At lunchtime on Saturday, Everton will visit Stamford Bridge and attempt to do the double over Chelsea this season and end the unbeaten run of Jose Mourinho at home. Earlier this season, these two teams met at Goodison Park with Everton handing the Blues their first defeat of the season. Since that time, Everton have played exceptionally well under Roberto Martinez, sitting in sixth place and challenging for a spot in next year’s Europa League. To ensure that a place in European competition is ensured, the Toffees will be looking to improve on their recent form in the league, where they have lost 2 out of 5, though they were to Tottenham and Liverpool.
On the other side, Chelsea are looking to recover from a 1-1 draw to West Brom and a 2-0 defeat in the FA Cup to Manchester City to stop a slide of two poor performances. A late goal was the culprit of defeat at the Hawthorns, while the Blues simply didn’t show up at the Etihad and were punished. Mourinho has said that he will play a strong side, which I think he has to in order to restore confidence, but it will be interesting to see the actual team sheet with a trip to Turkey on the horizon midweek.
Regardless, both teams need a victory from this match, and a draw may not suit them both. For Everton, they must rebound in the league from a defeat to Tottenham that increased the gap to 8 points from the top 4, though they did a good job last week against Swansea in the FA Cup. For Chelsea, they must get back on the winning track, particularly with the toll of travelling to Turkey and the emotion of seeing former Blue Didier Drogba again.
To classify Everton as just a counterattacking side is a bit unfair.
True to the style that Roberto Martinez tried to employ at Wigan, Everton have been transformed into a side that likes to keep possession and force you to open up gaps by taking chances. In fact, in their last two matches against top-class opposition in Liverpool and Tottenham, they dominated possession for large periods of time. Against their rival Merseysiders, they failed to take the chances they had early and Liverpool punished them on the counter. Against Tottenham, they once again failed to take the chances they created and watched Emmanuel Adebayor get one chance and produce a moment of individual brilliance to sink them.
However, they seemed to be back to normal last week against Swansea in the FA Cup, putting them to the sword after Swansea were able to peg back after Lacina Traore’s early goal. For long portions of the match, Swansea were just not in it, and you could say that Everton won at a canter.
The interesting thing about Everton’s style under Martinez is that it can look like a counterattacking style with the way that they build slowly from the back. They don’t quite move it with the quickness of a top-tier side, but they do play a very patient build-up and wait for the gaps to open. That’s why Romelu Lukaku thrived in the early part of the season. He was able to play his natural game, which is to dart through the lines. That style of play hasn’t changed, but because gaps open when they’re being attacked and they shoot through them, they can play effectively on the counter, though that’s not their precise plan.
Lukaku cannot play, but Kevin Mirallas can.
In the absence of Lukaku due to injury, Martinez had tried multiple solutions to his missing striker, eventually settling on moving Mirallas to a more central role. That’s actually been a blessing in disguise because the Belgian never quite looked comfortable doing all the tracking back that is required of someone playing in the wide areas.
Playing through the center actually plays to his strengths a lot more than wide, though he was quite effective cutting inside and shooting with either foot and as a striker, he is limited in playing as a strong centre forward who can hold the ball up. Instead, he plays a similar role to that of Lukaku, minus the physicality, and uses his good reading of the game to dart through the lines.
He’s always been very good at running the channels, and you could make the argument that he’s been their best finisher over the past two years since joining the Toffees. It’s allowed them to move Nikica Jelevic on, especially since he hadn’t found the net in what seemed like ages.
Lacina Traore was brought in and made quite a splash on his debut against Swansea, but I would be surprised if he started and featured in this match, particularly because he’s going against a much more stout defence pairing than he saw against the Swans. John Terry’s return from injury should make the Chelsea defence much harder to break down.
Leighton Baines is establishing himself as the best left back in England.
With Ashley Cole now out of favor with Jose Mourinho and Cesar Azpilicueta taking hold of that left back spot, Baines has emerged as the best candidate to wear the number 3 shirt for England in the World Cup and may take the mantle of being the number-one left back in England after being in the shadow of Cole for the last few years.
The one weakness of Baines’ game has been on the defensive end, where he’s paled in comparison with Cole in reading the game at the back and making tackles at key times. But make no mistake about it. He’s still a good defender, but his true value is going forward. He may be one of the best and most accurate crossers of the ball in the league, and it’s those deliveries on the left that have given more room for players like Steven Naismith and Mirallas to make inroads down the right. His dead ball striking is also quality, and he’s always a danger from both free kicks and corners.
However, what we’ve seen from Baines this season is the leadership qualities start to come out. Whenever his team has needed a goal, if he got a chance from a dead ball or a penalty, he’s been able to convert more often than not. And given all the running he does on the left, he’s started to lead by example, maintaining that work ethic for 90 minutes.
That’s the big danger for Chelsea’s right side. Baines will run forward at every opportunity and will maintain a level of pace for the entire match. It’s imperative that whoever starts on the right side track his runs, or it could be a long day.
Gerard Delofeu’s return from injury is a spark that they need, even if it’s just off the bench.
In a side that lacks forward players willing to take on defenders by running at them, Delofeu’s presence becomes very important, particularly in creating chances when the opponent isn’t giving them the gaps. The Barcelona youngster who’s on loan has that little spark of pace and creativity that is absent at times from Everton. The biggest problem with Delofeu is his penchant for selfish play. The reason he was loaned out from Barcelona had nothing to do with needing playing time or not having the ability. In fact, I think he’s much better prospect than either Isaac Cuenca or Cristian Tello. His main problem was his inability to put the team before himself, sometimes trying to win matches alone in the Barcelona “B” team. For that reason, I believe they sent him out on loan just to allow him to be a bit of a small fish in a big pond, especially under the tutelage of Roberto Martinez who would give him opportunities.
Injuries have hampered that development slightly and he still tends to try too hard to do it all alone, but those moments are becoming less and less prevalent in his game as the season has gone on, and he does give them that pace and skill that is needed when teams need to be broken down.
Gareth Barry and Ross Barkley need to be accounted for.
In the last meeting between these two sides, Barry and Barkley gave us all sorts of problems in the midfield. Martinez was smart and deployed Barry as a true holding midfielder with the job of sitting on Oscar and preventing him from playing. Likewise, Barkley was able to find the gaps between Frank Lampard, Ramires, and the back line and could have scored two on another day.
Because of Barry, the Chelsea attack was blunted and ineffective, especially since he was able to effectively break up play. The difference now is that the three behind the striker are a much more settled unit in the way that Mourinho wants to play, and as a result, the movement is much better than it was back then. Plus, if you throw the form of Eden Hazard into the mix with the ability to interchange with Oscar and Willian, or even Andre Schurrle or Mohamed Salah, and it should make Barry a little easier to handle.
On the other side, Nemanja Matic should play, especially since he’ll be cup-tied for Wednesday, and should provide a sterner test of Barkley’s mettle than Lampard and Ramires did earlier in the season. While both were still trying to figure out the balance of attack and defence, Matic provides a bit of both, but with the physically imposing threat that only John Obi Mikel can possibly match. I imagine that whoever partners him (if it’s Lampard or Ramires) will be given a bit more freedom to move forward with Matic performing the job that Barry did on Oscar so well in the first meeting.