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Koeman’s conservative tactics gave Everton the best chance to succeed against Manchester City

The Dutchman’s defense-first setup helped the Toffees earn a point against Pep Guadiola’s inventive formation

Manchester City v Everton - Premier League Photo by Clive Brunskill/Getty Images

If you had offered any Everton supporter a draw in the club’s match away to Manchester City this weekend before the match began, any sensible person would have happily accepted it.

The Toffees entered this match coming off three consecutive disappointing results — in two of which tactical failings of Ronald Koeman and his players played a significant role in the poor result. With a trip to visit Pep Guardiola and high-flying Manchester City on the cards, this weekend had the potential to get ugly for Everton.

Instead though, Koeman’s side managed to pick up a valuable point, powered by the fantastic finishing of Romelu Lukaku and the incredible goalkeeping of Maarten Stekelenburg.

So, how did they do it? Let’s take a look at the starting lineups of both teams as a starting point.

Guardiola sent his team out in a...well...whatever you want to call that. A 3-2-2-3? 3-2-4-1? 3-2-5?

Call it what you will, but it was intensely aggressive and put numbers into attacking positions for Manchester City all match. In a way, this lineup was a response to City’s setback against Tottenham Hotspur before the international break, the club’s first league loss of the season.

In that match, Tottenham executed a perfect high press to counter City’s desire to play out of the back with intricate passing. Guardiola responded to this setback by sending out a lineup that is nearly impossible to high press in this way.

When City won the ball in its defensive third, Guardiola’s center-backs and holding midfielders, all of whom are very comfortable passing out of the back, had plenty of passing options.

All five attacking players had the space and the directive to check back and offer a target to pass out of the back to maintain possession and build attacks, even Kelechi Iheanacho. Executing a high press effectively though, means not only putting pressure on the defenders and holding midfielders trying to play the ball out of the back, but also denying passing lanes to the second-level players who could receive short passes.

With as many as five players checking back to offer a target, Everton’s defenders and holding midfielders would have to adopt a really high line to try to prevent those passes from finding a target — a major risk when you consider the speed of Leroy Sane and Raheem Sterling down the wings. One poorly timed press and those players could easily be sent in behind over the top, particularly given the absence of one of Everton’s top choice full-backs.

So, instead of trying to adopt a high press (which, as you’ll recall, wasn’t effective enough to shut down even Bournemouth), Koeman sent his team out in a conservative setup.

Defensively, Koeman used three central midfielders in an effort to clog up the area in front of the Everton back four, where City wanted to use Kevin De Bruyne and David Silva to create most of its danger.

Additionally, the use of three central midfielders gave Tom Cleverley and Idrissa Gueye a little more freedom to assist the full-backs in handling City’s talented wingers. This was particularly important for Gueye, who was tasked with helping the often overwhelmed Bryan Oviedo on the left.

Past those two factors, there wasn’t a whole lot else tactical about the team’s defensive gameplan. The Everton back-seven was compact, allowed very few good shots, and didn’t let City cross the ball into dangerous positions for almost the entire game.

Take a look at City’s shots, courtesy of FourFourTwo.com.

On first glance, this graphic actually overstates the effectiveness of Manchester City’s attack. The shot that came from the left side of the six-yard box was barely a shot at all, with the City player scuffing a weak effort through a couple of defenders. The two shots on target from the center of the 18-yard box were from penalties — while obviously you don’t want to be conceding two penalties in a match, those instances reflected moments of poor execution and judgment from Phil Jagielka, rather than an ineffective tactical plan.

The rest of City’s shots on target, minus the goal, came from low-danger angles or distances.

City’s goal came on perhaps the poorly-handled crossing situation of the match. The goal came in the madness after a City set piece, in which Oviedo, left on the right side after defending the corner, failed to close down Silva in a timely manner. The cross came in to Nolito, who found a gap between the Everton defenders.

This reflects the major issue with playing a conservative style against a top team, as Everton did on Saturday. All it takes is a mental lapse of just a few moments to allow the opposition a good chance to score — and if you’re defending for 75% of the match, there’s a lot of chances for that to happen.

Jagielka obviously had two such moments, from which Stekelenburg bailed him out. Oviedo wasn’t so lucky, and combined with his struggles to shut down Sane and Sterling in the run of play, he is an easy target for criticism after this match.

But, it must be stated that overall the Toffees did quite well in defense, with Ashley Williams and Phil Jagielka (for the most part) leading the defense excellently and limiting City’s chances pretty effectively for 90 minutes.

In attack, the plan was very simple: wait for counter-attack opportunities and hope the pace and skill of Romelu Lukaku, Gerard Deulofeu, and Yannick Bolasie could victimize the very isolated City back-three on the break.

There isn’t a ton worth investigating in close detail from that plan — it was simply going to be a matter of those players actually taking the few chances that would fall to them. With the back three of John Stones, Gael Clichy, and Nicolas Otamendi often abandoned by Ilkay Gundogan and Fernandinho, a few of those chances were always going to arise.

In the first half, the attackers simply didn’t make anything of those chances. Take a look at the passing of Lukaku, Deulofeu, and Bolasie in the opening 45, courtesy of EvertonFC.com.

Because of Everton’s defense-first mentality in this match, the volume of passes from these players was always going to be low, but the accuracy and effectiveness of the passes simply wasn’t good enough.

In the second half, the Toffees finally made good on one of those chances. The goal came after Koeman made a tactical swap, bringing in James McCarthy for Gerard Deulofeu and moving to a 4-4-2 diamond, as we saw against Crystal Palace before the break. This gave Everton an extra man back in defense, but ultimately didn’t change much in the attack, as the team still looked exclusively to strike on the counter.

The buildup was simple enough — Gueye won possession and played a long ball perfectly onto the chest of Bolasie. The Congolese attacker didn’t have a particularly good match, but in this instance he played an inch perfect layoff to Lukaku, who had room to run forward against a stretched and isolated City back-three.

The big Belgian did the rest, putting Everton on the board at the Etihad.

In all, we probably didn’t see much in this match that we will see again this season. No Premier League team has anywhere near as much firepower nor ability to possess as Manchester City, so Koeman shouldn’t have to set up this defensively until the two teams meet again.

But, it is encouraging to see that:

  • Koeman is willing to do what it takes to succeed, even if it is ugly at times
  • Everton can defend for long stretches, if required
  • Maarten Stekelenburg may well be the answer in goal for at least the rest of this season, if not longer
  • Romelu Lukaku has the skill and willingness to be isolated for 89 minutes, yet convert an important chance when it arises.

Everton’s next two matches are against Burnley and West Ham, so we’ll certainly see very different tactical plans in the coming weeks, but because of Koeman’s effective setup in this match, the Toffees will enter those games with one more point than most of us expected.