Perhaps one of the greatest criticisms of Roberto Martinez last season was his unwillingness to change. As the team was mired in a miserable slump during the cold months, he sent Everton out in the same formation, with the same players, facing the same problems, and the team suffered as a result.
After a poor match against Watford though, Martinez did institute a change to his side, however slight, that helped reverse the team's fortunes.
Instead of lining up in the 4-2-3-1, as has been the calling card of Everton in the Martinez era, the Toffees came out in a 4-1-4-1.
Gareth Barry dropped deeper than we've become accustomed to seeing, and James McCarthy pushed farther up in the midfield, at times playing next to Ross Barkley. Of course, when those two play together in the holding midfield two of a 4-2-3-1, the tendency is for Barry to sit deeper and McCarthy to push forward more, but yesterday's match took that tendency to a new level.
There were multiple advantages to this change. First, and perhaps most obviously, it put Barry in positions that played to his strengths and limited his weaknesses. He sat deeper than he normally does in a 4-2-3-1, putting him in positions to break up and prevent Southampton attacks. The Saints struggled to make anything happen through the middle, via either Sadio Mane in the first half or Oriel Romeu in the second half. Barry's withdrawn position played a part in that.
Comparing Barry's heat map (courtesy of EvertonFC.com) from the Watford match to that of yesterday's match makes this difference clear.
Recall that Barry played left-back toward the end of last week's 2-2 draw against Watford, so his appearances along the left wing are not worth looking at for the purposes of this comparison.
The difference is obvious. Against Watford, Barry was on the ball in the middle third frequently, which meant he was forced to try to start attacks, a weakness of his. Against Southampton, he had the ball much more in the defensive third, meaning he had to make simpler, shorter passes to the full-backs, wingers, or central midfielders, allowing them to start the attack.
Comparing Barry's success on short passes in his first two matches elucidates this point (courtesy of FourFourTwo.com).
Again, Barry's time at left-back last week is not significant to these considerations. As you can see, a high percentage of his successful short passes came while he was playing left-back, while a high percentage of his unsuccessful passes came while we was playing in the center of midfield. Many of his failed passes appear to be attempts to transition from defense to offense.
Against Southampton, it is a completely different story. He has essentially no passes intended for targets 25 yards from goal or less, and as a result, his accuracy is vastly improved. Against Southampton, his short pass accuracy was 89.7%. Against Watford, it was 78.3%.
Though the team's first two goals came on counter-attacks and the third came as a result of Southampton's late desperation, the team could not have done what it did without what this tactical change brought. By changing to the 4-1-4-1, Everton strengthened its defense and made it easier to retain possession.
By playing strong defensively and keeping the ball once they won it, the Toffees forced the Saints to push numbers into attack and run themselves out of position at times. Once that happened, Everton was in position to strike, and Romelu Lukaku, Ross Barkley, and Arouna Kone answered the call.
The 4-1-4-1 helping the team to a 3-0 victory is the main tactical story from Saturday, but there are two quick doses of reality I would like to close with.
First, there is one drawback to the 4-1-4-1 that Southampton did not exploit, but other teams may if Martinez continues to use this setup. Below is a diagram of how Everton looked on an average attack.
Everton, as it seems I say every week, relies on its full-backs to provide width, particularly in the absence of true wingers. Seamus Coleman did well to get into the attack at times yesterday, and was involved in the buildup to the third goal. But, when he is up the pitch, he needs defensive cover if the ball is turned over. In the 4-2-3-1, this was not a huge problem.
McCarthy would be in position to step back into the space vacated by Coleman, if the need arose. Barry could slide over to a more central position, and the team would usually be able to slow up the opposition's counter-attacks enough to let Coleman and the wingers get back into the play.
In the 4-1-4-1 though, that isn't necessarily an option.
If Coleman is caught out here, either Barry or Kone have a lot of ground to cover to be in a position to make a defensive play in the right-back's absence. For this reason, Everton actually swapped its wingers about five minutes into the second half, as Southampton speedster Sadio Mane went from playing centrally to wide left at the start of the second half.
Cleverley was more defensively responsible than Kone, but this still could be a problem for the Toffees going forward, particularly once Kevin Mirallas and Gerard Deulofeu are able to return to the starting lineup.
Finally, we must have a brief word about Everton's first two opponents, Watford and Southampton, and what their strategies against the Toffees can tell us.
Predictably, Watford came out with a very defensive mindset, and Everton struggled to break them down. It was a problem Everton had last season, and with the team looking largely the same, it could continue to be a problem this season.
Southampton, a side with significantly more talent, came out looking to attack the Toffees. Note the differences in the two team's player influence maps (courtesy of FourFourTwo.com).
Watford's back four and central midfielders played significantly deeper than Southampton's. As a result, Everton struggled to create chances against Watford, but had multiple counter-attack opportunities against Southampton.
If Martinez's side continues to have success against teams who try to attack first, we may see more and more teams adopt a defensive posture, as was often the case last year. If that is the case, Everton needs to figure out how to break down teams that are parking the bus, or we may see more Watford-esque frustrations.
But for now, the news is largely good. Martinez's tactical switch to the 4-1-4-1 was a success and helped Everton beat a talented Southampton side.