When I saw Everton's starting lineup for its match against Chelsea this weekend, I already had the headlines of my tactical analysis in mind.
"Martinez Tactics Leave Everton Attack Toothless" in case of a loss. "Defense-First Tactics Earn Everton a Point" in case of a draw. "Conservative Mentality Pays Off For Toffees" in case of a win.
There is no doubt that when Roberto Martinez put together his original lineup, his plan was to make his team's primary concern stopping Chelsea's litany of attacking stars, then worry about how to score goals later.
A few weeks ago, I wrote that a similar strategy against Manchester City was relatively sensible, and that the team's issues came in the execution of Martinez's plan rather than from the plan itself. Could yesterday's match have had a similar ending? We will never know.
Muhamed Besic was a surprise inclusion in the lineup, as Martinez went with three defensive midfielders in an effort to shut down Chelsea's dangerous attacking midfield trio of Eden Hazard, Pedro, and Cesc Fabregas. Defensively, the move made sense. Offensively, it is unclear how Martinez hoped for his side to get any attacking thrust.
When Besic pulled up lame after nine minutes though, Martinez was forced to make a change. He had a number of options.
Martinez could have brought in Leon Osman, who was the most similar player to Besic. He could have changed his formation and brought on a winger, likely either Aaron Lennon or Kevin Mirallas.
Instead, Martinez went with a change that certainly surprised a few, myself included, by bringing on Steven Naismith.
He forced Naismith out of position to the left wing, moving back to the familiar 4-2-3-1 with no true wingers.
By making this move, Martinez put the entire play-making burden on two groups, the central midfielders and the full-backs. With Naismith and Kone out wide, the team was always going to lack any creative influence from its wingers. Naismith and Kone have both proven that they can be an attacking threat coming from wide positions, but neither is a particularly good passer or pacey enough to stretch the opposing defense.
So, the central midfielders and full-backs were called upon to provide creativity. Obviously, the midfielder required to bring the most creativity was Ross Barkley, but I want to first acknowledge another central midfielder, Gareth Barry.
Barry may have had his best game since his first season with Everton. First and foremost, he was simply everywhere. His heatmap (courtesy of EvertonFC.com) shows exactly how much work the Englishman put in.
Of course, the point of his greatest impact was where you'd expect it, in the area in front of the back four. But he also made plays in Everton's defensive box and popped up relatively frequently in the attacking half.
Defensively, Barry contributed four tackles, an interception, three blocks, five clearances, and five recoveries, all while committing only one foul. His contributions to the attack were an even greater pleasant surprise.
Barry only misplaced six passes, two of which were long balls out of the back. That accuracy helped Everton keep the ball and build attacks through the midfield.
Of course, Ross Barkley was the major star of Everton's midfield. The Toffees' third goal is a perfect example of how good Barkley was at fulfilling the role required of him. This goal also gives me a chance to discuss the potential contributions of my favorite new signing, Aaron Lennon.
The play starts when Barkley comes over to help Naismith on the left side of midfield.
The Scotsman plays the ball to Barkley, who quickly plays it back to Naismith.
Naismith works the ball back to James McCarthy.
As the ball gets worked from left to right, look at how much space Barkley works his way into. He is always looking for lanes in which he can receive passes. In matches in which the midfield is clogged, this is a crucial ability.
When the ball makes its way to Stones, Barkley has acres of space to run into to get the ball from the English defender. This is because Lennon, a true winger, is actually occupying space near the sideline. I know this sounds simple, but the reality is that players like Kone, Naismith, Cleverley, and even at times Mirallas and Deulofeu prefer to drift toward the center of the pitch.
This gives Barkley nowhere to go, often causing spacing issues at crucial moments in the attack. Lennon stays in the position of a true winger, and it helps lead to this goal.
Stones plays the ball into Barkley, who has multiple options. He could try to squeeze a very tight pass down the line to Lennon, but elects to make the safer, simpler pass back to McCarthy. This is a sign of maturation from the young attacking midfielder, who makes the smart play with his team protecting a 2-1 lead.
The ball makes its way back to Stones, while Barkley remains a viable passing option. He is currently part of a triangle of Stones, McCarthy, and himself, as well as Stones, Lennon (not pictured), and himself. Additionally, note that Naismith has started to creep into the picture, making himself an option if Barkley and co. can break through the midfield line of Chelsea.
Barkley gets the ball from Stones and clearly already has read the play. He knows there is space in behind his marker, so he quickly lays the ball off to Lennon.
Lennon plays the ball into the space for Barkley, space that exists because Lennon has adopted such a wide starting position. Barkley gets onto the end of it, and you surely know the rest. He plays a perfect through ball to Steven Naismith, who puts the match away.
It is important to mention all three of the players involved in this goal, Naismith, Barkley, and Lennon. Naismith, who was the obvious man of the match, was playing as a winger. I've used this space in the past to be critical of the team when it uses players out of position out wide, but players like Naismith can be effective there if used properly.
A true winger likely would not have drifted into the space that Naismith does on the third goal. If he does not, Barkley would have gotten the ball in space, but had nothing to do with it.
That being said, the space exists for Barkley solely because Lennon is playing like a proper winger down the right, giving Barkley space in which to operate.
The lesson to be learned here is that if Martinez wants to play Kone or Naismith as a winger, it may be most effective to do so with a player like Lennon on the opposite side.
Opposing defenses have to respect Lennon's pace and ability to stretch the defense. As defenders pull wide to shut him down, space opens up for Barkley and Naismith to work into. The only downside is that Lennon will sometimes limit the space into which Seamus Coleman can operate.
This brings us to Everton's full-backs, who played a huge role in the match, particularly before Lennon came on.
The inexperienced Brendan Galloway lined up at left-back with the unenviable duty of shutting down Pedro. Jose Mourinho seemed to believe Galloway was a potential weakness in the Everton defense, as he also had Eden Hazard often drift over to Chelsea's attacking right in an attempt to overwhelm the young English defender. Hazard's heatmap makes this clear.
In truth, it was an ineffective tactic in multiple ways. First of all, Galloway did well to deal with the danger on his wing. He had two tackles, two interceptions, three recoveries, and four clearances. Hazard did create three chances during the match, but all came from his own side, rather than from drifting to Pedro's.
Of course, the constant pressure down Galloway's side prevented him from getting involved in the attack too frequently, but he did pick his spots well, as he provided a beautiful assist on Naismith's first goal.
But, by staying away from Everton's right defensive side, Hazard gave Seamus Coleman license to get forward without having to worry about being beaten on the counter.
As a result, Coleman got forward frequently, which you can see in his heatmap.
Mourinho's broken tactical plan allowed Coleman, Everton's only true wide player for the first 70 minutes of the match, to attack essentially at will once the Toffees got the ball into the final third. While this did not lead directly to any goals, Coleman was a constant headache for Chelsea's defense.
In the end, Martinez deserves credit for bringing in Naismith when Besic was forced off, but Barry, Barkley, Coleman, and Galloway all also deserve massive credit for making a no-winger side a legitimate attacking threat. Against teams that look to defend first, those players will not have as much space to operate, particularly if there is no winger to stretch the opposition's back line.
But against a Chelsea side desperate for a victory, Everton's plan worked to perfection.