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Everton finally finds effective formula against Arsenal

After weeks of mediocrity, Ronald Koeman made getting support for Romelu Lukaku a priority

Everton v Arsenal - Premier League
Romelu Lukaku finally got some support on Tuesday — and it powered Everton to victory
Photo by Alex Livesey/Getty Images

(Author’s Note: Sadly, I do not have the time this week to do a deep-dive analysis of the week’s Everton match — however, the performance and result were so important that I’ve got to at least say a few words about the Toffees’ victory.)

For a few weeks now, I’ve been imploring Ronald Koeman to simplify his team’s approach given the absence of a creative central midfield force, among other things. January will surely bring new players to the club, at which time the Dutchman can bring whatever vision he has for Everton Football Club — but until then, the team needed to be set up in a way that was more capable to play a direct, simple game.

Koeman finally did so, and the Toffees managed their most memorable win of the season so far, a 2-1 victory over Arsenal. There’s two key points from this match I’d like to take a quick look at.

First, Koeman’s lineup choice reflected his decision to have Everton play a more aggressive, high-pressing style against an Arsenal side that likes to pass through the midfield.

Enner Valencia came in on the right wing, with Aaron Lennon on the left wing. In the absence of Gareth Barry, James McCarthy partnered with Idrissa Gueye in the center of midfield.

There’s a common theme between all four of those players — they may not be the most technically gifted, but they’re all very willing to run for days.

The result? Effective, relentless pressure on Arsenal’s midfielders and defenders when the team committed to that style of play. The key to the high press — and the reason we’ve not seen it — is cohesion in its application.

After Everton’s loss to Bournemouth, almost three months ago now, Koeman essentially scrapped the high press because his players were failing to step up and apply pressure as a unit. It requires work from the striker and the wingers — and Yannick Bolasie, Gerard Deulofeu, and Kevin Mirallas were failing to provide it.

But, Lennon and Valencia are nothing if not quick and hard-working, so they were able to partner with Everton’s other players in applying significant pressure to Arsenal. The pair also provides another important advantage when it comes to the high press.

To play a high pressure style, a team needs two things.

  1. Hard-working players who will harass opposing players and win the ball in the midfield. This is the need most people think of immediately when it comes to this style.
  2. Less thought of, but no less important, is an ability and a willingness to play quickly forward and direct once those turnovers have been forced. The idea with the high press is to force turnovers while the opposition is trying to work out of the back, with its defenders and midfielders spread across the pitch trying to create passing lanes. The upshot is that when the ball is turned over, there are briefly huge gaps in the defense which can be exploited immediately.

We know Lennon and Valencia have the work rate and speed to bring (1), but their limited technical abilities actually help them when it comes to (2) as well. Neither looks for the complex dribble move or pass when they get the ball in a dangerous area. Rather, they simply look to take players 1-v-1 or make the simple forward pass — that’s what’s needed to optimize the chances created by a high press.

Are they now the long-term answers at that position? It seems unlikely, but they are likely the best answer until reinforcements can be brought in next month.

Second, Everton’s attacking players positioned themselves more effectively to aid Romelu Lukaku in his hold-up play, and it created immediate results.

One of the Toffees’ major struggles in recent weeks has been possessing the ball after winning it on defense. The defenders would nick the ball from an opposing attacker and have one of two options:

  1. Play the ball out short to the midfielders or wingers and try to build out of the back. The team has struggled to do this effectively though, especially when Gareth Barry is out of the lineup as he was against Arsenal.
  2. Boot it long toward Lukaku, who had to try to control the ball, frequently in outnumbered situations 50 yards from goal. Rom’s hold-up play has never been his forte (though it did improve substantially last season), and he frequently found himself so isolated that even if he won the ball, he had nowhere to go with it because his teammates were 25 yards behind the ball.

Mercifully, Koeman finally found a solution to this conundrum by utilizing choice (2), but in a new way. Check out the passmap from @11tegen11.

Look at how close Ross Barkley and Enner Valencia were to Lukaku! They had tons of touches on the ball around the Belgian striker!

Pardon the exclamation points, but this is a big deal — it’s exactly what I was calling for after both the Manchester United and Watford matches. Once Lukaku had players to work with upon receiving those long balls, the defense had a reasonable outlet and the attack was better equipped to keep possession.

These are two small changes, but they had a massive impact on Everton’s play, particularly when you consider how poor the team has been over the last two months. With a more effective high press and an improved ability to move from defense to attack, the Toffees are more prepared for the congested holiday period, and the upcoming Merseyside Derby, than they have been since the opening month of the season.