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: it was thought that the Toffees had made a huge step up, with several favourably received big money signings likely to flourish under the no-nonsense guidance of Ronald Koeman, himself so confident of significant success that he was touting himself as a future Barcelona manager. And yet just over two months into the season Koeman was gone, sacked with Everton 18th in the Premier League, their summer investment looking like entirely wasted millions.
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. They lost 5-1 at home to Atalanta, currently 7th in Serie A, and 4-1 away to Southampton, who scored just under a fifth of their season’s goals in that one game.
With a squad as talented as theirs, of course, no-one really thought the Blues were in any real danger of going down, and their recent recovery and return to the top half under new manager Sam Allardyce should come as no surprise. That said, 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 mid-table finish under Allardyce, of all people, tells us just how badly this season has turned out, 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 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 surely 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 December 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 the similarities between Liverpool’s style of play and Tottenham’s, 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 Tottenham’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 very possibly 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 Tottenham should expect a tough nut to crack.
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. We’ve seen Spurs attack ponderously too many times this season, especially at Wembley, and if they come out playing at a low tempo, Everton will be all-too content to sit deep and frustrate them.
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.
Speaking of more experienced or cultured players, we know all about the dead-ball delivery of Gylfi Sigurðsson and the pace of Aaron Lennon, but they remain formidable threats and especially useful when Everton will be playing the majority of the game without the ball. We should expect the likes of Lennon and Calvert-Lewin – and Yannick Bolasie and Nikola Vlašić, if used – to do the hard-running on the counter, but also be aware that they will be happy to win free-kicks near the Tottenham box and use those opportunities to get men forward.
It may be true that Everton have gradually returned 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 if Spurs can get past the protective shield created by Gueye and Schneiderlin, they should be able to find the combinations to make chances and score goals.
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.
There are several players competing for a precious few spots in attack, with the likes of Aaron Lennon, Nikola Vlašić, Yannick Bolasie, Gylfi Sigurðsson, Dominic Calvert-Lewin and new signing Cenk Tosun all looking to start.
It won’t be easy but even with question marks over form and fitness, Spurs should have enough to get a win. 1-0, Dele Alli.