06 December 2013

Everton Preview: lock down on Lukaku

The storyline of the week has focused on the apparent dischord at Old Trafford, where former Everton manager David "Moe Szyslak" Moyes (thanks to @arseblog for the nickname) is under fire for overseeing a plummet from first to ninth place and for motivating van Persie to request a transfer, if the rumors are to be believed. The flip-side to this same coin is the strength of Everton after Moyes's departure. Former Wigan man Roberto Martínez, meanwhile sits pretty in the catbird's seat, having steered Everton to fifth place so far, no mean feat, given the pace set by Arsenal, Chelsea, and Man City.

It's perhaps telling that, despite all the allure of Man U, Moyes was only able to lure Fellaini to follow him. Meanwhile, by contrast, three Latics—James McCarthy, Arouna Kone, and Antolín Alcaraz—followed Martínez despite the somewhat-less glamorous environs and perks of Goodison Park. Everton have long posed a difficult to challenge to us. Since the 2010-11 season, it's true that we've won four and drawn two, taking 14 of 18 points from the six matches, but we've scored seven goals, a rate almost half of what we usually score. Everton's defensive record this season is similarly strong, with only thirteen goals conceded from fourteen matches, and their consistency home and away is remarkable. They've scored more at home than away, but their home-record (4-3-0) is nearly parallel to their away-record (3-3-1). What's more, they'll arrive tomorrow full of beans, having won at Old Trafford for the first time in 21 years. Heck, it took Moyes eleven years before Everton could win at Old Trafford. What's that word for when what happens is the opposite of what you'd expect? Oh, yeah—irony.

More to the point, Everton will present a tough nut to crack on Sunday. If anything, the departures of Moyes and Fellaini seem to have galvanized the team. Martínez has brought a more possession-based attack to Everton, relying far less on the width and crossing that Moyes seemed to have preferred. That, and the loan-in of Romelu Lukaku, have propelled Everton to its current fifth-place; at 27 points, they're five points ahead of their pace last year. Then again, we're 13 points ahead of our pace last year, so there's that. Back to possession versus crossing—they'll arrive without Leighton Baines and his vaunted service from the left flank. How this will impact the match is a bit of a toss-up: he's a decent defender, but his real contribution comes from those crosses and set-pieces.

What I'm getting at is this: Baines's absence to injury might at first seem like glad tidings, but Everton's shift away from crosses and towards possession make Baines a bit less-vital. His replacement, Bryan Oviedo, has more than deputized; he scored the game-winner against Man U and added a goal and assist in Everton's 4-0 demolition of Stoke. As such, he may pose a bigger threat at the offensive end than does Baines. It's only a two-match record, but he'll be one to keep an eye on.

Speaking of keeping an eye on players, we have to devote a moment to Lukaku. We've eyed him and for good reason. He's scored eight of Everton's 22 goals. The remaining 14 are spread among ten players. If we can shut down Lukaku, in other words, we'll go a long way towards shutting down Everton's attack. Everton are more than a one-man attack, of course. We've shown that we have the mettle necessary to blunt some of England's—not to mention Europe's—best scorers, and I'm confident that we can do the same on Sunday. If we can deny him service and knock him off the ball when he does have the ball at his feet, Everton will find it hard to score.

From there, a rested Arsenal attack should be able to press its advantage. Giroud should make a return, as may Arteta. I'd like to see an attacking midfield of Wilshere at center with Cazorla left and Özil right, and then Ramsey and Arteta. Behind, them, from left to right, Gibbs, Kos, Per, and Jenks (Sagna's out with a light knock). I hope this balances defense with attack enough to see us through to a 2-1 win. Goals come from Cazorla and Giroud.

Make your predictions below the fold. This one could be a nail-biter!