It’s been a relatively quiet start to the month for Everton, following a hectic, fixture-packed run in December. The Blues have played just the one game so far in January - a draw against Crystal Palace in the FA Cup, which will be replayed next Wednesday. This has given the team some much-needed time to recuperate, work on things in training and hopefully get some injured players back.
Everton are on a poor run of form currently, having failed to win any of their last five games in all competitions, including three consecutive defeats in the Premier League. Next up, the Merseysiders welcome high-flying Aston Villa to Goodison Park on Sunday afternoon, local time.
Villa were a vastly improved outfit last season after Unai Emery had come in to replace Steven Gerrard, finishing seventh and qualifying for the Europa Conference League. The club supported their new manager in the transfer market during the summer, with a net spend of around €60m. Major arrivals in Bayer Leverkusen attacker Moussa Diaby, Villarreal centre half Pau Torres, free agent midfielder Youri Tielemans and on-loan duo Nicolo Zaniolo and Clement Lenglet bulked out and improved Emery’s squad. The Midlanders brought in some funds by selling promising striker Cameron Archer to Sheffield United.
The Villans got off to a shocking start to the new campaign, being blown out 5-1 by Newcastle United at St. James’s Park, but a 4-0 home thumping of Everton next time out set them back on course quickly enough. They were a little inconsistent over the next month or so, in losing heavily to Liverpool at Anfield and in their opening Conference League match in Poland, as well as being surprisingly dispatched by the Blues at Villa Park in the Carabao Cup.
Subsequently, they’ve hit their stride and would lose only once in the next 17 games in all competitions, winning 12, including impressive victories over Brighton & Hove Albion, West Ham United, Tottenham Hotspur, Manchester City and Arsenal. In their home win over the Sky Blues, Villa utterly dominated to the extent that their opponents were held to just two attempts on goal, a staggering feat. In recent weeks they’ve looked a little more vulnerable, scraping a draw with Sheffield United, blowing a two-goal lead at Old Trafford against Manchester United and struggling to hang to a win over ten-man Burnley.
The visitors arrive at Goodison sitting in third place in the table.
Style of Play
Emery is known for being a fairly pragmatic operator, someone who emphasises organisation and tactical detail. While that still applies, it’s glaringly obvious that Villa are playing on the front foot far more this season. The Basque has varied his system frequently during the campaign, starting off with a 4-2-3-1, switching to a 4-4-2, and latterly alternating between those two formations, along with a 4-4-1-1. They’ve played well throughout, making it tough to predict exactly how they are going to set up on any given matchday.
The visitors have deployed a high defensive line all season and although it’s cost them on occasion, Emery has stayed committed to it. This enables the team to press high if desired, or more often to counter-press when possession is lost, in order to create plenty of goal scoring opportunities. While the attacking players press, the rest of the side look to block off passing routes for the opposition. Typically, one of Villa’s fullbacks will operate as an offensive outlet, with the other being more withdrawn and sometimes Emery will even use a centre half in Ezi Konsa at right back, so that the team has three defenders back at all times when in possession.
In attack, Villa look to exert control, utilizing excellent technical abilities in both defence and midfield to play out from the back. They are not a tiki-taka side, however, as Emery wishes his side to look primarily for opportunities to get the ball forward and if none present, then to recycle possession. They’ll look for direct passes in to Ollie Watkins, often in the channels, but are happy to combine in tight areas during the build-up phase of play.
Watkins has continued his impressive form under Emery this term, hitting nine league goals and is looking likely to smash last season’s total of 15. He’s a major offensive asset for Villa, adding in another eight assists too. Quick, athletic and energetic, the striker is one of the better pressers from the front in the league and rarely gives opposing defenders a moment’s rest.
Inconsistent since arriving from Germany during the summer of 2021, Leon Bailey has recently shown a big uptick in form. The right winger has started the last three league games and his eleven goal contributions this season have already eclipsed his eight from last term. His metric of 3.85 SCA (Shot-Creating Actions) per 90 minutes is only matched by John McGinn.
Villa are a dangerous team who have been almost invincible at home this season. On the road they’ve still been pretty good, but Everton stand a much better chance of coming away with something at Goodison. The visitors’ form is a little inconsistent currently, though still superior to that of the Blues.
Emery and Sean Dyche will have enjoyed the extra time they’ve had to drill their teams during the first half of the month, so we can expect both sides to be sharp this afternoon. In theory, Everton’s direct back-to-front approach should leave them less vulnerable to Villa’s counter pressing than some, though whether the hosts will enjoy much success challenging Villa’s athletic and strong central defenders is questionable.
It’s probable that the Toffees will have Abdoulaye Doucoure available, which is a big plus given how sorely he’s been missed. I feel it’s likely that Dyche will opt to continue with Dominic Calvert-Lewin up top, but if the striker’s struggles continue then the boss must act decisively and introduce Beto earlier than has been his pattern.
On the left, in place of the injured Dwight McNeil we should see Arnaut Danjuma. The winger was dangerous during the opening half hour last time out and had the beating of Villa right back Matty Cash in the Carabao Cup, so he could be a major contributor today. The rest of the team picks itself.
Dyche isn’t going to move away from his favoured approach; in fact, I’m not sure he has an alternate strategy to the mid-block, narrow, compact and direct 4-4-1-1. The Blues won’t be able to play through the visitors, so it figures they should look to hit quick diagonals towards, or in behind their fullbacks, with Danjuma on the left and Calvert-Lewin possibly drifting wide, away from Villa’s centre halves. They should have Doucoure available to provide late runs into the centre.
Defensively, Everton have been shipping goals recently in the league, conceding eight across three matches. Villa have plenty of firepower, so the midfield are going to have to be disciplined in helping screen the defence from clever out-to-in runs from the likes of Bailey, McGinn and Diaby. If they can do this, then the Toffees have a chance.
Predication: Everton 1-1 Aston Villa