After last weekend it’s tempting to just start eulogizing this Everton team. I’m going to resist that temptation because there will be plenty of time for that in the coming weeks and months. In fact, it should fit nicely in the space between the Liverpool match and the off-season Fellaini transfer speculation. Still though, have basically nothing insightful to say about the actual Everton loss to Sunderland. I thought if I took a couple of days, let it settle, maybe cleansed my palate with some Champions League performances, I could muster up the energy to dive into the data from the game. But, truly, I just don’t think anybody wants to read a breakdown of the soft goal Everton conceded, or a deep dive into the statistics of how Sunderland managed to thwart Everton.
So, no pictures this week, instead I’ll just say this. The most disappointing part of the weekend for me wasn’t the result; it was the complete lack of identity that Everton displayed on the pitch. For better or worse this season, a real offensive identity emerged from this team. When everybody was healthy you could count on long balls into Fellaini’s chest for him to hold-up, followed by aggressive overlaps from the full-backs and a steady dose of trickery in the opened up spaces out of Mirallas. All of that was completely absent on Saturday.
For the first 20 minutes, Fellaini played a deeper role, with Osman playing ahead of him. Then, when that didn’t work they switched. Then when that didn’t work Gibson came off at halftime, for Jelavic (I still have no idea what that was all about) and then on 75 minutes another system changer when Moyes double substituted Naismith and Barkley for Anichebe and Osman. That’s an entire game without managing to maintain a coherent system for longer than half an hour. Compare that to earlier in the year when the team would go weeks without changing their basic offensive approach.
It’s not like that change in approach reared its head out of nowhere at the Stadium of Light. For a combination of reasons Moyes has been forced to tinker with the side over the last five games (six if you include playing down a man to City). Starting with Anichebe’s takeover of the striker role, and followed by the suspensions to Fellaini and Pienaar and then an injury to Leon Osman, the only recent game that Everton trotted out a style similar to the beginning of the season was away to QPR. It also happens to be the only game of the bunch they won comfortably, and the only game, that anybody besides Kevin Mirallas scored a goal from open play in since Nikica Jelavic in the dying moments against City. And while we all love Mirallas, I don’t think it’s controversial to say that his individual brilliance is better when it can be unleashed in the final third of the field. Long runs of the type that preceded Mirallas’ goals against Stoke and Spurs just don’t happen that often to players not named Messi or Ronaldo. A couple of brilliant goals from Mirallas covered up the fact that Everton were really struggling to create offense in the last stretch of the season.
It’s not that there’s anything wrong with tactical tinkering per se. Looking above Everton in the table, both Manchester United and Manchester City rely heavily on changing personnel and approach to exploit opponents. Chelsea and Arsenal on the other hand play much more consistent systems, rotating players, but not approaches. Tottenham are impossible to judge, given how much influence Bale has on that team, and how his roll has changed over the course of the year. All of which is just to say that you can win by imposing your own tactics, and you can win by exploiting your opponents. It’s not an either/or decision.
Which brings me back to Saturday. I was, quite frankly, shocked when Fellaini started deeper in the midfield than Leon Osman. I assumed when I saw the team sheet that Moyes, like he had done at QPR, was going back to his trusted formation and tactics, and trusting in the fact that the talent Everton had on the field was substantially better than Sunderland’s. But he didn’t, he tinkered. Now, I can certainly see the argument for switching Fellaini and Osman. Fellaini serves to protect Heitinga who has struggled in Everton’s base system, and an interchanging 3 of Osman, Pienaar and Mirallas behind Anichebe was similar to the attack force that got results against Stoke, Tottenham and Arsenal. Similarly I can see the arguments for switching back when it didn’t work, and going more direct with two strikers when that didn’t work, and changing the look against when even that didn’t work. Those are all good arguments (except for maybe taking Gibson off. Seriously what was up with that?). I just wish the manager had ignored all of them.
Of course, this was still Sunderland, and just because the manager tinkered with the system doesn’t absolve the players of their failure to execute. Realistically no matter who played where or how, the Everton players need to shoulder the blame for what was just a complete failure to show up. If anything, the in game tinkering by Moyes was a manager trying to cover for his players, hoping that tactical tweaks and formation shifts would overcome some truly dreadful performances. I wish he hadn’t. I wish he had simply left them in the system they played all year, and left it up to them to improve their execution on the field.
Realistically Everton were always likely to finish outside the European places after failing to beat either Tottenham or Arsenal, and that’s ok. Through 34 games this team did more than most fans would have ever expected. I just wish that when the end to the European fantasy came, it came on Everton’s own terms, playing the way they had played at their best this season. Instead it came while they tried frantically to adjust to a team eight spots below them in the table. And that’s a shame.