Let’s be honest. Nobody really wants a tactical breakdown of a game against Stoke. Games against Stoke stink. And as we all know, the big story line had nothing to do with the game itself. Once again we’re going to be without Marouane Fellaini. This time it’s for three games, although given the head-butt it could have been a lot worse. So, instead of recapping a boring game, let’s look forward and see if we can’t figure out the best replacement options for His Hairness. Fellaini has missed two games this year already, first with a knee injury against QPR, and then through suspension against Norwich. And while neither of those games will be an exact blue print for this weekend against West Ham, they’re a good starting point.
The main feature of both of those matches was Moyes’s decision to start Pienaar in the middle of the field. Against QPR he basically played the top of a midfield triangle, ahead of Neville and Osman. For the first time I can remember Moyes played two wingers, Mirallas and Anichebe with instructions to stay high up the field and attack. The system was a disaster, players looked uncomfortable in their roles, there was no cohesion, and shortly before halftime Moyes scrapped the plan, shifting to the more traditional Everton 4-4-1-1 shape, with Pienaar on the left and Anichebe on the right, with Mirallas taking up Fellaini’s normal role. Everton had much more success with that plan (until Pienaar got himself sent off).
I think we can all agree that seeing that experiment once was enough. It’s probably a moot point anyway, because Mirallas and Anichebe are hurt, which leaves Moyes with exactly zero natural offensive wingers. Still though, it’s a good reminder of exactly how far away from his normal tactics Moyes will move to make up for the loss of Fellaini.
Against Norwich Pienaar again played in the middle of the field, although this time in a more traditional 4-2-3-1 system. He was flanked by Oviedo on the left and Naismith on the right. For the first hour or so Oviedo stayed very wide on the left, but Pienaar and Naismith frequently interchanged, with Naismith’s early goal coming when he moved centrally to get on the end of an Oviedo cross just outside the 6 yard box. On the hour mark, Oviedo actually switched flanks, and for the first time played on the right wing, where he was very very lively, taking players on and cutting inside into open spaces.
The other important thing to remember about those games is how constricted the selection options were. Because of the incredible thinness of Everton’s central midfield, when each of those games were played there were only two healthy choices in the entire squad. For the first game it was Osman and Neville, and for the second Osman and Hitzlsperger. Also during both of those games the squad was exceptionally thin at right back, with Coleman the only option at QPR and Jagielka pressed into service there against Norwich. And while injuries to Anichebe, Mirallas and Fellaini’s suspension has left David Moyes somewhat bereft of attacking options, the return of Darron Gibson, Tony Hibbert, and Seamus Coleman has given Moyes more flexibility at the back. And that’s before we even consider the return of Ross Barkley to the midfield mix (Side Question: Does anybody even know Barkley’s best position at this point? If he were to start/play would it be in central midfield or off of the striker?).
Has we’ve harped on all year having Gibson back in the squad changes the way Everton plays. Without him and Fellaini, there was a real dearth of midfield playmaking. That’s why Moyes had to move Pienaar inside, in the hopes that he could make the offense tick. He couldn’t. With Gibson though, there is a creative hub in the center of the field. Given his ability to link defense and attack, and get the ball out to the wings, Moyes might feel better able to play a less creative, but more goal attacking option off of Jelavic. There are two main candidates for that role. The first is Leon Osman. On defensively minded teams in the past Osman has played the advanced midfielder role with varying degrees of success. Moyes could certainly play him there, and fill his usual role with Hitzlsperger. But, for me Naismith is the best option to play centrally off of Jelavic.
Look, Naismith has gotten a bad rap recently, and I’m as much to blame as anybody. Playing on the wing has served to highlight all of the things he doesn’t do well (his lack of pace, lack of fitness, lack of truly accurate crossing) and mask what he does do well. He scores goals. He takes up good positions, gets on the end of balls and puts them in the back of the net, plain and simple. It’s easy to forget he’s scored more goals than Mirallas this year (3 vs 1), despite taking less than half as many shots (14 vs 34). I completely understand why Moyes wouldn’t want to start him centrally, with Osman and Neville or Hitzlsperger behind him, but with a player like Gibson who can shoulder the playmaking duties it seems like a no brainer to me.
If Naismith starts playing off of Jelavic (a tandem which did quite well at Rangers by the way) then that leaves the right side of the midfield open, but Moyes has ample options for filling that spot. Oviedo could start there (my preference) or Osman could be moved out wide with Hitz or Barkley coming into the center. Even Coleman could return to his right midfield role with Hibbert playing behind him. All of those options are viable.
Ultimately I think the most likely lineup to be sent out at West Ham this weekend is Pienaar, Naismith and Oviedo playing behind Jelavic. The interesting question will be how they line up, and how much freedom they will have to switch, and interchange. On paper that lineup should be more than enough to win the match. Although if history is any guide this season it will end up being just enough to draw.