Just about a year ago, Arsenal traveled to Everton. Freddie Ljungberg was in the Arsenal technical area, Duncan Ferguson opposite him. Both Mikel Arteta and Carlo Ancelotti were in the stands, watching the teams they had just been named to take over. Both sides have come a long way since that incredibly sloppy but spirited nil-nil draw, haven’t they?
TSF: Everton have had quite the season already. Red-hot start, a bit of a slump, and two great results in the last two league matches. So which team are they?
RBM: Somewhere in between. We looked a real force with our best players all fit and playing at the start of the season, yet it took until only about two weeks ago for Carlo Ancelotti to find a winning formula without one of our star players in the injured Lucas Digne.
We’ve tightened up at the back with two consecutive clean sheets against Chelsea and Leicester, having not kept one previously in the Premier League since the opening day at Spurs. Still plenty to work on, and the quality in the squad still doesn’t run particularly deep, but they are longer-term concerns. A year into the job and we have made great progress under a manager we all adore.
TSF: You’re currently a point outside the top four. Are Everton bonafide contenders or do you expect them to fall off the pace? Would you be happy with only making the Europa League?
RBM: Yes, because we were 18th when Ancelotti’s predecessor, Marco Silva, was sacked, and 12th at the end of what was a pretty dismal 2019-20. If we hadn’t won four in a row then lost three in a row soon after, I think people would be happier with our start. In pretty much every area, we’re a better team now than when Silva was sacked. Europa League qualification with largely the same squad would be a huge feather in Ancelotti’s cap.
TSF: A personal aside — my girlfriend was looking for a Premier League side and was threatening to become a Manchester United fan. I told her that by no means would I allow that. I described a few teams I thought might be good for her to support, and she settled on Everton. Did I steer her correctly? I know your answer may be a bit biased.
RBM: Well, yes in that there’s a lot to admire about Everton as a club. Probably not in terms of things to celebrate - I’m 22 and the closest I’ve got to seeing Everton achieve anything is one FA Cup final in 2009.
TSF: Arsenal are currently a massive disappointment after last season’s performance under Mikel Arteta brought hope. Y’all have a decent bit of experience with disappointment (no offense). Any pointers on how to handle it?
RBM: Booze. ‘Tis the season, and all that. And also don’t succumb to pre-season misplaced optimism.
TSF: Talk a little bit about Dominc Calvert-Lewin. What’s behind his breakout season?
RBM: I think his breakout season was actually last term; he hit an excellent run of form after Silva was sacked, under both first Duncan Ferguson as a caretaker boss and then Ancelotti. He always had the physical attributes and the work rate but now he’s added goals, too.
I just think he has coaches who believe in him, and who are good enough to get the best out of him. I had a lot of time for Silva as a man but he wasn’t good enough to manage Everton, nor did he seem particularly inspiring. Ferguson clearly loves Calvert-Lewin, and there are few whose advice is worth taking more than Ancelotti.
TSF: Who do you think is Everton’s most important player? Who is the unsung hero, the guy whose performances have been flying under the radar?
RBM: Digne. Which makes it such a shame that Everton will be out without him for the foreseeable future with an ankle ligament injury. His delivery is absolutely exceptional, and has come on strong again this season after a middling 2019-20.
After him, Richarlison and Calvert-Lewin and James Rodriguez are the obvious stand-outs for their attacking qualities, but Abdoulaye Doucouré has quietly had a great start to his Everton career, revitalising a midfield which was painfully limp last term.
TSF: What level is the “Jordan Pickford Confidence Meter” currently hovering around?
RBM: Pretty low. I personally think Pickford isn’t good enough and has never truly recovered from that mistake he made in the Merseyside derby two years ago, when he gifted Divock Origi a 96th-minute winner.
Robin Olsen, a loanee from Roma, played in Wednesday’s 2-0 win over Leicester and carried out his admittedly low workload with no fuss. Pickford has improved in recent weeks after a terrible start to the season, but I still think he’s too erratic and unreliable to be Everton’s number one long-term. I suspect Ancelotti knows this, too.
TSF: How will Everton set up against Arsenal?
RBM: 4-3-3. No idea who will start in goal but despite Olsen starting on Wednesday, my gut feeling is Ancelotti will go back to Pickford here. Seamus Coleman should return at right-back, which might see a break from Ancelotti fielding a back four entirely made up of central defenders (though, that has been surprisingly effective with two clean sheets).
Predicted XI: Pickford, Godfrey, Keane, Mina, Coleman; Holgate, Doucouré, Sigurdsson; Richarlison, Calvert-Lewin, Iwobi.
TSF: What area / position / player for Everton are you most concerned about with Arsenal on the other side of the pitch?
RBM: The midfield battle will be interesting with Allan, our most tenacious and combative midfielder, out injured. Gylfi Sigurdsson has done well in the last few games but can’t really run, and André Gomes isn’t a viable alternative to Allan.
My guess would be Ancelotti may move Mason Holgate, who improved hugely at central defence in the last year, into Allan’s position. Holgate has played there before and excelled; he is our best and most versatile defender, and a future Everton captain in my opinion.
TSF: And of course, what’s your prediction?
RBM: I don’t fancy Everton here, despite our recent improvement and Arsenal’s struggles. 1-1 is my feeling on this one.