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Everton 1-3 Arsenal: Tactical Analysis - An Ugly Tactical Plan in an Ugly Match

In Saturday's Barclays Asia Tour final, Everton was outmatched by an Arsenal side that fielded a much stronger side than the Toffees. There are limited lessons to be learned from this loss, but one thing in particular caught my eye.

Arouna Kone fails to convert an early chance against Arsenal.
Arouna Kone fails to convert an early chance against Arsenal.
Stanley Chou/Getty Images
After two promising matches to open the preseason, the Toffees played out a pretty miserable match against Arsenal in the final of the Barclays Asia Trophy.
For multiple reasons, this match lacked the sort of intrigue that made the Stoke City match a valuable tool to learn about Everton's tactical future.
  1. Arsenal used a starting XI that could reasonably be used on the Premier League's opening day. Everton didn't. Sean argued yesterday that the Toffees should have gone with a full-strength starting lineup as well, and while I don't know if I necessarily agree with that, there was a clear discrepancy between how each team approached the match.
  2. James McCarthy and Gareth Barry were clearly exhausted. Against a club like Arsenal, which often attacks in a narrow fashion, that was always going to be an issue. There is not a whole lot tactically interesting about what happened in the center of the pitch; it was simply that two tired players were overwhelmed and turnover-prone.
  3. Seamus Coleman was clearly rusty in his return to action. It isn't a surprise that this was the case, but Everton relies on Coleman, particularly when missing some of its other offensive weapons, as was the case Saturday. Coleman will be fine, but his struggles took a little bit of intrigue out of the proceedings.
  4. Arsenal's second and third goals came as the result of individual mistakes, rather than how the team was set up. On Arsenal's second goal, Santi Cazorla was simply given too much time and space at the top of the box on a corner, and the Gunners' third goal came directly off a tired, sloppy turnover in the midfield.

All that being said, there was definitely an interesting development in this match worth taking a look at. First, let's take a look at how the team lined up at the start of the match.

Roberto Martinez elected to make multiple changes from the side that beat Stoke mid-week, with none more noticeable than the presence of Arouna Kone up front and Tom Cleverley wide on the left.

In the past, I've made no secret of how useless I think Kone is, and Saturday's match certainly did nothing to change my opinion of the Ivorian striker. But, in fairness to him, Martinez did not set Kone up for success against Arsenal.

For reasons I will explain below, Everton looked more like this as attacks developed:

Kone drifted left constantly as the Toffees tried to build attacks through the midfield. This happened so frequently that must have been purposefully planned by Martinez. It would seem that in an attempt to compensate for the fact that Cleverley is obviously not a wide player, Martinez encouraged Kone to drift in front of him down the left while Cleverley drifted to a more natural central position.

In the first half, this opened up space for Steven Naismith in the middle, so it was not a completely nonsensical move, but it ultimately failed.

One of the biggest factors of this failure was made apparent during the build up to Arsenal's first goal. The play begins harmlessly enough, with Mesut Ozil dribbling into three Everton defenders.

The Toffees in the midst of the play, Barry, Luke Garbutt, and Phil Jagielka, manage to win the ball from Ozil and send the ball to McCarthy, who has space in the center of the pitch.

McCarthy has limited options, so he looks up the pitch to try to relieve the pressure. His only real option is to go to Kone through the air.

Kone, as was the case for most of the match, has set up shop nearly on the left sideline. He lacks the strength or skill to successfully hold the ball up, and turns the ball over.

As soon as Arsenal gets on the ball, Everton's spacing is an issue. Naismith had no choice but to get near Kone when the ball initially came in, as he was Kone's only outlet, but once the ball is turned over, there is a massive gap between the Scot and the holding midfielders. The Gunners play the ball to Santi Cazorla in the center of midfield, and the Spaniard finds himself in a frightening amount of space.

The rush to support Kone down the left has now given Cazorla days and acres in which to make a play. The wide view makes this even clearer:

Four Everton players are now within 15 yards of each other while one of Arsenal's most dangerous attacking players has the ball in 15 yards of his own space. Barry and McCarthy, still out of position after trying to give support to Kone, fail to pick up Olivier Giroud in the space between the midfielders and the defenders. John Stones, the right-center back, is forced to make a decision. He can either step up to try to prevent Giroud from having space to turn and make a play in, or he can stay where he is and hope the midfielders pick him up. Stones opted for the former.

Stones only gets about two steps up the field by the time Cazorla recognizes the space in behind and plays Theo Walcott in. Perhaps Coleman could have done a little better to stay on the inside of the pacey Englishman, but he was always going to be in trouble once a player like Walcott has that much space to run into.

As you well know, Walcott latched onto the perfect through ball from Cazorla and beat a poorly-positioned Joel Robles to give the Gunners the early lead.

This chain of events was triggered by two mistakes--Kone's inability to hold the ball and the bunching up of multiple Toffees down the left. Both were obvious flaws in Martinez's tactical plan going into the match.

In fairness to Martinez, the preseason is the time to test out unusual ideas. Everton remains short on options at wing, and we are sure to see players like Cleverley, Naismith, and Leon Osman being forced to play out wide again this season if another wide player is not added. If Martinez can find ways to counteract the drawbacks of such lineup choices, it would be a great asset to the club.

But, this experiment was an utter failure. I'm not convinced that putting even more bodies into an already crowded area was ever going to be a good idea. Everton relies so heavily on getting its full-backs forward that it seems that having a striker adopt a wide starting position would only get in the way of some of the club's most important attackers.

That is not my biggest issue with what Martinez did Saturday though.

Kone is simply not very good. The club has no other options at striker, so I have no problem with Martinez trying to get him on track, but the idea that the team could test out a new tactical wrinkle with Kone at the forefront of it was simply ridiculous.

What do you think? Am I too mean to Arouna Kone? Are you going to get tired of me talking about how much the team needs to add more depth at wing? (Actually, I can answer that one. You definitely will, because I am not ever going to stop talking about it.) Was this a worthwhile experiment? Have your say on these questions and anything else below!