Following England’s laboured 0-0 stalemate against Slovenia in Ljubljana, the international break reached its conclusion, and all eyes are now back on the Premier League as Ronald Koeman gears up his team for a trip to the Etihad to face Premier League leaders Manchester City.
The Citizens have been unwelcome opposition for the Merseysiders for some years now, with January 2016 yielding the Toffees’ only victory against City in the last eight attempts in all competitions, Everton’s last league win over this weekend’s opponents coming back in March 2013.
Having started the season well, the Toffees have only tasted victory in two of their last five in all competitions, whilst City were beaten for the first time this season, and the first time under Pep Guardiola, before the international break at the hands of Tottenham Hotspur.
Manchester City remain top however, a point ahead of Spurs in second, whilst Everton are fifth and four points adrift of Guardiola’s Citizens, but any kind of result at the Etihad on Saturday afternoon would surely put the leaders under more pressure.
One of the things that Koeman has done so well to propel the Toffees up the table so far this season is to fix a shattered defence, which shipped 105 goals over the entirety of last season, but despite losing John Stones to Saturday’s opponents over the summer, the addition of Wales skipper Ashley Williams has proved a masterstroke and according to Squawka’s statistics, Koeman’s Everton have one of the meanest defences across all of Europe’s top five leagues, with only five goals conceded in the league thus far.
Speaking about his defence in Thursday afternoon’s pre-match press conference, Koeman was keen to stress the importance of Everton’s defence starting at the front-line as they look to take something from the Etihad, where City still hold a 100% home record this season:
“Defence starts in front. We need to run and need to press. We need to press our opponent and the way the team works together is an influence on the team not conceding goals.”
“The way City play this season is very good. They are impressive the way they play football. I watched City v Gladbach and it’s a good job to see the difference in the way they play this season to last”.
“It’s difficult for defending, but we have some good examples of teams that have done well against City”.
Phil Jagielka also got his word in on defence, speaking of the importance of Everton’s front four being given the opportunity to cause damage to Manchester City, and the importance of the defence in giving them scope to do so. The England defender is fit following the international break after withdrawing from the England squad with a thigh problem.
The Blues captain has issued a challenge to the team’s ‘back seven’ to give Romelu Lukaku and Everton’s other attackers the opportunity to go out and be match-winners. After a consistent run of selection, Everton’s defensive bank of the back four- including Seamus Coleman, Jagielka himself, Ashley Williams, Leighton Baines- goalkeeper Maarten Stekelenburg and the two holding midfielders Gareth Barry and Idrissa Gueye have the ability to allow the attack to go all out against the Citizens.
“If you look at it, it is as a back six or seven if you include the keeper and two midfielders ,” Jagielka said.
“And then look at the players ahead of them, our destructive players, if they turn up on the day they are nearly impossible to keep a hold of”.
“That is the role we’ve got now, we need to make sure we give them the platform and when they do come up with the magic it wins us the game.”
Since his arrival as Everton boss from Southampton in the summer, Ronald Koeman has been implementing a more aggressive and structured way for Everton to go about their business and Jagielka also claimed that the team must buy into what the Dutchman is doing at Goodison Park with the new system, even when some games don’t fall in their favour.
“Sometimes it is difficult and frustrating for all of us, we understand that, but this is a different style and type of playing at the moment and we are putting at least four match winners out there which is a lot for a team to play with,” he said.
“We are working as hard as we can and we get them working as hard as they can, but if not we need to be the ones to give them a good platform and base and consistency and continuity are massive when it comes to a defence and keeping clean sheets.”
As far as the international break goes, Koeman has been fortunate in the fact that the majority of his stars have returned for club duty with maximum fitness, including forward Romelu Lukaku who returns from Belgium duty, and Seamus Coleman who featured for the Republic of Ireland in games against Georgia and Moldova. The one downside from the internationals is the returning James McCarthy, who Koeman believes has suffered burnout from being overused for the Republic of Ireland:
“I am unhappy with this situation James McCarthy has been ‘massively overloaded’ after playing twice for Ireland. (Aaron) Lennon is also doubtful, but the rest are okay”.
That was also met with the confirmation that Darron Gibson is now fully fit to make his Everton return following a spell on the sidelines with a groin strain. Koeman was also quick to acknowledge the importance of all his stars coming back fit.
“We have some key players in the team and they need to bring productivity. We can improve in that. We know we can be better.”
“We know we need to be at our best, but it’s always difficult, the game is after international duty.”
“It’s always difficult to have that focus that you need to beat City. We have to make a fight of the game, then you get opportunities to score.”
The Dutchman was also keen to comment on his friendship with City’s Catalan boss, and the way in which they have already improved under his oratory:
“We are really strong friends and now it is easy because he is living in Manchester. Sometimes we have dinner, talk about football and talk about life”.
“He was really interested in the way we play football in Holland. I see a lot in the teams managed by Pep about Dutch football, I like that because it’s the most difficult way to win. (It’s) sometimes risky. Most of the other managers win titles but not with that football. I wish them the best but not on Saturday”.
Another factor to add fuel to the fire will be the inclusion of John Stones, who will reunite with his former employers for the first-time at the Etihad since his big money move from Everton in the summer, but despite praising the England international, he hinted at his gameplan for attempting to prise a point or more away from the Citizens:
“Stones is part of the philosophy of the coach.” said Koeman.
“I think that is one of the good qualities of John Stones. He is really a player who can open the game with his passing from the back”.
“Sometimes it’s difficult because they are defending with a lot of space in behind, if we can break quickly then we can make it difficult”.
One who in particular will be gunning for Guardiola’s men in Koeman’s side is former Barcelona winger Gerard Deulofeu, who came through the ranks at the Camp Nou and was given his senior debut by former manager Guardiola in 2011.
Deulofeu says the Spanish giants will “always be in my heart” but asserts that his focus is on being a big hit with the Toffees, so the 22-year-old Catalan has his heart set on helping Everton follow suit with Spurs and end another of Guardiola’s Manchester City side’s records by pulling off a shock at the Etihad this weekend, which would do away with their 100% home record.
“I have good memories because I spent a long part of my career at Barcelona and Pep gave me my debut,” Deulofeu said.
“He is a big manager but this weekend we need to take the three points against him”.
“I trained with the best players in the world and they are good memories but at the moment I am thinking about Everton because this was three, four, five years ago”.
“It was a big moment and a big memory and it is always in my heart but I want to achieve with Everton.”
Finally one of Everton’s youth products, Brendan Galloway, has reiterated his determination to fight for a starting spot at the Hawthorns after Everton sent him out on loan to West Bromwich Albion once again. He has lost his place in the Baggies’ squad having not featured since mid-September and was omitted from the matchday squad by Tony Pulis for their fixtures against Stoke City and Sunderland.
The 20-year-old has not featured for Tony Pulis’ side since September 17 and was left out of the matchday squad for games with Stoke City and Sunderland. He has however received the boost of featuring recently for England’s U-21 side, playing the full 90 in a 5-0 win over Bosnia-Herzegovina.
“I’m going to try and work my hardest to get back in the team because that’s where I want to be,” said Galloway.
“I want to be playing week in week out for West Brom”.
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