Chelsea take on Everton today, in what will be a massive top-four/-six clash this time around. Chelsea lost rather meekly at Goodison, 1-0, earlier this season but beat the Toffees 4-0 in this same fixture this time last year. Chelsea have been unbeaten under Tuchel, but Everton have been going well, as well. We chatted about that and more with Matthew Chandler of SB Nation’s Everton blog, Royal Blue Mersey. Be sure to check out the reverse edition of this Q&A on RBM, where we talk Lampard, Tuchel, and a bit of Hudson-Odoi.
WAGNH: It seems like Everton have been trading hot and cold streaks all season long, with things going quite well at the moment. Can you keep that up all the way to a (surprise?) top-four finish?
RBM: My heart says yes, my head says no. We’ve quite a small squad, but the lack of two-game weeks for the rest of the season should help in that regard. The Champions League might come a year too soon for us — we finished 12th last season, remember — but we’ve certainly got a manager and a number of players who are of Champions League quality.
Ultimately, whether this season is a success or not for Everton does not hinge solely on whether we finish in the top four. Even though there’ve been a few bumps in the road this year, I’ve seen more than enough to tell me that we’re on the right track, at least.
WAGNH: Last time we met, Dominic Calvert-Lewin was all the rage. Now it seems like Richarlison is the main man. Is that down to the players themselves, or has Ancelotti shifted his tactics and strategies?
RBM: It’s funny; the general consensus was that, up until about three weeks ago, Richarlison had had a desperately poor season. He’s now scored in his last four league games and been outstanding for much of them.
Calvert-Lewin has been injured lately, which has taken the limelight off him a little, but in terms of Richarlison, he’s played as a striker (either alone, or with Calvert-Lewin/James Rodriguez) in the last few games, rather than out wide. I think he prefers this position — he takes so many shots in games that I’ve always sensed he wanted to be a number nine.
So, yes, Ancelotti has shifted his tactics in that sense, as well as displaying good man-management in continuing to stick by him and publicly big him even during his stickier spells earlier this season.
WAGNH: Speaking of Ancelotti, how is the former Chelsea fan-favorite doing overall at the club?
RBM: Really well. He’s just brilliant. He’s improved so many individuals (Calvert-Lewin, Tom Davies, Michael Keane, etc.), has bought well (Allan, Rodriguez, Ben Godfrey), has strengthened our team’s previously weak mentality, and has shown what brilliant tactical acumen he has.
His meticulous setup was instrumental in winning us the Merseyside derby at Anfield last month — our first win there since 1999 — and his substitutions won us Thursday’s gritty victory at West Brom. These are just two of many examples. Plus, he seems an absolutely lovely fella who has really embraced the city of Liverpool, too. He is universally liked, put it that way.
WAGNH: Everton look unbeatable away from home at the moment — a trend that we’ve seen at a few other clubs as well. Is that thanks to the relative lack of home field advantage in the empty stadiums of nowadays, or are Everton doing something special in their own approach?
RBM: Ancelotti put this down to our defending. I agree - away from home, or against better sides, Everton don’t have to impose themselves so much — they can afford to sit back more and counter when the opportunity presents itself. He’s forged a really solid defence comprised of four (sometimes five) of Lucas Digne, Keane, Yerry Mina, Godfrey and Mason Holgate, all of whom seem to just love clearing crosses and crunching tackles.
In that sense, not least given the empty stadiums, it feels less of a surprise to me that we’ve won at Leicester, Tottenham and Liverpool, but lost at home to Leeds, Fulham and Newcastle without scoring this campaign.
WAGNH: Ancelotti used to love a diamond midfield back in his Chelsea days and it looks like he may be trying that at Everton, too. Any other key tactical features we need to be aware of for Monday?
RBM: The diamond is relatively new from Ancelotti; up until the derby win a fortnight ago, he had stuck to either 4-4-2 or 4-3-3 almost invariably, aside from the occasional indulgence in a back three.
I would stick with the diamond for now because it suits Richarlison to play up front, our natural wingers are not offering much (Bernard, Alex Iwobi, etc) and our midfield has real presence with the wrecking-ball Abdoulaye Doucoure, the tenacious Allan the much-improved Davies and the technical brilliance of Rodriguez (though he may miss this game through injury). Gylfi Sigurdsson, though much-maligned, has come through with a few goals and assists lately, though.
WAGNH: Last time we expected an open, high-scoring game and got a 1-0 result instead. What about this time?
RBM: More of the same, really. I certainly can’t see us folding so meekly in a 4-0 defeat as we did this time last year. We’ll probably be happy to let Chelsea have much of the ball, but be confident in our ability to hit them on the break. Given Chelsea have similarly not scored or conceded many lately, I can’t see this being a goal-fest. A draw or a one-goal win (don’t ask me which way) seems a safe bet.
WAGNH: Bonus round. On a scale of funny to very funny, how hilarious is Liverpool’s collapse?
RBM: I don’t know if I’d say funny, but while there are a lot of caveats, it’s been startling just how far they’ve fallen. Right now, though, Everton look much the better team.
A big thank you to Matthew for taking the time to chat, as usual! Be sure to give them a visit at Royal Blue Mersey.