Saturday’s opening fixture of the season sees us up against Nigel Pearson’s newly promoted Leicester City at the King Power Stadium.
It’s fair to say that Pearson’s mob won the Championship at a canter last season with promotion secured with a fair bit left in reserve. The Foxes achieved this by virtue of a short passing game, making the fewest long passes in the division and scoring the 2nd most goals from open play, which would imply their strength is weighted more heavily going forward than back towards their own goal.They have no significant set piece specialist (they scored the 2nd fewest set play goals in the league) so I don’t see them playing direct or adopting overly spoiling defensive tactics in the hope of pinching a set play goal.
This is counter balanced by the step up in quality and the fact they no longer have the edge on opponents in terms of personnel. Indeed, they are to a man weaker than us in pretty much every position. Pearson is a pragmatic customer and deep down he will know this, so I expect he will be looking at game plan of containment in the hope that the sum of Leicester’s parts can bridge this gap in quality.
Last season Leicester predominantly played in a 442 but also played with 5 in midfield at times and did so in last week’s final friendly v Bremen when they were pretty much 4-2-3-1. Pearson doesn’t seem to have a default setup and given their injury problems in midfield I think he’ll go with x2 banks of four quite deep and 2 forwards for this one.
One of their key strengths last season was a solid home record (they lost just once at home post Xmas) and consistency of selection; they only used 21 players (we used 28) and 13 of the 21 started over 20 games each which helps greatly with things like combination play. They also kept the same team back to back in 20 games last season and given this group has been together for a few years they will be acutely aware of each other’s strengths and weaknesses.
They’re also a young and hungry group with most players under the age of 25 sprinkled with a couple of older heads. Their pre season has also been a good one both in terms of stability and results. They only had only 1 player (Mahrez) at the World Cup, so have had a much more settled pre season compared to our own benny hill style hop on hop off tour of remote outposts. Results wise they’ve been unbeaten with 6 wins and a draw and crucially they have lost none of their key men albeit Lloyd Dyer has been released.
The weakness I guess is their lack of top flight experience with only Nugent, Konchesky and de laet of the likely starters having played any time in the top flight, none of which with any distinction. Matt Upson has been brought in to beef them up in this respect but is absent due to injury.
The same can be said of their manager, Nigel Pearson. The man who scored the first ever Premier League at Goodison Park certainly knows the lower league’s well and his characteristics are to approach each game in isolation, to tweak his tactics to negate opposition strengths with the initial objective being to keep a clean sheet.
Does he have the tools to outwit managers at the top tier, though? He has played at the highest level for Wednesday but aside from a few unsuccessful spells in the dugout as a coach /caretaker boss at Newcastle and as whisky nose Bryan Robson’s number two at west brom he has limited experience of competing against top level strategists. Exhaustive preparation for games is one thing but being able to tweak tactics and address problems in game is quite another.
Their settled spine is Schmeichel in goal, experienced lower league skipper Wes Morgan at centre back alongside the more mobile legs of Liam Moore. Defensively suspect ex-red Konchesky and de Leat are cert starters in the full back spots.
In midfield, Drinkwater is the chief passing outlet alongside Matty James with both screening the back four and neither likely to get too far forward. Their most creative player last season stats wise was winger Knockaert but he is absent due to injury and there is also a question mark over the fitness of the industrious if limited Vardy and new signing Albrighton, meaning Mahrez is a shoe in on the wing.
Wiley old campaigner Gary Taylor Fletcher, looking increasingly like a pre weight loss Phil the Power Taylor, can also impact games at this level as he showed sporadically whilst at Blackpool. The rotund schemer got the winner in the insipid pre season encounter between the clubs too, but there’s little that can be gleamed from that game given that Barry will probably be our only starter from that game.
Toffees fan David Nugent plundered 20+ goals last season but accrued only six in two spells in the top flight with Portsmouth and Burnley a few years back. He is intelligent enough to play in behind too at 10 – a role Vardy also played a fair bit last season – however Ulloa, the club record signing from Brighton, is the likely starter at 9.
As for us, Roberto Martinez will be looking to put the unique opportunity of a winless pre season to bed and hit the ground running, by delivering his first phenomenal moment of the new season.
It can’t have escaped the über optimist that after Leicester we then have Chelsea and Arsenal to come, and no wins from three would swiftly be followed by empty headed goons like Merson and Savage queuing up to deliver their ”second season syndrome’ synopsis.
Forward duo Lukaku and Mirallas extended summer breaks mean the pair have only played 45 mins each in one behind closed doors friendly this week (Lukaku scoring twice in a 4-2 win) so you’d think it will be touch and go whether both will start the game. Lukaku trained at old club Anderlecht prior to rejoining us this month and given the healthier options we have in attacking midfield than up front I think he is the more likely starter.
Seamus Coleman is back in training and should hopefully start in the usual ‘first pick’ back four and handling Ulloa and Nugent will be a decent test of their match sharpness. Ulloa is a big physical groc who is decent in the air but like Nugent has minimal pace to speak of, so it wouldn’t be a risk for our backline to squeeze up the pitch with a high block.
Everton expected line-up Howard – Coleman, Baines, Jagielka, Distin, – McCarthy, Barry – Barkley, Pienaar, Naismith – Lukaku
The Bong verdict
Leicester are on the back of an unbeaten pre season and will probably fancy their chances of getting a point especially if they look at how we struggled at promoted/struggling sides last season, particularly in the early months of the season.
They’re likely come out on the offensive and the first part of the game could well be a containment job for us. I suspect Leicester’s problem will be how they service the forward duo given we are likely to dominate the ball in their half for the majority of the game.
I fancy us to weather any early storm and then look to dominate possession and wear Leicester down in the second half. Subs like Osman, Mirallas and McGeady could be significant in this respect and I fancy us to sneak it late on.
Prediction: 1-0 Everton
Recommended Bet: Everton to win the 2nd half 9/5 BetVictor