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The problem with Everton's left

Much has been made of Everton's lack of consistency at left midfield, but lack of production from the left back position--or tactical inflexibility, depending on how you look at it--is at the root of the issue

Dave Thompson/Getty Images

After another uninspiring outing by Arouna Koné on Monday, discussion as turned again to the growing problem Everton have on the left wing  Ever since the glory days of the Pienaar/Baines link-up were effectively ended by injuries, the Toffees have been searching for consistency in this area of the pitch. Amidst more rumours that both Steven Naismith and Kevin Mirallas could be for sale this January, it makes sense to take a look at Everton's problem in this area, and what might be done to solve it.

One thing that has become clear under Martinez is that who ever starts at left wing has free license and is even encouraged to move inside when Everton are attacking. Whether or not this is due to available personnel or a strategic preference, the tendency of the left winger to drift centrally has been on display all season.

This is nothing new for Everton, and in fact predates the current manager--one of the reasons Pienaar and Baines were so successful together under both Moyes and Martinez was that Pienaar's movement often opened up the wide areas for Baines to bomb into. Two aspects that helped immensely here were the fact that Pienaar is a generally two-footed player, and that for whatever reason, the two players seemed to have an almost telepathic understanding of each other's play.

With Pienaar--and, until recently, Baines--on the sidelines this season, the game plan has roughly been the same but the execution has been lacking. Below are the top 3 key pass producers for the previous three seasons (key passes are according to Opta). The numbers are all per 90 minutes, with a minimum of 1500 minutes played.

2012-13 KP/90 2013-14 KP/90 2014-15 KP/90
Baines 3.05 Mirallas 2.31 Baines 2.27
Pienaar 2.41 Pienaar 1.71 Barkley 1.51
Mirallas 2.11 Baines 1.55 Lukaku 1.16

Even with the switch of manager after 2012-13, Everton's attack was still very left-oriented in Roberto's first season in charge. During last season, things changed a bit: Pienaar played only 314 minutes all campaign, and the team in general experienced a downturn. However, Baines still managed to lead the team in key passes from the left back position.

Here is the top 5 for this season, with the minimum minutes dropped down to half of all available time:

Player KP/90
Deulofeu 2.10
Barkley 1.90
Lukaku 1.45
Barry 0.89

Clearly the emphasis has shifted, with Deulofeu leading the charge in terms of service. In a vacuum, this isn't necessarily a bad thing: Geri is the best right winger Everton have had a long time, so why not favor the right side more when attacking? Furthermore, Koné isn't doing terribly by this measure. Mirallas for his part has in his limited minutes led the team in shots per 90 and, according to Paul Riley, is second in the squad in expected goals per 90. You might argue that things aren't worse, just different. So what's the issue?

I'll start answering that question with this:

Courtesy of NBC, you are looking at Everton's average position at halftime of the Stoke match this season. Now, such graphics aren't everything--strictly speaking it only represents 45 minutes of play, and they are obviously affected by the opponent. I couldn't ignore it though, because it shows so well what we've all seen: the team's shape is disorganized. Specifically, it's extremely lopsided.

What's different than past years is that we've often seen the left back get pinned back this season, either by the opposition or by an unwillingness to run into space. Perhaps this has been Martinez's instruction to the young Galloway, so as not expose him. If that's the case though, the manager needs to change things accordingly elsewhere to accommodate. Instead what has developed is a frustrating clustering of all of Everton's attacking players in the central and central-right areas of the pitch. This creates a twofold problem that Adam has been discussing here on RBM in his excellent tactical reviews each week.

First, Koné and Barkley end up in the same area, hampering Ross's ability to run at defenders and to operate in space. Secondly, Lukaku more and more consistently drifts to the right, knowing his best service will come from that side. The result is that his runs and positioning are often easy to read--the defense will know exactly off of whom he is looking to feed. Fortunately for the Blues, Rom is in absolutely stunning finishing form at the moment, but eventually he will need more than just crosses from Deulofeu. Cleverley's assist on Monday was an encouraging development, if only because it came from the left side of the pitch.

In short, Everton are still set up tactically to rely on attacking play from the left back, but they aren't getting any. The tactics and the personnel are unbalanced.

One might simply say that Galloway's lack of attacking prowess is the issue. Or they might point to Koné or Mirallas' lack of positional awareness. What bothers me, though, is the the manager is well aware of his players' strengths and weaknesses, or should be. Koné and Mirallas are both right-footed players, so of course they will drift inside unless they are strictly told not to. Galloway has played enough games to show that he isn't going to be successful playing as high up the pitch as Baines.

Yet for some reason, Martinez has persisted with the same system and the same instructions. Telling Galloway to be less aggressive may not be the worst idea on it's own--he is young and at this point in his career lacks the technical skills of Baines. Furthermore, with Distin no longer with the side, there is no naturally left-sided center back to cover for the left back should he get caught upfield. However, as I mentioned above, if this is the move Martinez is making, then he also needs to instruct the player ahead of the left back to stay wide more consistently, or play a more natural left sided player in that position. It's also worth noting that if it is a defensive maneuver by the manager, it isn't working: the Toffees have conceded the 7th most shots and the 7th most goals in the league this season.

That last point is important. The imbalance I'm describing translates to defensive disorganization, especially in transition. When several players are occupying the same area, there are necessarily empty spaces elsewhere. Everton have struggled in that regard this season, conceding the 4th most shots in the league from counter attacks. Perhaps Baines' continued return from injury (and hopefully a return to form) will help ameliorate these issues, but one can't help but to be discouraged by Martinez's tactical inflexibility in the face of Leighton's absence this season.