With the way the last two months have gone for Everton, I’m in no position to complain about the Toffees getting three points from a match. The victory against Leicester City kicks off the festive period in a positive manner, with very winnable matches against Hull City and Southampton to come in the next week.
But let’s be clear — this was a victory over a club in 16th place that was missing its top -choice left-back, center-back, and striker — and the Toffees needed some schoolboy defending to get themselves into the lead anyway. The victory was important, but the route to success in this match is not sustainable against most clubs.
To start, let’s look at Everton’s starting lineup from the match.
Koeman reverted back to the 5-2-3 / 3-4-3 that he used to start the season. Aaron Lennon and Kevin Mirallas played up top in support of Romelu Lukaku. Leighton Baines and Seamus Coleman played as the wing-backs, while Mason Holgate was selected over Phil Jagielka as part of the back three.
I’m opposed to this formation against most opposition, but I can see what Koeman was thinking in choosing this lineup. Two of the potential benefits of this lineup included:
The back three allows the full-backs to get more involved in the attack, which was important for two reasons. First, Baines and Coleman are two of Everton’s more creative players, and given the team’s attacking struggles, they could be a catalyst for creating more chances.
Second, getting the full-backs into more advanced wide areas could give Lennon and Mirallas license to drift more toward the middle channel, supporting the oft-isolated Lukaku.
Neither of these really came to fruition though. Neither Baines nor Coleman completed a pass or cross into the box, and neither Lennon nor Mirallas provided adequate support for Lukaku until Koeman made a tweak in the second half (more to come on that later).
The back three also, at least in theory, created an ideal defensive setup to handle Leicester City’s preferred method of creating chances, the counter attack. Claudio Ranieri’s side thrives when the opposition commits significant numbers into the attack then turns the ball over, creating odd-man situations for Leicester.
By utilizing the three-man backline, Koeman substantially mitigated the danger associated with Leicester’s attack. Three Everton defenders were always present to deal with the Foxes’ attacks — so the numbers favored the Toffees in those situations, but Everton’s successful defense was about more than just numbers.
The outside center-backs, Ramiro Funes Mori and Mason Holgate, have both spent time playing as out-and-out full-backs — these players are comfortable chasing opposing players out along the side if needed. Often, the downfall of a back-three comes when big, slow center-backs are forced to defend in wide positions in the absence of the true full-backs.
With Funes Mori, who plays left-back for Argentina, and Holgate, who played right-back for Everton earlier this season, this was a non-issue. It must be said then, that Koeman’s plan for shutting down Leicester City’s attack was very effective. It’s Everton’s attack in this formation that was the problem.
In the 5-2-3, Koeman’s team found itself in a bit of a conundrum. Without a third central midfielder, the Toffees struggled mightily to find connections between the backline and the midfield. This made slow buildups out of the back nearly impossible.
But, the wingers didn’t pinch centrally enough to provide consistent support to Lukaku, so playing long balls to the big Belgian was out of the question as well.
In the opening half hour, Everton settled on launching hopeful long balls down the right toward Lennon, presumably in an effort to isolate 20-year-old Ben Chilwell, Leicester’s fill-in left-back.
The result was a passmap from the first half hour that looked like this:
It’s a ton of passes between the three center-backs, a lot of long balls launched down the right wing, and not much else.
If Koeman wanted to test Chilwell in the opening third of the match, that’s a totally fair plan — but he completely botched the personnel choice that accompanied that tactical plan.
Lennon has been at his best for Everton when he’s the off-winger, the player lurking on the weak side and making runs toward the center. Mirallas has always been at his best when he’s in the middle of the action, getting the ball into his feet, making passes, taking shots, and taking defenders on.
But, putting Lennon on the right and Mirallas on the left took both players away from their strengths and made an unimpressive attacking plan even less palatable.
Around the 30th minute, the Toffees did change up the game plan, beginning to utilize the left side more frequently.
Still, there isn’t a whole lot to speak of in terms of quality attacking chances. The first half ended with Mirallas nearly latching on to a shot / cross inside the box, but it was Everton’s first real chance of the half.
In the second half, Koeman utilized a slightly different setup — one that I don’t think is any more viable in the long term, but admittedly did lead Everton to victory in this match.
At times, the Toffees remained in the 5-2-3, but they also frequently shifted into the formation below:
The 5-2-3 turned into a 5-2-3 / 4-4-1-1 hybrid. When in the 5-2-3, Lennon moved to the left and Mirallas to the right, making a switch into the 4-4-1-1 more straightforward. In the 4-4-1-1, Mirallas played as a second striker just off Lukaku, while Lennon moved into a more conservative left midfield role.
Baines dropped back into a traditional left-back role, while Funes Mori slide alongside Williams. Holgate played as a traditional right-back, while Coleman moved more directly in front of him as a midfielder.
Slotting Mirallas into the middle gave Lukaku a little extra support and forced Leicester’s defenders to worry about more than just the big Belgian — at least in theory! As you well know, in practice, Leicester’s center-backs all but forgot about Mirallas in the 50th minute, letting him slide through to chase down a harmless long ball from Joel Robles.
Surely such a rudimentary goal wasn’t exactly what Koeman had in mind when he moved Mirallas into the middle, but it ultimately fit the idea of moving the Belgian into the middle — to provide support to Lukaku in the center when chasing long balls out of the back.
It must be said though, the tweak didn’t make Everton’s second half passmap look any better than that of the first half:
There’s a monumental gap in the central channel in the final third, where basically nothing happened all match for the Toffees. Mirallas’ unconventional goal was enough to force Leicester to chase the match, opening up a chance for Lukaku to put the match away late — but outside of Gueye’s missed chance, Everton created precious few good opportunities in the run of play in the second half either.
In all, Koeman’s plan for Leicester made sense from a defensive perspective. He completely shut down Ranieri’s preferred method for creating chances, keeping Joel’s job easy in front of the Everton goal.
In attack though, the Toffees needed a weak concession from the Foxes to get in front and change the course of the match. Against a Hull City side that will surely adopt a very deep line on Friday, Koeman and Everton will not be able to rely on such a gift — there must be a better plan in place for the rest of the festive period if the Toffees are to build on this momentum.