Welcome to the first quick turnaround game of the season! After Thursday’s exertions against Vorskla in the Europa League, Arsenal welcome Everton to the Emirates on Sunday. In advance of that visit, I chatted with Royal Blue Mersey’s own Matthew Chandler about Everton’s new manager, their start to the season, and what he thinks will happen this weekend. I answered some questions for him over there, as well - you can check those out here.
TSF: I know it’s been a month since the season started, but I don’t think the statute of limitations has expired on the How Did Everton’s Summer Transfer Season Go question, has it?
RBM: It will be hard to judge the success of summer transfer window for a while yet. Richarlison started wonderfully with three goals in his first two games before an act of petulance at Bournemouth earned him a three-match ban. Lucas Digne has been in and out at left-back, alternating with the experienced Leighton Baines, but has also made a real impression; already I don’t know if we have many better crossers of the ball in our squad and he was one of few to emerge from last week’s defeat to West Ham with any credit.
Kurt Zouma has been generally solid at centre-half and is undoubtedly an upgrade on Ashley Williams and Phil Jagielka, but fellow centre-back signing Yerry Mina is yet to feature due to a foot injury sustained at the World Cup. With Everton yet to keep a clean sheet this campaign, fans are desperate to see him make his debut; he started training last week. Bernard was lively off the bench against West Ham and may make his first start at the Emirates Stadium, while central midfielder André Gomes remains out but, like Mina, his first appearance becomes more eagerly anticipated by the week.
TSF: It seems like Theo Walcott is not just settling in nicely at Everton, but becoming a bit of a fan favorite as well. IS that an accurate perception? Do you think Walcott will continue to improve?
RBM: Walcott has been a great signing, with five goals in 19 games. He’s an honest professional with an awful lot of talent and I think that’s why so many fans have taken to him. I wouldn’t describe him as a particularly spectacular player, but he knows what he’s good at and more often than not does it very well. His electrifying pace is no secret and since joining in January has provided the energy down the flanks which we so dearly lacked prior to his arrival.
He will be 30 in March, so whether he can improve that much is debatable. Maybe an return to the England squad could be on the cards if he keeps up his form for the Blues, though.
TSF: Is this season starting the way you would have expected, or did Everton stumble out the gate a little?
RBM: The early-season optimism has been sapped somewhat. Everton were excellent against Wolverhampton, Southampton, and for 70 minutes against Bournemouth, but since surrending our two-goal lead late at the Vitality Stadium, we haven’t really recovered. An inability to break down a feeble yet resilient Huddersfield Town resulted in an extremely frustrating 1-1 home draw, and last week’s limp defeat at home to West Ham United, a side who had previously lost all four games, was as galling as it was predictable.
TSF: Probably related: How is Marco Silva so far? Does he seem to have the club moving in a positive direction after last season’s rollercoaster?
RBM: I think so. The dreadful recruitment of last summer, coupled with the apathy towards both Ronald Koeman and Sam Allardyce, left Evertonians on their lowest ebb in years, and Silva and new director of football Marcel Brands have thus far done well in rectifying recent mistakes. The brand of football has patently improved, and it’s impressive to see how Silva has revitalised Morgan Schneiderlin after a horrendous 2017/18, where the player looked entirely disinterested.
That said, if the last two games have shown us anything, it’s that Silva will not be a quick fix and the squad he inherited is generally pretty poor. We are miles away from where want to be - in the top six at least - and it will take time for Silva to lead us there.
TSF: You asked me this question, so I’ll ask the same: What would constitute a success for Silva in his first season?
RBM: Seventh place and a cup would be a fantastic first season. Given the top six is not yet feasible, I see no reason why we shouldn’t set our sights on the FA Cup or Carabao Cup, if not both. But at the bare minimum, if there are obvious signs of improvement about Everton - enough to send us into next summer with optimism - then I would happy with that. Last season was such a horribly monotonous slog that I’ll take whatever I can get, really.
TSF: Let’s talk Jordan Pickford. Is the difference in his play for England and for Everton simply a matter of sample size and perception, or is there truly a discrepancy there?
RBM: I think the difference in his play stems from the personnel in front of him. At the World Cup he had, for the most part, a settled defence of Kyle Walker, John Stones, Harry Maguire, Kieran Trippier and Ashley Young. So far this season, Everton have not named the same back four in consecutive games, with generally more limited defenders. Pickford hasn’t covered himself in glory at times; his terrible pass on Sunday led to Andriy Yarmolenko scoring, and Ruben Neves’ free-kick on the opening day I felt he could have saved, but at 24, he is still relatively young for a goalkeeper. He has a lot to learn still, but I have no doubt that he will keep improving.
TSF: If Arsenal want to beat Everton on Sunday, they must (blank)
RBM: Take advantage of set-pieces. In all competitions, six of Everton’s ten goals conceded this season have come from set-plays. Silva is trying to employ zonal marking from corners, which have been the Blues’ Achilles heel so far, so I’m sure Unai Emery will be targetting this as a key route to goal.
TSF: Any notable injuries or absences this weekend?
RBM: As I mentioned, Gomes remains out, while Mina may be in contention but has only been back in training for a week. Michael Keane is still recovering from his head injury sustained at Bournemouth, too. Other than that, Phil Jagielka and James McCarthy remain sidelined with knee and leg injuries respectively.
TSF: Score prediction?
RBM: 3-1 to Arsenal. It would be brave to bet against us scoring, but we’re just in a sticky patch at the moment and ultimately I can only see Arsenal having too much for us on the day.
Thanks so much to Matthew and RBM for taking the time!