School of Science: Tactical Analysis

Paul Thomas

Say what you want about the tactics of the now departed David Moyes, they were nothing if not consistent. There was very little mystery to what an Everton team would look like ahead of the kick-off of a new season. For better or worse, that's all gone now, and in its place we have the new car smell of Roberto Martinez. And if the preseason was any indication, regardless of what formation he chooses, tactically the new manager has drastically overhauled the way the team will attempt to play. So, what can we expect from Everton this season?

First of all, we have to talk about formations. Specifically, we have to talk about how useless the typical way of expressing formations is when it comes to Martinez's teams. The typical way to express formations, jotting down numbers like 4-4-2, 4-4-1-1, 4-2-3-1, 3-4-2-1, expresses a fairly static state of affairs. It's almost as if each player is tethered to an area of the field by a rubber band, and while they might stretch away from their designated area, like Seamus Coleman slaloming down the field, they will always eventually be snapped back into place. That's a concept that works pretty well with most teams, and it certainly helped define the David Moyes era. But, that's simply just not the way that Martinez led teams operate. The whole stylistic point of Martinez teams is giving players the freedom to operate in different areas of the field while their compatriots cover for them. It's an approach that prizes versatility, and players that are comfortable playing in more than one position. With players who are comfortable playing in multiple areas they don't end up out of position, they just end up in different positions. It's why Johnny Heitinga, with his ability to play both as a defensive midfielder and central defender is more involved that many Everton fans would have liked or expected, and why John Stones, who can play both on the right and in the middle of defense, has jumped ahead of Shane Duffy in the young defender pecking order. Fluidity and flexibility are the cornerstones of Martinez's approach.

What that approach leads to is a lot of possession for Martinez managed teams. People hear the term possession and they get dizzy with excitement. Teams like Barcelona and Bayern Munich come to mind. Sadly, it's a notion I need to throw some cold water on. Possession is not the same thing as attack, and much of the possession Martinez achieved at Wigan could be better described as defensive possession than attacking possession. We are going to see Everton keep the ball in their own territory a lot this year, a much higher percentage that we're used to. Wigan's emphasis was almost entirely on ball retention, not creating chances. Despite having more possession than Everton last year (54.4% v 52.9%) Martinez's team created 99 less chances (381 v 480). That's a function of how much less of that possession comes in advanced areas of the field. While they had the ball both Everton and Wigan spent 55.1% of their time in the opposition's half, but of that portion of time, Wigan spent only 50% in the final third, while Everton spent 57.4%. In other words all that time you remember where Everton seemed stuck on the edge of opponents penalty areas, unable to either find a good shot, or unlock a defense, you won't see that this year. Instead you'll see the ball worked backwards towards midfield as the team resets and tries again. It's particularly telling that Wigan were excellent at pass completion in the final third last year at 83.6% (behind only Manchester United and Arsenal) but were chronically unable to create chances. That's a fundamentally conservative brand of football.

Now, it's also fair to say that some of that conservatism can be attributed to the lack of talent Martinez was saddled with at Wigan. Everton's roster, with all its faults is certainly much more skilled than Wigan's. Just don't expect the team to look like Barcelona, rather expect them to slowly shift into Swansea, but with better defensive personnel, and more attacking options (although probably nobody who can achieve the heights Michu did last season, or new Swansea striker Wilfred Bony is possibly capable of). That is, certainly capable in attack, and able to create shots from good areas on the field (meaning centrally and inside the penalty area) but with a lot of possession aimed at primarily keeping the ball, rather than possession with the purpose of attack.

Defending with possession of the ball is perhaps the biggest fundamental difference between Martinez and Moyes. Moyes was a huge proponent of defending deep, and defending disciplined. Martinez's teams have frequently been knocked, and rightly so, for their poor defensive record, and how easy teams found it to pick his defensive squads apart. And the criticism is justified, although somewhat unfairly ignores how large a part of his defensive gameplan playing keep away was. Still the biggest question the manager will have to answer is how large a part his schemes played in allowing Wigan to be carved open. Martinez has been handed a strong defensive roster (at least the starters are strong, depth, as always, remains a real issue) with Jagielka and Distin anchoring the team, and Fellaini, if he stays, in front of them. Heitinga, although he was awful last year as a defender, as a very capable as a defensive midfielder, and we all know the abilities of Baines, and the increasingly realized potential of Coleman.

So, what will the lineup be? At first, at least nominally, I expect first choice will primarily be a 4-2-3-1 which looks like this (ignoring the current injury to Gibson and speculation about Fellaini).

football formation

Although Osman could easily be ahead of Barkley in the coach's depth chart at the moment, and Kone could certainly replace Jelavic, although with his strong preseason Jelavic almost certainly remains the favorite to start. The lineup also gives Martinez the added flexibility of having two very flexible substitutes. Osman could credibly cover for any of the five midfield positions, and Heitinga for the two CBs or deep midfielders, and probably even Coleman if Jags shifted over. That's important because with the relative mix of youth inexperience and talent that the reserve corps of Deulofeu, Stones and Oviedo have, I'd expect Martinez to pick his spots somewhat judiciously with them. Although obviously he won't have that concern with the, dare I say revitalized, Steven Naismith.

There's a lot of guesswork going into this season. That's what happens when you have a new manager, with a new tactical outlook on life, and a handful of new players to deploy. That's fun, it's an exciting way to open a season. There's a lot we don't know about how Martinez ultimately expects his team to play. From what we do know, I'd say, expect lots of possession, but not as many shots, and a defense that at times will be adventurous to say the least. Whether that all adds up to a successful season, well we're less than a week away from finding out.

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