Following a respectable opening day draw against Tottenham, Everton hit the road for their first away match of the season, taking on West Bromwich Albion at the Hawthorns on Saturday.
West Brom overview
At this point, we should all know what Tony Pulis is about:
The consistency is sort of insane. If nothing else, Pulis has proven that he is a man who can do a job, where that job is getting your team about 45 points and a lower-mid-table finish.
For the most part he does it the same way every year, by eschewing all semblance of attacking in favor of dogged defending. The idea is to keep the scoring low, nick a goal off a set piece, and steal enough points over the course of the season to not get relegated. So far, so good.
Over the last 8 seasons of Premier League football, a Pulis-managed team has never been outside the bottom 4 in total shots, and only once in shots on target. Last year was no different; West Brom finished 19th in shots, 20th in shots on target, and 19th in goals. It doesn’t appear the shots they did take were any good either—according to Paul Riley’s numbers, Albion were 18th in expected goals for.
So how did they finish 14th? Mostly, it seems, by piling men into the box and forcing opponents into bad shots. The Baggies were 7th in the league in expected goals against despite giving up the 5th highest amount of shots. As such, they had the league’s lowest expected goals per shot allowed.
Likewise the passing numbers depict a team with very little control of the ball: league bottom in both pass ratio and pass accuracy.
Putting it all together, we’re looking at an attack that is borderline aggressive in its refusal to hold onto the ball or to do anything with it when they have it, and a defence that doesn’t mind giving up a ton of shots but tries at least to make sure they’re bad ones. The good news? Tops in the league in set piece conversion, which brings us to the current season.
West Brom travelled to Selhurst Park for their first match of the season, held the ball for about 38% of the game against Crystal Palace, completed passes at an abysmal 58% rate, but generated 8 shots from set pieces. Lo and behold, one of them went in, and the Baggies ran out 1-0 winners. Pulis gonna Pulis. I’m not sure what else we could have expected; after all, the team made all of one signing in the summer. If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it, I guess.
Many of the stylistic points have been covered above, but as a quick overview, West Brom generally tend to utilize a direct buildup, specifically via long balls. Often these long balls are aimed in the channels at a speedy runner like Saido Berahino. Such was the case with Albion’s first chance against Crystal Palace on Saturday:
Shortly thereafter, West Brom generated another chance, this one from Darren Fletcher directly into the box:
Essentially the idea is to win the ball in an advanced area, allow a few other attackers to come into play, and try to generate a chance quickly. It’s not exactly rocket science but it can be effective, especially with runners like Berahino and stronger players like Salomón Rondon lurking about.
Without the ball, Albion will drop off, often into 2 banks of four, and defend in numbers. This is especially frustrating late in the game when chasing the lead, as Crystal Palace found out:
Ironically it was soon-to-be Everton’s newest signing Yannick Bolasie tasked with unlocking the West Brom rearguard. On this occasion the numbers were too many and he was dispossessed. Bolasie will likely see more of this should he line up on Saturday.
Matching up with Everton
This fixture last year was a memorable 3-2 victory for Everton in which West Brom were up 2-0 after 54 minutes. In many ways it was just a helter skelter match that fit with Everton’s helter skelter season, but it did at least show some organizational weaknesses in West Brom’s defense.
On the other hand, the return game was pure Pulis: a 1-0 away victory wherein Albion conceded a monstrous 33 shots and had 24% possession but managed to score with their only shot on goal.
One would expect more of the same this Saturday, and it would be a surprise if Everton didn’t have the lion’s share of possession. That being said, the Toffees might do well to try to coax Albion out of their own end—an odd aspect of West Brom’s play last year was that despite their defensive mindset they were quite prone to counter attacks. According to Michael Caley’s advanced stats, they gave up a ton of shots on the counter.
This seems mostly to stem from a lack of positional awareness and proper structure from Pulis’s men. Crystal Palace’s best chance on Saturday came from a needless West Brom giveaway in midfield:
Albion have the ball, but the midfielders are too bunched together, and neither defender is in a good position to receive the pass. Consequently the player on the ball can’t find a pass soon enough to avoid being pickpocketed.
It was a similar story in the preseason against PSG:
Once again there appears to be no danger, but a lack of passing options and an aggressive press results in a turnover. In the case the chance was finished.
Everton have every reason to believe they possess the skill and guile to break down an ultra-defensive setup. Should that approach fail to produce results, however, a possible second option is to try to force West Brom to make mistakes with the ball and catch them out of position. Fletcher aside, the Baggies do not possess tremendous passing or technical ability and their positional organization is not always on point.
Finally, Everton will need to keep their guard up more than ever when defending set pieces. The corollary is they need to be wary of conceding cheap fouls in their own end. The Albion blueprint isn’t particularly complex or secret, but it’s hurt Everton in the past.
It will be interesting to see how Koeman approaches this game given the options at his disposal. He was quite flexible against Tottenham, but this will be a test of a different kind. Should Everton fail to score early, they could find it difficult to find the net as the game wears on, and a plan B may be needed. The Toffees should in theory win this game, but they shouldn’t expect it to be easy.