Rafa Benitez’s scintillating start to life at Everton faces a unique test on Sunday with the visit of David Moyes’ West Ham United (2pm kick-off, UK time).
Initially an overwhelmingly unpopular appointment due to his previous spell at Liverpool, Benitez has wowed the Toffees with just one defeat in his opening seven league matches. Their 14 points gained puts them fifth, only behind the two Manchester clubs on goal difference.
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Where to watch Everton vs West Ham on TV:
- UK: Sky Sports Main Event
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Benitez’s success so far has been predicated on a high-intensity, counter-attacking style of play. The Toffees rank bottom of the table for average possession at just 40.1%, yet they’ve scored the fourth-highest number of goals (13). How does a team with so little of the ball do so much damage to the opposition?
The Spaniard has always been known for the tremendous work ethic of his sides. Indeed, Everton are second only to Leicester City (205) for tackles so far this season (203), while they’re sixth for pressures (1,074). All signs point toward a side that work immensely hard to win the ball back, then get it forward as quickly as possible when they do. The Toffees are one of just two sides to score more than one goal from a fast break in the Premier League this season.
“If you are going to play counter-attacking football, you have got to be fit and they look a fit side and a strong side,” Joe Royle (the last Everton manager to win a major trophy) told inews. “Doucouré has got pace. Townsend and Gray have got pace. The goal at United [when all three combined in a swift counter], Everton hadn’t scored a goal like that in ages because we haven’t had pace in the team. What he’s realised is the side was short of pace and he’s recruited pace. It’s great management.”
As Royle highlighted, Demarai Gray and Andros Townsend have been two of the most important figures in Everton’s blistering start, notching a combined six goals and three assists in the Premier League, despite the pair costing no more than £1.7m between them. Gray has been particularly boosted by the “belief” shown in him by Benitez, well renowned for his man-management skills.
“I have a manager here and a team that believe in me and give me the freedom to express myself,” the winger said. “I’m enjoying my football again. Everything’s clicked well here. I just want to keep working hard to maintain my level and keep improving.”
A word of caution, though. Everton have overperformed their xG of 10.66 by a considerable amount. Though their style is reaping rewards right now, it’s likely to be unsustainable. Benitez himself admits he’s working on getting his side better at holding onto the ball.
“If we can keep the same intensity [as the opening matches] I will be really pleased,” he said. “But we have to improve a little bit on the ball, we are so dangerous on the counter-attack and up-front, sometimes it is better for us to wait and play on the counter-attack.”
This weekend’s meeting with West Ham could see Everton run into that roadblock.
The game will bring about a particularly jarring touchline clash. Not only will it pit two managers famed for their ability to bargain hunt and get the best out of individual players against each other, but it also sees two former Merseyside rivals go head-to-head. Only this time, Benitez will be defending Goodison Park from a Moyes assault. Ask any red or blue if that could happen a decade ago and they’d have dismissed you as crazy.
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West Ham are the only other team in the Premier League to score more than once from a fast break this season and they might well seek to allow Everton possession dominance to force counter-attacking opportunities. Moyes knows better than most how quickly the Goodison crowd can become frustrated when things don’t go their way early on.
Carlo Ancelotti’s Everton were victims of a Moyes masterclass in a 1-0 defeat at Goodison on New Years’ Day last season. A familiar foe, Benitez will be keen to deprive the Scot of another happy return to his former stomping ground. Does he have Plan B ready?
Scoreline prediction: Everton 1-1 West Ham
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Everton vs West Ham previous line-ups & injury news:
- Everton (vs Man Utd): Pickford; Godfrey, Mina, Keane, Digne*; Townsend, Doucoure, Allan, Gordon; Gray, Rondon.
- West Ham (vs Brentford): Fabianski; Coufal*, Zouma, Ogbonna, Cresswell; Soucek, Rice; Bowen, Benrahma, Fornals; Antonio.
Benitez confirmed Seamus Coleman, Alex Iwobi and Lucas Digne have all been training for Everton, though the latter remains a doubt after leaving France’s Nations League camp with a hamstring problem. Dominic Calvert-Lewin and Richarlison are also training but it’s still unclear whether they’ll be fit enough to feature.
Vladimir Coufal and Ryan Fredericks are Moyes’ only injury concerns, though the Scot is likely to have both available on his return to Goodison Park.
Premier League 2021/22 recent form:
- Everton: DWLWW
- West Ham: LWLDD
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