It may not have been pretty for Everton at times this weekend, but the Toffees pulled out a 1-0 victory over Stoke City at Goodison Park this weekend.
That may sound like a passive-aggressive compliment, or an outright complaint about the way Everton played on Saturday -- but that couldn’t be further from the truth. Yes, the Toffees needed a bit of luck to finally break through and wasted chances in front of goal.
But, they also showed a cohesive gameplan that played to the team’s strengths, an ability to adapt, and defensive soundness over the course of 90 minutes. Each of these factors were utterly lacking last season, but their reemergence in the early part of this season has powered Everton to seven points out of their first nine.
This starts with Ronald Koeman’s lineup choices, which this week were straightforward and sensible.
Most Evertonians will agree that this lineup is the Blues’ best lineup, or at least one of their best at this stage. Reasonable minds can disagree about which combination of Gerard Deulofeu, Kevin Mirallas, Yannick Bolasie, and Aaron Lennon should be the team’s top choice wingers, but across the rest of the pitch, the choices are pretty simple.
Mark Hughes’ lineup decisions were perhaps a little more unexpected, with Peter Crouch leading the line at Goodison Park.
Playing against Crouch, who stands at six feet and seven inches tall, obviously presents unique challenges, but Stoke’s lineup was somewhat unimpressive overall. The Potters were missing their biggest wide threat in Xherdan Shaqiri, and Everton’s gameplan took advantage of his absence.
Koeman’s plan from the start was clearly to press high against Stoke, putting pressure on the team’s central midfielders and defenders when they had the ball. RBM’s Mike Godamski took a look at the frequency with which Koeman teams have played a high-pressing system before the season -- his post is worth a second look given Everton’s high-pressure tendencies this weekend.
Against Stoke, the high press was an excellent plan for a number of reasons.
First, Stoke’s backline is not well-equipped to handle pressure and pass their way through traffic out of the back. Phil Bardsley, Ryan Shawcross, Geoff Cameron, and Erik Pieters are not ball-moving defenders, and Everton was happy to put pressure on them and force them to make plays.
Ultimately, this led to these players frequently hoofing the ball up the field and hoping for the best. A look at the failed passes by Stoke defenders (courtesy of EvertonFC.com) makes this clear.
There were a lot of unsuccessful balls over the top from Stoke’s defenders, which brings me to my second point.
Stoke lacked pace out wide. Marko Arnautovic is an excellent player, and Mame Biram Diouf is a capable finisher, but neither is the sort of winger that will stretch the field or get in behind defenders.
When a team commits to a high-pressing style of play, frequently the best way to counter is by sending long balls to pacey players, completely bypassing the high-traffic areas and exploiting the space vacated by the opposition’s high backline.
Even with a backline including the less-than-quick Leighton Baines and Ashley Williams, Arnautovic and Diouf could not successfully get in behind. The passes received maps of each of these players (courtesy of FourFourTwo.com) makes this obvious.
Almost all of Arnautovic’s passes received came on short passes from the center of midfield, while Diouf barely received the ball at all.
Stoke’s most advanced attacker was Peter Crouch, but Everton’s high-pressure play took him out of the match too. Obviously, when a team plays with Crouch, there’s only one thing it is trying to do -- whip crosses into the box for the giant Englishman to head toward goal.
Everton faced this tactic against West Brom and Salomon Rondon as well, but with less success against the Baggies. In the opening half hour, the Toffees failed to put pressure on West Brom’s wide players once they crossed into the attacking half — and service from that area is all a player like Rondon or Crouch needs. West Brom’s goal last week came on a corner that was earned as a result of letting the Baggies get the ball into the box too easily.
Against Stoke and Crouch though, the Toffees were much smarter. The Everton high press completely smothered the Potters’ ability to put aerial balls into the box for Crouch, as his passes received map makes clear.
Crouch won plenty of aerial duels on balls into the middle third, but Stoke simply was not allowed to put the ball into the box in the air for its big man.
In short, the Everton press forced Stoke into poor passes and long balls, severely limiting the Potters’ ability to create scoring chances. As a result, Stoke put only one shot on target for the entire match.
Of course, forcing bad passes and decisions on the ball is only half the battle -- the pressing team must also be able to recover the ball in the center of midfield when mistakes are made by the opposing team.
Enter Gareth Barry and Idrissa Gana Gueye.
The two players combined for 20 ball recoveries in locations across the pitch.
The pair’s heatmaps are equally complimentary.
Idrissa Gana Gueye
Despite the disruptive nature of Everton’s play though, for the opening 25 minutes, the Toffees failed to create any kind of dangerous offense. For whatever reason, the Blues were looking to play very direct at the start of the match, trying to play long balls over the top to Bolasie and Mirallas at every opportunity.
The long balls they played in the first 25 minutes are below.
They turned things around when they slowed down their attacks, letting Barry and Gueye pick passes to the feet of the front four, rather than trying to pick out difficult aerial balls.
Predictably, Barry and Gueye excelled when being asked to play more simple passes and give the playmakers...well..chances to make plays. Their passing maps after the 25th minute are below.
Too often last season, Everton's tactical gameplan took one or more of the team's best attackers out of the match. Too often last season, the team seemed to have no coherent plan for preventing the opposition from creating dangerous scoring chances.
This week's match may have been on the ugly side, but in it, we saw Koeman put together a plan that let his best attacking players attack freely and kept his defenders from being under constant pressure. When your team has more talent than the other team, that's really all you need to win.
This was the second consecutive week in which we saw that play out -- it doesn't really tell us how Koeman will approach the league's top teams, but it at least assures us that we ought to be confident against lesser teams. That alone is a significant improvement over last season.