Everton’s attack is struggling mightily right now.
The Toffees have two goals in their last four matches — one from a penalty and one off a lofted header from Seamus Coleman. The Irish right-back second goal of the season tied him with Gareth Barry (!!!) for second on the team in goals 13 matches into the season.
The team’s attackers not named Lukaku, a group that includes Kevin Mirallas, Ross Barkley, Yannick Bolasie, Aaron Lennon, and Gerard Deulofeu, have four goals combined so far this season.
That’s right, Coleman and Barry have combined for as many goals (4) as Mirallas, Barkley, Bolasie, Lennon, and Deulofeu this season. The technical term for what you call that is “very not good.”
Over the last couple of weeks, I’ve noted that Everton lacks a creative force in the center of midfield, and these stats ultimately bare that out. No one in the center of the pitch has been able to pick the difficult passes to create chances for Everton’s attacking players.
Two weeks ago when Barry was absent from the squad against Swansea, the Toffees tried to use Idrissa Gueye as the hub in central midfield, as the graphic from @11tegen11 shows pretty clearly.
But Gueye’s two most frequent passing partners were Phil Jagielka and Ashley Williams — the Senegalese midfielder is great at a lot of things, but he’s not a central midfield creator.
Last week against Southampton, the team tried to play through Barkley, but that wasn’t any more successful.
Here's a nice Sunday night challenge for y'all.— 11tegen11 (@11tegen11) November 27, 2016
Find something nice to say about this #EFC #passmap.
I'm listening... pic.twitter.com/btJWQorGPw
Barkley played directly off of Lukaku, failing to include the striker or Aaron Lennon down the right. Like Gueye the week before, most of his successful passes were backward, limiting the team’s attacking momentum.
This week against Manchester United, the team’s central midfield hub was Gareth Barry, the current Everton player most-suited to that role.
(Side note: the inclusion of Tom Cleverley in this lineup was completely ludicrous — you cannot expect to take a team that is already struggling to score and put an attacking black hole in at left wing.)
An uncomfortable number of Barry’s passes were backwards or sideways as well, though he did a better job of involving Lukaku than any Everton player noted above. Still, he completed only 72.6% of his passes and created zero chances. His passmap, courtesy of FourFourTwo.com, is below.
He had one completed pass enter the box — barely.
The result was only one shot on target in the first 65 minutes of the match.
So, traditional building through the center of the field isn’t really possible right now. The team doesn’t have the creative midfielder needed to sustain slow buildups and attacks in the central channels.
This isn’t a new development, and the Toffees have been trying to work around it in the last few matches. They’ve tried to do so in three ways.
First, they feed Yannick Bolasie the ball a ton, in hopes that he’ll be able to fleece a defender or whip in a cross to Lukaku. That also isn’t a long-term solution, but it can work in short bursts.
But, with Bolasie sidelined for the rest of the season, that’s not an option either, and no other Everton attacker has quite the 1-v-1 capability that the Congolese attacker does.
That leaves the team with two other options: the long ball and the counter.
If you look at Barry’s passmap above, you’ll notice the Englishman played his fair share of hopeful long balls toward Lukaku this weekend, with very little success. This is something the team has been forced into over the last couple of weeks, and the results (obviously) haven’t been good.
On the other hand, Everton has been a very good counter-attacking team over the last couple of seasons, with players like Lukaku, Barkley, and Deulofeu all at their best with the ball in their feet and attacking isolated defenders. Obviously, matches against lower-table opponents won’t present many opportunities to counter — but it can be a viable option in certain situations.
Late in the game against United, Koeman made a tactical change, largely out of necessity, that may improve his side’s ability to attack using the long ball and counter attack. He brought in Enner Valencia to play alongside Lukaku as a true striker.
Recently, we’ve seen Kevin Mirallas and Ross Barkley play close to Lukaku, but in a more creative role — which neither player has thrived in. Instead, Valencia’s role was as true support for the Belgian striker, with the creative onus continuing to fall on the midfield four.
With Bolasie sidelined, the continued use of this formation might look like the following:
I never would have guessed it when Everton signed the Ecuadorian striker, but I now genuinely believe Enner Valencia should get a chance in the starting lineup, at least until January. The reasons for this move are the same reasons Everton managed to improve its performance in the final 20 minutes against United.
- Valencia is quick and a willing runner — he’s seemed very willing to chase down long balls from the defenders and midfield, a necessary component of Everton’s attack until a more creative midfielder can be brought in.
- Placing another player alongside Lukaku at the top of the formation gives the striker a target for knockdowns following clearances out of the back. The Belgian is often criticized (sometimes fairly, sometimes unfairly) for his hold-up play, but the addition of another player alongside will let him pass out of some situations that do not play to his strengths.
- The addition of another dedicated attacking player to the frontline brings another target for crosses. With the loss of Bolasie, Everton will have fewer chances to get to the endline before crossing, which creates time for the other winger and central midfielders to get in and around the box. Instead, the Toffees will have to rely more on early crosses, meaning that only the strikers may be in the box when the ball is struck. If Valencia is in alongside Lukaku, Everton has two potential targets instead of just one.
- Valencia has the pace to be dangerous on the counter attack. I’ve yet to see enough of him to know whether he has the dribbling ability and decision making needed to be most effective in those situations, but at the very least, his pace will complicate defending Everton’s counters.
After such a promising start to the season, it’s frustrating to have the Toffees simply tread water until new players can be brought in during the January transfer window. But with Ross Barkley still not succeeding as a true No. 10, Gareth Barry not getting any younger (and never being a true creative midfielder to begin with), and Yannick Bolasie out for the season, that is the attitude Ronald Koeman must adopt.
He’s not going to be able to get attractive, attacking football out of his side right now — and that’s alright in the short term. He should have the funds to bolster the squad and mould it to his vision starting in January.
Until then though, he’s got to keep his squad competitive. For right now, if that means utilizing Enner Valencia in a 4-4-2 that relies on counter attacks, long balls, and early crosses, so be it.