Everton dodged a bullet last weekend via a last-gasp equalizer from Jarrad Branthwaite in securing a draw at Goodison Park against Tottenham Hotspur. That result would enable the Blues to remain trailing Luton Town by a point - having played a game more - following the Hatters’ eight-goal stalemate with Newcastle United, at St. James’s Park later in the day.
It could have turned out much worse for Sean Dyche’s side, as Luton had been leading the Magpies by two goals and were en route to a shocking victory midway through the second half. The Bedfordshire outfit entertain bottom-ranked Sheffield United at home on Saturday in a match they’ll be heavily favoured to win.
In the meantime, the Blues kick off the weekend’s action with a visit to the Etihad Stadium, to face defending Premier League champions Manchester City.
The Mancunians responded to Arsenal’s unexpected title challenge last term by putting together a typically stunning sequence of results, breaking the Gunners by banking an amazing 43 from 45 possible points from February through June. In doing so, Pep Guardiola won his third consecutive domestic championship with City, along with finally securing victory in the Champions League final.
With no lands left to conquer, what does such a dominant operation do next? The answer, of course was to reinforce in order to do it all over again. During the summer, the club spent a net €137m, adding the touted Croatian defender Josko Gvardiol for €90m, electric left winger Jeremy Doku from Stade Rennais for €60m, experienced Chelsea midfielder Mateo Kovacic for €29m and - inexplicably, splashing €62m to bring Matheus Nunes over from Wolverhampton Wanderers, after the player’s 12 underwhelming months in the Black Country.
Departing the Etihad for pastures new were a few stalwarts in Riyad Mahrez, Aymeric Laporte and Ilkay Gundogan, along with the exciting academy graduate Cole Palmer, surprisingly sold off to Chelsea for €47m, which now looks to be a serious bargain for the London club.
The champions started off their title defence as expected, winning six on the bounce before hitting a tricky patch in late September, getting dumped out of the Carabao Cup by Newcastle and losing back-to-back league games, to Wolves and Arsenal. They responded well, with a trio of domestic victories, before stumbling again, being held by both Brighton & Hove Albion and Chelsea, and then losing to Aston Villa; in that defeat at Villa Park, they were astonishingly held to only two efforts on goal in being comprehensively outplayed; an unusual sight to say the least.
Since, however City’s form has been ominous. The North West outfit have gone ten unbeaten in all competitions, including winning six and drawing one of their seven league outings. They now sit two points behind current leaders Liverpool, with a game in hand on their rivals. They await Everton coming off a 3-1 victory over Brentford.
Style of Play
Guardiola’s approach to winning (i.e. dominating) football matches is well-established by now, a suffocating possession-heavy style derived from the tiki taka of his days at Barcelona. He’s reasonably flexible in terms of formation, lately favouring a 4-2-3-1, and though his principles have remained the same - keeping the ball on the ground, stretching the opposition defence with width and a control of space, he’s added a couple of strings to his bow.
Firstly, there was addition of the non-prototype Guardiola front man that is Erling Haaland and this season, the integration of the rapid dribbler Doku. The former is not as involved in build-up play as is normal for a City player under the Catalan manger and the latter’s tendency to take on defenders is not the first thing one thinks of when assessing the team’s established tactical doctrine, which emphasises suffocating control.
Offensively, the The Sky Blues are as overawing as always. They’ve netted 54 times in the league from an xG (Expected Goals) tally of 43.6, a big overachievement, but not unexpected considering the quality of player in the squad. Unsurprisingly, they rank top in share of possession (65.2%) and pass accuracy (90.3%) and are behind only Liverpool in attempts per 90 minutes, with 17.1. They’ve scored the most open play goals (40) in the division and only 6.5% of their passing is classed as long.
City’s xGA (Expected Goals Allowed) stands at 21.6, though the champions have actually conceded 25 times. However, they do face the lowest number of shots in the division, just 8.0 per game.
Sadly, Haaland’s recent return from a near two-month injury absence means he’s almost certain to start against Everton today, having played 85 minutes against Brentford last weekend. Whilst the Norwegian didn’t score, he does have 14 league goals so far this term, not quite at the level of last season’s epic haul, but dangerous enough.
Also back in the side and looking exactly like his old self, Kevin De Bruyne is leading the team in SCA (Shot-Creating Actions) per 90, with 7.46. The 32-year-old Belgian midfielder is completing an average of 6.09 passes into the opposition penalty area per game.
Phil Foden registered a hattrick against the Bees and looks to be approaching his peak as a player. He’s been operating more centrally recently, though with City’s fluidity and the 23-year-old’s mobility and intelligent movement he could pop up anywhere.
Obviously, it almost goes without saying that this is potentially Everton’s toughest match of the season. Whilst the Anfield derby holds a special place in the fixture list for rewarding the Blues with meagre results year after year, a visit to the Etihad to face the world’s best club side is a daunting prospect.
The Toffees will see little of the ball, though this won’t displease Dyche overmuch. The visitors figure to be be penned in so deep within their own half that their system’s greatest weak spot - a vulnerability to the switch pass - should not be too much of a factor, with the wingers already likely to be providing close support to Everton’s fullbacks. The side generally demonstrate discipline and great commitment to the cause, so should not be easy for the hosts to play through, or around.
For long stretches this will resemble an attack vs. defence training session. The Toffees must not overcommit defensively and absolutely cannot afford to make any rash errors - particularly giving up free kicks in dangerous areas, or conceding penalties. Doing so will make an arduous task virtually impossible. If they can stay calm and solid for 90 minutes, which will be tough considering how much of the play will be within the visitor’s third of the pitch, then they have a chance.
To achieve a result, the Blues surely will have to take one of the few opportunities to hurt City that they will get. Consistency in front of goal has been an ongoing issue for the team all through the campaign, but they have to show some composure today. The hosts defend set-pieces very well, having shipped just two goals from that route all season, though the Blues must still hope to take advantage if they can. Another possibility for Everton will in transition, with City having conceded four goals from counterattacks this term. Whether Everton have enough pace in the side to exploit this slight vulnerability is questionable.
I’m anticipating a largely unchanged lineup for the visitors, with Seamus Coleman probably coming in for Ben Godfrey at right back being the sole exception. If everything goes about as well as could be hoped for, then the Toffees could take a valuable point from the Etihad, though far more probable is a fairly comfortable win for the home side.
Prediction: Man City 2-0 Everton