The Season So Far
Everton’s season has been one to give the Goodison Park faithful plenty of optimism regarding the future. The last season under Roberto Martínez saw the Toffees disintegrate and become everything negative associated with Martínez’s particularly deluded, hyper-optimistic brand of management: they were a team with no structure with or without the ball, a horrifyingly carefree attitude to defending and, least infuriatingly but most importantly of all, one that had no strength in depth. The least Everton fans wanted from this season was to see those wrongs righted, and by and large they have.
New manager Ronald Koeman has been relentlessly demanding with his players, dictating that standards be raised throughout the club and encouraging fierce competition at every possible turn. The players spoke of professionalism all but vanishing during Martínez’s final months as the sense (and frustration) that aesthetics mattered more than results became all-encompassing. Koeman has been the exact opposite, embodying the notion that maximum achievement is the only thing that matters.
Koeman has been heavily backed by investor Farhad Moshiri and recruitment ably overseen by Steve Walsh, of recruiting N’Golo Kanté and winning Leicester the title fame. This season Everton have signed Yannick Bolasie and Morgan Schneiderlin for a combined £45m, while also adding much-needed steel and leadership with the signings of Ashley Williams and the tremendous Idrissa Gueye, and extremely exciting promise with the capture of Ademola Lookman from Charlton.
As well as being improved the squad has also been streamlined, with deadwood like Steven Pienaar, Darron Gibson and Bryan Oviedo drifting downstream to Sunderland, while the long-serving but painfully regressing Tim Howard returned to the United States to see out his career and even-longer-serving Tony Hibbert and Leon Osman were simply put out to pasture. Of course, the most eye-catching departure was that of John ‘Jekyll & Hyde’ Stones, but given the £47.5m fee it’s hard to imagine Stones’ exasperatingly scattergun defending being missed any time soon.
All of this change has seen Everton become a far more disciplined, far more effective and far more admirable side than they were before, and results have eventually improved as one would expect. Some elements have remained constant – Romelu Lukaku has hit the back of the net with monotonous regularity, Ross Barkley has delighted and irritated in almost equal measure and Phil Jagielka has given away lots of penalties – but otherwise this is a reinvented, strong and dangerous team.
The Final Few Games
Perennially limited to 7th by the gulf between themselves and everyone above them and knocked out of the FA Cup by a hilariously bad Leicester side, Everton are realistically playing for pride from this point on, but there’s a small chance of snatching 6th and that’s enough to get Koeman demanding every last drop of sweat from his players.
After a largely phenomenal last few months, the more optimistic fans will be enjoying every second of this ride and imagining the push for fourth that will begin in earnest in August. The more pessimistic will also be enjoying every moment of this excellent run, but they’ll see this as Lukaku’s final few games in blue before a Stones-esque summer move to a Champions League stalwart, while Barkley may also demand to move as he enters the last year of his contract.
Koeman’s Southampton were one of the better organised teams in the Premier League, with an easily defined set of characteristics: strong in defence, well-drilled in midfield and very direct/cross-heavy and clinical in attack. Overall, very solid. These marked Koeman as the antithesis of Roberto Martínez and his solid good work has continued on Merseyside. Basically: Koeman - no nonsense; Martínez - 100% nonsense.
In recent weeks, the Toffees have played a solid, narrow-ish and high-tempo 4-2-3-1, pressing and harrying and attempting to (cleanly) bully their opponents out of the game, in much the same way that Mauricio Pochettino’s uber-solid Spurs have done for the last few years. Their transition play isn’t as well-rehearsed, their penalty-box defending not quite as unhesitant, their one-touch combination play not quite as developed as Spurs’, but the similarities are there.
The attack is fluid and prolific, the full-backs able in support and excellent at providing natural width, and the double-pivot is among the hardest-working and hardest full stop in the division. This is a solid side with a solid spine that’s coming together very solidly. All things considered: solid.
Their biggest strengths are their work-rate, their organisation and their high levels of individual quality. Their shot statistics aren’t exactly dominant: they’ve taken 13.1 shots per game and allowed 11.7 per game, with 5.1 of theirs ending up on target and 3.8 of the other lot’s working the keeper. Their conversion rate is 34.9%, a fair bit above the league average but not among the best rates in the league, and their save percentage is 71.1%, also above average but a way off the best. In both boxes, they’re clearly good but not quite great.
Where they elevate themselves above the rest is between the boxes. Only Middlesbrough and Liverpool have made more than Everton’s 19.4 tackles per game, while only four teams have made more than Everton’s 12.1 fouls per game. Their blocks figures put them right in the middle of the pack but that’s no surprise given their relatively cautious positional game, and only four teams have made more clearances this season. It’s back-to-basics, it’s hard work, it’s solid – and it works. Idrissa Gueye and Morgan Schneiderlin must be among the most intimidating, take-no-prisoners, solid double-pivots in the league.
In attack, Lukaku’s finishing this season has been solid. His 24 league goals have come from considerably fewer shots than the 20 scored by Harry Kane, while Diego Costa and Alexis Sánchez, both on 19, have also taken more. Even Sergio Agüero and Zlatan Ibrahimović have taken more shots than Lukaku despite playing several-hundred fewer minutes. Lukaku’s signature will not come cheap but it will be worth it.
Besides Lukaku, Ross Barkley and Tom Davies have the talent to prise open any lock, while Kevin Mirallas should score more goals given his ability. Not that goals have been a problem at Goodison Park of late: their league home games in 2017 have seen them score 3, 4, 6, 2, 3, 4, 4 and 3 goals respectively. Don’t bet on a Chelsea clean sheet.
Given their undeniable solidity, it’s no surprise that Everton have only lost two of their last seventeen league games. This season they’ve demolished Manchester City, beaten Arsenal and put six past Bournemouth. At the moment they’re the strongest, solidest unit they’ve been in years.
That said, they’re a few rungs below the very best in the division and they generally lose to the teams above them in the table, and it wasn’t too surprising to see Chelsea stick five past them at Stamford Bridge. They’ve also lost to Watford and Burnley, and at one point won one game in nine.
Despite their recent form and goalscoring exploits, they’re far from unbeatable, and with relatively uninspiring players like Maarten Stekelenburg and Phil Jagielka playing key roles in defence, Ross Barkley killing more attacks than he starts, and a shedload of youthful inexperience throughout the side, Chelsea shouldn’t be scared.
Everton’s side is pretty much nailed on, while Antonio Conte’s random Wembley selection bonanza means it’s harder to second-guess him now, but really there shouldn’t be any surprises.
Chelsea need a win to keep the pressure on second-placed Spurs, themselves desperate to win a North London Derby with huge title implications. Really, though, both games are pretty likely to end as high-scoring draws.