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Troubling Tactical Trend Emerging for Koeman, Everton

Saturday’s loss to Burnley featured the same setbacks as previous Everton disappointments.

Burnley v Everton - Premier League Photo by Chris Brunskill/Getty Images

If I was really lazy, I could simply post this video as a tactical analysis for Everton’s loss to Burnley, and I’d honestly be pretty spot on:

(Apologies to our English friends who do not get this reference.)

The reality is that, as usual, our own Mike Godamski pretty much had Everton’s opponent pegged in his analysis this week.

Burnley is a team that wants to play the ball long to its forward(s) more often than not — it may not be the prettiest thing to watch, but it has produced or nearly produced results against Liverpool, Arsenal, and now Everton this season.

A long diagonal pass led to the chance that created Burnley’s first goal, and the Clarets’ second goal came from a long free kick floated into the box. In both cases, the buildup leading to the goal also involved a fair bit of skill, so this is by no means a criticism of Burnley. But...

“They are who we thought were, and we let ‘em have it!”

The problem for Everton was, at least in the first half, an apparent complete inability or lack of preparedness to react effectively to Burnley’s predictable tactics. In defense, it’s tough to regularly win headers against a big, strong striker like Sam Vokes, but the Toffees struggled to consistently win the second ball after those initial long balls came in — this led to the break on which Everton conceded the opening goal.

In attack, the Toffees spent the first half looking equally ill-prepared to handle Sean Dyche’s defensive tactics.

Recall that Ronald Koeman’s preferred style of play involves applying high pressure to the back-line and holding midfielders of the opposing team. The idea with this course of action is to disrupt the opponent’s attacking flow before it can really get started, keeping the ball out of your defensive third and forcing turnovers in dangerous areas.

Use the following example to see what this ought to look like. Imagine that Everton’s opponent, playing a 4-4-2, just recovered the ball. The goalkeeper has just rolled the ball out to the right center-back.

In an effort to spread the pitch and give the man on the ball passing options, usually the full-backs get close to the sideline, while the central midfielders try to space themselves out as well.

Just a quick look at that graphic shows what is so appealing about applying high pressure — there is a ton of space in which to work in front of effectively a back-two if you can win the ball in this position. As the attacking players put pressure on the defenders, just one wayward pass can create an outnumbered situation in favor of the attacking team.

When those turnovers happen, usually the attacking team looks to get to goal as quickly as possible, playing direct and capitalizing on the out-of-position defenders and midfielders. When executed effectively, a high-press can turn the opponent’s possession into a 1-on-1 with the keeper in a matter of seconds and only one or two direct passes.

For obvious reasons then, the high-press has been used by successful teams around the world. Jurgen Klopp has used this style of play to create havoc for two top European clubs, while in the United States, the New York Red Bulls won Supporters’ Shield last season propelled by this style.

However, this style of play relies on one key assumption — your opponent actually wants to retain possession of the ball.

That may sound flippant or derogatory, but the reality is that some teams play the game with little concern about having the ball in 80% of situations (brief reminder that one such team won the Premier League last season, so that’s not a criticism of such a style of play).

The point is that if a team is only looking to make one or two passes at the back before launching it forward, pressing high essentially becomes a moot point — you can’t force turnovers in dangerous areas if your opponent, like Burnley, doesn’t ever linger on the ball in those locations.

But Everton struggled to adjust to this predictable outcome. The Toffees often played direct, looking to break down the opposition with only one or two key passes among the attacking players. Naturally, with Burnley having nine or ten players behind the ball, this didn’t work out anywhere near as well as it does immediately after a turnover in the attacking third.

In the second half, Koeman varied the team’s approach, instead opting for a more measured, possession-based buildup that relied on short passes and regular interchange among the attacking players. This change led to a complete domination of the second half by Everton, but a combination of Burnley’s bunkering, ineffective final balls, and Burnley’s strength in the air led to a failure to find a winner for the Toffees, and ultimately a late winner for the Clarets.

There isn’t much more to say about this match, because, in short, Burnley’s strong conservative play and Everton’s inability to react to it is about as tactically interesting as James Milner.

However, the tactics of this match indicate the continuation of a troubling trend Everton and Ronald Koeman are falling into. For the third time this season, Koeman sent his team out with what seemed like little awareness of what his opponent was about to attempt.

This happened first at West Brom in Everton’s second match of the season. Koeman sent out his team in a 5-2-3, the same formation he used against Tottenham Hotspur, but with significantly worse results. The lack of bodies in the middle third of the pitch meant Everton failed to cut out early crosses into Salomon Rondon — one of which led to a corner that gave West Brom the opening goal.

Koeman adjusted quickly in that match, and ultimately the team won 2-1. But, a lack of awareness of the Baggies’ tendencies unacceptably put the team behind the eight-ball.

Against Crystal Palace, Koeman opted for a 4-4-2 diamond, making his midfield decidedly narrow against a team that loves to use wide areas and whip crosses in from near the byline. He completely isolated Bryan Oviedo in particular, and eventually the dam broke and the Eagles found a goal after the ball was crossed to Christian Benteke.

A previous goal from Romelu Lukaku meant that the match ended in a 1-1 draw, but it was two points dropped from a winnable position in large part due to a lack of response to the strengths of the opponent.

This weekend, the team was finally put in a poor enough position that all three points slipped away. That’s five attainable points lost to teams that finished in the bottom half last season — a quick way to assure that Everton winds up in the bottom half again this season.

The most peculiar part of this trend is that, counter-intuitively, Koeman has set his team up perfectly against the two best teams the Toffees have played this season, grabbing two tough points against two surefire top-four teams this season. The use of the 5-2-3 shut down Spurs’ desire to play through the middle on opening day, and the defensive-minded 4-3-3 limited Manchester City’s scoring opportunities for most of the match at the Etihad.

So, Koeman clearly has the ability to scout, understand, and adapt to an opposing team. But, if he continues to fail to do so against less talented opponent’s Everton will continue to drop points in these matches.