The Season So Far
Everton’s season has been one to give the Goodison Park 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 Season Ahead
Perenially 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. The more optimistic fans will have one eye on fourth place but that is a very long shot indeed. The more pessimistic will presumably be enjoying Lukaku’s final few games in blue before a Stones-esque summer move to a Champions League stalwart.
Koeman, undeterred by the fact that fourth is just out of reach, will continue to demand blood, sweat and tears from his team as his long-term restructuring continues apace. And really, after the horror of last season, that should be enough.
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. These marked Koeman as the antithesis of Roberto Martínez and his good work has continued on Merseyside. Basically: Koeman - no nonsense; Martínez - 100% nonsense.
In recent weeks, the Toffees have played a 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 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.
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 3.7 of the other lot’s working the keeper. Their conversion rate is 31.6%, marginally below the league average, and their save percentage is 72.2%, above average but far from the best. In both boxes, they’re good but not great.
Where they elevate themselves above the rest is between the boxes. Only Middlesbrough have made more than Everton’s 19.5 tackles per game, while only five 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 five teams have made more clearances this season. It’s back-to-basics, it’s hard work, it’s no nonsense – and it works. Idrissa Gueye and Morgan Schneiderlin must be among the hardest-working, take-no-prisoners double-pivots in the league.
In attack, the challenge is for the highly talented forwards to do what they have the power to do. Lukaku’s 17 league goals have come from considerably fewer shots than the 17 scored by Alexis Sánchez and Harry Kane, while Diego Costa and Zlatan Ibrahimović, on 16 and 15 respectively, have also taken more. Besides Lukaku, Ross Barkley and Séamus Coleman have caught the eye, while youngsters Tom Davies and Ademola Lookman have pretty awe-inspiring talent. The Toffees are generally able ball carriers: only five teams’ have recorded more successful dribbles this season.
In short: they’re good.
Everton haven’t lost a league game since the last-gasp defeat to Liverpool on December 19th, and they shouldn’t even have lost that one. This season they’ve demolished Manchester City, beaten Arsenal and put six past Bournemouth. At the moment they’re the strongest unit they’ve been in years.
That said, this is basically the same team which conceded five to Chelsea, lost to Watford and at one point won one game in nine. When they get frustrated and start crossing they're close to useless and when Barkley is having a bad game he's usually the opposition's best player. They’re far from unbeatable, and with relatively uninspiring players like Joel Robles and Ramiro Funes Mori playing key roles, as well as youthful inexperience at times showing itself in attack, Spurs shouldn’t be scared.
No changes expected, although it wouldn’t be a surprise to see Davies and/or Lookman drop to the bench and more senior players like James McCarthy and Kevin Mirallas take their place(s).
This is going to be seriously difficult for both sides. That said, Spurs should just edge it, being further along in their evolution than Everton. The visitors’ relative lack of familiarity and the obviousness of their weak links are likely to be decisive.