With Manchester City's torrid form to start the season, Sunday's match at Goodison Park was always going to be a difficult one. Over the past two seasons, Roberto Martinez has entered matches against the Premier League's top clubs with an optimistic mindset, often to a fault. Under his command, Everton has tried to take it to the top four clubs and usually gotten burned.
That was not the case this time. Though Martinez used the same starting XI as last week against Southampton, he made two key tactical changes aimed at limiting the chances of an offensively-stacked Manchester City side. After such a successful match last weekend, it was understandable that Martinez wanted the same players on the pitch, but changes were necessary given the quality of the opposition.
To get an understanding of how this played out, let's look at the starting lineups for both teams.
Obviously, City has a lot of offensive weapons. The reality is, particularly with Leighton Baines still out of the lineup, a team like Everton cannot hope to stop all of City's big guns for 90 minutes. So, Martinez made two changes from last week that were designed to shut down certain players while allowing others more room to operate.
The more obvious change from last week was the swap of the wingers. Against City, Arouna Kone started on the left and Tom Cleverley started on the right. It appears that Martinez made this change in an effort to minimize the effect that Raheem Sterling could have on the match.
Also, Cleverley provides more defensive cover for Seamus Coleman than Kone would, which is necessary as Coleman's ability to get into the attack is crucial. The Irish right-back was Everton's only true wide player in the starting XI, so he needed license to get forward and stretch the field. Playing Cleverley in front of him allowed a little more freedom to do so.
Of course, the upshot of this move was that the left side was patrolled by Brendan Galloway, then Tyias Browning, and Kone. None of those players had the speed to consistently keep up with Jesus Navas, and Kone was not particularly helpful in terms of getting back in defense.
Martinez surely knew that Navas would have space in which to operate, but it seems that he was content with that. WIth Baines out of the lineup, it was always going to be a struggle to keep every City attacker in check, so Martinez settled for focusing on Sterling, David Silva, and Sergio Aguero, allowing Navas to have chances to take the game over.
That part of the plan worked.
Navas did have his chances, but he failed to convert at every turn. If we accept that Everton was going to give up chances no matter what, then putting the best of those at the feet of Navas was a rational move that worked for much of the match.
Everton's other tweak was to go back to the 4-2-3-1 after spending most of the Southampton match in the 4-1-4-1. A look at the heat maps (courtesy of EvertonFC.com) of Gareth Barry and James McCarthy from the two matches makes this clear.
Barry against Southampton
Barry against Manchester City
Against Southampton, Barry's play was tilted a little to the left, but predominantly central, with a spike directly in front of the back four. Against City, he was much more active on the left, indicating he was playing as part of a midfield pair, as well as farther up the pitch.
McCarthy against Southampton
McCarthy against Manchester City
McCarthy's change in activity is the inverse of what we saw with Barry. Against Southampton, McCarthy was active all over the pitch. Against City, his activity was focused closer to his own goal and on the right, indicating he was on the right side of a holding midfield pair.
Martinez most likely made this change in an effort to contain David Silva, who generally has license to roam anywhere in the midfield. It would have been a tough task for Barry to contain Silva on his own if the Toffees had stayed in a 4-1-4-1, but it would have given them more options going forward. That Martinez opted for the more defensive approach indicates that he is beginning to understand what it may take to improve his record against the Premier League's top sides.
On Manchester City's first goal, both of these changes actually worked more or less as Martinez would have wanted them to, but they were let down by a brief lapse by Cleverley and marginal goalkeeping from Tim Howard, who was stellar on the day with this key exception.
The play started with a turnover down the right wing, with Coleman in an advanced position. The Toffees had to react quickly to cover for the right-back's foray forward.
John Stones and Barry both get into the play pretty quickly, limiting Silva's options. Cleverley is a few steps behind the pacey Sterling.
When Silva plays forward to Sterling, there is not a ton of danger. Sterling's only option is to run directly toward the endline, both McCarthy and Barry have Silva covered, and Aguero is marked by Phil Jagielka and Brendan Galloway.
Even as Sterling begins to get to a dangerous area, Stones has him marked. Neither Silva nor Aguero are particular open.
When Kolarov joins the play, Cleverley has tracked back to pick him up.
To this point, everything has gone as Martinez would have wanted. Cleverley has provided the necessary cover for Coleman. Barry and McCarthy have joined forced to ensure Silva is not a threat. Jagielka has Aguero covered.
But, Cleverley loses track of Kolarov just for a moment, giving him some room along the endline. You can see in this image that Howard has already cheated to cover the cross. Kolarov spots the room at the near post, and takes a beautiful shot to beat the American keeper.
The issue of Cleverley momentarily losing Kolarov brings us to the problems with Martinez's plan. Defensively, Everton was prepared to take on City. Offensively, the club lacked any consistent threat. On City's first goal, Coleman was out of the play because he had been key in creating the attack the Toffees were trying to build before turning the ball over.
Coleman had to be part of the attack, because Everton had no other wide players in the lineup. The team's influence map (courtesy of FourFourTwo.com) makes clear exactly how narrow the Toffees were.
The widest attacking player on the team is Coleman, who also had to defend City's most dangerous winger. It just is not a sustainable attacking plan.
Of course, Martinez opting not to change anything in a side that won 3-0 last week was completely understandable. But, perhaps as early as the start of the second half, and definitely after City's goal, things needed to change.
Kone, who was stellar against Watford and Southampton, simply was not effective against City. This is, to an extent, through no fault of his own, as he's obviously playing out of position on the left. But, looking at his passes made and received indicates exactly how little influence he had on the match.
Kone's passing was accurate, but there was simply nothing incisive about it. His passes received also lack significant creation of chances. His one received pass in the box came with his back to goal and a defender tightly on him, and the buildup led to nothing in particular.
Everton needed a player who could stretch City's backline to come on for Kone, as City had done a good job of keeping Kone in front of them throughout his time in the match. But, with Kevin Mirallas and Gerard Deulofeu available, Martinez opted for a similar player in Steven Naismith. Without a player who could get in behind the backline, Everton continued to struggle.
On the other wing, Tom Cleverley had an important defensive role to fill, but also got on the ball more than Kone in the attack. No matter how hard he tries though, Cleverley is not going to be a winger. His struggles at crossing the ball are just one of the symptoms of this.
Even without the corner kicks in the picture, he was still only one for six on crosses.
Though the Toffees were down a goal, Martinez waited 85 minutes to remove Cleverley and finally bring on a winger, Deulofeu.
In reality, this was always going to be a very difficult match to get a result from. Everton misses Baines dearly, still appears to not have a winger who is 100 percent healthy, and City is looking like an early title favorite. Martinez had a decent plan to keep Manchester City's attack at bay, but relied on an individual moment of brilliance from Romelu Lukaku or Ross Barkley for his team to get a goal. The moment never came, and the team was shut out as a result.
We didn't learn much from this match that we did not already know. Everton is definitely a level below the Premier League's top clubs. The club is in desperate need of another winger. Martinez still appears unsure of exactly what his team's best lineup against top teams is.
With matches against Tottenham, Chelsea, Swansea City, Liverpool, Manchester United, and Arsenal all on the agenda, the team needs to figure out how to handle quality opposition (and get healthy) quickly.