Chelsea travel to Goodison Park for Saturday’s lunch-time kickoff to take on Everton to start the festive period.
Despite a poor start to the season, Everton have recovered nicely over the past month. The Toffees are on a five-match unbeaten run in the Premier League, recording four victories in those five matches.
Sam Allardyce’s arrival at the start of December as permanent manager has only galvanised a side that looked disorganised for much of the first four months of the season. Big Sam’s first match in charge was against Huddersfield on 2 December, and since that time, Everton have conceded just one goal in the Premier League.
His side will be tested, though, against a Chelsea side that are on their own run of form. Since the start of November, Chelsea have won eight times in the Premier League with just one draw and one loss. However, both negative results came away from home, and Everton will hope that a raucous atmosphere at Goodison Park could cause the Blues problems again.
Unfortunately for Chelsea, their options in attack dwindled after Wednesday’s League Cup match against Bournemouth. Alvaro Morata picked up his fifth yellow card of the season after scoring the winning goal, so the striker is suspended for Saturday’s match, likely meaning the trio of Eden Hazard, Willian, and Pedro will start in attack.
Luckily, Marcos Alonso returns from a suspension of his own, but David Luiz still remains out with a knee injury.
Sam Allardyce has helped fix Everton simply by fixing their structural flaws.
For much of the first half of the season, Everton looked like a disjointed and disorganised side. Goals were conceded due to Cuco Martina having difficulties adjusting to left back because of Leighton Baines being in and out of the squad with injury and not being able to find the right combination at centre back amongst Ashley Williams, Phil Jagielka, and summer signing Michael Keane.
Those problems at the back were only magnified by Everton’s gaping hole at striker after Romelu Lukaku’s departure and exacerbated by Wayne Rooney and Gylfi Sigurdsson failing to mesh in attacking midfield.
Big Sam has come in and fixed both issues. Mason Holgate, who had been playing either at right back or on the right of a back three is now partnering Ashley Williams in central defence, and the young defender’s mobility has offset Williams’ lack of pace. Jonjo Kenny has also started at right back to give them a bit of overlapping presence that’s been missing since the injury to Seamus Coleman. Those three, along with Martina, have played every Premier League match since Allardyce took over, and the continuity and balance looks much better.
The striker issue hasn’t quite been fixed, but he has addressed the balance issue between Rooney and Sigurdsson. Rooney has often been deployed in a number 10 role behind the striker, though he starts deeper, while Sigurdsson has been played on the left and pushed higher up, much more similar to the way he played when he was at Spurs.
With roles that are more clearly defined, Rooney and Sigurdsson are no longer ending up in the same spaces on the pitch, and the attack has looked much more balanced behind Dominic Calvert-Lewin.
Allardyce sometimes get a reputation for being defensive, and while Everton are solid at the back, the way they’re playing is more reminiscent of Bolton under Allardyce where he had a specific pattern of defending, but he gave one or two players freedom to deviate from the structure when attacking. Chelsea still have to be careful because this isn’t the same team that they faced in the EFL Cup two months ago.
Allardyce might be the first manager since Sir Alex Ferguson to get the best out of Wayne Rooney.
Wayne Rooney has always been something of an enigma. On his day, he’s a brilliant player, but his problems have often been with tactical discipline. If left to his own devices, Rooney will chase the ball around in order to stay involved, even if that means dropping deep to play midfield when he’s supposed to lead the line or trying to play like a striker when he’s supposed to be in midfield.
Under Ferguson, Rooney enjoyed some of his best seasons in part because Ferguson accepted that Rooney will occasionally go looking for the ball but didn’t give him freedom to do it all the time.
With Allardyce, Rooney again has a set of instructions that he must stick to in order to play in the side. The interesting thing is that Rooney has started to play more of a midfield role in order to accommodate Sigurdsson’s natural ability to play more like a second striker and to take advantage of Rooney’s ability to use the ball when under pressure.
Lately, Rooney’s role is to link the midfield and attack and get forward when necessary. In a sense, he’s being asked to play a similar role to Frank Lampard, except that Rooney is playing further forward that Lampard did.
Rooney’s revival of sorts has been huge for Everton because he’s still a presence on the pitch. Everton’s midfield lacks that player who can take the ball and dictate tempo, and Rooney fits that bill. The knock-on effect is that players like Idrissa Gana Gueye and Morgan Schneiderlin are able to play their more natural holding-style roles which in turn helps the defence.
Everton have problems when they get pinned back because of a lack of pace.
The one problem Everton still have is that they lack real pace to threaten in behind, thus when teams are able to pin them in their own half, they have trouble getting out on the counter.
In the match against Liverpool at Anfield, Everton were very lucky to draw that match because they were stuck in their own half for long periods of time. Liverpool have their own sets of problems when teams stay solid and sit deep against them, and it probably cost them a win after the mistake by Dejan Lovren on one of the few Everton counter attacks.
For Chelsea, this could be an interesting development, especially with Morata out due to suspension. Wednesday’s match against Bournemouth is unlikely to give Antonio Conte more confidence in Michy Batshuayi, so it’s likely that he starts again without a recognised striker, playing Hazard in that role.
With three quicker attackers, Chelsea should look to keep the ball and try and push Everton back. The Blues have one of the best players at stopping counter attacks in N’Golo Kante and should have the technical players to cause some problems with passing and movement. Chelsea’s problem as of late is being clinical in the box, and that again might be an issue because you’re unlikely to get a lot of clear looks against a Sam Allardyce side.
Chelsea must be patient and keep the ball moving in order to limit Everton and also help to open a stingy Everton defence.