Bleacher Report's Sam Tighe assess the form of Southampton's next Premier League opposition Everton, ahead of the two sides meeting at St Mary's this Saturday...
With the double-header against Manchester City firmly in the rear-view mirror, Southampton now look ahead to a set of games that feel quite a lot less like playing football against a hurricane, starting with Everton at home this weekend.
The Toffees travel down in a fragile state. Their confidence levels have been alarmingly low for most of 2019, manager Marco Silva under constant pressure during that time, and form this season has been below par.
In almost every game, questions over tactics, personnel and individual mettle arise. They’re a significantly better side on paper than they are on the pitch, and fans have been patiently waiting for the dots to join up—and it’s Saints’ job to make them wait at least one more week.
Over the last few months Everton have exhibited clear weaknesses that Ralph Hasenhüttl can exploit. Not that he needs the help, but we’ve broken three of them down ahead of the big clash.
1 The direct ball
Two summer exits have rendered Everton a much, much softer touch when defending transitions or direct attacks. Those are Kurt Zouma, who returned to Chelsea after his loan finished, and Idrissa Gueye, the midfield suffocator who left for Paris Saint-Germain.
Right now when teams play Everton, they see Zouma- and Gueye-shaped holes in midfield and defence; holes they can play straight through, as no one else is plugging those gaps. Jean-Phillipe Gbamin should be there to do it, but injury has ruled him out of close to the entire first half of the season.
Without Gueye to disrupt and protect ahead and Zouma to expertly sweep up in behind, Michael Keane in particular has struggled. Exposed to balls into space, his lack of mobility has been underlined, and in fact Silva dropped him for Mason Holgate a few weeks ago.
Holgate is quicker, but still something of an unknown quantity despite being around for years—partially because he’s played multiple positions. He and Yerry Mina (who has been excellent, but is a front-footed defender, not a sweeper) are a partnership working through its infant stages, so even if Keane remains benched this weekend, this is an area to target liberally, utilising any of Ché Adams, Danny Ings or Nathan Redmond up front.
2 Set pieces
Of Everton’s 17 goals conceded in the league so far this season, 35% of them (6) have come from set pieces, the joint-most in the league. It’s a problem that has continued on from last term, where they conceded the most from these situations of any side (16 in total).
Free-kicks are an issue, but the real killer for them is corners. They setup in zonal marking and allow opponents to run onto deliveries at speed, with the back post a particularly vulnerable spot. Several teams have already taken advantage of this in 2019-20, and Saints could well become the next.
James Ward-Prowse, a dead-ball specialist, should be licking his lips in anticipation of this game, while Hasenhuttl might well suggest to his players that winning set pieces in good areas is a tactic that can bring success.
3 Away form
Even if Silva’s midweek work cures Everton’s set piece woes and fixes their vulnerability to direct balls through the centre, there’ll be another, bigger-picture issue hanging over them still: For whatever reason—and no one has figured it out yet—this team tend not to perform to even half their capabilities away from home.
They own the joint-worst away record in the league (along with Norwich City), having accrued just one point on the road so far. That was on the opening day against Crystal Palace; from there it’s been four straight losses.
The lack of bite and solidity in midfield is amplified away from Goodison Park, where games are naturally harder, and boisterous atmospheres tend to intimidate and inhibit their play. Not that Southampton fans need encouragement, but making St Mary’s a cauldron on Saturday really will affect the visitors.
Everton don’t just play against opponents on matchdays; they play against themselves at times too.