Calling a match a tale of two halves is a common cliche, but Sunday's match against Tottenham Hotspur could only be described as such.
Somehow, Everton escaped the first half with the match tied at one, despite being outpossessed 64-36% and conceding 13 total shots (though only two were on target). Though no goals were scored in the second half, its story was entirely different, with a much more even match emerging in the final 45 minutes. There is reasonable hope that the Toffees' second-half performance could help spark a resurgence in the second half of the season.
To start though, let's look at how Everton lined up and what went wrong in the first half.
We've become accustomed to seeing this particular setup control possession (without necessarily creating quality chances) and concede quality chances (often on the counter attack), but Roberto Martinez clearly sent this group out with a different plan in mind on Sunday.
After months of performances in which defense was obviously not the team's first concern, Everton came out sitting deep, getting numbers behind the ball, and looking to strike on the counter. Seeing Martinez deeply concerned with his team's ability to defend was a relief, but there are two reasons why this particular plan was never going to be overly successful.
First and foremost, adopting such a deep defensive position ultimately asked a troubled back four to do too much. The Toffees were essentially allowing Spurs to begin their attacks 10 yards inside their attacking half, meaning that two or three passes easily put Tottenham 30 yards from goal.
Teams do play this way sometimes (look at how Leicester City beat Everton last month, for instance), but to do so, the defending team must have a cohesive back four and a solid, reliable defensive shape which includes all 11 players on the pitch. Everton has not gotten strong enough defensive performances, either as a whole or from individual defenders, to ask players to consistently make crucial defensive plays 30 yards or less from their own goal.
Interestingly enough, Everton conceded on a long ball, not through the short buildup play which allowed Tottenham to dominate the entire first half. But, if you concede 12 shots to a team in a half, as Everton did, you cannot expect to continue to succeed. Put simply, Everton's individual defenders and defensive shape are not strong enough to cope with inviting constant pressure.
Second, and I know it seems like I've said this a lot recently, but the inclusion of Arouna Kone in the side makes absolutely no sense if the team is set up this way.
Defensively, he simply is not going to contribute much. If a team is going to invite pressure, it needs its wingers to be active defensively, because its full-backs will likely be maintaining a deep line. The defensive wingers need to be present to help limit the space opposing wingers have to operate, and Kone is not the player to do that.
Offensively, the team's plan while defending so deeply was to hoof the ball out to Romelu Lukaku, asking him to hold up the ball while the wingers get forward, then look to spring on the counter.
Lukaku, as a side note, was tremendous in his hold-up play on Sunday. His ability to keep the ball while his team transitioned from defense to offense was perhaps the single biggest reason that Everton only conceded once in the opening 45 minutes.
But, Kone simply doesn't have the speed of a true winger, meaning he was usually not available as an outlet for the Belgian striker during counter attacks. Everton's lone goal came directly from a long ball played to Lukaku, who knocked the ball out to Aaron Lennon, his right winger. The presence of a similar left winger may have helped Everton and Lukaku keep the ball more effectively and create more chances during the first half.
The second half brought changes of two kinds, both of which helped Everton have a much more successful 45 minutes.
The first change was evident within the first few minutes of the second half and was perhaps Martinez's first successful tactical change in some time.
To put it simply, Martinez had his players begin applying pressure 10 to 15 yards higher up the pitch. This was not a high-press strategy by any stretch of the imagination, nor was Everton looking to play a dominant possession-based style. Martinez's side was still thinking defense-first, but did so farther from its own goal, limiting the danger it faced.
This change gave Spurs less time in the midfield to find a killer pass, taking pressure off the Everton back-line and helping give the Toffees the ball in more dangerous positions when it was turned over.
The easiest way to show this change visually is by looking at the heatmaps of Gareth Barry in the first and second half. Barry, who once again was the heartbeat of the side, was slightly more aggressive and advanced in the second half, as these heatmaps (courtesy of EvertonFC.com) show.
The biggest areas of activity for Barry in the first half came right in front of his own defensive box, but in the second half, those areas moved up to just inside his own defensive half. This means that Barry was engaging Tottenham players and handling the ball higher up the pitch, farther from his (sometimes questionable) defenders and closer to dangerous attacking positions.
Martinez also made two substitutions in the 60th minute which improved his team's performance. The introduction of Gerard Deulofeu for Aaron Lennon was unsurprising, and the Spaniard did well after coming on, but his play is not particularly tactically interesting (though I am beginning to wonder what it is going to take for Aaron Lennon to get a more extended look...these are thoughts for another time).
The introduction of Muhamed Besic for Arouna Kone, however, was much more interesting. The Bosnian entered the match and took up a place alongside Barry in the center of midfield. As a result, Tom Cleverley moved to left midfield.
Besic, in his half hour on the field, won an aerial duel and made two successful tackles, and was generally disruptive of Tottenham's midfield play. He and Barry made a difficult duo to crack in the center of midfield.
Could a Besic/Barry pairing be a potential solution in the center of midfield? These two may comprise the best defensive option the Toffees have, and Everton certainly couldn't argue with adding more defensive steel. But does Everton need the technical ability of a James McCarthy or Tom Cleverley in the center of midfield?
It is tough to say. The Toffees certainly have plenty of attacking prowess in the players that comprise the front four, but those players do rely on the holding midfielders to get them the ball. Besic, in his short time on the field, wasted two passes to Lukaku that could have sent the Belgian on goal, passes that we have come to expected Cleverley and McCarthy to complete.
At the very least though, Besic has earned another significant shot.
In all, the Toffees picked up a valuable point on Sunday, proving that they can compete with the league's top teams when they set out correctly. Martinez's side is not put together to play constantly with 10 men behind the ball, but a focus on pressuring the opposition in the midfield, waiting for the correct time to launch attacks, and effective counter attacking can help Everton to pick points up against quality opposition.