Everton’s December - which was very positive on the whole - hit a nadir with a disappointing defeat against Wolverhampton Wanderers on Saturday. The team had been showing signs of fatigue as the month progressed, but a shift in formation to a 5-2-3, allied to a mystifyingly high defensive line and a failed attempt to press the hosts deep, resulted in a 0-3 scoreline and the team’s worst performance since August.
The Blues do not return to league action until the middle of the month, but in the meantime must travel to Selhurst Part this evening to face Crystal Palace in the Third Round of the FA Cup.
Heading into their league meeting with Everton back in November, Palace were in inconsistent form under their veteran manager, Roy Hodgson. The South London club had reinforced only modestly during the summer and without departed talisman Wilfried Zaha, were mostly reliant on their talented attacking duo of Eberechi Eze and Michael Olise, along with a generally sturdy defensive unit. The Blues were able to come away with a 3-2 victory, finally putting the hosts to the sword after squandering two leads during the match.
After suffering that setback, the Eagles embarked on a desultory run of seven league matches, drawing three and losing four as the mood at the club plummeted into the basement. Palace finally ended the slump (temporarily, it is to be hoped!) with a home win over Brentford last time out, though it must be noted that the Bees were on even worse form than their opponents, having entered the match on a four-game losing streak and six defeats from seven.
Style of Play
Hodgson has been pretty consistent with his selection of formations this term, varying between the 4-2-3-1 and 4-3-3; he’s elected to go with the latter for the previous three matches. The 76-year-old is something of an old-school pragmatist, who pays a lot of attention to structure and a defence-first attitude.
Offensively they are direct, owning a 79.7% pass success rate and a 42.3% share of possession, ranking 15th and 13th in the league, respectively. They are generating 11.8 attempts per game and an xG (Expected Goals) of 24.6 (14th), but are failing to meet that metric, having scored only 22 times.
Palace have been difficult to break down, permitting only 12.5 attempts on their net per 90 minutes and an xGA (Expected Goals Allowed) of 28.6 (ranking seventh). They’ve conceded 29 league goals, so are right where the data suggests they should be defensively.
With Michael Olise missing due to injury, Eberechi Eze will be Palace’s undisputed main creative threat tonight. The midfielder trails only Olise in terms of SCA (Shot-Creating Actions) with 4.43 per 90. The 25-year-old, who is arguably amongst the more talented players who lie outside of the traditional top six or seven sides, is dangerous on the dribble, attempting 5.56 per 90 and enjoying a 54% success rate.
Sean Dyche has a calculation to make, in terms of how much priority he assigns to the FA Cup. Going off the manager’s statements, it seems Everton will send out as strong a team as possible, which would be somewhat justifiable considering that the Blues will receive a substantial break before they have to face Aston Villa in league action. The boss must also consider the need not to push players who have reached, or are nearing a physical breaking point, however.
I’ve (almost) given up predicting what Dyche will do as regards team selection, as whatever I think the manager should do is rarely borne out when the lineup is revealed. I’d like to see Beto given another opportunity to start, as Dominic Calvert-Lewin has struggled of late and could do with an extra break.
Likewise, Dwight McNeil and Jack Harrison have run themselves into the ground and either or both look in need of resting. With Dyche’s only options being unproven youngster Lewis Dobbin and the apparently unfavoured Arnaut Danjuma, I won’t be holding my breath. The visitors enjoy few options in midfield, should Abdoulaye Doucoure not be risked.
The hosts don’t take to the pitch again until 20th January - amazingly - so we can expect a full-strength Palace side. The Eagles are one of the worst form teams in the league, so will be eager to register a victory on home turf tonight.
If Dyche lines up in anything other than a back four, then I’d advise fans to stay off social media as the fume could be quite something! Although the ex-Burnley man has dismissed the suggestion Everton’s awful performance at the weekend had anything to do with the formation used and he’s nothing if not stubborn, I’d still be surprised to see the team deploy in a back three, or five.
Personally, I’d like to see Beto leading the line, Danjuma operating off the left and McNeil moved over to the right, with either Andre Gomes or possibly Doucoure playing behind the Portuguese. Seamus Coleman seems locked in to start at right back following Nathan Patterson’s ragged performance against Wolves, with James Tarkowski and Jarrad Branthwaite resuming duties as Everton’s central defensive pairing, and Vitalii Mykolenko on the left.
I’d predicted a low-scoring affair back in November, and it ended up being a five-goal thriller with both sides going gangbusters right from the kickoff, so won’t be making the same mistake again! I’m going with the Blues to kick off the New Year in convincing fashion.
Prediction: Crystal Palace 1-2 Everton