Generally I try and make the tactics pieces pretty even toned. I’m shooting for a Dragnet, "just the facts ma’am," sensibility. It’s also why I wait a day or two after games to write them up. Let the emotion simmer down, wait for cooler heads to prevail, that sort of thing. Basically, I want to be the anti-twitter. So, I apologize in advance for the fact that I’m going to get a little ranty today. I blame it on the fact that I spent the holiday season reading entirely too many Everton tweets for my own good. So, instead of charts and graphs today I’m just going to throw a bunch of words at you about some of the things that Everton fans seemed to be calling for which are driving me insane. It’ll still be tactics related, I promise.
Before I go any further, I feel the need to make something clear. Victor Anichebe and Shane Duffy are two players who I like, and wish to see on the field, and John Heitinga and Steven Naismith are two players who I think have no business playing serious minutes for a Champions League contending team. Please keep that in mind as you read on.
Despite my disclaimer, there is absolutely no way that either Duffy or Anichebe should have started against Newcastle. I’ll start with Duffy because he’s the easier case. Shane Duffy has played a grand total of one Premier League game this season. One. The idea that he is going to start on the road, after having not played at all this year is absurd. I get that Heitinga has been absolutely horrendous this year. He has, and the fact that Jagielka has been forced out to cover for Hibbert/Coleman compounds the problem because having Jagielka, Distin and Heitinga on the field at the same time hasn’t worked at all. But that doesn’t mean that putting Duffy in the lineup would actually improve anything. There was a time when Distin was struggling earlier in the year and fans were wondering why Heitinga wasn’t getting more playing time. Turns out, there was a really good reason for that. That’s the thing with bench players, there’s a reason they’re on the bench, and in Duffy’s case the reason is he’s young, inexperienced and not ready to play in games that might decide whether or not a team will qualify for the Champions League.
David Moyes asks a lot of his central defenders. When the team is in possession they play a very high line, and dare opponents to play balls over the top, meaning the central backs have to cover a lot of ground left by Baines and Coleman. On the flip side, when opponents have possession the team tends to drop deep and get men behind on the ball, meaning the center backs are asked to by physical presences defending against crosses and big physical forwards. It’s a demanding combination, and one that is especially hard for a young player to pick up. Asking Duffy who has literally no experience in important games to be better than Heitinga, even as bad as Heitinga has been, isn’t fair. I mean, it’s not exactly like the fan base was patient with Seamus Coleman as he learned the defensive ropes. After two bad performances they were calling for Moyes to yank the kid. Duffy’s learning curve is going to be just as rocky, if not more so.
Moving on to Big Vic. Lots of people seemed to be dismayed that Naismith was once again starting on the right, and Anichebe, who’s played well recently, was left out. The logic basically being, Anichebe scored goals, Naismith is slow, therefore Anichebe must start. You’ll notice in that deep, thorough analysis there isn’t any actual thought given to where everybody will play on the field. So, let’s take a second to go through the options. Option 1, Anichebe stays up top pairing with Jelavic, and Fellaini comes back into the team in the midfield, with Osman playing on the right, and Option 2, Anichebe plays on the right in a straight swap with Naismith. Option 1 is pretty dumb. Fellaini has been by far our best player this season, we all know that. And a huge part of his value comes from his physical dominance in advanced positions. Moving him away from goal to get Anichebe on the field actually makes the team a less potent offensive threat. Option 2 is actually the role that Anichebe played when he came as a substitute, and requires a little bit of deeper analysis.
Clearly, since Anichebe came in and promptly scored a goal there are some benefits to him playing there. The current version of the Everton offense (the one without Mirallas and Coleman) asks the right midfielder to be a finisher offensively. As the attack builds down the left the right winger drifts inside to take up a central position and finish movements. Anichebe provided a text book example of what that’s supposed to look like when he scored (it’s a role Naismith has sometimes filled, and sometimes struggled with, but it is how basically all of his goals have come as well).
The problem isn’t offensively, it’s defensively. One of the hallmarks of a David Moyes system is the work rate he requires out of his wingers. The team’s defensive philosophy goes something like this. When you lose the ball press to win it back quickly. If that doesn’t work drop behind the ball, soak up pressure and force the ball back to the opposition’s central defenders. When that happens come flying out and press again in an effort to win the ball back. Steven Pienaar, in particular, is great at it. Watch a game and you constantly see him flying all over the place pressing, and the busting his ass back to get behind on the ball on the left wing. Anichebe doesn’t do that. And, honestly I don’t blame him. After all, he’s not a midfielder, he’s a striker, he stays higher up the pitch to provide an outlet and hold the ball up. Say what you want about Naismith’s lack of skill, he always gets back behind the ball, even if he doesn’t defend particularly effectively when he’s there.
Now, why is this so important? Well, none of Everton’s central midfielders are particularly mobile. They don’t have a Yaya Toure, or Sandro, or even an Obi Mikel who can cover across the center of the field by themselves if a teammate is out of position. So, what ends up happening when a winger doesn’t get back is what happened for the roughly 15 minutes after Anichebe scored. Neville was constantly forced to the right wing to cover for Anichebe, and that left Leon Osman as the lone man in the middle of the pitch. Nobody is going to confuse Leon Osman for Yaya Toure. And Newcastle had a field day and created two or three really really good chances. Those chances went away when Oviedo came in for Jelavic, meaning that Anichebe could move up top into his natural position, and Oviedo could more faithfully execute the David Moyes winger gameplan, and from that point on Everton saw out the game rather comfortably.
The point is they barely survived 15 minutes defensively with Anichebe on the right, let alone a half or a full game. Playing players out of position for offensive purposes has defensive effects. Those effects impact how the whole team plays. All too often only the last defender, or the keeper gets blames for deficiencies that have their roots much farther up the field. And that’s exactly what playing Big Vic instead of Naismith would cause.
One of the major lessons I took away from all the fan chatter though (aside from less twitter) is that defense just doesn’t get analyzed enough. And I’m as guilty of that in these tactics pieces as anyone. So, as the second half of the season goes on, expect more defensive analysis from me, hopefully in picture form, to complement all the pretty passing chalkboards.