Everton succumbed to the rigours of a congested December schedule towards the end of the month, losing three straight league games, in addition to exiting the Carabao Cup via a penalty shootout against Fulham. So far, the team has experienced a brighter start to the new year, remaining unbeaten in three and keeping a clean sheet on each occasion.
This slight uptick in form - including navigating the Third Round of the FA Cup at the second time of asking, dispatching Crystal Palace in the replay at Goodison Park - has distracted from the chaos surrounding the old club away from the pitch. Everton’s appeal against a ten point deduction for breaching the Premier League’s profitability and sustainability rules (PSR) is pending, whilst a second charge awaits even as rumours of a transfer ban continue to circulate.
In addition, the question of who will be running the club going forward is still up the air, with the league yet to approve or deny US-based investment group 777 Partners in their efforts to buy out current owner Farhad Moshiri.
A home FA Cup Fourth Round tie against Luton Town on Saturday afternoon offers an opportunity for the Blues to focus on the football and to score a psychological blow over a side currently sitting just a single point behind the Merseysiders in the league.
Luton unexpectedly gained promotion from the Championship last season, beating Coventry City in the playoff final. With funds limited, a modest amount was invested last summer in preparation for the club’s first top-flight campaign in 31 years - just €24m net. The Hatters signed 14 players, though none with a higher fee than the €5.9m paid to Wolverhampton Wanderers for full back Ryan Giles. New arrivals getting significant game time include goalkeeper Thomas Kaminski (though fellow new boy Tim Krul has started in cup competitions so far), ex-Everton duo Ross Barkley and Andros Townsend, forward Jacob Brown, centre half Teden Mengi and in recent games Albert Sambi Lokonga, a loanee from Arsenal.
The Bedfordshire team found the Premier League tough going initially, losing their first four before gaining a foothold with a home draw with Wolves, followed by a win over Everton at Goodison. That was a match which the Toffees had dominated early on only to succumb twice to set-piece situations in what was an embarrassing setback. That this was a missed opportunity for the Blues was demonstrated by the Hatters subsequently failing to win any of their next six league matches, losing four. Victory over Crystal Palace followed, but a further three consecutive losses left the club looking doomed to relegation by the middle of December.
Still, if Luton have shown anything this season it’s togetherness and the desire to acquit themselves competently in the top flight and subsequently they’ve suffered defeat just once in five outings in all competitions, winning three - including a surprise 1-0 victory over an injury-ravaged Newcastle United. If they were fortunate to beat fellow strugglers Sheffield United on Boxing Day, then in their only setback they rallied from three goals down to have Chelsea hanging on four days later.
They arrive at Goodison having overcome third tier outfit Bolton Wanderers after a replay in the last round of the FA Cup, winning 2-1.
Style of Play
Under Rob Edwards, the team play to their strengths, emphasising direct play, hard work and a rugged defensiveness. They look to soak up pressure and to break when offered the opportunity to do so, going long to an assortment of robust forwards, perhaps short in quality but willing to chase anything. Crosses, from deep or the byline and the exploitation of set-piece situations is the order of the day, though the impressive form of Barkley has offered Luton the chance to play along the ground to a greater degree than was evident earlier in the campaign. Width is offered by a pair of energetic wingbacks who are eager to carry the ball forward and fire in deliveries.
Edwards doesn’t very things up too much and has largely stuck with a 3-4-3 formation throughout. In the league, the Hatters are overachieving their xG (Expected Goals) total of 20.2 (which ranks 18th) by 3.8 goals, whereas defensively they have conceded 38 times, slightly less than an xGA (Expected Goals Allowed) of 39.6 (ranking 19th) would suggest. On paper, Everton’s xG Difference (xG - xGA) of +2.3 is a whopping 21.8 ahead of Luton's -19.5, outlining the gulf in performance levels between the two teams.
One-time Everton player and England international Barkley has been Luton’s key man over the past couple of months, demonstrating the tight ball control and an eye for a killer pass that most had thought long gone from his game. He offers his new team the ability to play through the centre of the park, which makes them less predictable and asks new questions of the opposition. He’s generating 3.01 SCA (Shot-Creating Actions) per 90 minutes and is leading the Hatters in ball recoveries with 8.29, showing his reading of the game.
Left wingback Alfie Doughty is Luton’s primary threat from out wide. The 24-year old leads the team with five assists and the 36 key passes he’s provided is double that of any of his teammates. He’s the Hatters’ primary corner taker and is putting in a total of 10.4 crosses per 90. On the opposite flank, Chiedozie Ogbene is very progressive, attempting 5.37 dribbles per game (with a 47.0% success rate) and carrying the ball into the opposition penalty area 6.1 times per 90, more than twice as often as Doughty, in second place.
Neither Sean Dyche, nor his opposite number Rob Edwards have shown signs that they are taking the FA Cup lightly, as evidenced by their team selections to date. The two sides play again on Tuesday in the league, which obviously must be considered a priority, given where both clubs sit in the table currently. Still, they are coming into this afternoon’s match off of substantial rest periods - ten days for Everton and eleven for Luton - so I expect minimal changes from what could be considered their first choice elevens.
The Blues will be eager for revenge after being embarrassed by the visitors at Goodison back at the end of September, which seems an awfully long time ago. Everton had just started to turn their form around coming into what seemed a very winnable match, so it was terribly disappointing to see them succumb to a side had who appeared to be underequipped for top tier football at that stage.
Mercifully, the Toffees rebounded impressively and would only lose two of their next eleven fixtures, tasting victory in eight. Since, they’ve entered a slump, with just one win - last time out over Palace - from their last seven and could do with another success today to restore some much-needed momentum and confidence, ahead of a tough, but winnable visit to Craven Cottage, to face Fulham, on Tuesday.
With Abdoulaye Doucoure still absent and Andre Gomes also unavailable, Dyche may turn to Jack Harrison to play in an advanced central midfield role, opening up the possibility for either Arnaut Danjuma, or Lewis Dobbin to come in out wide. Nathan Patterson will continue deputising for the injured Seamus Coleman at right back and Joao Virginia deserves to retain his place in the cup, having posted back-to-back clean sheets against Palace. Logic would dictate that Beto should be given an opportunity to start up top, but I fully except the manager to stick with Dominic Calvert-Lewin.
Everton bossed possession against the Hatters last time out, posting a season-high 67% share, but the visitors surprisingly edged out both Chelsea and Burnley, which may be an indicator of a willingness to establish more control, with Barkley enjoying a considerable number of touches in both matches. Will Edwards opt to continue in this fashion, or elect to give the ball to the Toffees - a strategy which tends to reap rewards?
We know how Dyche will set up the hosts; does he ever really change it up, save for an occasional move to a back five? The only real variance is in intensity and how passive or aggressive the team is in its pressing. I feel the game will be largely determined by how Edwards sets up: if Luton sit deep then expect Everton to enjoy a lot of possession and it’ll be up to the players to demonstrate more composure in front of goal than is typically evident. Should the Hatters attempt to play more, then this should suit the Blues, who could reap benefits with their bursts of aggressive pressing in midfield.
Either way, it should be an intriguing match, but it is time to get off the fence, so I am going for...
Prediction: Everton 2-1 Luton