Ronald Koeman deserved massive credit for his mid-game tactical changes that earned Everton a point at the Etihad earlier this season, and it wouldn’t be surprising if the Toffees approached the return fixture in a similar manner. Where Koeman’s attempt to go 3v3 against City’s defence back-fired, a half-time switch to a midfield diamond ensured Everton battled in central areas and ignited swift counter-attacks when Guardiola’s men lost possession.
Everton have been fairly inconsistent in recent months and still appear to be better suited on the counter-attack. With that being said, it’s possible Everton may stray away from a back three, here – due to injuries – to deploy a 4-5-1 or 4-3-1-2 against City to prevent Pep Guardiola’s side from possessing a numerical advantage in midfield.
Koeman will be missing Idrissa Gueye and James McCarthy in midfield, depriving the Toffees of dynamism and ball-winning skills in the centre of the park. Therefore, a midfield trio of Gareth Barry, Ross Barkley and new signing Morgan Schneiderlin is likely.
Barkley’s performance against Liverpool a month ago was woeful, and against creative dynamos like Kevin De Bruyne and David Silva, Koeman’s midfield trio require discipline. Schneiderlin, on the other hand, was the Premier League’s best midfielder during the 2014/2015 and Koeman will hope the Frenchman can quickly come close to replicating those levels.
Upfront, Romelu Lukaku poses Everton’s main threat with 18 goals in all competitions, along with his physical advantage over both John Stones and Nicolas Otamendi. Lukaku’s role as a pure poacher hasn’t been successful under Koeman, and using the Belgian as an outlet to ignite counters – by dropping deep or making charging diagonal runs into the channels – will be crucial against a feeble City back-line.
Yannick Bolasie’s pace and power will also be missed, thus leaving Koeman with three options in wide areas. Kevin Mirallas and Gerard Deulofeu’s dribbling and direct goal-threat is expected to be Koeman’s first choice option alongside Lukaku, with Valencia providing an aerial threat in the box if Everton are forced to chase the game late on.
There shouldn’t be much change in Everton’s back-line, either, considering their main attacking ploy still based around the adventurous positioning of full-backs Seamus Coleman and Leighton Baines. Funes Mori and Ashley Williams haven’t proved to be a reliable centre-back partnership, nor has Joel Robles endured his best weeks as Everton keeper, placing additional pressure on the midfield trio to clog space between the lines.
For once, City’s XI is quite close to picking itself following a 5-0 thrashing of West Ham in the FA Cup. With Fernandinho still serving a suspension, combined with Everton’s threat on the counter, Fernando and Yaya Toure are expected to form the midfield duo in a possible 4-2-3-1.
Sergio Aguero will start upfront with David Silva likely in the no.10 role, given De Bruyne and Sterling are more reliable sources for defensive coverage ahead of the full-backs to negate the threat of Baines and Coleman. The other option would be to have Silva play slightly ahead of Toure in midfield, with De Bruyne moving behind Aguero, and Jesus Navas playing on the opposite flank.
Guardiola will be wary of Everton’s threat in wide areas, and this may lead to Gael Clichy and Bacary Sagna starting at full-back. Pablo Zabaleta has been underwhelming from the right, and for all of Aleksandar Kolarov’s attacking productivity from the left, the Serbian defender remains a liability from a defensive perspective.
The Toffees will attempt to make this a slow-burning, scrappy encounter from the start, but the key to their success rests heavily on whether their midfield can contain the movement of Silva and De Bruyne in the final third. Likewise, the same can be said for City who are still vulnerable defending swift transitional attacks, as the pace and strength of Lukaku will also prove crucial.
Elsewhere, the battle in wide areas will also be decisive. City will aim to peg the Everton full-backs into their half through territorial dominance and counter-pressing, but their wide attacking players must also track back to prevent potential overloads and service into Lukaku.
City’s profligate spot-kicks prevented a win at the Etihad, but assuming Everton avoid a combative approach throughout the pitch, there should be goals at Goodison Park. Neither side has proven to be defensively sound without the ball and lack competent protection ahead of their unconvincing back-lines.
As simplistic as this may sound, the more efficient side within the final third should triumph, which makes Guardiola’s men favourites ahead of kick-off, barring a defensive meltdown. But Koeman’s tactical acumen shouldn’t be underestimated, and this could be another tactical spectacle in what’s been a truly intriguing Premier League season.