I am about to share what seems to be an unpopular opinion.
The popular belief seems to be that everything was going fine for Everton on Saturday against West Ham United until Roberto Martinez removed Aaron Lennon for Oumar Niasse in the 76th minute. West Ham scored two minutes later to cut the deficit in half, three minutes after that to equalize, and in the 90th minute to secure all three points.
The narrative that the Lennon/Niasse change was what tipped the balance of the match is a compelling and convenient one, but the fact of the matter is that it simply isn't true. There may be room to blame Martinez for parts of what went wrong Saturday, but the idea that this substitution was the primary cause for the team's collapse is simply nonsense.
I will prove it, but let's get the full match narrative and start with Everton's starting XI.
With Gareth Barry and Muhamed Besic both not prepared to play a full 90, Martinez decided to change up his formation and go with a 3-4-3.
I didn't love this setup when I first saw it, but it was actually pretty effective for the 35 minutes Everton was able to use it. The Toffees attacked pretty exclusively down the wings, but did so with success, as we saw on the opening goal. Bryan Oviedo had license to get forward without much concern. The presence of he and Mirallas on the left stretched the defense, opening up space for Romelu Lukaku to get open, receive a pass, and turn toward goal.
When West Ham had the ball, Oviedo and Seamus Coleman dropped much deeper, forming a back five. With five defenders, plus James McCarthy and Ross Barkley sitting in front of the back-line, the Hammers failed to create any sort of real danger. West Ham's heatmap (courtesy of EvertonFC.com) from before the red card reflects this.
There's plenty of possession for the Hammers around the box, but basically nothing in dangerous areas inside the box or deep down the wings.
I was concerned that the Toffees would be more susceptible than usual on the counter attack, but in the 35 minutes Everton had 11 men on the pitch, no counter attacks developed for West Ham. I would need a bigger body of work to say with any certainty whether or not this was actively Everton's doing or simply how the flow of the match went, but it is something to consider if Martinez decides to use this setup again.
In the 10 minutes between the Mirallas red card and halftime, Martinez went to a 4-4-1, pushing Coleman up to right midfield, Stones out to right-back, Lennon to left midfield, and Oviedo to left-back. This was never a long-term solution, as it featured three players moving to a non-natural position, but it filled its role and got the Toffees to halftime.
After the break, Martinez brought Besic on for Stones, and set things up in the following way.
In what I suppose you would call a 4-3-1-1, Coleman and Oviedo played their natural positions in a back four, Besic, McCarthy, and Barkley played in a central midfield trio, and Lennon played as a second striker off Lukaku.
Everton's influence map of the match (courtesy of FourFourTwo.com) seems to reflect these changes.
These changes reflected a clear gameplan from Martinez -- clog up the middle, force West Ham to rely on their wide players to create danger, and count on Phil Jagielka and Ramiro Funes Mori to deal with crosses. In attack, the Toffees would rely on the pace of Lennon and the power of Lukaku to create chances on the break.
Slaven Bilic's introduction of Andy Carroll at the start of the second half confirmed that the Toffees would be in for a barrage of long balls and crosses.
Up until Lukaku's missed penalty in the 69th minute, the Toffees were handling these dangers well, as the crossing and long ball maps below from the 45th-69th minute indicate.
Bilic's side completed a grand total of zero crosses and long balls into the box before Lukaku's crucial penalty miss.
This is where my understanding of what went wrong Saturday afternoon differs from popular opinion. To me, it seemed that as soon as Lukaku missed the penalty, the entire team started to freeze up and think "Oh boy, here we go again."
The proof is in both the possession totals and West Ham's crossing totals.
In the five or so minutes between Lukaku's missed penalty and the Lennon/Niasse substitution, possession looked something like the following.
West Ham had 85 percent of the possession in the five minutes after Lukaku's missed penalty and before Lennon was subbed off. 53.2 percent of that period was spent in Everton's defensive third.
This led to an increased number of crosses from West Ham.
In those five minutes, West Ham had almost as many crosses as during the balance of the second half up to that point. Jagielka and Funes Mori were continuing to handle the crosses effectively, but this still shows Everton's slipping grip on the match.
Whether this was due to fatigue, lack of confidence, the inevitable push from West Ham, or any combination of these and other factors is difficult to say. But the proof is clear that directly after the missed penalty and before the Lennon/Niasse substitution, Everton's hold on the match was already loosening significantly.
When the substitution in question finally came in the 76th minute, Lennon departed with a second-half defensive map that looked like the following.
That's right, Lennon's defensive contribution in the second half boils down to a single failed tackle. This is no criticism of Lennon, mind you (regular readers of this space will know that I am Lennon's biggest fan). Rather, defending simply wasn't his duty given his role as a second striker in the second half.
I am totally open to arguments that he shouldn't have been playing that role in the second half, but the influence and defense maps make it pretty clear that he was. When Niasse came on for Lennon, the move boiled down to basically an attacker for an attacker.
I have no intentions of defending or praising Niasse's play, which was mediocre at best, but to criticize Martinez for destroying the team's shape by bringing on a player who is very accustomed to playing the role he was brought on to is simply ridiculous. And given that Lennon was clearly doing little defending in that role as well, there's little to tactically criticize in this change.
In fact, Everton conceded seven crosses in Niasse's 15+ minutes on the pitch, compared to 15 in the 30 minutes of the half before he was introduced. That is essentially a linear progression; Niasse's inclusion had no impact on the number of crosses conceded by his team.
However, the effectiveness of the crosses and long balls played by West Ham in the final 15 minutes obviously improved.
The locations from which these passes were played are essentially unchanged from the first 30 minutes of the second half. What does change is Everton's efficiency in dealing with them, as Funes Mori in particular fell asleep in marking a few times, which led directly to West Ham goals.
To recap, Martinez took off Lennon, a player with little defensive responsibility in the setup the Spaniard was utilizing, to bring on Niasse into the same role, a role Niasse has more experience in. In the time that followed, possession became more even and West Ham played a similar number of long balls and crosses as the rest of the match, but finally beat Everton's center-backs.
I just don't see how the Lennon/Niasse change has any impact on what went wrong in the final 15 minutes.
This is not to say that Martinez gets off completely in this one. His decision to bring on Barry for Lukaku with three points still obtainable was gutless. His decision to clog the center of the pitch and force West Ham to play crosses in worked for a half hour, but fell apart late as his center-backs tired. Was there a better option given his team was down a man? I'm not convinced there was, but I would be happy to hear suggestions on other ways he could have set his team up in the second half.
Most importantly, the analytical tools I have shown here seem to indicate that his team started to fall apart directly after Lukaku missed his penalty. That speaks to a lack of mental strength that we have seen time and time again this season.
That weakness isn't tactical, but it still absolutely falls on the manager to be sorted out.
In short, I continue to be critical of Martinez's management of the mental fortitude of his players, but his overall tactics, particularly the Lennon/Niasse swap cannot be overly criticized in this match.