As any supporter of a Roberto Martinez side must know, Everton are tactically infuriating. Their helter-skelter 3-1 victory over Aston Villa in midweek was a microcosm of their playing style, and the loss to West Ham United on Saturday the result of the failure to press consistently. They are flowing and deadly in the counterattack, often clever in buildup, yet prone to switching off and overcommitting men forward.
The first thing to know about Everton, tactically speaking, is that they are intentionally lopsided. Gone are the days of the Pienaar-Baines combination marauding down the left; now Everton lack a conventional left-sided player. Furthermore, until Tom Cleverly’s run of form last month, Martinez continued to field players on the left with little positional discipline. Cleverly and Leon Osman are best at staying wide despite their central midfield instincts. Meanwhile, more goal-oriented players like Kevin Mirallas and Arouna Koné are prone to go hunting for the ball.
Sometimes, the positional awareness of Gareth Barry or James McCarthy can offset Mirallas’ wandering, like in the early stages against Aston Villa. There are several times when Mirallas is caught on the right sideline or too high chasing the ball, but Ross Barkley and Barry do well to hold his position.
This makes life very difficult for Bryan Oviedo. A quick player who likes to get forward and has played in midfield, Oviedo can offer an attacking outlet on the left but rarely do Everton fans get to see it. Look at Oviedo’s average position and passing map against Villa; he cannot push too high and is forced to combine with McCarthy and Barkley.
Additionally, when you look at the passing map of Oviedo’s counterpart Alan Hutton (Villa’s right wing-back), it becomes how obvious the ease with which teams can get at Everton’s exposed left side. Without Mirallas there to shield him, when Everton turn over possession teams can quickly cycle the ball to go 1v1 with Oviedo. Luckily, Hutton’s crossing was not up to the task on the day.
Meanwhile, if you enjoy watching Everton, it is probably in part because of their strong right side. Seamus Coleman, used to bombing forward on the overlap, has had to get used to playing with touchline-hugging wingers Aaron Lennon and Gerard Deulofeu but has done so with aplomb. The Irishman loves to play into the feet of Lukaku, as can be seen throughout the Aston Villa game. The Coleman-Lukaku-Lennon combination, bringing in Barkley from the center, is perhaps Everton’s deadliest.
The passing maps confirm what the eye suggests: the top ten passing combinations against Villa included Jagielka to Coleman, Lennon to Coleman, Coleman to Jagielka, McCarthy to Coleman, and Coleman to Lennon. When Coleman gets the ball to his feet, he looks to play to the middle and then get forward. Meanwhile, Oviedo’s attacking involvement is limited to releasing pressure and long (usually unsuccessful) runs behind Villa’s defense.
Enough has been said about the role of Coleman and Lennon in Everton’s build. However, it all starts at the back. In Ramiro Funes Mori, Everton have a strong ball-playing center back to complement the steel of Jagielka, but it is Barry who often starts the moves. Roberto Martinez’s side sets up in a nominal 4-5-1 to start the game, but when they acquire the ball, the team quickly moves into a more aggressive 3-4-3.
Gareth Barry drops between the center backs and orchestrates play. Although Barry, McCarthy and Barkley are often defensively interchangeable, when Everton have the ball they each have their own role. As Barry pulls underneath, the full-backs charge up the field, while Lennon and Mirallas also push up to make a front trident with Lukaku.
James McCarthy is the cog that keeps Everton running smoothly, a feature that was notably absent during his injured spell. He rarely ventures into the attacking third and acts as a pivot in the middle third, switching the point of attack from side to side. McCarthy is not the one to make the key pass but rather support the attack and act as a pressure release.
The job of unlocking defenses and drifting in a free role, as you might expect, usually falls to Ross Barkley. The young Englishman has improved leaps and bounds since first breaking into the spotlight, but on Tuesday some of his weaknesses were on show. Everton supporters are the first to admit that Ross is good for a few boneheaded giveaways every game as he tries a little too much. Aston Villa was one such game, as four of Barkley’s 9 giveaways were inside the Everton half, and 3 were on backwards passes, a devastating form of turnover.
The development of Romelu Lukaku has also given Everton a significant advantage in their build-up play. This season he has grown into his size and strength, improving dramatically in his hold-up play. Coleman and Jagielka in particular like to play into Lukaku’s feet, where he can lay it off to an advancing McCarthy, Barkley or Lennon. The big Belgian serves as an effective release valve for Everton pressure, as he can hold the ball up or run in behind.
Counter Attack and the Possibility of Counter-counters
However, Barkley’s incisiveness on the counter-attack also led to Everton’s second goal. Everton’s counters show a distinct theme: play as an outlet to Lukaku or Barkley with the end goal of releasing Barkley or Lennon to run at defenses. When Everton scored their second, it was through this method precisely: Barkley is released following a corner, and he ran through before slipping in Mirallas, who squared for the on-rushing Lennon to clean up.
The counter-attack also is where Everton’s naivety shows. Martinez has done well since Everton’s pre-Christmas doldrums of tightening things up, but Everton are still perhaps too eager to get forward in large numbers on the counter-attack. When things go wrong, the full-backs can be caught too high up the pitch, and Everton’s control on games like this one can slip as a result of their desire to push the pace.
For now, the last thing I want to discuss is the development of Everton’s pressing. One clear tactical theme for Martinez is trapping the other team in their defensive third; the chief instigator of this tactic is Romelu Lukaku. When a ball through to him is overplayed and a defender is forced to chase the ball towards his own net, you can always see Lukaku pointing: telling his teammates to close down the other center backs, urging Barkley, Lennon and later Niasse to push forward and win the ball back.
When done as a team, this works wonderfully. Many top teams employ a high-energy pressing game, and it suits Everton’s tempo. When the whole team does not commit, though, it can lead to devastating counter-attacks. Barry and McCarthy are solid defensively but are often unable to cope with counter-attacks. They struggle to lock down the middle of the park and are forced to retreat.
Tactical Themes for March
These are the main themes of Everton’s tactics: a focus on the right flank and corresponding vulnerability on the left; build-up play through Lukaku, Lennon and Barkley; the rapid counter-attack and subsequent space left open; and the (sometimes successful) development of a pressing game. Here are some tactical developments I have my eye on in the next month:
- Experimenting with 3 at the back: during the game against Villa, when Stones came on he seemed to signal to Funes Mori and Jagielka that they would go three at the back. With Stones returning to full fitness, it will be interesting to see if Martinez experiments with fitting Everton’s three center backs into one team as a 3-4-3. Coleman, Oviedo and Baines were born to be wing-backs, as they would be freed from some of their defensive duties. However, this formation would make places for Cleverly and McCarrhy or Barry hard to come by, and all three have had strong seasons.
- Where will Oumar Niasse fit in: He fits naturally into a 3-5-2 as a second striker alongside Lukaku, but otherwise we could see him on the left a la Koné, when he’s not giving Lukaku a break. I have not seen much of the Senegalese yet, but he seems to roam like Mirallas or Koné tend to do, leading me to prefer the more stable presence of Tom Cleverly. However, Martinez clearly likes him and has been working to fit him in.
- Tighten defensively: So far this season, Everton have scored the most goals from open play of any Premier League team. During the Premier League run-in, I would like to see them become even more defensively disciplined. Whether they commit fewer numbers to the counter-attack or are more committed to team pressing, Martinez will have to show that he can adapt his tactics.