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What is Everton’s best formation?

Koeman’s tinkering stage has yet to reveal any certain answers

Everton v West Ham United - Premier League
Ronald Koeman
Photo by Stu Forster/Getty Images

We are just past the quarter-mark of the Premier League season, 11 games into the Ronald Koeman tenure at Everton Football Club. When taken as a whole, the club’s results have been largely encouraging — the Toffees are seventh in the league, level with sixth-placed Manchester United on points.

Being within touching distance of a European place at this stage has to be considered a victory, even if a few results have been disappointing or downright disastrous. This is doubly true given the team’s influx of new players, a new system, and a new manager.

Everton’s relative success is something of a surprise, given that the club’s Dutch manager has failed to precisely nail down what the identify of his club is. Look at the three most successful new Premier League managers over the last season — Pep Guardiola has implemented his possession-based style of football at Manchester City immediately; Antonio Conte has Chelsea clicking after moving to a 3-4-3; Jurgen Klopp has Liverpool challenging for the title beyond his high-pressing gameplan.

Koeman doesn’t quite have the defining characteristic of his Everton set yet, though not without reason. He’s got significantly less talent to work with than Guardiola and Conte, and Klopp has had substantially more time to assess his options at Liverpool.

Given the relatively middling talent at certain positions and his lack of time with the club, Koeman’s early days at Goodison Park have often been characterized by constant tinkering and tweaking, searching for the right combination of players, tactics, and formation.

The Dutchman will surely be looking to add new players at certain positions in January, and his basic tactical preference seems to be some sort of high-press in most situations, so I’d like to focus here on his formation options.

So far this season, we’ve seen Koeman use a 4-2-3-1, 5-2-3, and 4-4-2 diamond. These are all viable options, but I’d also like to give some consideration to the 4-3-3 and 5-3-2 as well. Below, I’ve outlined the ideal lineup for each formation and pros and cons to each.

4-2-3-1

The 4-2-3-1 has become the go-to formation in many parts of the world, with Everton using it more often than not during both the Martinez and Koeman regimes. The advantages of the formation are pretty well documented:

  • Two holding midfielders means plenty of cover for the back-four, freeing up the front-four to focus primarily on attack
  • The presence of two holding midfielders and two wingers means that if the full-backs get forward, there should be adequate cover for them.
  • The front four, if well-organized, can wreak havoc on opposing defenders with high pressure, outnumbering the opposition in dangerous areas.

In Everton’s case in particular, this formation plays to the strengths of a few key players. The central midfield pairing of Gareth Barry and Idrissa Gueye works well together in this system — Barry plays to his strengths by sitting deep and being a play-maker, while Gueye can use his superior work rate to break up opposing buildups in defense and become a secondary option in attack.

However, the attacking success of a 4-2-3-1 tends to be determined by the attacking midfield three — in this case, Ross Barkley, Kevin Mirallas, and Yannick Bolasie. The form of all three players, as well as other wing options Gerard Deulofeu and Aaron Lennon, has been spotty this season, which has played a significant role in the drying up of Everton’s attack.

If those players are fulfilling their potential, the 4-2-3-1 may well be the way to go for Koeman. If not, he either needs new players in those positions or to move to a different system.

5-2-3

Koeman has used the 5-2-3 three times this season. It earned his club a tough point on opening day against Tottenham Hotspur — but he against West Brom and Chelsea, he made a substitution to move out of the formation within the first half hour.

What made the formation successful against Tottenham was its ability to shut down the center of the pitch against a team that wasn’t that interested in playing in the wide areas. In the example above, Ramiro Funes Mori, Phil Jagielka, and Ashley Williams would be responsible for marshaling the center, with Barry and Gueye providing additional cover.

The problem with this formation comes on the flanks, either in attack or defense depending on how it is utilized.

If the full-backs make a serious commitment to getting involved in the attack, it can leave the team completely exposed on the counter attack. A pacey player gets behind the full-back, pulls a center-back or central midfielder out of position, and all of a sudden there’s space everywhere and a quick player going 1-v-1 with a player like Barry or Williams.

If the full-backs are more conservative, then there’s problems in attack. Generally, the wingers in this setup are "wingers" in name only. They are tasked with linking up with Romelu Lukaku and interchanging to create space and confusion among the opposition. If that’s the case though, there’s essentially no width in the attack.

The wingers could stay wide, but it isn’t really prudent for Barry or Gueye to join Lukaku in the attack, so the big Belgian ends up complete isolated in the central channel.

If you’re looking to play solely on the counter-attack against a team that only wants to play through the center of the field, this formation can definitely be utilized. If not though, you end up with one or more significant problems in wide areas.

4-4-2 Diamond

This formation might be more popular in EA Sports FIFA than it is in the Premier League these days, but with the right personnel, the 4-4-2 diamond can still be a viable option.

Right now, I’m not convinced the Toffees have the right personnel, but it is worth discussing briefly still. There are two things you probably notice right away when looking at this setup — Bolasie is playing as a striker and Barry isn’t in the team at all.

Bolasie and Lukaku seemed to have formed a decent bond, and the Congolese winger isn’t totally unfamiliar with a striker’s role, so there might be something to that.

Once you get past the attacking line though, things deteriorate quickly. Barkley has proven not to be ready for the role of an out-and-out No. 10, which is exactly what he must be in this formation. The wingers, in this case Mirallas and Deulofeu, must be able and willing to get back and help in defense in the absence of a second holding midfielder — also unlikely.

One of Barry or Gueye likely comes out of the lineup to make this setup work, which also doesn’t really make much sense either.

So, there’s a lot of things that don’t make sense here — making the 4-4-2 diamond probably a last resort at this stage. There is one intriguing idea that might be worth investigating though.

Against very strong attacking teams, I could see this setup working, but with Gueye at the No. 10, Barry in as the holding midfielder, and Lennon on one of the wings, providing as much defensive cover as possible. This would still leave Bolasie and Lukaku together up top, likely in a counter-attacking role, which suits both players.

Gueye would have to find a few key passes to spring the break, but he’s proven to be a relatively reliable passer of the ball so far this season.

Is it a week-to-week setup? Not remotely. Might it be interesting in certain situations? I think so.

4-3-3

The 4-3-3 isn’t substantially different from the 4-2-3-1, but there are a few key differences that make it worth further investigation.

The main difference between Everton’s 4-2-3-1 and what I suspect would be their most sensible 4-3-3 is the positioning of the wingers and Barkley. In the 4-3-3, Bolasie and Mirallas are given a little more attacking freedom and a little less defensive responsibility — they can push higher and get wide, or combine with Lukaku in the center of the pitch.

However, this may limit the Baines’ and Coleman’s ability to get into attacking positions, as they’ll lack the potential cover of the wingers when they get forward. More troubling though is the role likely asked of Barkley, who has part of a midfield three, will likely need to do more defending than he’s accustomed to.

There are a lot of ways for a midfield three to operate, so perhaps a different configuration or the addition of a new player will make the 4-3-3 a more enticing option going forward. For now though, I’m not sure I see how it works better than some of the other options presented here.

5-3-2

We’ve seen Everton use five at the back a few times this season with varied results, but could a slight tweak make things more effective? In a bunker-and-counter type match, I think this could actually make some sense.

The strengths of this formation are similar to those of the 5-2-3: opponents will struggle to create anything in the center of the field. The addition of another player o the middle channel only builds upon that strength.

In attack, there’s no doubt this lineup would struggle if attempting to build in a conventional manner. More than ever, the full-backs would need to join the attack to create width, leaving the team open to strikes in wide areas on the break. But, if playing a match in which bunkering makes sense, the 5-3-2 may be superior to the 5-2-3.

This setup leaves Lukaku and Bolasie up top with essentially no defensive responsibilities. The pair would have opportunities to utilize their new-found chemistry on counter attacks whenever Everton recovered the ball.

This isn’t a long-term solution, but it could be useful in certain situations — perhaps even more than the 5-2-3.


What do you think? Have your say on Everton’s best formation in the poll below. If you think I’ve missed a potential setup here, please share it in the comments!