Everton fans came into Tuesday’s match trying to cling to every thread of optimism they could.
After a scrappy display against Manchester United earned the Toffees a point, it seemed as though Ronald Koeman had started to get the one thing he had been yearning for since his arrival: an undying passion to win.
Enner Valencia came onto the field late and helped contribute to the Blues as a last-minute Leighton Baines penalty kick earned the Blues a hard-fought point. He had such a positive impact, Toffee fans around the world were left wondering if the diminutive Ecuadorian would get a chance to start at Watford this past Saturday.
PRE-MATCH SCOUTING REPORT
When the team sheet for the Watford match came out, not much had changed, with Everton fans calming themselves with the belief that the positive vibes from the Man U game could shake from it’s slumber the same 4-2-3-1 formation Everton has wheeled out for what feels like an eternity.
So coming off a positive result against a big Man U side, and with a massive Tuesday/ Saturday showdown with Arsenal/Liverpool, how did the Toffees respond?
By putting in perhaps their least-inspired performance since Koeman took over, at least until the Dutchman mercifully adjusted the side and brought on Ross Barkley, Enner Valencia, and Aaron Lennon midway through the second half.
Check out Everton’s final third passes against Watford before and after the subs:
In the first 60 minutes against Watford, Everton completed a measly 40 of their 75 attempted passes.
Even worse, INCLUDING Barry’s beautiful through ball to Lukaku for the opener, they COMPLETED A MEASLY TWO PASSES INTO THE BOX!!
In fact, outside of the goal (yellow line), the Toffees didn’t create any other chances!
After bringing on Barkley, Valencia, and Lennon beginning in the 60th, however, Everton had new life. In the thirty minutes subs were on the field the Toffees completed a whopping 35 of their 47 passes in the final third!
Additionally, the team actually created multiple opportunities and completed a an impressive eight passes inside the box.
A look at the passing map shows Watford’s willingness to let Everton sit and build up (more on that later), allow Garreth Barry to get on the ball, and minimize Lukaku’s influence by shutting off passing lanes between him and Barry.
You can also see how deep Ramiro Funes Mori and Ashley Williams were sitting. While part of this is certainly an attempt to build possession, it’s also easy to see why the Toffees are so easily stretched out. The Everton CBs are not known for their quickness, so without on the ball pressure, they are forced to drop.
This causes a domino effect which eventually leads to the midfield collapsing and Romelu Lukaku being increasingly isolated.
If you have watched even one Everton match the last four seasons you know exactly what I am talking about. The Toffees possess the ball, but most of the passes are flat and between midfielders and backs.
It was obvious to everyone watching that the subs brought EXACTLY what was needed, but as had been the story of the Toffees season, it was too little too late.
Not only did it FEEL like Everton finally had a chance to win once the subs were made, but they actually DID have a better chance to win.
Look at how quickly Everton’s goal expectancy shot up once the changes were made.
By the time the match concluded, the stats almost favored a draw, even after being down two goals for the last half hour of the match.
Toffees fans were left wondering how (if possible) to bottle up the urgency that was so evident at the end of the match and carry into the midweek game with Arsenal.
While Everton struggled with their recurring blemishes like an acne-ridden 15 year-old, Arsenal were strutting their stuff like the kid who hit puberty in 6th grade. But much like an overgrown middle-schooler, the Gunners tend to peak early and crash hard.
The murmurs around the league, however, are that this Arsenal team is different.
The addition of Granit Xhaka, to pair alongside with last year’s revelation Francis Coquelin, supposedly gives the Gunners the bite and swagger in midfield needed to win in an increasingly physical Premier League.
The London side has always had the inventiveness to create enough chances to win, especially with Alexis Sanchez and super-sub Olivier Giroud delivering on an absurdly consistent basis. They’ve been so well balanced with the aforementioned midfield pairing, Arsenal actually won their Champions League group!
(Where they were then immediately paired with Bayern Munich...congrats!)
Going into Tuesday’s match, however, Arsenal were riding quite the Premier League hot streak. Only one loss in the league all year on opening day (none on the road), only three points behind leaders Chelsea, and seven points safely within the Champions League positions.
In the match immediately preceding Tuesday’s clash with Everton, Arsenal welcomed a Stoke City side struggling for form, and if you look just at the 3-1 score line, you would assume that the game went just as you would have expected.
Arsenal dominated, Stoke found a way through the Arsenal back line always willing to offer an opportunity, but the result was never in doubt.
However, if you look closer, you see a Gunners squad increasingly reliant on simple possession and deadly finishing, not a plethora of opportunities.
First, Arsenal’s comfort in possession is evident when you check out their pass map from the matchup with the Potters this past Saturday.
Arsenal’s patterns against Stoke looks strikingly similar to Everton’s map versus Watford with a few minor, yet hugely consequential differences.
First off, Arsenal’s back four sits MUCH higher up the field than The Toffees. Like, WAY higher. This is because their front three press and drag the team with them.
Second, both teams used a single high striker (Sanchez/Luakau), an attacking midfielder to create (Ozil/McCarthy), and a central hub for distribution (Xhaka/ Barry).
The difference is that the Gunners were able to connect their triumvirate and dictate the game vertically in the middle of the field, while a look back at Everton’s passing against Watford shows Barry’s continual inability to play the ball forward in central areas.
Instead, Everton attempts to play through their outside backs, but as we mentioned earlier, the Toffees fullbacks (usually Baines and Coleman) are often collapsed so deep that once the ball is wide it provides an opportunity for the other team to press the backs, who have limited options and are forced to knock it forward to Lukaku and hope he holds it up.
For all of their dominance, however, Arsenal actually struggled to create opportunities, and an exceptionally dangerous counter attacking side like Stoke was able to find the space in behind the midfielders and isolate themselves with Arsenal center backs.
Check out who was EXPECTED to win, based on opportunities created.
Even though they won 3-1, Arsenal never actually created enough chances to sway the match odds their way, they just took their scattered chances exceptionally well.
Arsenal had the ball (A LOT), and got near goal, but they seemed to be lacking the ability to create numerous clear cut chances.
That might have sound appealing to Everton fans heading into Tuesday, except one fact...... ARSENAL STILL WON 3-1! Everton has the same issue and just loses to everyone.
So now that we know what the coaches had to work with heading into Tuesday, let’s see how they attacked each other.
Starting with the visitors, the Gunners decided to make only one change coming into the weekend, with Gabriel coming in for an injured former Blue Shkodran Mustafi in the center of the defense.
This lack of changes obviously came as no surprise to Ronald Koeman who would have anticipated the red-hot Gunners lineup to be as undisturbed as possible, with the aforementioned Mustafi the exception.
That also meant that the Toffees knew exactly what to expect tactically.
The opportunity to play against a side you know will play a certain style in a particular formation allows the underdog coach, in this case Koeman, to take the chance of reshuffling his side to match up as well as possible with an in-form opponent.
The potential pitfalls with this approach, however, are as long-lasting as they are dire.
If an already shaky team like Everton take the risk and tweak the setup they are trying to get comfortable playing, they risk losing ALL of their confidence when they get picked apart by a well-oiled machine like Arsenal. (For more evidence of this point see Chelsea vs Everton 5-0)
Koeman, as Everton fans have learned, is not afraid to ruffle a few feathers.
But was this the game to do it?
Wasn’t Watford a better opportunity?
How would an impotent Everton possibly match-up in midfield and dictate the game?
Yes. Probably. Ross Barkley and James McCarthy.
The central midfield of Everton has not been a place of pride for the Toffees the past few seasons, save this man of course.
So when the Everton team sheet came out an hour before kickoff Tuesday, there were more than a few gasps around Goodison Park when Garreth Barry was omitted from the 18 completely.
What is Koeman thinking?
Barry is the consummate professional, this match is made for his cool head!
HAS RONALD KOEMAN LOST HIS MIND?!?
Can we please have Roberto Martinez back?? (Just kidding, nobody said that).
It was obvious that Koeman was no longer happy with the incremental progress (and regression) he was seeing in the squad, because in one of the bigger home matches in recent memory he made four big changes.
(Koeman would tell the press after the match the Barry just needs rest and was totally fine with the decision.)
Bringing on Valencia, Barkley, Lennon and Jagielka, Koeman made it clear that he had recognized the squads lack of pace on the break, and the need for some true physicality in midfield and defense.
This, of course, assumed that 2014 James McCarthy shows up, and not the shell of himself that has been running around with visions of Celtic and Tottenham bouncing in his head.
Upon first glance, the team appears to take their customary 4-2-3-1 formation with Valencia left and Lennon right, but things were not as they appear.
Just one minute into the game it was obvious Koeman has decided to let his midfield loose and the team was actually going to play a 4-1-4-1.
McCarthy, who proved once again last week that he is NOT a #10, pushed up from his deep-lying spot alongside Idrissa Gueye and paired up with Barkley sitting just behind Lukaku, giving him the Belgian the support he has so desperately lacked.
It also meant that Koeman was not going to sit back and allow Granit Xhaka the time to find Alexis Sanchez and Meszut Ozil ahead of him.
The last domino is that this all meant Gueye would be left to guard the back four all by himself.
I, like Ronald, knew he would be fine.
Alright, so what did this lead to?
As Arsenal manager Arsene Wegner said after the match:
One second, let me wipe my tears for Arsenal away............
OK, I’m ready.
What Arsene was REALLY saying was:
“Barkley and McCarthy harassed my precious little midfield gems so much we couldn’t move the ball around the field like a metronome. They tackled my guys a lot and played like the game meant something to them, this confused me”.
Or something along those lines.....
Instead of the deep pairing of Barry and Gana having to defend after the passing lanes around Barkley after Arsenal had already exposed them, McCarthy and Barkley would cut off the lanes before the passes even happened.
Of course, if those two failed to do their job, Gueye would be left to single-handedly deal with Sanchez, Ozil and the array of other attacking options the Gunners have. Even worse, this would force Ashley WIlliams and Phil Jagielka to step up and defend those players one-on-one........shudder.....
So how did Barkley and McCarthy do?
First, look at what the two Toffees center mids did to Arsenal’s midfield triangle! Their constant pressured forced Xhaka and Coquelin to essentially collapse on each other just to prevent the Everton mids from getting between them. Oh how the tables have turned!
This meant that Arsenal’s midfield distribution came from a singular point instead of a dual pivot, allowing Gueye to cut out balls into Ozil and Sanchez from a single point of origin, something he is......ok at.
Ozil collapsed back in to help build possession, pulling Gueye forward and allowing Barkley and McCarthy to press through the middle of the field and force the Gunners center backs to drop to help in possession.
Just look how much deeper both center backs, Gabriel in particular, are sitting as opposed to when they played Stoke.
This alignment also had the impact of SEVERELY isolating Alexis Sanchez (blue circle) from Ozil, Oxlaide- Chamberlain and Walcott, who was basically a spectator before being subbed off.
Want more evidence that McCarthy and Barkley were pressing hard from central areas?
Look at the increased amount of backwards passes from Xhaka to Laurent Koscielny, and Koscielny back to the Arsenal keeper Petr Cech.
In the Stoke match, the Gunners played back to Cech so few times that it didn’t even register on the chart! Against Everton it was a repeated exercise.
Whenever Barkley or McCarthy (or Valencia or Lennon at times) pressed forward, Gueye would step into the hole, the back line would step up to close down the space between the midfield and defensive lines and Everton would assume a 4-4-2 position.
This allowed Lukaku to join up with whoever the pressuring midfielder was at the time and look to exploit turnovers into opportunities on goal. The change in general positioning of the team couldn’t be any starker than when the Arsenal and Watford games are compared.
The impact of the change in midfield approach is first evident in the back line, where Williams and Jagielka played MUCH higher up the field than Williams did with Funes Mori.
It is also obvious that Williams and Jagielka were not left to dwaddle on the ball, and instead were able to connect through the midfield.
Those midfielders being higher up the field pressuring created layered attacks by checking back while wide players made overlapping runs, freezing the defense and letting Barkley do what he does best: get the ball deep and create as he makes one of his slaloming runs through the center.
When you take into account that McCarthy and Barkley were in comparable roles in these two matches, the Toffees success against the Gunners is undeniable.
Barkley drove the game for Everton by creating unpredictability in the attack, a feature preciously lacking from the Toffees the previous few seasons.
Barkley’s role against Arsenal was very similar to McCarthy’s job versus Watford. Both were tasked with linking with Lukaku and playing the wide players into attacking spaces.
You tell me who did a better job creating chances for the team.
While McCarthy only missed on four passes, his influence in the attacking end, especially around the box, was almost non-existent.
Additionally, the passes he did complete were almost exclusively backwards or flat. While the litany of Barkley’s influence is close to midfield, but his intent is also obvious.
The balls out wide and into the corners allowed Everton to enact a pressing plan, get Barkley on the ball to create space for his teammates, and let the outside backs get forward and into the attack.
Well, did they do it??
To perfection. The first goal is an example of Koeman’s game plan being flawlessly executed.
The entire move really was a thing of beauty.
This goal woke the sleeping giant that is Goodison Park and set the Toffees on their way to victory, and possibly righted the season.
Koeman’s plan to pressure early, engage their midfielders in physical battles higher up the field, and allow Ross Barkley to utilize his immense talents paid off in spades.
The willingness to change up the system and not sit bak and absorb pressure against Arsenal also shows that while Koeman is rightfully hard on his team, he knows they can execute against anyone as long as they play with correct mindset for the entire match.
Going into the derby versus Liverpool in their next match, it will be fascinating to see if Koeman keeps the same lineup and approach (minus a suspended Jags), reinserts Garreth Barry into the lineup, or makes a few other tactical adjustments to catch the Reds off guard.
One thing I do know is that, for one night at least, the spirited Toffees we all know and love were back.
I just hope they stay awhile.