After winning just four of their last 14 games in all competitions, Everton’s season is about to get even harder on Wednesday when Manchester City visit Goodison Park.
The reigning Premier League champions put their 2-1 defeat to Newcastle United firmly behind them by dispatching Arsenal at the Etihad on Sunday; a Sergio Aguero hat-trick inspired the Citizens to a 3-1 win.
Just a day beforehand, the Toffees fell to a 3-1 home loss to Wolves, prompting widespread booing at the full-time whistle and a fierce social media debate as to whether Marco Silva is the right man to take the club forward.
However, with home ties to Liverpool, Chelsea, Arsenal and Manchester United all to come, Wednesday’s clash against City could be one for the Portuguese tactician to lay down a marker and prove his side have the mettle to mix it with the big boys, even when the going gets tough.
But what must Everton do to avoid being humiliated against Pep Guardiola’s side? Here at Squawka, we’ve picked out four areas that could be key to Silva’s gameplan.
1. Avoid set pieces at all costs
Of the 44 goals Everton have conceded so far this season, a whopping 16 have come from set-pieces, highlighting a fundamental flaw in the way Silva’s defenders apply themselves to these situations.
The zonal marking vs man marking debate has reached parliamentary proportions among supporters on social media but the reality is blunt: when man marking fails, one player takes the blame and we all move on, while the entire system is blamed when zonal marking fails.
The cream of the crop in management use zonal marking to avoid the chaos of going man for man, and it is certainly among the best ways to combat set pieces when executed right.
The problem for Everton, though, is that none of their defenders are getting it right: players remaining static means their front post is more vulnerable to collapse than an hour-long game of Jenga, while a lack of alertness leads to the Toffees losing a lot of second balls.
The only way for Silva to rectify these problems is to stick to his guns and keep passing his message to the players but until then, their best method of stopping set-piece goals is to stop giving away fouls in dangerous areas in the first place – the recent defeats to Millwall and Wolves show just how naive Everton have been in this regard.
2. Bring back Idrissa Gueye
The official word on Idrissa Gueye’s two-game absence is that the midfield marauder has been carrying an injury. However, with the all the speculation and links to PSG in the January transfer window, the reality may be quite different.
Regardless, it would appear that Gueye is ready for a return and how Everton need him more than ever now. Against Huddersfield, Tom Davies put in the kind of mature performance that suggested he could succeed the Senegalese sensation but he was totally out of his depth against a strong Wolves side.
The likes of Ruben Neves and Joao Moutinho out-witted, out-ran and out-passed Davies and left their compatriot, Andre Gomes, to chase his own tail at times while trying to cover the extra ground.
That will only get worse against Kevin De Bruyne, David Silva and company. With Gueye deployed as the clean-up man, though, Gomes can go back to being the footballing don and ice cold pass master that defined the early stages of his season at Everton.
Only Aaron Wan-Bissaka (91) and Ricardo Pereira (89) have made more tackles than Gueye (83) this season, perfectly encapsulating just how vital the 29-year-old is at Goodison Park right now.
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3. Nullify Fernandinho
Guardiola’s deployment of Fernandinho as a centre-back-cum-midfielder against Arsenal on Sunday was both intriguing and incredibly effective. The Brazilian’s positioning allowed him acres of space on the ball, leading him to put in a typically dominant performance.
However, when put under pressure, Fernandinho can often be wasteful in possession and has more failed passes (216) than any Man City player this season.
Furthermore, when Fernandinho does lose the ball, he is prone to rash fouls such as the one that handed Newcastle United a penalty when he felled Sean Longstaff after losing possession to the young Englishman.
Fernandinho has conceded more fouls (33) than any Man City player this season and at 33, his mobility is leaving him. Cutting out Fernandinho stops the main supply line to City’s more dangerous attacking midfielders, while recovering possession high up the pitch draws potential fouls in dangerous areas.
4. Unleash the counter-attack
Too much of Everton’s play this season has seen them aimlessly recycle possession in front of the opposition with little ambition to play a penetrative pass.
In Saturday’s win, Wolves managed to create three clear-cut chances compared to Everton’s two, despite making 225 passes less than their hosts (430-205). The Toffees sent their supporters cross-eyed with their endless build-up play, falling like water against a brick wall as the Wolves defence refused to be drawn out of position.
Against Man City, Everton will almost certainly lose the possession battle as Guardiola’s side are the kings of holding onto the ball.
That doesn’t mean Silva’s side won’t get the chance to attack, though; City’s left-back shortage has been well documented, while Kyle Walker’s burning desire to stay as far up the pitch as possible for as long as possible is admirable, but leads to huge gaps being left behind him.
In these wide areas, City have a weakness, while Everton have their strongest forward to exploit it in the form of Richarlison.
The Brazilian winger has already bagged 11 goals in 25 games this season and will be more than happy to test Walker’s nerve by attacking the space the England defender leaves.
On the other side, Silva can pick any of Ademola Lookman, Bernard or Theo Walcott to put Aymeric Laporte to task, should the centre-back once again be deployed out of position.
This approach would rely heavily on Everton’s ability to soak up pressure, meaning Gueye becomes even more important, but the more direct attacking style would eliminate the possession merry-go-round and allow the Merseysiders to expose City’s one true flaw.
Host Jake Entwistle is joined by Sam Long and Will Hall for this week’s Squawka Talker to discuss Man City 3-1 Arsenal, the Bundesliga title race, Gonzalo Higuain’s start to life at Chelsea, the best of the rest beyond the ‘Big Six’ and the upcoming El Clasico.