Everton's Boxing Day match against Newcastle United, for 92 minutes, felt much like the last the last eight week's worth of league matches: characterized by Everton domination in possession, lacking enough concrete chances to put the match out of reach, seemingly ready to be derailed by a defensive mistake at any moment.
But, Everton's defense held up (despite one or two unnecessarily close calls) and Tom Cleverley found a last moment winner on a set piece (of all things).
In reality, it didn't matter how the Toffees won this match. All that mattered was that they finally found another league win, which can hopefully right the ship after a trying eight-week period.
Of course, that doesn't mean that there aren't things to work on tactically. Thankfully though, there are definitely a few players to praise as well, who drove Everton to yesterday's crucial three points.
To start, let's look at Everton's starting lineup.
Roberto Martinez made two changes to his most recent squad, replacing Arouna Kone and Gerard Deulofeu with Kevin Mirallas and Aaron Lennon. Both changes made a good bit of sense, with Kone struggling in recent matches and Deulofeu playing easily the most tiring stretch of his young career.
Steve McClaren and Newcastle United countered with this lineup:
The formation is somewhere between a 4-2-3-1 and a 4-4-2, with Ayoze Perez playing directly off the shoulder of Aleksandar Mitrovic, and Georgino Wijnaldum and Moussa Sissoko not quite playing in a flat midfield four, but not exactly part of an attacking midfield three either.
The first thing you may notice about the Newcastle formation is the giant hole between Perez and the holding midfielders. This space is where Everton's best player on the day (in the humble opinion of yours truly) operated with continued success in all facets of the game. That player, of course, was Gareth Barry,
Barry was an absolute force in the center of midfield, as his player dashboard (courtesy of FourFourTwo.com) clearly shows.
Barry had five tackles, drew three fouls, won three aerial duels, made two clearances, had one successful take-on, and made one interception, in addition to being a passing machine and creating one chance.
His heatmap (courtesy of EvertonFC.com) clearly shows how frequently he was on the ball all over the midfield.
The appropriate response to this heatmap is: "Holy crap, he was everywhere!"
As Everton's deepest-lying midfield player, Barry was the defensive responsibility of Perez, Newcastle's most advanced midfield player. Predictably though, Perez played very much like a No. 10 or second striker, moving freely though the midfield. Perez's heatmap reflects this.
Had Newcastle spent much of the match on the ball, this wouldn't be a bad heatmap for a creative player like Perez. But, since the Toffees had the ball of the majority match, this heatmap reflects a lack of defensive responsibility in the center of the pitch. This meant that Barry had a ton of space in which to operate on the ball in attack and transition.
Of course, that was only part of Barry's success in this match. He was also excellent in defensive cover, which brings us to some less than perfect aspects of Everton's match.
To better explain Barry's defensive role in the center of midfield, we actually must start by looking at Kevin Mirallas. Mirallas came into the lineup for Arouna Kone on the left wing. When Kone starts out wide, his tendency is to drift toward the center of the pitch, looking for crosses or interplay with Romelu Lukaku. In recent weeks though, his central shift had begun to appear more and more aimless, and his effectiveness plummeted as a result.
The introduction of Mirallas made sense on paper, because he is much more a true winger and would give the Toffees a more traditional attacking look. Instead, somewhat inexplicably, Mirallas was used almost exactly like Kone, playing more like a second No. 10 than a left winger, as his heatmap shows.
If this looks familiar, it is because it looks a lot like Kone's heatmap from earlier in December:
Mirallas' individual performance was decent on the day. He was confident on the ball, willing to take players on, and passed well. But, his usage hampered both his ability to make plays individually and the team's overall ability to succeed.
In attack, using Mirallas too centrally forced the play down the right to Aaron Lennon. Lennon ultimately did pretty well, as his player dashboard shows.
The English winger created four chances and had three successful take-ons, so there was definitely a lot to feel good about. But, Lennon is a different type of player from Gerard Deulofeu, who has occupied the right wing for most of this season. Deulofeu thrives in the system in which the left wing drifts into the middle, because it means the team must play down his right side, putting the ball frequently in Deulofeu's feet, right where he likes it.
Lennon, though decent with the ball at his feet, is much better when he does not have to be the focal point of the attack. With his raw pace and movement off the ball, Lennon is much more dangerous when he is trying to get in behind defenders and stretch the back line, rather than being forced to create chances for other players.
But, with Mirallas coming to the middle and Jack Colback and Vurnon Anita shielding the back four in the center of the pitch, Lennon's right side was the only option. For this reason, the Toffees struggled to create chances despite having a distinct possession advantage.
This wasn't the only problem caused by the usage of Mirallas though. Because he was so infrequently on the left wing, the left full-back, Leighton Baines, had to get very far up the pitch to provide any kind of width on that side of the field. Baines' heatmap reflects this.
Baines ought to be getting involved in the attack, but there are obvious problems when your full-back is your most advanced player on his wing and has no cover behind him.
So, when an Everton attack occurred, it would generally look something like this:
The ball would generally be on the right side of the pitch, with Seamus Coleman coming to support Lennon down the right. With no else else on the left, Baines is forced to adopt an extremely advanced position so that his teammates have any option the send the ball to the left.
Barry frequently sat back essentially as a third center-back when the full-backs pushed up, but when the ball was turned over, Everton still had issues getting numbers back. The team's response to the counter usually involved Tom Cleverley slotting into the left-back position defensively, while Barry also joined the back four.
Cleverley's heatmap reflects just how much time he spent covering on the left wing.
Essentially, the Toffees' transition defense looked something like this:
I have two problems with this plan of defense.
First, while it gives the Toffees the necessary numbers back, no one seems to have any idea of what each player's role is. Perhaps Newcastle's best chance of the match came on a counter chance during which the Toffees had Newcastle outnumbered six to four.
Sissoko has the ball down the left with six Everton defenders present to shut down four Newcastle attackers. But, John Stones has been forced out to the right to cover for Coleman, leaving Barry and Ramiro Funes Mori covering the middle.
Baines is back in this instance, but he looks like he thinks he's going to be getting help from Cleverley. But, the English midfielder is marking a late runner, leaving Baines on his own to mark Mitrovic while the players covering the center-back positions do nothing.
The end result is that Baines is left in a one-on-one aerial duel with the much larger Mitrovic, who misses the net with his header, letting Everton off.
My other problem with this game plan is that it is unnecessarily risky. If pushing Mirallas into the middle and Baines very far up the left was creating numerous attacking chances, then I'd completely understand taking the chance that the team will get struck unaware on the counter. But the fact of the matter is that the attacking plan didn't work.
The Toffees did not create many quality chances despite their sizable advantage in possession. There's simply no reason to have a player like Mirallas playing as a faux striker rather than a true left winger when the plan just isn't working.
Of course, Everton was still absolutely the better team on Boxing Day and probably deserved three points based on the way the match went. But, Martinez has his side playing in a manner which simply doesn't make sense right now, and it must be changed if the team is to succeed going forward.