By Matt Jones
To think, I thought I was going to struggle to write a full match preview this week.
What a bloody whirlwind few days.
Romelu Lukaku turned down a contract and questioned the board, Ronald Koeman puffed his chest out in a press conference and, underscoring all this, more positive soundbites surfaced regarding a potential move to Bramley Moore dock.
It’s the Lukaku chatter that’ll dominate the pre-match conversations in the boozers around Goodison Park on Saturday, though, and you sense column inches for months to come. It was galling to read the club’s star is concerned about the club “living in the past” although frantically scrolling through his interview at 10:31 p.m. on Wednesday night, it was hard not to nod in agreement.
Had Lukaku not so candidly exchanged his views with the national press, I wouldn’t have started him on Saturday, even with lack of cover and the chase for European football considered.
Everton have enough quality to win without the striker, there’s an international break straight after the match and that is followed by away games at Anfield and Old Trafford. Had Lukaku been jeered—not that he should be—and bridges irreparably burnt on Saturday, where would the club go from there?
But Lukaku’s interview has seemingly enriched his status among the fanbase, an enfant terrible no more in the eyes of many. Instead he’s the club’s best player and top goalscorer, openly sharing the same frustrations felt by a sizeable portion of the supporters. And it seems to have resonated in a positive manner.
Hopefully it all aligns on Saturday—the Goodison Park crowd put any grievances about the forward on hold, he responds in turn with another dominant performance and Koeman’s men take another big stride towards European football.
Oh, yeah. We’re playing Hull City by the way.
It’s easy to forget amid all that’s gone on over the last few day that Everton have actually been performing extremely well in recent weeks. On home soil in particular.
West Bromwich Albion were billed as an awkward assignment for the Toffees, especially given they would have had the scent of seventh place in their nostrils had they won at Goodison Park. Yet Everton dealt with the agricultural threats posed by the Baggies with ease and scored three fine goals.
Koeman continued to add to his reputation as a proactive coach by making changes to the team to exploit the opposition weakness. It’s an approach that can be considered a little negative at times—supporters love the “let them worry about us” narrative—but the Dutchman was proven right in his assessment.
Gareth Barry and Morgan Schneiderlin gave Everton assured security against their deep-sitting opponents. Not just in terms of sterile possession, they upped the ante when needed and intelligently probed at the mass ranks of West Brom players. No angst or frustration tumbled down from the standards. The Toffees were in total control.
It’s a control that’s allowed those high up the pitch to flourish. Barkley is blossoming on the right flank, Lukaku has been a wrecking ball in home matches up top, while Kevin Mirallas was abuzz with energy and incision against West Brom. There’s a brilliant blend of attributes there.
As this preview proved in its introduction, the opposition have been overlooked a little heading into this weekend. But perhaps that’s a little unfair.
Manager Marco Silva may have been roundly written off upon his appointment, although all things considered, he’s done a decent job.
The Portuguese took over the weakest squad in the Premier League and lost his two best players in January in Robert Snodgrass and Jake Livermore. That they’re even in contention to stay afloat in the top flight—currently in 18th place one point away from safety—is an achievement.
Silva’s recovery effort has been primarily founded on the team thriving at home, where they’ve not lost since Boxing Day. By contrast, they’ve only won one away game all season—their first one—and have lost 10 and drawn two of their last 12.
That should give Everton confidence, although Hull have been unfortunate in some away encounters, losing narrowly to Arsenal and Chelsea after playing well; they also defended diligently to hold Manchester United to a 0-0 draw at Old Trafford. In their last away fixture they took the lead against Leicester before eventually losing 3-1.
There are some talented players there too. Kamil Grosicki, linked with Everton in the summer, has been a bundle of energy on the flank since arriving, while Lazar Markovic, on loan from Liverpool, does have quality despite his fallen stock.
Nevertheless, the Toffees are superior in every department and while plenty have made light of Oumar Niasse’s ineligibility this weekend, he’ll be a big miss for Hull after his crucial brace in the win over Swansea City. Goals have been very difficult for Silva’s men to come by on the road after all, with just two in their last 10 Premier League outings away from home.
Everton team to beat Hull
As was noted in this section last week, I think we can safely say the three-at-the-back system has been shelved for now. Even so, Koeman’s mind is a tough one to read.
Here, the back four will likely stay the same after Phil Jagielka’s strong showing against West Brom, while Leighton Baines is fit again according to the manager.
Idrissa Gueye should come back into midfield too. This match may be a little more frantic than the previous one, with Hull more enterprising in their play under Silva. The Senegalese’s vertical forays and unrelenting energy will be an asset, with Schneiderlin likely to step into a pivot role at the base of midfield.