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Koeman’s Everton still lacks an attacking identity

The Toffees have scored only one goal in their last three matches

Southampton v Everton - Premier League Photo by Alex Broadway/Getty Images

It’s completely ridiculous to say that a non-elite team sitting in 7th place is in the midst of a crisis.

It’s pretty standard to say that a team with European aspirations picking up only one win and six points in eight matches against largely mediocre opposition is in the midst of something at least resembling a crisis.

As you surely know, Everton currently falls into both of those categories. If the team’s performances were even just average, we’d be complimenting Ronald Koeman’s side on a positive league position with more than a quarter of the season gone.

If the team’s league position reflected the its performance in the last two months, we’d be concerned that the Dutchman and his players were unfit to handle the rigors of a chase for European competition in the Premier League.

Instead though, Everton supporters are caught in a strange crossroads, looking at a team whose attack and defense have both impressed and disappointed at various times already this season.

The defensive struggles are a little more grabbing than the attacking woes at first glance. When you concede 5 goals in a match and watch your captain and last year's best defender undergo a nearly-overnight deterioration, people tend to take note.

But frankly, I'm more worried about the attack.

The defense will sort itself out -- Phil Jagielka will either sort out what's been ailing him or the Toffees will bring in a new, more capable center-back in January. The new financial reality of the club dictates that the addition of one player at a given position isn't as big a deal as it once was.

The attack is more concerning because, despite the presence of several very capable players, the team just isn't clicking in attack. The Toffees have only one goal in their last three matches -- an unorthodox, scrambly late headed goal by right-back Seamus Coleman. That's hardly a reliable source of goals.

A club with Romelu Lukaku, Yannick Bolasie, Ross Barkely, Kevin Mirallas, Gerard Deulofeu, and Aaron Lennon shouldn't be struggling to score goals, at least on paper.

Yet, past the quarter mark of the season, Everton has less goals (16) than:

  • A team coached by Tony Pulis (West Brom has 17 goals)
  • A team that has scored more than one goal in only four of its 13 matches (Watford has 17 goals)

The Toffees have the same number of goals as:

  • A team that has placed little emphasis on the Premier League, focusing instead on the Champions League (Leicester City)
  • A team in the relegation zone (Swansea City)

That’s not acceptable.

You may be thinking: “Okay, I’m now 400+ words into this tactical analysis, yet I feel I haven’t really read anything particularly tactical or analytical.”

In a way, you’d be right. But the truth of the matter is this — it’s pretty easy to analyze a team that does something well; it’s even easier to analyze a team that does something very badly; but, ask someone to analyze a team that just isn’t doing anything, and there’s going to be a struggle.

This week against Southampton, Everton’s attack fell into the third category — it just didn’t do much of anything.

Take a look at @11tegen11’s Everton passmap (and commentary) from Sunday.

This is an ungodly mess.

Let’s start with the most impactful players and go from there. Idrissa Gueye, Ross Barkley, and Gareth Barry had the most touches among Everton players. Extensive influence from the central midfielders is neither a good nor bad thing on its own, but the passes those players most frequently played are definitely problematic.

Almost exclusively, the central midfielders only managed to complete passes amongst themselves, with the major exception being Gueye finding Seamus Coleman at the right-back position. That brings us to the full-backs, who clearly were looking to get involved in the attack. The obvious problem is that both Coleman and Leighton Baines failed to link with their wingers in any significant way.

In fact, Aaron Lennon doesn’t even have an arrow to Coleman, indicating that he completed less than four passes to the Irish full-back. There’s only slightly stronger connections in the other situations.

This brings us to the final piece of this excruciating puzzle: Romelu Lukaku. He appears to have had the fewest touches of any Everton player for the period of the match shown here (the opening 66 minutes).

The Belgian has improved his hold-up play immensely since he first arrived at Goodison Park on loan, but that part of his game was clearly not at its peak during the match on Sunday. In the absence of that, the rest of his teammates failed to find him or create space for him for nearly the entire match.

The final question raised by this passmap is the following — generally speaking, what the hell is going on over on the left wing? Bolasie appears to be pinching inside to create room for Baines down the left, but Barkley is drifting pretty heavily into that space as well. Lukaku, to compensate, slides more toward the right, completely isolating himself from the team’s main attacking channel.

These confusions and unanswered questions bring me to my general point: it still appears Ronald Koeman has no idea what his team’s attacking identity is or ought to be. The story of the map above is exactly what I alluded to — a team that isn’t doing much of anything right now.

In just this map, we see traces of a team that wants to play a possession-based style, with its central midfielders recycling the ball in an effort to open up space in the final third. We see a team apparently looking to whip crosses into the box from the left-hand side, as I documented was the case last week as well.

We also know this is a team capable of playing on the counter-attack to great effect, as we saw when the team stole a point from Manchester City.

And what ever happened to that high press we saw for the first month of the season? It was a staple of Koeman’s work at Southampton, yet it appears to have quietly drifted away over the course of the last two months.

There’s a book’s worth of work to be written about the pros and cons of each of those styles given the current Everton roster and climate of the Premier League, so I won’t dare go into that in this space. However, there’s no denying the Toffees have looked unsure or downright lost in attack in the last month or more, and that reflects a general inability to adapt any one of the styles noted above.

Koeman doesn’t have to get everything right at this stage of his Everton career. He’s still very early in the process and surely will look to new players in January and over the summer to cement his vision for the Toffees. But, he needs to start figuring out and applying what exactly that vision looks like, even if it means growing pains along the way.

Regardless of what he has in mind, it can’t be much worse than what we’ve seen over the last three matches.