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Breaking Down the Breakdowns: Where the Everton Defense has Failed

This weekend's Merseyside Derby left Evertonians with feelings of disappointment; a number of defensive breakdowns left the Toffees just short of their first derby win since 2010. This left one inquiring blogger asking, "What went wrong with the Everton defense?"

Tim Howard watches on helplessly as Danny Sturridge ties up the Merseyside Derby.
Tim Howard watches on helplessly as Danny Sturridge ties up the Merseyside Derby.
Clive Brunskill

Let's say one thing up front. The Everton defense has not been a massive problem this season. They have the second most clean sheets in the Premier League, and have conceded the 5th fewest goals in England's top flight. While those numbers aren't bad by any means, this team isn't going to light up the league with goals. Even if Romelu Lukaku can keep up his torrid pace from so far this campaign, that only puts the Toffees on pace to finish 6th or 7th. If the boys in blue want to challenge for a top 4 spot, the defense will have to go from good to great.

The defensive issues against Liverpool were pretty obvious; the defending of set pieces was downright atrocious. It seemed, in my mind and the minds of some others at RBM, that defending set pieces has been a repeated issue for Everton this season. However, a quick review of the goals conceded so far revealed that of the 10 shots to best Tim Howard before the Liverpool match, NONE came via a free kick or corner kick (2 were from the penalty spot, but that's a different beast entirely and I'll deal with that later). So what else has been problematic for the Everton back-line this campaign, and what can be fixed? Let's take a quick look at Everton's goals against so far, and see what we find.

@ Norwich - August 17 - highlights via

Whittaker 51' - Steven Whittaker dribbles through Steven Pienaar and Leighton Baines, then Marouane Fellaini, takes a shot from the top of the box which strikes the post, then comes back into play. Whittaker chases down the rebound and puts it into a practically empty net, while Phil Jagielka and Sylvain Distin do little more than watch the Scotsman give the Canaries the lead.

Van Wolfswinkel 71' - Whittaker flubs a cross into the box as he is being closed down by Baines, and it falls perfectly onto the head of Ricky Van Wolfswinkel, who puts a picture perfect header to the far post past Howard.

What could have gone better? - Everton's first goal against was more or less a horror show. Three Toffees fail to make a tackle, then the center-backs utterly fail to deal with the second opportunity created when the ball comes off the post. Nothing too complicated here; the tackling needs to be better, and defenders need to stay alert until the play is dead. The second goal is difficult to get upset about; Whittaker had little room to cross, Jagielka was marking Van Wolfswinkel relatively closely, and the botched cross got just over his head, and Van Wolfswinkel had to make a perfect header to score.

@ West Ham - September 21 - highlights via

Morrison 31' - Matt Jarvis is allowed by Seamus Coleman and Leon Osman to run toward the Everton goal. He lays the ball off to Ravel Morrison, and the young Englishman is given far too much time, and he gets off a good shot that deflects off an Everton defender and past the helpless Howard.

Noble 76' (pen) - A harmless long ball appears to be shielded out by Jagielka, but Mladen Petric does well to save it at the final moment. He manages to pull it back, and make a pass to Kevin Nolan, who dodges a tackle from Gareth Barry, then has his legs taken out by James McCarthy in the box. Mark Noble converts on the penalty.

What could have gone better? - Much like the first goal against Norwich, the problems with the first goal here are obvious. Osman and Coleman let Jarvis get almost to the top of the box completely unhindered. There's no one within five yards of Morrison when he receives the pass, and Baines and Distin take far too long to close down on him. The deflection is unfortunate, but Everton deserved to be punished for their poor defending here. There is plenty of blame to go around on the second goal as well. Jagielka puts forward a solid effort to shield the ball over the endline, but once a defender commits to that play, it simply has to get done. Distin and McCarthy are far to slow in reading the play once Petric has recovered the ball, and McCarthy pays for his poor positioning by conceding the penalty.

Newcastle - September 30 - highlights via

Cabaye 51' - Yoan Gouffran lays off to Yohan Cabaye, who unleashes a rocket from 25 yards out, picking the top corner to beat Howard, an absolute wonder strike.

Remy 89' - Cabaye is allowed to put a long ball in 40 yards from goal. Mathieu Debuchy out jumps Baines and wins the header toward the front of goal, where Loic Remy wins the ball, out-muscles Jagielka, and slots the ball into the back of the net from 5 yards out.

What could have gone better? - On Cabaye's goal, the Toffees likely could have closed down the Frenchman a little faster, but no one ought to be losing sleep over such a tremendous strike. Remy's goal on the other hand, was easily preventable. Osman gave Cabaye far too much room to pick out a target in the box, Jagielka allows himself to be out-muscled far too easily, and Distin is too slow to react once Jags is beaten; this is another instance of basic defensive breakdowns and a little bit of falling asleep at the wheel.

@ Manchester City - October 5 - highlights via

Negrado 17' - Everton fail to deal with the approaching danger in the midfield, as a neat passing combination between David Silva and Yaya Toure brings the Ivorian barreling down the center of the pitch toward the top of the box. He plays a perfectly weighted through ball to Alvaro Negrado, who speeds past Seamus Coleman and beats Howard.

Aguero 45' - David Silva plays a through ball to Sergio Aguero down the right, and the Argentine, well marked by Distin, manages to sneak the ball inside the far post.

Howard (o.g.) 69' - Pablo Zabaleta receives a through ball into the box, where Coleman makes a slight grab to try to slow up the Argentine, who goes down on the contact. Howard manages to punch the following Aguero penalty, but only into the post. The ball comes off the woodwork, off the American keeper's back, and into the net.

What could have gone better? - Seamus Coleman was arguably Everton's best player of the first month of the season, but this match marked the start of some struggles for the young Irishman. He failed to pick up Negrado's run on the first goal, and gave Zabaleta an excuse to go down for the penalty that led to the third goal. Coleman also had his struggles against Aston Villa two weeks later, when he conceded an early penalty that was saved by Tim Howard. Though Howard shone in that Villa match, he had a rough day against City as well. He certainly needed to do better on Aguero's winner, got a big chunk of Negrado's goal, and could have gotten Aguero's penalty as well.

Hull City - October 19 - highlights via

Sagbo 30' - Aluko manages to get to the endline and sneak a cross in past Baines. The ball is right to Yannick Sagbo, who Gareth Barry has completely lost, and Sagbo rockets the open shot into the back of the net.

What could have gone better? - This is perhaps the simplest goal of all. Barry should have been marking Sagbo and simply falls asleep for just a brief moment, and that's all Hull needed to capitalize.

Liverpool - November 23 - highlights via

Coutinho 5' - Steven Gerrard puts a good ball into the box off a corner. Luis Suarez wins the header over Baines, knocking the ball back to Philippe Coutinho, who is completely unmarked, and has all day to pick a spot, beating Howard.

Suarez 19' - Suarez draws a foul off Barry 30 yards from goal. The Uruguayan takes it, curling it around the wall and inside the near post, beating Howard.

Sturridge 89' - Distin, slotted out to left back after the introduction of John Stones, puts in an unnecessary high boot on Victor Moses on the right wing. Gerrard whips in a dangerous free kick, and Danny Sturridge puts in a perfect glancing header to tie up the match.

What could have gone better? - Where do we start? On Coutinho's opener, Lukaku absolutely switches off. Coutinho was his man, and as soon as the ball got to Suarez, Romelu stops marking his man, and it results in a goal. The second goal brings out a problem I've had with awhile; what in the world is Steven Pienaar doing on free kicks? He always does the same thing; he lines up next to the wall and tries to charge the free kick taker, separate from the wall. I've never understood what Peanuts things he accomplishes by doing this, and this time it cost the Toffees. If he is just on the wall, Suarez's free kick harmlessly bounces off the wall. On Sturridge's equalizer, there are some questions to be answered in terms of defensive assignments. With three center backs in the game, as well as Lukaku and Barry, the decision to have McCarthy marking Sturridge seems questionable. Sturridge was certainly one of the most dangerous targets on Gerrard's free kick, and McCarthy, though he is a hard worker, simply doesn't have the size and strength to be marking a striker of Sturridge's caliber at that stage of the match.

What conclusions can we draw from all this? What needs to be improved?

With Leighton Baines looking at a lengthy lay-off, it is tough to get tactical when looking at what needs to be done, but I think the improvements can ultimately be summed up like this:

1. The whole team needs to get better at being aware of second and third chances. 4 goals against came as a direct result of defenders falling asleep because they felt the chance had been dealt with. It may seem like a simple thing, but it is a crucial part of defending that the Toffees have come up short on so far this season.

2. The center-backs need to be more physical mark more closely in the box...and everyone else needs to be a little more careful in the penalty area. Distin and Jagielka have been too slow to make plays in the box, and haven't been strong enough to make plays when they've been there at times. Neither player has conceded a penalty this year, and the team gave up no goals off of penalties committed by either player last campaign as well. Obviously that is a positive, but as we see teams scoring several goals from within 10 yards from goal, one has to wonder if Jags and Distin need to be more physical. On the other hand, Everton have conceded three penalties so far this season from other players. All three were sloppy plays, and the sort of things that need to be cleaned up.

3. And yes, the boys in blue need to be better on set pieces. While the Merseyside Derby was the first instance of conceding in this manner, the defending of free kicks and corners was not particularly good before the match either. Everton have been sloppy on set pieces all season, and they will be punished again if they don't work these problems out.

What do you think? What has the biggest problem for the Everton defense been?