Everton should secure victory in their final home match of the Premier League season when they host relegation-threatened Southampton at Goodison Park on Saturday (17:30 BST, live on BT Sport).
Everton came into the campaign with ambitions of pushing forward from their seventh place finish last season and spent heavily in pursuit of that aim, both last summer and in January, when they laid out a further £40 million to bring in Theo Walcott and Cenk Tosun.
The season hasn’t really worked out as planned. A poor start under Ronald Koeman and then his temporary successor David Unsworth saw the club turn to Sam Allardyce at the end of November. It was a slightly uninspiring appointment for a club with their ambitions and one that certainly failed to capture the imagination of their supporters.
Results have improved. Everton have actually accumulated the sixth highest points total of all Premier League teams in their 22 matches since Allardyce’s arrival, and while they are now highly unlikely to finish any higher than eighth, relegation has never really been a concern. The problem, though, is the manner in which those results have been achieved.
Allardyce has always been a primarily pragmatic coach and that has been no different with Everton. His side have scored and conceded an average of just over a goal per match, with their fixtures averaging less goals (2.36) than those of all but two Premier League teams. They also rank lowly in terms of attacking actions like shots, shots on target and dribbles. There has been a growing sense of frustration and disenchantment around Goodison Park.
Reports suggest the club are making moves to restructure behind the scenes this summer, with the potential arrival of a new director of football. The presumption would be that the new man will want to appoint a coach he is comfortable working with, but Allardyce has remained defiant in recent interviews. His primary defence has been that Everton could easily have found themselves in the same precarious position as their visitors on Saturday.
Southampton travel to Merseyside in desperate need of three points in their battle against the drop. They currently occupy the last of the three relegation places but do have a better goal difference than each of the three sides ahead of them. Saints have 32 points, Swansea have 33, followed by Huddersfield Town and West Ham on 35 points apiece.
Saints kept themselves in the fight with a 2-1 win at home to Bournemouth last weekend. Two goals from Dusan Tadic fired them to their first league victory in going on three months. They are around evens in the relegation betting and the bookmakers’ favourites to be the third team demoted to the Championship. At least that isn’t yet the near foregone conclusion it would have been without that win.
The key is to stay within striking distance of Swansea, whom they face next Tuesday. They have a home match against Manchester City to come on the final day of the season. Even a point is unlikely against the champions, who have various Premier League records still within their sights. So it is this match and against Swansea that their hopes of top-flight survival are likely to rest.
Southampton have improved slightly since Mark Hughes came in to replace Mauricio Pellegrino as head coach in mid-March. That improvement is more evident in the underlying statistics than the top line. Those stats are important ones: points, goals for and goals against. At least it gives some reason for the club’s faithful to believe victory on Saturday is a possibility.
That belief is heightened by the fact that Southampton triumphed 4-1 in the reverse fixture at St Mary’s in late November, just a few days before Allardyce’s debut on the Everton bench. That was, admittedly, a less well-organised and obdurate Everton side, but Southampton were hardly firing on all cylinders themselves at the time, which kind of balances things out.
There is, though, a greater imperative for them to secure victory this weekend and that is likely to play into the hands of Allardyce and Everton. He is more than capable of setting his side up to take advantage of any space that opens up as their visitors go forward in search of the three points they so urgently need. Consequently the most likely result, if you plan a wager with one of the sports betting websites, is a home win.