Romelu Lukaku, Arouna Kone, and Ross Barkley deservedly drew most of the headlines after Everton's 2-2 draw against Watford on Saturday. Everything that went right for the Toffees in the final half hour came through those three players, but everything that went wrong up until that point is far more tactically interesting and concerns players who play deeper on the pitch.
First, let's look at how the team lined up.
Before we look at the issues Everton had in attack, a quick look at the team's defensive issues, namely on the first goal, is in order.
Everton relies on its holding midfielders, Gareth Barry and James McCarthy, to protect the back four. Their most important duties are to stop attacks before they can become dangerous and to fill in the gaps around the defenders when attacks make their way into the box. On Watford's first goal, they failed to do both.
The buildup begins when a relatively harmless lofted ball falls to Troy Deeney 25 yards from goal. He finds a pocket of space between Barry, McCarthy, and John Stones and is given too much time to operate.
Four players, Stones, Barry, McCarthy, and Seamus Coleman, converge on Deeney, so by the time the ball finds its way to Jurado, a ton of space has opened up on the left wing. Predictably, that is where the ball winds up.
When that happens, it is McCarthy, not Coleman, who chases the ball on the wing. McCarthy cannot get pulled out of position here, because he needs to be patrolling the top of the box. Coleman seems to be in a position to make a play defensively, but elects not to because McCarthy is already there.
When the ball comes into the box, Everton has an obvious numerical advantage. The problem, of course, is that no one is actually marking anyone. The defenders are all playing too deep, McCarthy is out wide, and Barry has filled the gap left by McCarthy, leaving no one in the area where three Watford attacks are setting up shop.
When Phil Jagielka botches his clearance, Miguel Layun is there in tons of space to finish off the chance.
There is plenty of blame to go around, but first on the list must be McCarthy and Barry, whose primary role is to prevent this kind of attack from coming to fruition.
The second goal Everton conceded is much less interesting, as it comes from poor individual defending. So, with the defensive aspects of Saturday's match out of the way, let's now focus on attack.
With Gerard Deulofeu and Steven Pienaar both injured, the Toffees were forced, yet again, to use a player out of position at wing. On Saturday, that was Tom Cleverley.
When Everton was attacking, things looked somewhat like the following.
As is clear here, Everton has a problem when Kevin Mirallas and Coleman are on the same side with no Leighton Baines in the lineup. Coleman and Mirallas are both going to be happy to get into space wide right, while Cleverley looks to play more centrally, as that position is more natural to him. If Baines was in the lineup, this wouldn't be a problem. The English left-back is quite adept at utilizing the space left by a central-drifting winger.
Brendan Galloway, who is a fine replacement defensively, is not going to have the same impact offensively.
The result is that when attacks come down the left, this happens.
In this freeze frame, Barry has the ball with time and space, but no one is making a run into the space behind the Watford defense. Both Galloway and Cleverley have the space to make such a run, and Barry would have the space to make the pass, but no one takes the chance.
Watford clearly was prepared for this, because any time Mirallas or Coleman got the ball on the right, they were given very little space. Quique Flores and his players deserve credit, because they clearly knew Everton's preference was going to be to attack down the right, and they limited the Toffees opportunities. Additionally, Mirallas and Coleman occasionally got in each other's way, limiting the already sparse space on the right wing.
Around 22 minutes into the match, Roberto Martinez's wingers switched sides, putting Mirallas on the left and Cleverley on the right. This configuration makes much more sense.
Lining up the wingers like this does a number of positive things. It gives Everton a definite option to provide width down the left, making the attack less one-dimensional. It gives Coleman space in which to operate down the right. Additionally, it puts Cleverley, who is more likely to contribute defensively than Mirallas, in front of Coleman, who needs the defensive cover more than Galloway.
One of Everton's only chances of the first half came as a result of this tactical setup.
The play starts innocuously enough, with Ross Barkley on the ball on the left wing.
He drops the ball to Mirallas, the winger on the left side. With no Galloway pushing into the attack, Mirallas has plenty of space in which to operate.
As Mirallas starts to cut inside, Cleverley (the circled blur) begins to make a run from his right-sided starting position. His tendency to drift to the middle is crucial in the buildup.
Mirallas plays the ball into him, and Cleverley immediately draws the attention of four Watford players. This leaves Barkley with space at the top of the box.
When the ball gets to him, Barkley has a lane to drive to goal, and he puts on a decent shot that leads to a corner.
To reiterate, the main advantages of playing Cleverley on the right and Mirallas on the left are:
- Coleman has more room on the right,
- Mirallas has more room on the left,
- Cleverley can provide defensive cover for Coleman, and
- the attack is less one-dimensional.
There were two problems with this change though. First, Coleman frequently exploited the space he found when Cleverley drifted to the center, but he did very little with that space.
According to FourFourTwo.com, this is how successful Coleman was at crossing the ball on Saturday.
The Irishman's crossing was absolutely dreadful. It is worth noting that his one completed cross led to the first goal, but it took him 75 minutes to hit a target, which is unacceptable.
I was surprised when I discovered that Coleman has only four assists since the start of the 2013-14 season, but it makes sense when we see crossing like this. If the Toffees are going to be without Baines for a long period of time, they are going to need Coleman to be a better creator than he was Saturday.
Second, Everton did not stick Mirallas on the left and Cleverley on the right for the rest of the match. The wingers swapped a few more times before Mirallas exited the match in the 77th minute.
Ultimately, Roberto Martinez has to figure out how he is going to consistently get production out of his offense while Baines, Deulofeu, and Pienaar are all sidelined. I believe that going with Cleverley on the right and Mirallas on the left is the best the team can do right now, but it needs better service from Coleman to optimize that configuration.
What do you think? What can Martinez do tactically to get the most out of his limited side right now? Is there a more outside-the-box approach that could work? Have your say below!