In Everton’s 2-0 victory over West Ham United this weekend, Ronald Koeman and the Toffees found what felt like the club’s first positive result and cohesive performance in months.
Of course, that’s not fair, as just two weeks ago Everton nicked a point off of Manchester City away from home, and the team’s comprehensive 3-1 victory over Middlesbrough was only six weeks ago.
But in that time, we’ve seen more than a few stinkers from the Toffees, many of which contained some really confounding tactical setups from Everton’s Dutch manager. This week though, one particular attacking effort made the difference on most of Everton’s top-level scoring chances.
Let’s start by looking at Everton’s starting lineup, then West Ham’s:
The Toffees came out with a relatively unsurprising 4-2-3-1. Ramiro Funes Mori replaced Phil Jagielka at the back, the implications of which could be telling, but isn’t inherently tactical (Koeman claimed Jags’ exclusion was simply a chance for him to rest, but given his poor performances in recent weeks, that’s certainly up for debate). Joel Robles also replaced the injured Maarten Stekelenburg, but the rest of the lineup was the same as that which took on Burnley last week.
West Ham, on the other hand, came out with a setup that may look a little familar to Evertonians:
Slaven Bilic adopted a formation very similar to the one Everton used in the club’s opening match against Tottenham Hotspur — a 5-2-3 with advanced wingbacks and lacking an out-and-out striker.
As you may remember, Koeman utilized Gerard Deulofeu as the team’s most advanced attacker against Tottenham on opening day, with Kevin Mirallas and Ross Barkley playing as the team’s “wingers” — though that title was largely in name alone.
Yes, they were the two attacking players who provided the most width, but they were given license to interchange and pop up in the middle, charged with being the team’s primary creative force. Left-back Leighton Baines and fill-in right-back James McCarthy instead were charged with creating the majority of the wide play.
Make the following replacements to the above two paragraphs and you have a nearly perfect description of what West Ham tried to do Sunday:
Michail Antonio = Gerard Deulofeu
Dimitri Payet and Manuel Lanzini = Kevin Mirallas and Ross Barkley
Aaron Cresswell = Leighton Baines
Edimilson Fernandes = James McCarthy
As you may recall, the strength of the Everton setup on that day was its ability to shut down Spurs’ central-channel based attacks. Space on the wings existed, but Tottenham’s best attacking players preferred to be in the center of the park, so the Toffees were largely able to shut the match down.
The strength of West Ham’s setup was largely the same — with Mark Noble and Pedro Obiang sitting in front of a big, strong back three, the Toffees had little they could accomplish in the middle of the attacking third.
So, Everton’s plan was pretty clearly to work the attack down the wings — through Bolasie down the right, to be precise. Everton’s attacking areas map (courtesy of EvertonFC.com) makes this clear.
When you see a team so heavily shaded toward one side in the attack, the inclination is often to assume they whipped a ton of crosses in and hoped for the best. In some situations, this isn’t a bad strategy, but when your opponent has three center backs who can absolutely control the air, you’re trying to play the odds when the odds aren’t in your favor.
The Toffees were alert to this though, attempting only 15 open play crosses the entire match. So, what did they do with all that possession down the right wing then?
They found the space around the top of the box that opened up as the wing-backs and central midfielders scrambled to cut out danger in the wide positions. In fact, three of Everton’s four best chances, including both goals, revolved around this idea.
Let’s start with the Toffees’ first good chance of the match, which resulted in a Bolasie shot that bounced off Mark Noble’s hand and a subsequent Gareth Barry shot that just missed the top corner.
The play starts with Lukaku receiving the ball out wide on the left side at the start of a counter attack. The closest player to the Belgian striker is actually Manuel Lanzini, who was playing as a faux right winger, not Edimilson Fernandes, the right wing-back.
The advanced position of the wide defenders is often a point to exploit when a team plays with three center-backs, and Lukaku was ready to do so on this play.
Lukaku carried the ball down the wing, avoiding Lanzini’s tackle. It’s worth noting here that Lanzini is probably the last player West Ham would want having to make a defensive play — in fact, the 5-2-3 is designed specifically to give the front three the freedom to flow freely in attack and keep the back seven in defense.
But, the wing-backs also have to provide width, putting West Ham in serious danger on the counter attack of having a player like Lanzini or Payet in a crucial defensive situation.
When Lukaku got to the endline, rather than whipping a hard, hopeful cross across the face of goal, he pulled the ball back toward the top of the box, surprising both his teammates and the West Ham defenders. I’ve circled all the empty space at the top of the box simply because there’s an absolute ton of it — and if one of Everton’s attackers was alert, they’d have been there to receive his pass.
The Toffees ultimately recovered that ball and got a decent chance out of it, but the play served as a statement of intent for the rest of the match.
Everton’s next chance exploited similar weaknesses in West Ham’s setup, but this time through possession, not a counter attack.
The play starts with a relatively simple interchange between Coleman and Bolasie, which ends with Lanzini being made a fool of on defense yet again. The last thing the Hammers want to see is a major attacking player forced to defend in this way, but he’s the only thing standing in the way of Bolasie and Coleman creating a 2 v. 1 down that wing — though ultimately that’s what it turns into after he’s beaten anyway.
Bolasie ultimately whips in the sort of hopefully cross that Everton did well to avoid most of the match. Kouyate manages to head the ball away over the smaller Ross Barkley. But, notice how deep Fernandes has come to try to help manage the play. You can see pretty clearly that if the ball pops out to Oviedo at the top of the box, he’s going to have a chance to make a play.
The Costa Rican does just that, and finds himself in acres of space on the left wing. He smartly pulls the ball into the same space Lukaku attempted in the example above, but this time he finds Barkley, who was somehow kept out by Adrian.
This is a good time to revisit West Ham’s lineup, because this chance best exemplifies the problem Bilic’s side faced in this match.
For a lot of the match, Noble and Obiang were forced to help out in wide positions on defense, as Payet and Lanzini simply couldn’t do much to assist their wing-backs.
In this example, it’s Obiang getting pulled out to cut off Oviedo, but he leaves Barkley completely open at the top of the box to do so. The Toffees were unfortunate not to score here, but their next chance brought a little more luck.
It’s hard to see here, but Barkley has the ball at his feet, just in front of Lanzini. A ball has just come in from the left and bounched out to the Englishman.
Aaron Cresswell, West Ham’s left wing-back, drifted a tiny bit toward the center to help deal with the danger when it was coming from the opposite wing, but now he’s completely abandoned his wing. Lanzini, once again, is not in a great defensive position either, neither shutting down Barkley on the ball nor handling Coleman, who is just off screen to the right.
Barkley finds what is ultimately a very simple pass, sending Coleman into the space. Once again, neither the wing-backs nor central midfielders have cut off Everton’s access to the space at the top of the box, so Coleman cuts the ball back to himself in that space. He lets loose on a dangerous shot, which Adrian just manages to get down to save.
Bolasie still had a lot to do to create the goal from the rebound, but the chance, once again, came from an inability of West Ham’s wingers to close down players in wide spaces and central midfielders from cutting out access to the space at the top of the box.
I’ll never know why Bilic didn’t change his team’s setup after the first goal, because the issues his team were experiencing were plain as day, as all the above examples clearly show. But, fortunately for Everton, he didn’t make any major changes, and the Toffees wound up with a relatively straightforward 2-0 win.
There are tougher fixtures on the horizon, but after some struggles with both tactics and execution in recent weeks, Koeman will be thrilled to have completed a match where both parts of Everton’s game came together nicely.