Unfortunately for travelling Tottenham fans, logic suggests that their side will lose to Everton on Sunday. Spurs have won only two of the last twelve games between the teams and have not won away to the Toffees since a 2-1 victory in February 2007. They did, of course, come agonisingly close to ending that run last season, but spectacularly collapsed in stoppage time.
However, it could, somewhat counterintuitively, be that the change in approach that has accompanied the switch from David Moyes to Roberto Martínez is decisive in Spurs’ favour. Everton’s new approach has brought them great success so far but it could prove open enough to allow André Villas-Boas’ charges to upset the form book and take the victory.
First things first, though: it is important to note that the hosts are in fine form and have won nine of their last ten home games, gaining a morale-boosting three points against Chelsea in September. At home, only three teams take more shots than Everton and only three are more accurate with their efforts. Only Spurs make more dribbles per game and only West Brom win more free-kicks. They play football the right way and do so to great effect.
The evolution in style has come as a welcome change after eleven years of dour but effective football under David Moyes. His successor’s use of his full-backs is perhaps most illustrative of the tactical upheaval that took place over the summer.
Where Moyes typically preferred his to venture forward only when absolutely necessary – at least until he uncharacteristically made Leighton Baines the side’s lynchpin – Martínez sees them as arguably the most important attackers on the pitch. It is not uncommon to see Baines and Séamus Coleman positioned as Everton’s most advanced players.
Furthermore, the two play a more intelligent game, now preferring low cutbacks and square passes to arriving runners to hopeful crosses and punts into the mixer designed to put the opponent under territorial pressure and/or keep the ball as far from the Toffees’ goal as possible. Stopping the two will be a huge indicator of the capabilities of Kyle Walker and Jan Vertonghen.
If preparing them for such an ordeal was not enough, André Villas-Boas also has to worry about Romelu Lukaku bullying Michael Dawson and the inexperienced Vlad Chiriches. The Belgian man-mountain is in the form of his life, scoring a goal a game for Everton as well as netting the goal that ensured his nation’s qualification for next summer’s World Cup.
If the home side is riding the crest of the wave, then the away side is sliding into a rut. There are obvious signs that the wheels are beginning to come off for Spurs. It appears as though the multitude of new arrivals more time they do not have in order to gel, which is unsurprising. The fact that every team visiting White Hart Lane arrives to play for a point is clearly proving demoralising to the players as well.
Fitness is likely to prove a decisive factor: with the likes of Walker, Vertonghen and Paulinho having played 210 minutes of football already this week, it seems impossible to ask them to give 100% against one of the division’s most improved sides. It would be a bold but sensible move for AVB to call on at least one of Kyle Naughton, Zeki Fryers and Étienne Capoue for this game, although they may not necessarily be readier to play ninety minutes than the players they replace.
While AVB therefore faces something of a selection headache, Martínez has an extremely straightforward choice. Tim Howard will play in goal as usual, with Phil Jagielka and Sylvain Distin in front of him. They are as settled a unit as one can find in the Premier League and while they are by no means unbeatable, they are tough to break down and they are usually well-protected by the fact that Everton hog the ball.
The aforementioned Coleman and Baines will take the wing-back roles, with the latter being the focal point of the side’s attacks, his nuanced understanding with South African left-midfielder Steven Pienaar up there with the Premier League’s most effective.
New boys James McCarthy and Gareth Barry will probably play as the double pivot and a fine pairing they make at that. While the young Scot has the technical verve and the legs to get up and down the pitch, the former Aston Villa captain provides the tactical nous and the positional sensibility.
England’s latest great white hope, Ross Barkley, plays as the number ten, assuming as much responsibility as his talents merit, and his performances this season have more than justified the faith shown in him by his new manager. Barkley has spoken of his dissatisfaction at Moyes’ tendency to shy away from the apparent gamble that was playing him every week. Perhaps it would be to England’s benefit if Barkley gave Wilfred Zaha a call before it is too late.
On the right, Kevin Mirallas plays as a winger-cum-inside-forward, alternating between providing width and carrying the ball, and moving into the channel between left-back and centre-back in order to allow Coleman to advance. Tipped for big things in a system that theoretically plays to his strengths, Mirallas has been rather quiet this season but, as his goal at White Hart Lane in April showed, he is capable of producing something out of nothing.
Up front, of course, will be Romelu Lukaku. Frankly, Tottenham’s only hope here is that Lukaku twangs a hamstring in the warm-up and Martínez is left choosing between Nikica Jelavić and a training cone instead.
Everton will be very strong on the ball and down the flanks and Spurs will have to be ready to withstand heavy pressure and play for long periods without the ball. They will have to be wary of becoming too passive, however: with Lukaku up front a direct ball into the box could prove decisive.
The above said, it is not beyond Tottenham to take the three points. Martínez’s preference for advanced full-backs will leave space in behind and a swift, accurate counter or two would create clear scoring opportunities for Roberto Soldado. Indeed, one of the reasons that Spurs struggled against Moyes’ Everton was that there was always cover afforded to vulnerable defenders. His successor’s formations do not give them that safety.
Additionally, the home team’s advanced midfield could also leave space on the counter. Most sides to have had success against Spurs this season have done so by sitting deep and letting them have the ball. By playing high, Everton would notionally allow Andros Townsend, Aaron Lennon and Roberto Soldado the space they have been denied in most games until now.
Whatever happens, it should be a very watchable ninety minutes. It could even be a truly memorable match. Just make sure you tune-in in hope more than expectation.
Name - Rob Brown
Twitter - @Robbro7