We’re getting towards the business end of the season, for sure, and a tricky set of fixtures for Arsenal starts with a trip up the M6 to face Everton. In advance of that, we talked with Matthew Chandler of SBN’s Everton blog, Royal Blue Mersey, to get the scoop on how this season has gone for Everton and what Arsenal can expect on Sunday.
TSF: Everton are currently 10th. Even if a European place is all but out of reach, does the club’s run-in give you hope of finishing strong and maybe sneaking into Europe if other results go Everton’s way?
RBM: Yes, and for what it’s worth, I hope we can finish seventh. I don’t subscribe to this belief that Europa League qualification is a hindrance on your league campaign, especially if you enter the competition in July, as Everton would if we end up there.
Barring a frenetic 25 minutes at Newcastle, when we conspired to let a 2-0 lead slip and lose 3-2, we’ve been almost faultless lately. We’ve kept four clean sheets in our last five, took four points off Liverpool and Chelsea, and delivered our most complete performance of the campaign in last weekend’s 2-0 win at Newcastle. With enticing home games against Arsenal and Manchester United, and winnable away trips to Fulham and Crystal Palace in April, yes, I certainly do have hope we can sneak into seventh.
TSF: Speaking of new managers, how is the Marco Silva era going so far at Everton?
RBM: A bit stop-start, but there have been enough encouraging signs for me to retain faith in him. We began the season playing superb football and, in the main, getting results; at the end of November, we were sixth and only five points behind Arsenal.
But the last-minute heartbreak at Anfield in ridiculous circumstances really derailed our season; until the end of February, we looked an entirely different team - ponderous in possession, porous at the back, and a manager who looked to be out of ideas.
A 1-0 defeat at his old club, Watford, in early February left Silva on the break, but the 17-day break between that game and our next, a 3-0 win at Cardiff, seemed to revitalise a team that had looked mentally and physically battered. As I said before, since that Cardiff game, the Blues have looked back on track, and with a settled starting XI now, are arguably in a better state than during our good run in October and November.
TSF: Maybe related: Has this season played out the way Everton fans expected? Why or why not?
RBM: Hard to say. I can’t speak on behalf of the whole fanbase, though I know a fair few of our fans have wanted Silva out at certain points; after the aforementioned Watford loss, or the embarrassing FA Cup exit to Millwall.
But while this has not been an amazing season, Evertonians have to be patient. Silva inherited a bloated, disjointed mess of players who had been told to churn out awful football under Sam Allardyce. This was never a quick fix.
I expected us to improve on last season under him, and he has done that. Though, I will admit that I predicted us to finish seventh in pre-season, so next season must see Silva lead a more sustained challenge to the top six.
TSF: I suppose we must ask about Jordan Pickford. Is there fire there, or is it just smoke?
RBM: I think there’s probably a bit of fire. Pickford has been a fantastic player for us amid a sea of mediocrity since he joined Everton in June 2017, but his lack of focus is costing Everton. I wonder whether being made England’s first choice goalkeeper since the World Cup has gone to his head a little; the lack of competition for his place at Goodison Park can also not help. Maarten Stekelenburg, 36, is well past his best by now, and former Arsenal youngster Joao Virginia, 19, is not yet ready.
I would find it unfair, though, to comment on the issue involving him allegedly being involved in a brawl earlier this week, because we don’t know the full story.
TSF: Who has been the biggest surprise for Everton this year, either positive or negative?
RBM: Probably Michael Keane. While there were contributory factors as to why he endured such a dreadful first season with Everton last season - such as usually playing alongside wilting central defenders in Phil Jagielka and Ashley Williams, and an injury which almost led to his foot being amputated - he was exactly that for much of 2017/18 - dreadful. This season, with either Kurt Zouma or Yerry Mina next to him, and with his confidence rebuilt under Silva, Keane has looked more often than not the sort of £25 million defender we bought from Burnley in July 2017. It is no surprise that he has won back his England place and has this week been linked with eye-watering moves to Arsenal and Tottenham Hotspur.
TSF: It’s now time for our regular column, Checkin’ In With Theo. How’s Mr. Walcott doing these days?
RBM: I would say Walcott has been Everton’s worst player this season. He is lacking so much confidence in front of goal it is frightening; in fact, it baffles me that he scored more than 100 goals for Arsenal. He has lost his place on the right wing now to the far more exciting Richarlison, and with Walcott now 30 and contributing precious little, it would be neither a great surprise nor a great disappointment should we see the club cut their losses on another of their expensive failures.
TSF: Fill in the blank: if Arsenal want to beat Everton, they must (blank)
RBM: Be patient and inventive. That crazy ending at Newcastle aside, Everton’s defence have not given much away since then, so it might take a while for Arsenal to work out how to unlock them, and might take something particularly intelligent from a player like Mesut Özil or Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang to break there. Getting your players to try and wind up and unsettle Pickford would, obviously, be a good tactic, too.
TSF: How will Everton set up on Sunday?
RBM: As usual, 4-2-3-1. After a lot of chopping and changing this season, Silva seems to have finally settled on his strongest side. I would expect this to be the team on Sunday:
Pickford; Digne, Zouma, Keane, Coleman; Gueye, Gomes; Bernard, Sigurdsson, Richarlison; Calvert-Lewin.
TSF: What’s your score prediction?
RBM: We’ll give you a good game, but with just one win in our last 26 games against the top six, I can’t back Everton here. 1-1.
Thanks to Matthew and RBM for taking the time to answer our questions!