Everton v Stoke. The Everton Forum match preview

After a busy summer the blues return to Premier League action when they host Stoke City at Goodison Park on Saturday (3pm kick off).

Whilst overall the start to our 2017/18 season is generally considered as hell on a fixture list, I think this first fixture in itself isn’t too bad.

Yes, I get it, there are no easy games in the Premier League and the matches to follow definitely add some pressure to this one but I look at it like this; we’re at home, we’re playing a side who didn’t do much last season (finishing 13th) and a side who haven’t had a summer transfer window to write home about.

On paper at least, this should be a great chance for Everton to kick off with a confidence boosting 3 points.

The Summer

Before I focus on the opposition and how I think we should set up for this match, some words on Everton’s summer for those who’ve been living under a rock these past few months.

It was undoubtedly a summer that started off really well for us.

First we had the pride of seeing 5 of our younger lads lift the under 20 World Cup for England. Those kids; Jonjo Kenny, Callum Connolly, Kieran Dowell, Ademola Lookman and Dominic Calvert-Lewin all featured during the competition and in certain cases really lit up the tournament.

If anybody didn’t know, 3 of those 5 Evertonians scored in the tournament, 1 scored in the final (the only goal, no less) and all but 1 helped contribute at least 1 goal to England’s tally, be that a goal scored or an assist for a goal.

None of the five blues were bad in the tournament but the two who really impressed me were the rampaging right back, Jonjo Kenny and the tricky forward, Ademola Lookman. Whilst I appreciate it’s a totally different level of football, I believe both should be involved with Everton’s first team this season.

Now onto the transfers…

Our first summer signing of note was the young English goalkeeper Jordan Pickford signed from Sunderland for £30m. The 23 year old from the North East was followed swiftly by a 24 year old, this time the Dutch central midfielder Davy Klaassen who joined from Ajax in a deal worth around £24m.

It really was a crazy couple of days for an Evertonian. Not only had we bought in 2 good international players of considerable pedigree we’d done it in the blink of an eye, casually reeling off over £50m in the process.

A week or two later and we were at it again. This time it was Michael Keane from Burnley for £30m and guess what, the week after it was all-time Manchester United and England top scorer Wayne Rooney coming back from United.

Suddenly we were at the start of July, the start of our pre-season and already we had 4 new faces among our ranks and these weren’t just any old new faces either; all 4 capped internationally, all with leadership qualities and all with big reputations.

For Everton it was unheard of and us blues were dreaming of what might be next season.

There was, however, one snag that followed Rooney’s arrival. Romelu Lukaku, our top goalscorer of the Premier League era, responsible for well over 20 goals in each of the last few seasons, left the club for a fee around £75m (rising to £90m).

The departure of Lukaku for Manchester United was clearly disappointing but not at all unexpected. The player had made it clear last season he wouldn’t be signing a new contract with Everton so, with 2 years left on his contract, the sensible thing was to sell. That way he’d be gone early in the window for a large fee, which we’d have then have plenty of time to reinvest in a replacement.

I’m sure many blues will wish nothing but failure to Romelu Lukaku but personally, I don’t think he owes us anything. Of course, he could’ve behaved more professionally on numerous occasions but he gave us some good service, plenty of goals and ultimately got a move to play at a higher level (earning us a big profit in the process). That, as they say, is football. We move on and he moves on.

The problem for Everton though has come in moving on in Lukaku’s position. Romelu was always going to be very hard for us to replace (like for like anyway). Although we had a pile of cash from his sale, the fact is 99% of strikers of his calibre don’t even give clubs a second look without Champions League football on offer.

When asked about replacing Lukaku’s goals, Ronald Koeman suggested Everton would be a better all-round team if Lukaku’s goals were shared between a few different players.

The question for us blues though remained; who do we have that can even get us 10-15 goals next season, let alone 2 or 3 players who’ll score that many?

Some said Rooney could role back the years to bang them in, whilst another popular answer was the heavily linked Sandro Ramirez.

The former Barcelona forward, plying his trade at Malaga last season, represented astounding value for money at £6m following his impressive haul in Spain’s top league. Although his wasn’t the most swiftly concluded deal (no strangers to those, are we?) we got it over the line eventually.

Along with Rooney, Ronald Koeman will surely be hoping the ‘Sandrooney’ axis (I went there) can help fill the goalscoring void Lukaku has left.

Any other business this summer?

Former Southampton man Cuco Martina was signed on a free transfer to cover ‘across the back 4’ whilst Arouna Kone (released), Tom Cleverley (Watford, £8m), Gerard Deulofeu (Barcelona, £10.5m) and Enner Valencia (West Ham, end of loan) left the club.

Aaron Lennon, following his troubles at the end of last season was back in pre-season training. Whether Aaron has a future at Everton, I really don’t know, but it was definitely nice to see him back around the place and scoring against FC Twente.

If Lennon stays at the club, I’m sure he’ll get the support he needs and if he leaves I’m sure all Evertonians will wish a good pro the very best for the future, both on and off the pitch.

Ross Barkley? Well, the manager has said he’s leaving but he’s still an Everton player, for now. I could go on and on about this topic but really there’s no point.

I’ll just say I don’t want him to go, I think it’s a mistake for him to go but, if he doesn’t want to stay nothing I type can change that. Ultimately, I just think it’s a shame.

Finally, Ramiro Funes Mori has seriously injured his knee so will join Yannick Bolasie and Seamus Coleman in being out of action for the foreseeable future. On a brighter note, long term absentee of last season Mo Besic has returned and has a full pre-season under his belt, although how much Koeman fancies him is entirely unknown.

Now onto that pre-season…

First there was the trip to Tanzania where we won 2-1, then the tour of the lowlands where we won 3-0 in the Netherlands and drew 1-1 in Belgium.

Unusually, after just those 3 pre-season friendlies, we had a competitive match to test our fitness levels. Our visitors were Ruzemborok (the third best team in Slovakia last season) who came to contest a Europa League qualifier.

The first leg of that tie was the earliest competitive Everton match Goodison Park had ever hosted. It really wasn’t worth the wait for the old girl to host a July competitive match, but a win’s a win and Leighton Baines duly delivered it with a deflected second half strike.

The following week, the return leg in Slovakia saw another 1-0 win thanks to Dominic Calvert-Lewin before we hosted Sevilla in the ‘glamour’ friendly at Goodison, which ended in a 2-2 draw.

I always think it’s hard to know what to take from pre-season at the best of times but in each game there were a few concerns for me.

The first of those is to be expected with a lack of match fitness, but I thought we were sluggish in each match for long periods. Secondly, and again to be expected with numerous new players, the lads were often on different wavelengths which led to our passing being all over the place.

The most concerning thing in my opinion was with the way we attacked in the recent matches against Ruzomberok and Sevilla. In each of those 3 games I thought we really lacked a presence upfront and consequently we struggled to keep the ball in the final third for long periods to put our opposition under sustained spells of pressure.

In addition, it’s become very clear to me that we currently lack pace and creativity. The midfielders we’ve been using primarily (Schneiderlin, Gana and Klaassen) all seem to play with a lot of work-rate and snap but they don’t really have the vision to pick forward defence-splitting passes.

Meanwhile, our strikers; Rooney, Sandro and Calvert-Lewin don’t appear to offer much of a threat with out and out pace or physicality. Of course it’s early days with Sandro, who seems keen to ‘hussle bussle’ defenders, but I don’t think they’ll worry about him running away from them.

It’s not only pace we lack going forwards. Our defenders are slow as a collective (Williams, Jagielka and Baines in particular) and this could mean we often play too deep next season which will lead to periods of sustained pressure on our goal.

I think it’s very clear, for all the positive early signings, Everton still have a number of holes in the squad which, on the eve of the Premier League season, is disappointing.

For what it’s worth, I think we need; a ‘traditional’ number 9 to play the ball long to and occupy defenders, 1-2 creative midfield players with ideally 1 of those being pacey, cover at left back (is 1 ageing left back in the entire squad expected to play Thursday-Sunday footy?) and cover at centre back (with Funes Mori out for most of the season).

Of the players we’ve been linked to, I don’t see Gylfi Sigurdsson being the answer to all of our problems. He’d be a good addition but for the money touted and the time spent on the transfer, I’d rather we looked elsewhere and think it’s a bit foolish we haven’t moved on.

A more pressing concern in my view, is the lack of a striker of physical stature and the lack of left back/central defensive cover. I personally can’t see him coming to Everton but I’d love Olivier Giroud and at left back/centre back a move for Daley Blind could prove to be a decent one.

Anyway, that brings us to where we are now. Stoke at home…

The Potters

Usually when I analyse an opposition team ahead of an Everton match I’ll look at their form and how I think they might be able to hurt us.

Obviously, when it’s the first game of the season, writing the part on the opposition becomes a bit more tricky. I can look at the pre-season friendly results to try and find trends but as I mentioned above, I never really know how much to take from those matches.

Looking at Stoke’s pre-season results, I can they’ve played 8 matches in pre-season (4 wins, 1, draw, 3 defeats. 13 goals scored, 14 conceded) with their most recent result a confidence boosting 2-1 victory against German Champions League club, RB Leipzig.

Although I won’t pretend to have sat down and watched all 8 of those matches, a couple of stand-out players in Stoke’s pre-season appear to be Mame-Biram Diouff and Joselu.

In the case of Diouff, a curious tactical change from Mark Hughes has seen the Senegalese striker employed as a right wing back when Stoke play a back 3. Joselu, who wasn’t even at Stoke last year (he was loaned to Deportivo) scored back-to-back braces in 2 of Stoke’s more recent friendlies.

In addition to those two, Stokes attacking talents include the mercurial Swiss Xherdan Shaqiri, the well-traveled former Barcelona youngster Bojan, Saido Berahino and built-like-a-tree Peter Crouch.

If Mark Hughes continues with the back 3 that saw off RB Leipzig, I’d expect to Jack Butland’s goal shielded by the Chelsea loanee Kurt Zouma, Geoff Cameron and Ryan Shawcross who’ll be flanked by Erik Pieters and Glen Johnson/Mame Diouff.

In the midfield area, Stoke will have sprightly new boy Darren Fletcher and Joe Allen with the other option of Charlie Adam (depending on which system Hughes goes with).

One player I do rate who plays for Stoke is the goalkeeper. Jack Butland is, in my opinion, the best English goalkeeper and will take some beating. If Stoke line up with a 343 formation, chances at Stoke’s goal could be slim for Everton so we’ll need to be efficient when any opportunities come along.

I don’t expect the Stoke starting 11 to send shivers down the spine of any Evertonian but they’re not to be taken lightly. They will look to compete, stay tight at the back (even though they’ve leaked goals in pre-season) and pose some problems for us moving forwards. Their attack won’t be star studded but there is the nice variety of the big man, the pacey forward and the tricky one who’ll come deep to keep us on our toes.

I should finally mention that Stoke have signed forward Eric Maxim Chupo-Moting this week following his release from Schalke. Given he’s only just signed and hasn’t had much of a pre-season I’d be surprised if he played too much of a part this week. However, we all know this is Everton so get on him in-play if he gets on!

The Blues

The team on the opening day of the season is usually the hardest to predict purely because there are so many variables that we as fans don’t know about.

We don’t know where certain players are fitness-wise, we don’t know if the manager thinks certain new players are well enough integrated to start and we don’t even know what his plan is going to be for this season, tactically.

What I’m fairly certain about is we’re going to see Jordan Pickford make his home competitive debut.

In front of him 2 positions seem set in stone, Michael Keane will start and so will Leighton Baines but what about the other 2 or 3 defenders…? Will it be Ashley Williams or Phil Jagielka alongside Keane and what about the right back predicament, will the manager go with Martina, Holgate or Kenny?

If it was up to me, I’d go with a 4 of Kenny, Jagielka, Keane and Baines but I wouldn’t be at all surprised to see Martina and Williams who seem the ‘safe bet’.

In the middle of the park we’re almost certain to see a 3 including Schneiderlin and Klaassen. The question is whether they’ll be joined by Idrissa Gueye, Tom Davies or maybe even Gareth Barry. I think it’s likely to be Idrissa Gueye but I’d prefer to see Tom Davies start this match.

Moving forwards, I think it’s nailed on we’ll see a front 3 including Rooney and probably Sandro, but the other attacking role could be one of three; Mirallas, Lookman or Calvert-Lewin. Personally, I’d play Sandro through the middle with Rooney and Lookman playing free in behind him. I suspect we may see Calvert-Lewin given the start here, though.

Whichever team Ronald Koeman picks, I want to see more energy and more passing cohesion than we’ve seen in pre-season. We need to move the ball quickly and shoot when opportunities come to get the most out of this squad of players.

My concern for this game is that we lack craft to create chances and we also don’t have a ‘plan B’ striker who we can go long to when we lose patience in our inability to pick the lock of a stubborn defence. With this in mind, I can see this being quite a tight and cagey game, won by the odd goal.

I’ll take a complete stab in the dark and say this will finish 1-0 to Everton, with Davy Klaassen arriving from deep to bury a Sandro Ramirez pull back midway through the second half!

Finally, the match is a total sell out (including the away end) so hopefully we might get a bit of an atmosphere.

The referee will be Neil Swarbrick.

Sorry I went on a bit, there was a lot to mention over the summer!



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