You Can't Fight the System

LIVERPOOL, ENGLAND - NOVEMBER 19: Tim Cahill of Everton receives a cut to the head during the Barclays Premier League match between Everton and Wolverhampton Wanderers at Goodison Park on November 19, 2011 in Liverpool, England. (Photo by Shaun Botterill/Getty Images)

Everton fans are a crazy lot. Once again the club goes out and gets a new striker. Once again everybody gets excited that maybe David Moyes will run out two true strikers for once. And once again the manager will disappoint everybody and only let one of his forwards out onto the field. Moyes has imprinted his system on Everton, and much like death and taxes, one of the few certainties in life is that after a manager institutes a system he isn’t going to deviate from it.

It’s easy to miss the fact that over his time at Everton David Moyes has put in place a very definitive system of how he wants to get things done. That’s because increasingly “system” is only being used to refer to describe aspirational football. Barcelona has a system. Arsenal has a system. Brendon Rodgers is an exciting young coach because he wants to put a system in place at Swansea City. But, what they really mean in that context is the specific system of passing out of the back, keeping the ball on the ground when in possession, and pressuring high up the pitch to win the ball back without possession. With Barcelona’s other worldly success, their style has been the one young and ambitious managers have most widely attempted to imitate.

Broadly speaking though, all that a manager having a system means is that he fits his players into a predetermined tactical framework instead of the other way around. Tony Pullis has put in place a fine long ball system at Stoke City. It isn’t pretty, but it sure works. In that same vein David Moyes has stamped his mark all over Merseyside.

What Moyes wants to do is pretty clear. Get 10 men behind the ball. If you’re a winger tracking back is more important than getting forward (that’s why despite his scoring record the recently departed Bilyaletdinov increasingly found himself marginalized). With the wingers tracking back, the three central midfielders can clog up the passing lanes and make it very difficult for teams to find space. The midfielders aren’t looking to pressure ball handlers high up the field, they are willing to concede possession, but they are specifically looking to prevent deeper lying playmakers from having the passing lanes to initiate an incisive attack.

Offensively the game plan is simple. The forward provides the outlet, and holds up the ball until the wide men can get back up field. After laying the ball back he then gets his butt into the box to try and get on the end of a cross. It’s not a traditional counter attack, because Moyes is more than happy to have his team hold onto the ball, and work it around in the opponents half in order to look for a good crossing opportunity, and to that end the fullbacks have license to get forward if they have a lot of space to make an impact.

What makes the system unique is that in addition to the forward presenting a target for crosses Tim Cahill’s job is to get forward from the midfield and get into dangerous positions. It’s part of what makes Cahill’s role so unique. He basically plays as an advanced midfielder, but has very limited play making skills. Instead he drops back into defensive positions, and then in transition he often isn’t involved in the build-up, but rather gets forward into the box to be in good position to finish the cross. In that way he (or whoever is occupying his role) plays almost as a second striker who just drops exceptionally deep defensively.

The Cahill role is integral to the Moyes system because it provides an extra body in defense while not subtracting from the amount of targets in the area. The drawback though is that it deprives the team of a creative engine in the final third. Cahill is too busy shuttling between defensive responsibilities and making runs to play a big part in the build-up (and besides that’s not where his strengths lie anyway). In previous, more successful years, Mikel Arteta was able to supply the creativity coming forward from his deeper lying midfield position, or Steven Pienaar coming into the middle of the pitch from out on the left. But this year there Arteta is gone, and Pienaar is only now coming back from his year in the Spurs wilderness. Also, for the first time in a long time, Cahill has just not been very good. Whether it’s age or injury, he’s only been able to shake free for 1 goal despite appearing in every game but 1.

Now, to get back to my original point. Fans that are hoping Moyes will improve Everton’s offense by changing the system are sure to be disappointed. If he didn’t change it in 2005-2006 when they scored 35 goals, he isn’t going to change it this year. Instead trust that the transfer window has brought in players that will elevate the attack from within the structure of the system. Jelavic is clearly an upgrade at forward. Donovan, despite his flaws is an elite crosser on the right. Hopefully Pienaar on the left and Darren Gibson in the middle will restore the flow and creativity the attack needs. And with those dominoes set in motion, Everton fans can only hope that Cahill returns to form. Without his scoring, Everton will head into the dying minutes of a lot of games on the wrong side of the scoreboard. But, on the bright side that will probably mean a lot of Stracq and Jelavic on the field together in desperation time.

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