Stoke City v Everton. The Everton Forum Preview

After all of my recent moaning in these, it’s nice to be able to start a match preview with some reflections on an Everton win!

The match against Brighton and Hove Albion looked like a banana skin when we had the away day fiascos of Watford and Burnley fresh in our minds, but somewhat true to form, the blues did what they had to at Goodison Park and put 3 points on the table.

While the lack of a first half goal to reward the blues positive play from the outset was a slight frustration, the lads stuck at it nicely and got the rewards they deserved in the second half.

The match finished 2-0 and for what seems like the first time in a while, I can actually look back on a victory and say it should’ve been more. Still, a win’s a win, we needed it and sitting on 37 points with 8 games to play, surely that banishes any lingering threat of Everton going down.

So now that ‘objective’ is virtually ticked off, the next on the hit-list for this Everton team has to be improving the torrid away record (2nd worst in the league, for crying out loud!) and where better to take our first steps to putting it right than the Premier League’s classic ‘tricky’ away day? A freezing Saturday afternoon in Stoke.

The Potters

While our hosts approach Saturday’s match (a 3pm kick off) languishing in 19th position, it’s definitely worth pointing out that only 6 points currently separate them from Bournemouth in 12th.

I watched Stoke’s last match on Monday night and whilst they were outplayed by Manchester City and comfortably beaten by a score of 0-2, I didn’t think they were disgraced by any means.

Stoke could’ve capitulated when the score went to 0-2 early in the second half, but they kept the score respectable and I guess that was the best, realistic scenario for this lowly Potters team against a fantastic Man City side.

Afterwards, the Stoke manager Paul Lambert mentioned that their season won’t be defined by a loss to Manchester City, so you’d think he’ll be targeting this match as a real opportunity for his side to achieve a victory that could spark a revival.

Looking beyond the City result and at the 6 other games Lambert has had with Stoke, while 6 points achieved doesn’t seem brilliant, the positive thing that jumps out at me is how much he’s improved the Stoke defence since his arrival in mid-January.

Whereas Stoke had conceded 50 (fifty!) goals in 23 league games under predecessor (and new Southampton boss) Mark Hughes, just 6 have been shipped in 7 matches under Lambert’s watch, with 3 of those results yielding in a clean sheet.

However, whilst that clearly represents a marked defensive improvement for the Potters, the big problem for Lambert and his men has been at the other end, where Stoke have only managed to score 5 goals – meaning they’ve been unable to win more of the tight games they’ve found themselves involved in.

Of those 5 goals scored under Lambert, 4 of those have either been scored or assisted by the Potters’ outstanding player; Xherdan Shaqiri.

The Swiss winger is by far Stoke’s biggest threat with 7 goals and 6 assists for the season so far. He isn’t the quickest or the most skillful of wingers with the ball at his feet, but he’s strong, direct and packs a real punch on his left foot, either from open play or dead ball situations. Typically, he operates from the right where he’ll look to cut inside so he can shoot effectively from range or provide decent service to a striker.

Moving away from Shaqiri and onto the rest of Stoke’s team, I believe we’re likely to see Paul Lambert set Stoke up to play in a 4-3-3 system, as follows –

In defence, Jack Butland’s goal looks set to be defended by a 4 of Moritz Bauer, Kurt Zouma, Bruno Martins-Indi and Konstantinos Stafylidis.

It is also possible Stoke City mainstay Ryan Shawcross could return in the heart of the defence for what is such a big game for Stoke, but the more athletic duo of Zouma and Martins-Indi seem to be Lambert’s preferred choice in recent weeks.

In the midfield three, the one-time right back Geoff Cameron plays the anchor role, whilst new-signing Badou Ndiaye provides the legs around the pitch and the more technical talent of Joe Allen looks to neatly distribute possession to the forward players.

In addition to the big threat of Shaqiri on the right of the attacking three, I think we’ll see Eric Maxim Chupo-Moting and Jese Rodriguez, meaning quite a fluid, technical front 3 for Stoke, as opposed to them using an out-and-out number 9.

If Paul Lambert did want to go with a more conventional striker to lead the line, his options for this role include Peter Crouch (who often seems to score against us) Saido Berahino (who hasn’t scored in 2 years – you know the rest) and (son of ‘super’ Kevin), Tyrese Campbell.

I wouldn’t be massively surprised if one of those 3 was chosen to try to give Stoke some more physical penetration through the middle and with each having a little ‘it’d be typical Everton if he scored against us’ pre-cursor, don’t be shocked to see any of the 3 on the scoresheet.

Overall, when I look at this Stoke team and their form, the first thing that stands out to me is that lack of goals. 5 goals scored in 7 matches under Lambert, when those matches have included Brighton, Bournemouth, Huddersfield, Watford and Southampton, really isn’t very good.

However, if you were going to do relegation survival by numbers, you’d always start with the defence. Lambert has done that and seen decent improvements, so if they maintain that kind of solidarity and switch the training focus to attacking bits and bobs, you’d think they can scrape together 3 or 4 wins to stay up.

However, with matches starting to run out for Lambert and his men, the wins must start here against an Everton team that are rubbish away from home.

The Blues

In a season full of disappointment, the performance against Brighton stands out in my mind as being one of the best 90 minutes Everton have managed.

Okay, it was ‘only’ Brighton and with all due respect, I expect Everton to be beating Brighton at home 99x out of 100, but for once, I actually thought the blues met expectations.

That might sound like a silly statement when Everton have been decent on their own patch and won 9 games, but what I liked about the performance was the control we had throughout the game and the spells of sustained pressure the team were able to exert.

Too often this season the blues have failed to really impose themselves on the opposition, but for whatever reason, while not creating a bucket-load of clear-cut chances, we actually looked good in that match and on another day could’ve scored more.

Now we’ve met that standard, the questions that Sam Allardyce needs to ask himself are; ‘what changed between Watford/Burnley and Brighton?’ and ‘how do I get this Everton team to maintain that level?’ and really in answer to both, his conclusions shouldn’t just be ‘one was at home and the other 2 away’.

In my opinion, the team’s performance against Brighton wasn’t so much about Everton being at home. Obviously, that helped, but there were a number of important team selection decisions that worked nicely at Goodison and could also work nicely away….

– We had 3 out of 4 experienced defenders in the back 4.
– We had 2 full backs in their natural positions, one right footed and one left footed
– We had 2 penetrative, quick wingers capable of creating or scoring goals
– We had a creative player roaming behind the striker to find and exploit pockets of space
– We had no natural holding midfield player

The side might’ve looked a bit suspect when the team sheet came out, seeing Rooney and Davies in a midfield 2, as well as the forgotten man, Bolasie back in the side, but it worked well so *gulp* credit to Sam Allardyce.

While all of those points helped the team along, for me, the biggest factor in the win was the return of Leighton Baines on our left hand side. I know Baines is on the decline and the season hasn’t been brilliant for him, but he can still play the left back position with his eyes closed better than Cuco Martina will ever play it.

He was solid in defence, up and down, chipping in with attacks, helping in the build up, providing the width when Bolasie went inside and in typical Baines fashion, got himself an assist. He’s been sorely missed these past 3 months, so it’s great to see him back and with just 1 match a week from here on in, I’m hopeful he’ll be just fine.

Aside from Rooney missing a penalty for 3-0 (can we put Baines on them now he’s back?), the only real downside of a good performance was the knee injury sustained by Gylfi Sigurdsson, which looks like it could keep him out of action for a few weeks.

Not only is the injury a shame for Gylfi, who’d been playing really well in recent weeks, but it’s a shame for Everton and Sam Allardyce that he can’t simply select the same team at Stoke as he last time out.

If I was running the book on who takes Gylfi’s place in the team, the short-priced favourite would have to be Idrissa Gueye.

Definitely one of our better performers, the Senegalese would’ve almost certainly started the Brighton match but for illness and his re-introduction could simply mean Wayne Rooney or Tom Davies are pushed forward to try and bridge the gap between midfield and attack.

Other runners for Sigurdsson’s place include…

– Morgan Schneiderlin, who could do a similar role to Gana, albeit in a much more ‘I’m not arsed’ fashion.
– Nikola Vlasic, whose dad has been chiming in via Croatian media this week that his boy should be the ‘prospect of Everton’ but isn’t playing. He could operate in his natural number 10 role.
– Davy Klaassen, given an enthusiastic reception when he entered the fray last week, Evertonians are keen for Davy to do well so would be happy to see him given the chance. He could play off of Cenk Tosun.
– Dominic Calvert-Lewin, could play in a strike duo with Cenk Tosun
– Oumar Niasse, could also play up top with Cenk.

Personally, I’d love to see Vlasic or Klaassen given a chance in the absence of Gylfi, but as I see it, Gana will most likely slot straight back in.

Then (even though I’m still not having Keane myself), the rest of the team surely picks itself after last week’s win and first clean sheet in ages, meaning…

Jordan Pickford will see his goal defended by a back four of; Seamus Coleman, Michael Keane, Phil Jagielka and Leighton Baines.

The midfield trio I mentioned; Gana at the base cleaning up, Rooney floating around behind the forwards and Tom Davies trying to get us onto the front foot as quick as he can.

Then a front 3 of; Yannick Bolasie and Theo Walcott on the flanks and our free-scoring Turkish hitman, Cenk Tosun…

Options from the bench would therefore include; Niasse, Calvert-Lewin, Vlasic, Holgate, Klaassen and thankfully no Ashley Williams as he’s still suspended (hooray!).

In my opinion, that looks like a team that should be able to get something at Stoke, but with our pitiful away form, there’s certainly no way I’d back us.

I’ve tried not to bang the same old drum as I do before every away game, but it’s got to be said that despite the optimism a home win has bought, we’re behind only bottom of the league West Bromwich Albion when it comes to playing away. 8 away points from 30 this season is miles from good enough and it simply has to change. We do have winnable aways remaining this season (this one included) so we must get it right, even if just to banish the demons ahead of next season.

Anyway, aside from this being away from home, my other main worry for this match is that it ultimately just comes down to the team who needs it more. Should that be the case and it boils down to an Everton team that are awful away from home who have little to play for or, a Stoke side, desperate for a win to stay up, you’d think the latter would give it that 5% more to get the result they need.

Hopefully it doesn’t come down to that and for once, we produce a performance of confidence and quality on our travels. If we do, the 3 points are there for the taking against a Stoke City team who struggle to win football matches.

The referee for this one is Martin Atkinson.

I’m not typically a fan of his, but given he’s reffed us twice this season and we’ve won both matches, including our 1 away win in the past 23 trips – I’ll hold onto him having the whistle like it’s some kind of positive omen!

That’ll do for this one, now for 3 more points! Come on you bloos!!!

Would you like a good online forum to chat about the match? Everything Everton? How about Sports, Gambling or anything you feel like talking about.. ? Join The Everton Forum by clicking this link.  It’s quick, easy and we’re a friendly, laid back bunch.

You can find me on there posting as bluerinse or on twitter as @gigHaWatt.

Finally, as always, thanks for taking the time to read.

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