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Everton at Carlisle United: Tactical Analysis

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Everton's successful FA Cup match against Carlisle United may have secured a more regular place for Aaron Lennon in the coming months, but I argue he should fill the hole that remains on the Toffees' left side.

Stu Forster/Getty Images

Early round domestic cup matches against lesser opponents are hard to read. Generally, their results fall into one of three categories:

  1. A deserved dominant victory where the top team's quality is clearly on display.
  2. A tight victory in which the lesser team defends valiantly, but ultimately cannot hold on for 90 minutes.
  3. A loss, generally of the fluky variety, which includes the better team resting most of its top players.
You can see how any of these results can be tough to draw any kind of solid conclusion from. Fortunately for Everton though, Sunday's match against Carlisle United in the FA Cup fell into the first category, with Roberto Martinez's men bossing the match for essentially the full 90 minutes.

So, instead of focusing on the team's performance as a whole against a decidedly inferior opponent, I want to focus on one player who had a particularly strong match and deserves an increased role in league play.

That player is Aaron Lennon.

The English right midfielder, who was sold to Everton from Tottenham Hotspur over the summer, has gotten sporadic chances at his preferred position and one appearance at right-back this season, but has not received consistent chances from Martinez.

With his strong performance on Sunday, he proved (again, in my estimation) that he should be given a chance to fill Everton's problematic left midfield hole.

Lennon's role in each of Everton's first two goals exemplifies the ways in which he is exactly what the Toffees need on the left wing.

The match's opening goal, which came after just 92 seconds, is largely a result of Lennon making a simple but perfectly-timed run in behind Carlisle's defense.

Lennon is clearly onside when the ball is played forward by Tom Cleverley. Once the ball is up in the air, only one player is ever going to win the race to it. Lennon's raw pace may be his biggest asset, but his ability to use it by making intelligent, simple, well-timed runs is what separates him from many lesser speed-first players.

Of course, getting on the ball is only half the battle. We've seen Everton's wide players, particularly Gerard Deulofeu and Arouna Kone, waste chances like these with poor decision-making on more than one occasion this season.

Lennon though, clearly understands his surroundings and is prepared to make his pass well before he executes it, finding Kone for a simple tap in.

On Everton's second goal, Lennon showed once again that his positioning and decision-making skills off the ball are among his top skills.

Lennon starts the play in an average position for a right midfielder, about halfway between the sideline and the center of midfield. It may seem pedantic to point this out, but realize that in similar situations with left wingers this season, we've seen Kone, Mirallas, Cleverley, etc. put themselves far too centrally, completely ruining the spacing of attacks.

Lennon's spatial awareness at this stage of the attack is much more impressive though. The English winger is holding at the top of the box, with a ton of space open in the middle between Carlisle's center-backs.

He could make a run into that space, which most players would be tempted to do, but he'd be running himself right out of the play. There's no lane for a pass to come through, so a central run from Lennon would only clog the central channel. Instead, he waits for the play to develop.

When Kone makes a good run into the center, it opens up space for Lennon behind the striker. As soon as Oviedo gets on the ball, Lennon reads the play and gets to the right space, receives the pass, and finishes off the chance.

In fairness, he is not a great finisher and gets a little lucky that the keeper doesn't make the save, but good things happen when you make solid runs, as Lennon does.

The reality is that Lennon is a good, but simple player. He isn't particularly interested in getting the ball into his feet and taking players on or having a crack from outside the box. Lennon wants to use his pace to give teams problems off the ball, provide width to the side, and put the ball into dangerous areas when he gets it.

Everton's ideal lineup, which ought to contain Romelu Lukaku, Ross Barkley, and Gerard Deulofeu, already has enough players looking to have the ball in their feet and take players on. The Toffees need a player like Lennon to fill out the attacking four, a player who is a little more passive in nature and will stretch the field without drawing the ball away from the team's top players.

Even when Lennon is the focal point of the attack, as he was on Sunday, he doesn't dominate the ball so much as to take other players out of the match, something Mirallas and Deulofeu can be guilty of.

Lennon's heatmap (courtesy of EvertonFC.com), displayed below, shows that he was indeed heavily involved in the attack.

Compare that to the heatmaps of Steven Pienaar and Ross Barkley below. Recall that Pienaar played only 62 minutes, while Barkley played 75 minutes.

While there's no doubt Lennon had the greatest impact any of the players in the attacking midfield three, it is certainly not the case that his influence forced Barkley or Pienaar out of the match. For a player to play alongside Barkley, Deulofeu, and Lukaku, he must be able to do this.

Of course, the attacking advantages of having Lennon in the match are only part of the story. Lennon's pace and work rate make him an ideal midfielder to have in matches to cover Everton's attack-minded full-backs.

In fact, Lennon averages 0.8 tackles per Premier League match, according to WhoScored.com. That doesn't sound like much, but realize that he's played only 428 minutes in his 11 Premier League matches and still has more tackles per match than Barkley, Deulofeu, Mirallas, Pienaar, and Lukaku.

In reality, a more realistic stat is that Lennon is averaging approximately two tackles per 90 Premier League minutes.

It is for this reason that I would prefer to see Lennon on the left side and Deulofeu staying on the right. Since his return, Leighton Baines has continued to provide the offensive spark we expect from the English left-back, but the 31-year-old, who was not quick to begin with, certainly isn't getting any faster. Putting Lennon of the left wing will add a reliable player who can help cover for Baines.

This improves Everton's defensive shape in multiple ways.

Suppose that Everton has the ball on the left wing in this diagram, then turns the ball over. Baines and Mirallas are both up the pitch, meaning that Gareth Barry has to slot back into the left-back position to cover those players.

With Barry along the left sideline, James McCarthy is the only player the Toffees have to break up the play in the center of midfield. That's a big ask for a single player in a lot of space.

With Lennon though, things could look different.

Again, suppose that Everton has the ball on the left and then turns it over. The players begin to get back on defense.

Now, Lennon, with his superior speed and work rate, has filled the gap left by Baines. This allows Barry to join McCarthy in covering the center of the pitch, creating a much better block in front of the back four in transition.

On Sunday, Lennon proved once again that his attacking play is exactly what Everton needs from its left midfielder. Throughout this season, he has proved his defense is solid, so much so that Martinez used him as a right-back earlier this season.

With no player having staked a strong claim to the left midfield spot, it is time for Aaron Lennon to get his chance.