Chelsea’s current form indicates that they’re vying to partake in this year’s title race, but they encounter a stern test against Ronald Koeman’s Everton. Koeman’s arrival has witnessed Everton improve their defensive shape, but the Toffees’ poor record at Stamford Bridge means the Blues start the match as favourites.
Chelsea have won four consecutive league games since moving to a back three, and more importantly have yet to concede a goal during that time. Therefore, Antonio Conte is expected to make few changes to his starting lineup following impressive victories over Leicester City, Manchester United, and Southampton.
David Luiz and Gary Cahill appear more assertive at the back with Cesar Azpilicueta sweeping up where necessary, and the Brazilian’s ability to play positive passes in advanced areas will likely keep captain John Terry out of the lineup. Marcos Alonso and the in-form Victor Moses will retain their roles as wing-backs, but both men represent potential defensive liabilities against Everton’s swift wide players.
“He [Luiz] has made us solid in defence but I am not surprised. He is a good player and won a lot in his career,” said Conte.
“But we must win more and that is why he is at the club. We wanted to buy him for this reason.”
Koeman possesses excellent dribblers – Gerard Deulofeu, Kevin Mirallas or Yannick Bolasie – that can play from the flanks, and the Everton manager will encourage his wingers to attack the Chelsea wing-backs. Also, with Seamus Coleman capable of motoring forward, Conte may swap Eden Hazard and Pedro to avoid potential overloads against Alonso.
On the other hand, Hazard’s form has substantially improved since Chelsea moved to a 3-4-2-1, as the wide players now have license to move into central positions and beyond Diego Costa. However, with Idrissa Gueye suspended and Leighton Baines unavailable due to injury, Hazard can pose issues in both areas.
Bryan Oviedo endured a difficult time against Michail Antonio last weekend and could be overwhelmed by Hazard’s dribbling if he drifts towards the right flank. Meanwhile, Gueye’s dynamism has aided Gareth Barry throughout the season, and the former England international may struggle against Hazard’s quick movement and sharp turns between the lines.
With James McCarthy also unavailable, Koeman may turn to Tom Cleverley’s energy alongside Barry, opposed to sacrificing Ross Barkley’s potential threat in transition. Nonetheless, the midfield zone is expected to be scrappy with Conte expected to persist with the midfield duo of N’Golo Kante and Nemanja Matic that’s based around strength and tackling.
This also places emphasis on whether Koeman will field Barkley – who has struggled to impose himself against competent defensive shield’s this season – in the no.10 role, or perhaps place a direct outlet in Bolasie or Mirallas centrally. Koeman’s arrival has also offered Everton flexibility, which means they’re capable of reverting to a back three or shifting to a 4-3-3 to ensure they clog spaces in central areas, which proved to be a successful ploy against Manchester City.
Ultimately, Romelu Lukaku and Diego Costa, two of the three leading goal-scorers this season will face stern challenges. Lukaku’s service has decreased due to the emphasis on getting the ball into wide areas, but he remains a proficient finisher around the box and can’t be awarded space in the final third. However, it will likely be 3v1 at the back, though Lukaku will likely aim to isolate the diminutive Azpilicueta to attack crosses in the box – yet, he poses an advantage in similar scenarios against Cahill or Luiz.
Elsewhere, Costa will face another physical battle against Ashley Williams and Funes Mori, here. Costa’s showcased his all-round talent throughout this current season, but the combination of athleticism and power could limit the Chelsea striker’s link-up play, though he should receive space to work the channels and charge forward into the box. There’s also the possibility of replicating Chelsea’s system to include Phil Jagielka in a back three to negate Costa’s threat upfront, and rely on individual battles across the pitch.
“We know that Chelsea is a strong team, a different team than last year,” said Koeman.
“They play with a lot of intensity and are aggressive. They have a different system, have got a lot of clean sheets and are winning games.”
Nevertheless, Costa and Hazard remain Chelsea’s difference-makers, with the latter in particular, favoured to continue his impressive form due to Everton’s deficiencies in the centre of the pitch and their left flank. Everton also pose a threat in transition, and if they can get their wingers to run at the wing-backs or Lukaku isolating centre-backs in the box, Conte’s men face a realistic possibility of conceding their first goal in over a month.
Chelsea will likely dominate possession for large spells and locate space to create chances, but the pace and power Everton pose on the counter presents a genuine challenge to the Blues’ improved defensive structure under Antonio Conte.