By Matt Jones
Those dropped points against Manchester United feel even more frustrating now, don’t they?
Because if Everton were able to avoid a late loss of concentration with a one-goal lead intact at Old Trafford, they would have bounded into Saturday’s match with Burnley ahead of the Red Devils and ahead of Arsenal in the table, with a chance to pull further clear.
Granted, the two potential pursuivants would have had games in hand, but Everton would have been turning the screw against two sides that have failed to hit top gear this season. It would have been fascinating to see how they, and indeed the Toffees, responded to that battle to finish among the top six.
As it stands, Everton’s chances of muscling their way into the newly-anointed “Big Six” are slim. Yes, they can move into fifth with a win on Saturday—what’d be their eighth triumph in succession at Goodison Park—but it’s likely they need five victories from their last six matches to maintain that spot.
This fixture, against the Premier League’s worst away side, is an easy one to take for granted in that particular run. Burnley, after all, have yet to pick up three points in any of their matches on the road so far this season. But they’re as dogged and determined as any outfit in the division; this won’t be a comfortable 90 minutes.
Yet Everton have handled these assignments well in recent weeks with quick starts, patient buildup and tremendous fitness. Same again then, lads.
At the moment, going to Goodison Park is a treat. Of course, the underlying reason for that is the tremendous home sequence that’s been put together by Ronald Koeman’s side in 2017. But there’s an appreciation that this team is moving in the right direction and an association with the style of football being played.
Because while the early days of Roberto Martinez’s tenure—bristling with precise and pristine passing football—were a delight at times, this feels more like Everton. Those of a blue persuasion love aggression, hard work and thrust. This team is offering that in bucketloads at the moment.
And there’s a confidence in the players too. Although there were a few rumblings when Leicester City went 2-1 up on Sunday, there was primarily calm in the stands. I can’t have been the only one smugly thinking “we’ve still got this”; the players seemed to believe so too.
Morgan Schneiderlin has been so important in cultivating that feeling. Deployed at the base of midfield the Frenchman is a force of nature, amalgamating the traits of a rugged anchorman and a classy playmaker. When he’s in the team, so many other members of the XI see their performances enriched.
And of course, PFA Player of the Year nominee Romelu Lukaku remains in the form of his career. Two more goals against Leicester City continued his run of scoring at Goodison in the last seven games, bagging 12 times in total during that period. You’d back him to bolster that glut here.
It’s imperative a strong home record is preserved and with United and Arsenal playing later in the weekend—Chelsea and Middlesbrough, respectively, could offer awkward assignments for each too—this is a chance to break the shackles of seventh place for a few hours at least. Lets lay the gauntlet down.
Even though they’ve accumulated a meagre four points in away matches in the Premier League this season, Burnley are a proposition to be wary of when they head to Goodison Park on Saturday.
Although their impressive campaign has been founded on the basis of a strong record at Turf Moor, there have been signs that slowly, Sean Dyche’s side are beginning to get used to life on the road in the top flight of English football.
Granted, from their last three away matches they’ve only managed to muster two points. But a visit to Anfield last month should have yielded something, as the Clarets bullied Liverpool for long spells in a 2-1 loss. Burnley have been excellent value for their points at Hull City and Middlesbrough since. It feels as though they’re on an upward trajectory, at least.
There have been some standout performances from those in claret and blue too. Those at Goodison Park on Saturday will certainly have a close eye on Michael Keane—nominated for the PFA Young Player of the Year award—, as the centre-back is rumoured to be a serious summer target for Everton.
Tom Heaton has proven tough to best between the sticks at times too, while a front two consisting of the electric Andre Gray and the persistent nuisance that is Ashley Barnes can cause problems for any defenders in the league.
Although they’re sitting pretty in 12th on 36 points, the table remains congested in the bottom half and Dyche will be determined to see his side pick up a couple more points to ensure they are totally safe from relegation. With a draw likely to be the sum of their ambitions, this is unlikely to be an enjoyable one.
Everton XI to beat Burnley
While Matty Pennington grew into the game against Leicester, Barnes’ nuisance value will surely mean a recall for the no-longer-suspended Ashley Williams alongside Phil Jagielka at centre-back.
Further forward in the starting XI, Koeman may well have settled on an ideal front six, especially in midfield, where the trio of Schneiderlin, Idrissa Gueye and Tom Davies have struck a brilliant balance. It wouldn’t be a huge surprise if Gareth Barry was drafted in for this one, though, as Koeman values his class in possession against deep-sitting sides.
While Ross Barkley and Lukaku have been superb in their advanced roles, the man whose form has gone slightly under the radar is Kevin Mirallas. His energy and incision in the final third, along with superb set-piece delivery, means he’s slowly cementing his place as a regular in the left of the attacking threesome.