home turf against a relatively weak opponent in Everton. When pushed back, they will revert to a flat back five with the three midfielders taking up narrow positions with the intent of forcing the opponent wide. They conceded relatively few shots on goal last term, but are finding it much more difficult to stifle higher class Premier League offenses, allowing 23.3 attempts per game, for a cumulative xGA (Expected Goals Allowed) across three matches of 6.9.
New recruit Cameron Archer is the club’s attempt to replace the talismanic Ndiaye. The 21-year old impressed on a half-season loan at Middlesbrough last term, firing eleven goals and six assists in 20 Championship outings, encouraging the Blades to successfully tempt Aston Villa to sell the striker for €22m. He only managed a brief appearance from the bench last weekend, but played over an hour in the cup on Wednesday, so will be ready for the game against Everton. The player actually made a five minute cameo for Villa during their recent 4-0 destruction of the Blues, so will have witnessed Everton’s frailties first hand.
Ahmedhodzic leads all Sheffield players with an xG of 0.17 per 90 - quite an achievement for a centre back. He’s a danger on set-pieces and really should have scored against Manchester City last weekend. The tall Bosnian wins 58.3% of aerial duels and averages three blocks and a combined 3.0 tackles and interceptions per game, as well as taking 47.3 touches per 90.
Dyche is up against it in what will be a battle of teams that have each started the campaign with three straight league defeats. A last-gasp cup win on Wednesday will at least have ensured a slight boost in morale; goals for new arrivals Danjuma and Beto being particularly welcome. The challenge now is for the Blues to get the job done against top-level opposition - albeit a side heavily favoured for the drop.
A fourth league defeat would prove disastrous. Even a point would barely alleviate the cloud of gloom that has coalesced around the Merseyside outfit during the early weeks of the campaign. Quite where this would leave Everton and the manager heading into the international break is difficult to assess, but it’s definitely not a good place. Everton have - for reasons outside of both the manager’s and a no-doubt harassed recruitment team’s control - blundered into the season in wholly unprepared fashion, something which is becoming an unfortunate habit and are paying the price.
The components of what should be a side capable of staying clear of serious trouble are there, but the ownership appear to be gambling on a head coach considered to be a safe pair of hands and to be lucky in avoiding injury to key personnel. Hope is not a strategy, however and an argument can be made that the club received its fair share of good fortune in salvaging a final day escape last term.
Still, Farhad Moshiri is rolling the dice again.
The visitors taking to the Bramall Lane pitch today are well short in some areas, mostly due to injuries to influential players Dominic Calvert-Lewin, Dwight McNeil, new recruit Jack Harrison and - amazingly in 2023 - Seamus Coleman, 35 next month. Sheffield United are a weak side in poor form and should present one of the easier away trips Everton will have to face this season. With new striker Beto offering a genuine focal point, the Toffees should have enough to batter away at the hosts, but they will have to show more organization and ability to construct attacks than they did at Villa Park.
I don’t believe that this team is so poor as to fail to secure a win from their opening four games, however, so I’m backing them to win, against my better judgement.
Prediction: Sheffield United 1-2 Everton