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Everton still need an attacking outlet, help for Lukaku

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Porous defense got most of the attention Saturday, but other obvious issues in possession as well

Everton v Crystal Palace - Premier League Photo by Clive Brunskill/Getty Images

Before we start looking at the details of Everton’s failure against Watford on Saturday, let’s start with the obvious — poor set piece defense killed Ronald Koeman’s side this week. In the world in which the Toffees actually bother defending Watford’s corners, they probably come away with at least a point, and we walk away with a very different feeling from the trip to Vicarage Road.

But in this world, Everton conceded two soft goals and created a very distinct narrative in the aftermath of yet another loss — a narrative that brings up nebulous questions about terms like “effort”, “desire”, and “mentality”.

Those things are important (and Calvin discusses them here), but I certainly cannot claim to know what the attitude in the Everton locker room is from 5,000 miles away. Even if I could, there isn’t a whole lot to analyze in those topics.

So, while I acknowledge the importance of the team’s mentality, particularly as it relates to the players’ relationship with their new manager, I will focus not on that, but rather Everton’s continued issues in possession and attack.

Let’s start by looking at Everton’s lineup, or at least how it looked on paper.

For...reasons?...James McCarthy played as the team’s most advanced central midfield player. I anticipated McCarthy sitting deeper than Ross Barkley or Kevin Mirallas normally do in that position, giving the wingers a little more license to get and stay in the attack.

Instead though, we got something different, exemplified in @11tegen11’s passmap for the match.

There’s a lot to dissect here, so let’s start with the obvious — what exactly is McCarthy doing all the way up there? Everton’s need for a creative central midfielder, either in the No. 10 role or in a more deep-lying position, has been well-documented in this space and elsewhere, but the Irishman obviously isn’t the answer there.

In a vacuum, it looks like McCarthy did well in that position, completing 27 of 31 passes. It sounds great, until you see what those passes actually looked like (courtesy of FourFourTwo.com).

McCarthy contributed essentially nothing to the attack. He helped the team keep possession when he had the ball, but he didn’t complete any forward passes in the central channel within the attacking half.

If the plan was to utilize the high press against Watford, McCarthy’s more advanced position would have made sense. The Irish midfielder is willing to chase the game for long stretches and would be a useful at harassing opposing defenders on the ball. But, that was not Everton’s plan, so I’m not sure what purpose McCarthy was actually supposed to serve.

Everton’s most active distributor in the center of midfield, instead, was Gareth Barry. The 35-year-old is the Toffees’ best-passing central midfielder, though that isn’t exactly an outstanding compliment given the current stock of players the club currently has at that position.

I’ve mentioned the last couple of weeks that the team needs to acquire a creative force in the center of midfield in January, either at the No. 10 or in a Barry-esque deep-lying role, but until that time comes, Barry does have to be that player. Given his lovely assist to Romelu Lukaku for Everton’s first goal, it’s tough to be critical of the Englishman.

His passmap is relatively complimentary as well.

This is certainly a substantial improvement over his performance against Manchester United last week, but the reality is that his only pass into the box came on Lukaku’s opener — a good one to have, but if your best playmaker has only one pass completed in the danger area, you’re probably not going to have a ton of scoring chances.

And so it was; Everton had only one shot on target and three shots in total in the match’s opening 75 minutes. The lesson? Barry has the occasional moment of magic in him, but he cannot be the primary playmaker.

To compensate for this problem, Everton was forced to look to the long ball in the opening 75 minutes as well. I discussed it last week, but it’s worth reiterating here: resorting to long balls, crosses, and counter attacks until new players can be brought in isn’t necessarily a bad thing.

But, the attacking players aren’t aligned properly to play through the long ball and quick strikes out of the back, and the result is this — take a look at the team’s long balls during the first 75 minutes of the match.

The majority of the team’s completed long balls are either horizontal or in the defensive half. By my count, they completed only four long passes in or near the attacking third in the central channel. Also note that this map doesn’t include aerial balls out of the back classified as “clearances,” which is effectively the same thing once the ball is struck.

So, there were a lot of balls knocked long out of the back that Lukaku failed to get on the end of or control. That falls on the big Belgian, right? Not exactly.

Yes, Lukaku’s hold-up play hasn’t been great this season, particularly after making strides in that category last season. But, there’s more to it than that. Consider the following.

Imagine that Everton has just forced a turnover in its defensive third and a player like Ramiro Funes Mori or Ashley Williams has recovered the ball. Now, we’ve already covered that passing through the center of midfield isn’t exactly the team’s strong point, so the center-back looks up, finds Lukaku, and quickly launches the ball toward the striker.

When the ball reaches the Belgian, even if he successfully boxes out a defender and brings the ball down into his control, what can he do next? The wingers are coming from a wide position where they were defending, so he can’t really try to include them. McCarthy is probably trying to get back into the play, but his defensive responsibilities have probably removed him from the play in the interim as well.

With no other attacker in sight, Lukaku is probably 1-v-2 or 1-v-3, making it tough to control the ball in the first place. Even if he can, he’s got nothing he can do with the ball unless he can hold it for a few additional seconds while the wingers and midfielders join the play.

And he’s being asked to do this when surely he would be the first to admit he doesn’t like being asked to play as a hold-up striker and his ability to do so is limited.

This leaves the Koeman in an unenviable situation. He can either:

  • Direct his players to try to play out of the back, despite the fact that his players have struggled to build attacks in that way, or
  • Direct his players to try to play long through Lukaku.

He’s already utilized a variety of personnel to make the former work, and it just hasn’t happened. However, he’s not given the most obvious personnel combination for the latter — Enner Valencia alongside Lukaku — a chance.

With the team’s defensive woes this week, I grant that it’s tough to take another possible defensive player out of the midfield. But consider this:

  • Since the start of November, Everton has played 395 minutes over five matches without Valencia on the field. In that time, the team has scored one goal.
  • In the same timeframe, Valencia has been on the field alongside Lukaku for 55 minutes (plus stoppage time at the end of matches). In that time, Everton has three goals.

I’m not great at math, but I don’t need a statistician to tell me that one goal per 395 minutes is substantially worse than one goal per 18 minutes.

The insertion of Valencia alongside Lukaku may not work. It may be an unmitigated disaster that sees the team develop no attacking flow or exposes an already-questionable backline to more pressure than they can handle.

But, what Koeman is doing right now isn’t working. He absolutely must make a significant change to help his team pick up some points before January. Right now, that plan must involve giving Valencia a chance to play up top alongside Lukaku.