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Koeman’s Curious Decisions Lead to Everton Draw Against Crystal Palace

The Dutchman made a few confounding tactical decisions on Friday night

Everton v Crystal Palace - Premier League Photo by Clive Brunskill/Getty Images

After Ronald Koeman noted this week that his team’s disorganized pressing was the major problem in the team’s loss to Bournemouth, just as I had suggested in last week’s tactical analysis, I was confident that he’d set up his team in a more successful way against Crystal Palace.

A few confusing decisions and a disappointing home 1-1 draw later, there seem to be more questions than answers.

The Dutchman set the team in the following way:

To be clear, I didn’t disagree with everything Koeman set out to do here. I know Everton supporters had complaints from the moment the lineup was announced, but I was honestly fine with:

  • The continued inclusion of Bryan Oviedo — the Costa Rican is a decent replacement, nothing more. But, particularly against a Crystal Palace side that looks to use width and play in crosses, he was a superior choice to Ramiro Funes Mori.
  • Making changes from last week — Koeman was right when he said that Everton’s disorganized and ineffective pressing was a major problem against Bournemouth, and Crystal Palace is a hot team whose form and style of play justify a change from Everton’s normal lineup.

But the way in which Koeman used Oviedo and changed the team simply didn’t make much sense given the players in the lineup and the quality and style of the opposition.

Let’s start with a quick recap of what Crystal Palace brings to the table. Mike did a great analysis of Alan Pardew’s side last week, which you should definitely check out if you haven’t already. The short version of that analysis is essentially that in attack, Palace wants to use its pacey, skilled wingers to stretch the field and whip crosses into Christian Benteke.

Just this precursory awareness of what Palace brings makes abundantly clear that Everton’s lineup wasn’t exactly set up to shut Pardew’s team down. Against teams looking to work the ball into deep areas out wide, the best defense is often creating difficult 1 v. 2 situations for opposing wingers against the full-back and winger on that side.

But...Everton had no true wide players in the midfield. Tom Cleverley and Idrissa Gueye were operating in left-center and right-center positions, respectively.

Sure, having these players, plus Gareth Barry, in the center of midfield created extra solidity for the team in the middle of the pitch, but defensive strength in that part of the field doesn’t really matter against Palace, because the Eagles don’t ever really attack there.

A look (courtesy of EvertonFC.com) at where Crystal Palace had the ball in their attacking third makes this clear:

A look at this graphic for just the second half, when Everton particularly struggled, shows a clear trend from Palace.

In the second half, Palace actually used the center of the pitch slightly more, but the Eagles had a clear focus on getting the ball down the right to Wilfried Zaha — a tactic that ultimately led to Palace’s only goal.

A relatively simple passing move down the Palace right dragged Tom Cleverley out of position and left Barry and Oviedo alone in a 2 v. 2. Barry lacked the pace to close down an open man, while Oviedo did...something?

It led to this:

A good cross from a very open player came in to Benteke, who was always going to overpower Seamus Coleman, and Pardew’s side found the equalizer.

Everton’s attack was equally disjointed. Recall the team’s starting lineup.

When playing the 4-4-2 diamond with such a narrow midfield, a team must rely on its full-backs to provide width in the attack. This isn’t necessarily a bad thing — it’s a reasonable plan of attack in some situations and can create situations that overload the defense.

But, Everton was missing its top left-back, Leighton Baines. So, the Toffees must have focused on building down the right through Coleman, right?

Not quite.

Instead, most of the attack came down Everton’s left, through Oviedo and Cleverley, somewhat isolating Coleman and Gueye on the right. It was a curious way to play — instead of looking to build through an established first-team player and the team’s best player of the season, Koeman had his team work the attack through two squad rotation players.

More curiously, this was the side of the field on which Palace was continuously looking to attack through Zaha, creating potential issues on the counter attack after Oviedo and Cleverley got forward.

In some cases, teams will utilize the mentality of “attack down the opposition’s strong side” to try to force the opposing team’s star winger to adopt a deeper starting position and spend more of his time defending than attacking. It’s a tactic that Everton has used before, but to be effective, at least one of two things must be true.

  1. The full-back must have the pace to keep up with his opposing winger on the counter if the ball is turned over.
  2. The full-back must be excellent on the ball and turn the ball over very infrequently.

Baines is definitely not the former, but certainly the latter. Oviedo, however, is neither.

In short, Koeman made two basic mistakes in this match that handicapped his team, particularly in the second half. He changed the team’s midfield shape in response to their struggles against Bournemouth a week ago — but those changes didn’t in any way match the strengths of Crystal Palace. If anything, his decision to go to a 4-4-2 diamond played to the Eagles’ strengths.

He also asked entirely too much of Bryan Oviedo, both in attack and defense. The team’s attack too frequently relied on him, and he was asked to do more than could reasonably be expected of him on defense.

Because of the international break, the Dutchman will have an extra week to sort out what’s gone wrong for the Toffees since the team’s loss to Norwich City in the EFL Cup. If he wants to avoid having his team annihilated by Manchester City in its next league match, Koeman must have a more coherent plan.