Somehow, despite another weak performance against a less-than-stellar team, Everton remains in 7th place in the Premier League.
This has been perhaps the most frustrating aspect of Everton’s struggles over the last two months — they’ve come at a time in which Tottenham and Manchester United have both struggled, opening a potential path to a top-five, or even perhaps a top-four position.
Instead though, we’ve seen Ronald Koeman’s side struggle with issues both tactical and personnel-based, and a mediocre string of results has left the Toffees still in a promising position, but outside of their target for this season.
The issues that Everton faced on Saturday have persisted in one form or another for much of this season — so the Dutchman’s ability to solve them may well determine the team’s success for the rest of the season.
Let’s take a look at Everton’s lineup to get an idea of what happened at Goodison Park this weekend.
After I discussed this week what Everton’s best formation might be, Koeman went with the standard 4-2-3-1. Leighton Baines returned to his spot at left-back, while James McCarthy entered the lineup for the suspended Gareth Barry.
The major surprise was the inclusion of Aaron Lennon on the right wing. Lennon hasn’t gotten many chances under Koeman, particularly given the addition of Yannick Bolasie over the summer — yet another winger ahead of him in the depth chart.
The English winger got his chance at the expense of Gerard Deulofeu and Kevin Mirallas, both of whom have also had opportunities to play opposite Bolasie and failed to impress.
Lennon was largely invisible this match, as Mirallas and Deulofeu have often been opposite Bolasie as well. Take a look at this Everton passmap, courtesy of @11tegen11, which tells a few interesting stories.
The most obvious one, and the one we’ll start with, is the role of Lennon. The size of his dot represents the number of touches the player had, so clearly Lennon was not particularly involved in the match. His individual passes received map, courtesy of FourFourTwo.com, indicates this pretty clearly as well.
Compare that to the passes received by Bolasie down the opposite wing.
This has been a pretty regular theme in Everton matches since the Congolese winger staked his claim to the starting XI — and it isn’t, on its own, an inherently bad thing.
Bolasie has been the Toffees’ most dangerous winger this season, and despite the fact that his final ball was missing against Swansea, there’s little doubt that he can take on opposing defenders in wide positions and mandates that an entire defense constantly be aware of him.
That being said, if your only attacking plan is to give the ball to Bolasie down the left and hope he does something magical without any consideration for how to involve the opposite wing, you may well be in for a long match. Yet, these graphics seem to indicate that’s exactly what happened. Take a look at Bolasie’s passes attempted and crosses attempted (his passing map does not include crosses):
When Bolasie got the ball near the corner flag and beat a defender, he whipped a cross into the box almost exclusively, rather than looking to bring his central midfielders into the attack toward the top of the box.
The result was a very predictable Everton attack: the center-backs worked the ball over to Baines and Bolasie, the winger and full-back worked the ball up the field, and Bolasie drove the ball into the box at the first sign of an opportunity.
This completely isolated Coleman and Lennon down the right — as has been the case with Deulofeu and Mirallas frequently this season as well.
If Koeman wants his team to play through Bolasie, that’s a totally acceptable approach — but it has to come with a better overall plan. Lennon was excellent last season when playing in an off-wing role, so he may well be the best player to have play opposite Bolasie, but the former Crystal Palace attacker needs to have his play reigned in.
Take a look at what the team looks like on the average attack that comes through the left wing.
Imagine that Bolasie has the ball on the left wing here. He can try to whip a cross in toward Lukaku or perhaps a late-breaking Ross Barkley. He ought to do this occasionally — if the Belgian striker is open, feed him every time.
But he’s not always going to be in a position to receive a cross. In these instances, it’s crucial that Bolasie pull the ball back, bringing Baines, Barkley, Gueye, and McCarthy into the attack as well. By drawing the defense’s attention down the left, he will likely open up space for the central midfielders to pick passes out to Lukaku, Lennon, or Coleman.
In short, while a Bolasie-first style of attack is relatively sensible, Koeman needs to ensure that the winger utilizes all of his options when receiving the ball in dangerous areas. If he does not, the team will isolate the off-winger and become predictable in attack.
There’s one other major point to take away from this match — take a look at 11tegen11’s passmap from the match again.
Everton’s other attacking problem is equally clear in this map: there is absolutely no build-up play in advanced positions in the center of the park.
This missing factor speaks to exactly how much the Toffees missed Gareth Barry.
Ross Barkley played essentially right off Lukaku, rather than as a slightly more withdrawn playmaker. I’ve argued elsewhere that this role, something of a hybrid between a second striker and a traditional No. 10, is most fitting for the young Englishman. But, given Barry’s absence, what’s best for Barkley likely needed to take a backseat for a match.
The central midfield pairing in this one was James McCarthy and Idrissa Gueye, two players capable of covering a lot of ground and making things difficult for the opposition. In attack though, they didn’t do enough to generate buildups.
As the map above shows, McCarthy barely made any passes at all (probably not a bad thing, as the Irishman is not exactly the world’s most accurate passer). Gueye, on the other hand, was significantly more involved and adopted a deeper starting role that you might associate with that of a playmaking midfielder.
But, the majority of his passes were back to his center-backs, and his position on the left of midfield all but eliminated the possibility of getting Coleman and Lennon more involved on the right. Gueye’s passing ability is better than McCarthy’s, but he’s yet to show he’s got Barry’s ability to control the midfield in possession either — this map clearly reflects that.
To compensate, Barkley needed to adopt a deeper starting position. He’s not the traditional No. 10 we might like him to be, but he’s got decent passing and playmaking ability that was desperately missing in the central channel against Swansea. In his absence in that role, the center-backs were forced to pass between each other and out to the full-backs far too frequently, making the Toffees’ attack predictable.
The result of these two factors was an Everton attack that was largely impotent for much of the match. The club’s reliance on a 35-year old central midfielder and inability to optimize the attacking play of its star signing are troubling developments for a team whose aspirations are European competition.
Koeman needs to quickly sort out how these and related issues can be solved internally, and in what instances he needs to look to new acquisitions in the fast-approaching January transfer window. Otherwise, 2017 may not include a turnaround in the club’s deteriorating form.