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Hot Off The Press: Everton

Sky Sports' Ben Grounds on The Toffees season so far

27 November 2021

Following a dip in form throughout October, Everton sit 11thin the Premier League table ahead of Sunday’s match. What have you made of what you’ve seen so far?

It has been a mixed bag. The summer window certainly lowered expectations among fans as the Premier League's profit and sustainability rules restricted the club’s transfer plans but Rafa Benitez was creative and unearthed two gems in Andros Townsend and Demarai Gray. The pair have been a breath of fresh air and both helped inspire exhilarating wins at Brighton and against Burnley in those opening weeks. With the team fourth, Benitez admitted it had been a “near perfect” start and a clear style of play that had been lacking under his predecessors was being formulated, but an increasing number of injuries has certainly eroded confidence. By the time of the Carabao Cup exit, what was always likely to be the shortest of honeymoon periods was over. Fans packed out the away end at Loftus Road on the club’s last visit to west London in September and left with immense disappointment but an understanding of why the penalty shootout defeat at the hands of Championship QPR had occurred; for all the money spent over the past five-and-a-half years, Everton still lack the necessary squad depth to compete on multiple fronts. 

Benitez is Moshri’s fifth permanent appointment since announcing his stated objective of achieving Champions League football. While Everton are no closer to reaching that goal despite the club spending around £500m, Benitez’s early steps off the pitch indicate he is taking the club in the right direction. He has targeted making improvements in all departments and his recent calls for patience in the face of adversity I’d say are being acknowledged by the vast majority of supporters. Every club wants to accelerate the process, but there will be pain along the way. The past few weeks have highlighted how every Premier League manager is only a handful of defeats away from the sack, but what Everton need right now is stability and everyone singing off the same hymn sheet. Once Benitez has his key players back fit, I’m in no doubt results will improve.

Dominic Calvert-Lewin has been sidelined by an injury to his quadriceps for the last few months and hasn’t played since August, when he started the season with three goals in three games. How much of an impact has his absence had on the Toffees?

Benitez will have viewed a top-seven finish as a realistic aim for a club the size of Everton with the players at his disposal and Calvert-Lewin’s importance to those aspirations were underlined in those opening three games. Filling the void has proved an uphill struggle. Salomon Rondon has fallen short of the required standard in his six starts while Cenk Tosun is yet to feature following his return from a serious knee injury. Richarlison is still getting back up to speed after a month out but the Brazilian looks far more effective out wide. There are very few other options until Calvert-Lewin returns as the team’s focal point. It can’t come soon enough to reignite confidence in the forward line, but it was very much this mentality which exacerbated an existing problem given he was initially playing through the pain of a toe injury. The subsequent setback in his rehabilitation left many cursing the club’s bad luck, but it was indicative of a more deep-rooted problem that has led to an over reliance on key individuals.

Given his history with fierce rivals Liverpool, how has manager Rafa Benitez been received by Everton fans?

They say trust is earned in drops and lost in buckets and this has never felt more applicable to an Everton boss despite his clear passion for the city and determination to be a success now on other side of the divide. Benitez has already underlined his credentials as a master tactician but above all, Evertonians want a side and a manager they can identify with. It certainly was a divisive appointment, but the early wins eased what no doubt felt an awkward arrangement given his Liverpool ties. Whenever the subject of his popularity has been posed to him, Benitez has rightly pointed out the goodwill received from most passers-by who will judge him solely on his performance as their manager. The Everton hierarchy do not like to use social media as a barometer for assessing the true feelings of supporters, but Benitez certainly has his finger on the pulse, gauges the mood of his fanbase and acknowledges the importance of fostering a connection with the hardcore who have travelled south this afternoon. 

There are those who will remain unconvinced that the Spaniard is the man to lead Everton in the longer term with work on transforming Bramley-Moore Dock into the club’s new 52,000-seater stadium continuing at pace. There has even been unfair speculation that a shortlist has been drawn up to replace him. But having taken on the role when circumstances are far from ideal and money is tight, the last thing the club need right now is a new manager.

Which player should Brentford fans be keeping an eye on on Sunday?

Abdoulaye Doucoure’s loss with a stress fracture in his foot has opened up an unexpected opportunity for Fabian Delph, which he has grasped with both hands. The recent goalless draw with Tottenham was the midfielder’s first start in 11 months, but he produced a man-of-the-match display following an impressive cameo in the defeat to Wolves. With the help of the club’s new rehabilitation coach Cristian Fernandez, Delph is overcoming his injury demons and has brought control and experience to the middle of the pitch, allowing Allan (pictured above) to play his natural game in a slightly more advanced role. Benitez has tried to manage his minutes, and stringing a run of consistent games together has always been the issue for the 32-year-old since he joined the club in summer 2019. This will be the second fixture of 10 in 42 days so I’d be surprised if he were to complete the full 90 again but helping win the midfield battle is Delph’s chief task. 

How is Benitez likely to set up in west London?

Everton have tended to play with a back four this season - at the time of writing, it was only against Burnley in the Premier League that Benitez opted to deploy a back three with wing-backs - but Calvert-Lewin’s injury has left the manager scratching around for the best way of providing the right balance further up the pitch. Townsend has recently adapted his role to accommodate the absence of a target man at the end of his crosses, and he could again operate more centrally, with Gray and Gordon occupying the wide berths. Allan and Delph should retain their places in midfield. Everton certainly will have prepared a specific game plan having analysed the strengths of Thomas Frank’s side - most notably from dead ball situations - but Benitez will look to get across the message that it will be through personality and aggression rather than relying on any set system that is more likely to result in three points. 

This is the first league encounter between the two sides since Everton won 6-1 in February 1954. What’s your score prediction for this one?

What Evertonians would give for a repeat of that scoreline heading into this week’s derby! Certainly a win of any margin would do nicely. This is a huge game for Everton and for Benitez but today is every bit as important for Brentford after their recent wobble. Without a home league win since the opening night of the campaign and following three straight defeats on their own patch, Everton must feed off any signs of vulnerability and be clinical when chances come their way. Brighton, Chelsea, Leicester and Norwich were all made to work hard for their wins at the Brentford Community Stadium, but the hosts are learning just how unforgiving the Premier League can be. If Everton attack with the same verve as they did on the road during the early part of the season, another narrow away victory is certainly within their capabilities. I’m predicting Everton to win 2-1.

Sunday's game is live on Super Sunday, kick-off 2pm, and around the world via the Premier League's broadcast partners.

Supporters can also join Mark Burridge, Karleigh Osborne, and Jonathan Douglas on Bees Player for live commentary.

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