Preseason matches are always tough to read. With some players out and clubs having nothing to play for, there are limited lessons to be learned from matches like Everton and Stoke City's meeting on Saturday.
But, there was a consistent trend in the first half of Wednesday's match which has appeared in past seasons and may well appear again this season. So, it seems worth investigating this trend--the drifting central of Everton wingers, in particular Steven Pienaar.
First, let's look at how the team lined up in the first half.
Everton fielded a quality side against Stoke, with the only real position of weakness being full-back. Neither Leighton Baines nor Seamus Coleman featured in this one, and both players play a huge role for the Toffees. Perhaps no club in the Premier League relies on its full-backs more for offense than Everton, and the two have combined for 16 goals and 17 assists over the last two Premier League season.
Tony Hibbert, though we all love him, is not a full-back with attacking prowess, so Kevin Mirallas was forced to play by himself at times on Everton's right wing, which is unusual for any Everton winger. Conversely, Brendan Galloway frequently found himself in advanced positions down the left. Of course, Galloway is no Baines, but for the sake of this discussion, he fills in nicely.
One of the reasons Baines and Pienaar, who started in the left of midfield, have always had such a good relationship is that the South African prefers to pinch in toward the middle when Everton begins moving the ball forward. That usually leaves Baines acres of space in which to operate on the left.
An example will illustrate this point. Here, in the 27th minute, we see Pienaar adopted a starting position that is closer to the right sideline than the left one.
James McCarthy plays in into the feet of the 33-year-old.
He spots Ross Barkley ahead of him and plays the ball to the young Englishman. Pienaar continues his run farther down the right, and Barkley tries to carry the ball into the vacated space to the left.
In the above picture, you can see that Everton's four most advanced players are all within about 15 yards of each other as the attack grows. Barkley has drawn two midfielders, Pienaar has the attention of a third, and two of Stoke's defenders are keeping Romelu Lukaku out of the play, with a third nearby. You don't need a math degree to figure out that's a six-on-four, so there must be space and an open player somewhere.
The ball then pops out to Gareth Barry, who knocks it wide to Brendan Galloway.
The Stoke defenders and midfielders try to rush out to put some pressure on after the Toffees switch the field, but the defensive pressure isn't immediate. Galloway tries to lay it back to Barry then make a run in behind, but Barry is closed down before he can make the return pass.
There are acres of space, and in this freeze frame, it looks like Barry should be able to slide the ball in behind. It doesn't come off for any number of reasons (i.e., it's Galloway, not Baines making the run, it's still preseason, Barry takes too long to make decisions sometimes, etc.), but the plan is obvious. This kind of play has made Baines one of the Premier League's top assist men for the past few seasons.
But, this style of play from Pienaar or any other winger comes with a cost--the frequent marginaliztion of Ross Barkley.
Take a look at this still from right before Pienaar plays in Lukaku at the end of the first half.
As Pienaar, who is on the ball, drifts central to open up for a pass from Galloway, Barkley does the same thing. The result is that the two players end up only a few feet apart, while a space of 25 yards sits completely unoccupied in the center of the field.
Barkley is the sort of player who needs to have the ball at his feet to have an impact on the game. But, if the wingers consistently drift into his space, the amount of time he spends with the ball decreases, as do his options once he has the ball.
Ultimately, it looks something like this.
Things quickly end up in danger of become a giant clustered disaster.
Now, this is not to say that Pienaar necessarily does anything wrong by sliding toward the middle. He doesn't have the pace to beat anyone to the outside, and he has made a career out of these kind of movements. But, it just doesn't fit the sort of role that Barkley plays behind the striker.
During Pienaar's time with Everton, two of the team's most prolific goal scorers have been Tim Cahill and Marouane Fellaini, both of whom played behind the striker as well. But those players tended to foray forward, getting in behind defenses while players like Pienaar drifted into the space vacated by the No. 10.
Barkley simply does not play like Cahill or Fellaini does, nor should he. He obviously has much stronger play-making abilities than either of these former Everton No. 10s, not to mention he lacks the size and strength of those players.
So, how does Everton get the best out of Barkley, while also maintaining optimal performances and relationships between the wingers and full-backs? The best answer is probably a simple one--Barkley needs to take the space he's given, regardless of where it is.
In the final image from the match above, I've circled a huge chunk of empty space in the final third. At times, Barkley must accept the fact that the wingers are going to creep into his space and find other open areas on the pitch. Doing so will either draw a defender away from the winger or end up with Barkley in acres of space in the center. Such a move would look like this.
By just moving five or ten yards, Barkley opens up the field massively. He's now created a triangle between himself, Barry and Pienaar, as well as between himself, Pienaar, and Lukaku. It means Ross will be on the ball less and farther from goal, but he will have more space and more options when he does get the ball.
This isn't a catch-all solution by any means, but it is a simple move that alleviates some of the crowding issues Everton has in the attack at times.
What do you think? Do Everton's wide players need to give Barkley a wider berth? Is this a problem that will go away if Pienaar isn't playing? Do you have a better solution? Am I guilty of just putting a lot of pretty pictures up without actually saying anything? Feel free to comment on these questions or anything else in the comments below!