The Season So Far
It’s fair to say Everton’s season has not gone to plan. Over the summer, all the talk was of a sustained Champions League push, with several favourably received big money signings under the no-nonsense guidance of Ronald Koeman, himself so confident of significant success with the Toffees that he was touting himself as a future Barcelona manager. Just over two months into the season Koeman was gone, sacked with Everton 18th in the Premier League, their summer investment looking like wasted money.
It got worse: Everton had no replacement for Koeman lined up and so for over a month they were under the guidance of caretaker boss David Unsworth – a steady hand according to many Proper Football Men, who trusted in Unsworth’s nationality more than his suitability for the job. The Toffees won just twice on his watch and, in the midst of an identity crisis only exacerbated by the caretaker’s inability to decide what kind of side Everton were, went to pieces in embarrassing fashion, losing 5-1 at home to Atalanta, 7th in Serie A, and 4-1 away to Southampton, who scored just under a quarter of their season’s goals in that one game.
Of course, no-one really thought the Blues were in any real danger of going down, and their recent recovery under new manager Sam Allardyce should come as no surprise, but it’s worth reminding ourselves that this really wasn’t the plan at all. The fact that plenty of Everton fans will be happy to escape 2017-18 with a lower mid-table finish under Allardyce of all people confirms just how wrong this season has gone, and the scars of such a campaign will take years to heal.
The Season Ahead
With Sam Allardyce nothing if not clear in his thinking and competent at organising a defence, Everton should be fine and their recent return to form has only confirmed that Allardyce has got it sussed when it comes to putting round pegs in round holes and square pegs in square holes. Koeman seemed unable to decide exactly how many number tens all playing in the number ten role was too many, while Unsworth seemed unable to decide anything, chopping and changing formations and roles and tactics every single week.
Allardyce will, at least, bring a semblance of balance to the side and assign players to their favoured roles. He certainly won’t crowbar big-money signings in where they don’t belong purely because Everton invested lots of money in them. His defensive coaching has already invigorated the previously laughable Ashley Williams, seeing the totemic Welshman return to the peak of his powers, while Mason Holgate and Jonjoe Kenny are performing ably in defence where Koeman and Unsworth had left them hopelessly exposed.
The likes of Idrissa Gueye and Morgan Schneiderlin are capable of much more than what they’ve produced in midfield, and with a solid side around them they will reach the heights that have seen them linked with (and signed by, in Schneiderlin’s case) bigger clubs than the Toffees. It’s a long-established fact that Gylfi Sigurðsson needs a structured side around him to perform and disappears when things get chaotic, and Allardyce is the right man to see the Icelander get back to his best.
Even though he is even more potato-like, cumbersome and one-paced than ever before, Wayne Rooney’s experience and drive have been invaluable to Allardyce both on and off the field. Rooney’s recent spurt of goalscoring form, largely but not entirely down to the fact that Everton are constantly getting penalties, shows that he has relished the pressure Everton have been under over the last few months, while other players have shirked the responsibility.
Allardyce is not a man to reinvent the wheel but he is surely the man to get Everton’s talented but unbalanced squad back on track. In the recent Merseyside derby, Everton lined up with a deep, uberdefensive 4-4-2 and hit it long to two strikers, Dominic Calvert-Lewin and Oumar Niasse. That plan didn’t quite work out but given Chelsea’s strength we should still expect a variation on that theme instead of the more expansive and open 4-2-3-1 Allardyce has played against sides Everton could reasonably expect to beat.
In any case, Everton will be resilient and well organised and, of course, unashamed to hit it long and look to win second balls in dangerous areas. Jordan Pickford will surely take every free-kick Everton are awarded in their own half pump it into Chelsea’s box, where a melee will erupt and all sorts of shenanigans and underhand tactics will be employed to score a goal or win a penalty.
Allardyce has been Allardycing for far too long for us to expect anything else at this stage, and although this Everton team is probably the most talented he’s ever had at his disposal, he’s an old dog and new tricks won’t interest him too much.
As stated above, Big Sam prides himself on his teams’ well-drilled defences and it’s worth reminding ourselves that Everton have played a back four of Jonjoe Kenny, Mason Holgate, Ashley Williams and Cuco Martina and largely looked solid in recent weeks. It helps when you have players like Idrissa Gueye and Morgan Schneiderlin screening the defence, of course, and that shows in the stats: no team has made more clearances, more interceptions or more fouls than Everton this season. Above all else Chelsea should expect a tough nut to crack, and given the absence of Álvaro Morata and the use of Eden Hazard as a striker, Chelsea may lack the requisite creativity between the lines to break Everton down.
While Everton remain far from the finished article, it’s worth underlining how much it matters to have clarity of purpose on the pitch and how much better players perform when it’s clear that they have simple instructions they can understand and execute without too much fuss. If Chelsea play hesitantly, as they did against West Ham, Everton will take full advantage.
It’s worth mentioning the contribution of striker Dominic Calvert-Lewin, too. The youngster leaves much to be desired up front, but he has a happy knack of causing trouble and getting lucky in important situations: in recent weeks he’s scored a massively deflected goal, a fluky rebound from a penalty, and won another very soft penalty in the last minute of a derby. Each of these contributions, while hardly requiring quality, have helped Everton more than what’s been offered by more experienced or cultured players at the club.
There is a significant gulf in quality between Everton’s squad and their manager and Chelsea’s squad and their manager. It may be true that Everton are gradually returning to a more “correct” league position and that their best players are almost certainly going to start performing to the upper limits of their ability after months of mismanagement and underperformance, but it’s also true that a team is only as good as its weakest link and Everton have some seriously weak links.
For starters, their back four of Jonjoe Kenny, Mason Holgate, Ashley Williams and Cuco Martina may have performed ably in recent weeks but it’s still a back four of Jonjoe Kenny, Mason Holgate, Ashley Williams and Cuco Martina, and Chelsea should be able to open that up with relative ease, provided that Eden Hazard is allowed to get on the ball by Gueye and Schneiderlin, and also by Antonio Conte, who has to stop playing him as a striker if he’s to influence games as he can.
As previously mentioned, Wayne Rooney often plays like a man twice his age, Gylfi Sigurðsson’s head is prone to dropping and Dominic Calvert-Lewin looks too limited to contribute at the level Everton need him to. Meanwhile, there are question marks over goalkeeper Jordan Pickford, undoubtedly capable of making fine reaction saves but with plenty of room to improve in other areas of the goalkeeping skill-set.
Both sides have been without key personnel in defence for a period of time now, but have fashioned serviceable units out of spare parts and we should expect those to play. Presumably both managers will continue with their favoured attacking personnel, while in Álvaro Morata’s absence Chelsea will continue playing Eden Hazard out of position and minimising their best player’s impact on the game.
Chelsea should have just enough to eek a win here, but with Hazard out of position and Allardyce the kind of manager who takes a perverse pleasure in shamelessly playing for a draw against bigger clubs, we shouldn’t be surprised if this game gets very annoying very quickly – nor should we be surprised if Gary Cahill does something phenomenally stupid under no pressure at all and gifts Everton another penalty to add to their growing collection.