The last match was a hard one to take. No dodgy penalties. No rash red cards. Arsenal was simply outplayed. Now with control of fourth place out of their hands, the Gunners must regroup themselves to end on a high note and hope that somehow a team that has nothing to play for (Norwich) can beat a team with everything to play for (Tottenham).
Before Everton visits the Emirates on Sunday, the first had a date with survival with Crystal Palace in their home finale. Three points on Thursday against Palace secure Everton’s place in the Premier League — and lessen their need to get something from the trip to Arsenal on the final day. It’s been a nerve-racking season for Evertonians, but can finally now breathe as they enter the final weekend.
To close out this season’s Q&A series we’ve chatted with Trent Nelson from Royal Blue Mersey once again.
TSF: When we spoke back in December you thought that Rafa Benetiz would last the season. Do you think the club was correct in sacking him? And what were your initial thoughts when Frank Lampard was announced?
RBM: I did think that Rafa would make it to the end of the season, absolutely, but I also imagined he would get more out of the players. In the end, Benitez proved too rigid, too inflexible, too unimaginative with is tactics, and was unable to speak to the players in a way that got them going.
The loss to Norwich City was intolerable - especially in the state we were in at the time - and so I do think that the correct move was made actually. People were immediately less skeptical regarding Frank Lampard than they were of the former Liverpool boss; I was excited for the change and his impact on this team has been noticeable even as this club as been in the midst of a serious fight for survival over his tenure.
TSF: On the pitch what impact have you seen Lampard make? And what has been the reception from the fanbase to his leadership during this final run-in?
RBM: Lampard has gone out of his way to re-engage with a disillusioned fanbase, and they have responded positively to him. It would not be hyperbolic to suggest that the fans dragged this team to safety. But their game itself has become more fluid and expressive too. Are there mistakes in formation choice and the like sometimes? Yes. But the team is making adjustments. We are showing real fight and resilience, and even when things don’t go perfectly you can see that the team is doing whatever it can for the shirt. The fan base has seen that Lampard is a scrapper, just like they are. He was a hard, tough player at Chelsea and while he’s an admitted Londoner, that fight, spirit, and grit is something that supporters have grabbed onto and embraced as that which they can thoroughly and intimately relate to.
TSF: Will Lampard be the man in charge next season no matter which division Everton is in?
RBM: Yes. The comeback victory against Crystal Palace which means that Everton are once again safe in the Premier League will secure Frank as the boss going into next season. He has earned it without question and I think this team will look much more like the outfit of last season than the one of this past campaign. There’s a big clear-out coming at Everton with a number of expiring contracts, so expect new Director of Football Kevin Thelwell to start arming him with more weapons to play in a more open and competitive manner.
TSF: Do you believe Everton will be able to keep Dominic Calvert-Lewin and Richarlison if they remain in the Premier League?
RBM: I know I may sound the optimist here, but I actually do. Now that we’re in the Premier League once again, I think that this team can continue to build itself into something with a good strong boss at the helm once again. I liked Carlo Ancelotti quite a lot and I like Lampard too. I don’t think he’ll bail like Ancelotti - at least not as quickly if he does - and I think that there are a good mixture of players on this team that are really quite talented.
Dele Alli could really prove to be massive for this club in the years to come, as could Anthony Gordon, Demarai Gray, Abdoulaye Doucoure and others. There is talent from back to front, and Everton does possess the number one of the English National Team too. I think Everton will have one more year with them, to prove to them that this club can reach the heights that they themselves wish to reach. They are beloved figures at Everton, and they love the club as much as the supporters love them. I think they want to succeed at Everton and that the club will have another chance to do just that this summer and next season.
TSF: Now of course the relegation battle has a huge impact on this one, but which areas of the squad will be the top priorities for Everton during the summer transfer window?
RBM: Now that we’re safe, it’s much easier to answer this question than it would’ve been beforehand. This team needs a really good back up to DCL. Period. That is the single most important position that must be innovated, and if he leaves, two number nines will be necessary. Another quality centre-back to pair with Ben Godfrey would be useful too; Mason Holgate is good depth and Michael Keane - a hero - is getting on in years, although still a very valuable player. Yerry Mina is fantastic, when healthy, but that is rare, and even so, functional depth and competition at the back is really useful.
While Donny van de Beek will be going back to United with Erik ten Hag as the boss there now, another creative force will really be necessary, as will replacements for more defensive minded midfielders like Allan, as well as potentially Fabian Delph - who has played well recently - and Andre Gomes.
TSF: Who is your unheralded player of the season or someone that you believe is set for a breakout season next year?
RBM: Well, this year I think Anthony Gordon has grown in leaps and bounds and deserves a great deal of love from supporters and analysts alike. He’ll be special if he keeps improving at the rate that he has recently. I have a feeling that Frank Lampard will not only find players during the summer window, but I suspect he will actually use some of Everton’s academy talent. There are players in waiting who might be able to help the team come next season. Ellis Simms is perhaps an easy player to point to, but I think Demarai Gray could continue to develop and improve too with another year under his belt.
TSF: Can you give us a reminder of where things are with Everton’s new stadium project?
RBM: Everton has signed a contract with Laing O’Rourke to build the stadium and the stadium is still set to be completed and moved into by 2024. Steel is in the process of being moved in and the process going well. Bramley Moore is massive and beautiful; while everyone will miss Goodison, that space will be turned into public space and housing, and so should hopefully be put to good, communally positive uses in the coming years and decades. The new stadium will be a brilliant way to enter into the next chapter of Toffee history, but they gotta give Goodison some more good memories - and another trophy - before that.
TSF: What formation should Arsenal expect Everton to use in this match and who is in your predicted starting XI?
RBM: Well after the Palace victory, I could see the team setting up rather similarly. A 3-4-3 with perhaps Dele Alli starting. But it could be more conservative also depending on how the boss feels after the remarkable win on Thursday.
Pickford; Holgate, Keane, Coleman; Mykolenko, Alli, Doucoure, Iwobi; Richarlison, Calvert-Lewin, Gordon
TSF: And finally, give us your prediction for how the match will go.
RBM: A couple weeks ago this match looked like it was going to be remarkably consequential for both teams aspirations next year. Come days before the final Sunday of the Premier League season and it could be nearly meaningless. Everton would’ve come at Arsenal with everything they had - just like in the last two matches - and I think the result would’ve been terribly difficult to predict in that circumstance. Yet with that being said, I’ll say that both teams play hard, and that Arsenal get the victory by a score of 3-2, giving themselves a hypothetical chance to get in the Champions League with a shock Norwich win over Spurs.
Thanks to Trent and Royal Blue Mersey for taking the time to talk with us ahead of the season finale.