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Toffees face tough test against old boss

Everton are again tasked with breaking down a defensive side

Sunderland v Middlesbrough - Premier League Photo by Stu Forster/Getty Images

After an international break that saw mixed fortunes for Everton players, the club are back in action against Sunderland in this week’s Monday night Premier League fixture.

The Black Cats enter the match in 16th place with a draw and two losses in their opening fixtures; Everton sit in 4th with two wins and a draw.

Sunderland overview

It seems like it’s the same story every year for Sunderland: managerial changes, almost-certain relegation, then a great escape. Their last four league finishes have been 17th, 16th, 14th, and 17th. Last year under Dick Advocaat and Sam Allardyce they actually had an okay offense but were doomed on the other side of the ball:

Expected goals courtesy of Paul Riley

Given all of that, David Moyes was a fairly logical choice to take over the reins. Unsuccessful stints at Manchester United and Real Sociedad aside, Moyes is mostly known for stability and solidity—the very two things that Sunderland have lacked for several years.

Between 2006 and 2013, Moyes managed Everton to seven seasons in a row in which they finished between 5th and 8th place with between 54 and 65 points. Much in the same way Tony Pulis has proven he’s a man who can consistently do a job for your club, Moyes has a track record that suggests he can lend a steady hand to the Sunderland ship. If anything, he’s a manager who knows what he wants, and he wasted no time surrounding himself with familiar faces on Wearside, with former players Steven Pienaar, Victor Anichebe, and Adnan Januzaj all hopping on board to join Everton academy graduate Jack Rodwell.

Early results this year have been mixed, but Sunderland actually did a half-decent job in their first match against Manchester City given the circumstances, dominated the second half against Middlesbrough despite losing the match, and kept things tight away against Southampton.

Given their talent level it’s still safe to say that Sunderland will probably in the mix at the bottom of the table, but Moyes certainly gives them as good a shot as anyone as staying up yet again this season.


Everton fans will be quite familiar with the Moyes playbook. The Scot is by no means a devotee of free-flowing or possession football, preferring a pragmatic approach that relies heavily on who the opposition is on a given day. Tactics writer Michael Cox summed it up well at the end of Moyes’s Everton tenure:

“[Moyes] is a naturally reactive manager who varies his side's approach to nullify the strengths, and expose the weaknesses, of a particular opponent. Sometimes this reactivity can become negativity, and while Moyes has often frustrated big sides in the Premier League he has rarely beaten them – especially away from Goodison Park”

Moyes is no Pulis though—at Everton his sides consistently put up decent attacking numbers, and despite his willingness to cede possession he does allow his team the freedom to get forward when necessary. It’s not necessarily fancy but it is effective in its directness.

With the ball

Sunderland generally set up in a 4-2-3-1 or a 4-3-3 with Jermain Defoe as a center forward and Rodwell as the primary holding midfielder. An aspect of their play that will be familiar to Everton supporters is their reliance on wide areas, especially via fullbacks. Sunderland like to build up primarily on the flanks, with the main function of the central players to spray the ball wide and try to create overloads near the touchline. In a true throwback, Sunderland’s top passing combination against Middlesbrough was Patrick van Aanholt to Pienaar, according to the FourFourTwo StatsZone.

Via Sander Ijtsma, Sunderland’s passing maps from their last two league matches illustrate the trend well:

As Ijtsma notes, the fullbacks are “hubs” through which Sunderland’s center backs and Rodwell relieve pressure and look to build attacks.

This strategy combined with the fact that Sunderland lack a creative central midfielder means that the majority of their attacks from buildup play originate on the flanks. This doesn’t necessarily mean they are just a crossing team though—often players like Januzaj will look to use their dribbling ability to move the ball inside will Defoe uses his clever positioning and movement to find a passing lane. This combination provided Sunderland’s first goal of the season against Manchester City:

Without the ball

As noted before, Sunderland are generally content to allow the opposition to hold the ball for long periods of time. While not a pressing team per se, they do apply a certain amount of pressure from the forward line (almost always by Fabio Borini rather than Defoe), and they have displayed an ability in the midfield to pressure players at key moments to produce counters.

Here’s Borini instigating a press from the front that results in a chance against Manchester City:

And Younes Kaboul of all people from the same game kickstarting another counter:

A similar situation gave Sunderland a penalty against Southampton:

Despite a certain lack of technical ability, Sunderland do have an energy in central areas that Everton will need to be wary of. Unfortunately for the Black Cats, Borini is out injured, so they will need someone else to be that link between midfield and attack in transition.

In non-transition situations once the opposition has established possession, Sunderland will drop into a 4-4-2 or 4-5-1, which Everton can expect to see a lot of on Monday. One such situation against Man City is shown below:

Sunderland are organized into two solid banks of four. David Silva, as he is wont to do, finds space between the lines to receive the pass, attracts attention, and is able to create space for the overlap. Unfortunately at that point he runs into the middle of the box and nobody else supports Nolito out wide. Ultimately Nolito has little choice but to take a speculative shot, and the situation is more or less a win from a Sunderland point of view.

Matching up with Everton

Once again Everton take the field with the expectation of dominating possession and controlling play for large periods of time. Chance creation will require patience and organization, with Ross Barkley’s movement in particular key to disrupting Sunderland’s defensive structure. Everton will do well to play quickly and efficiently and to resist the urge to take shots from poor positions.

It will be interesting to see Koeman’s selection—given the failure of the back three against West Brom and success of the back four against Stoke, one expects him to go with the latter for this match. The press employed against Stoke would also be advised here, as Sunderland’s tendency to possess the ball in wide positions combined with their lack of needle players in the middle means they are particular susceptible to a well-executed press.


Everton are again the favorites here but Moyes has made a career of frustrating superior opposition at home. In Defoe he has a proven goalscorer who carries a threat at all times and who has started the season quite well. As such it’ll require another professional performance from the Toffees to grab all three points.