In Everton’s second match of the season, Ronald Koeman made a bold move by making a 38th minute substitution against West Brom. Off came James McCarthy, on came Romelu Lukaku, and back came the old 4-2-3-1 after a brief experiment with a 5-2-3.
The substitution completely changed the match. West Brom couldn’t handle the addition of a fourth player into the Everton attack, and despite the fact that Lukaku was pretty average on the day, his mere presence helped turn a 1-0 loss into a 2-1 victory.
Koeman changed the match tactically that day -- he brought off one player who was putting in an average performance and put on another player who put in an average performance — but positional changes made a massive impact.
Monday’s 3-0 victory over Sunderland seemed similar on paper — Koeman made another bold substitution, this time taking off Ross Barkley and bringing on Gerard Deulofeu, leading to a shuffle of the players on the field. After a mediocre first half that ended 0-0, the Toffees soared through the second half, with Lukaku scoring a hat-trick to power the team to a 3-0 win.
Another tactical stroke of genius from Everton’s new manager, right?
Koeman’s move was clearly the right one, there’s no argument against that here. Barkley was poor in the first half, and Koeman was right to get him out of the match before he made any more mistakes. But the success that followed it had more to do with simply improved execution by the players remaining on the pitch (and a little bit of luck) than any tactical change commanded by the Dutchman.
To understand exactly what I mean, let’s start by looking at the lineups from Monday’s win.
There were no surprises in Everton’s lineup, with Seamus Coleman taking back the right-back position from Mason Holgate, and the rest of the lineup matching what it was before the international break. Koeman may well not be done with playing with three or five defenders, but he’s clearly realized that against mid-to-bottom of the table teams, the 4-2-3-1 is the way to go.
David Moyes sent out his men in something between a 4-2-3-1 and a 4-4-2. The wide players, Duncan Watmore and Lynden Gooch, were asked to do a lot of defending, so I’m hesitant to call the formation a 4-2-3-1, but Adnan Januzaj had a strange role that was something between a traditional No. 10 and a second striker, so calling this a 4-4-2, or even a 4-4-1-1, doesn’t really capture the full picture either.
To understand what I’m getting at, take a look at Januzaj’s passes received map and heatmap from the match (courtesy of FourFourTwo.com and EvertonFC.com respectively).
The young Belgian received the ball all over the field, and held most of his possession on the right half of the pitch, but there’s really no consistent trend here.
With Sunderland’s wingers lacking the pace to regularly threaten Everton’s full-backs, and Jermain Defoe too small to feasibly serve as a target forward, Moyes’ side had no choice but to attack through the middle of the field.
Clearly Januzaj was part of that plan, but he ultimately didn’t manage to contribute much up against the strong center-back play of Phil Jagielka and Ashley Williams. The only other possible playmaker in the center of the pitch was the German Jan Kirchhoff.
When healthy, Kirchhoff is a dangerous player, but he simply didn’t get to see any of the ball in this match. His passes received map shows this.
Gareth Barry and Idrissa Gueye completely neutralized the German midfielder — he simply couldn’t get anywhere near the ball. With every attacking channel cut off, Sunderland relied solely on the counter attack, which the Toffees actually managed to limit as well.
In attack though, it took Everton awhile to get going.
The Toffees forced plenty of turnovers in the midfield and had plenty of the ball due to the excellent play of Gueye and Barry, whose passing maps are below.
There isn’t a whole lot of tactical intrigue in this, but it is worth noting briefly how good the pair was, yet again, particularly Gueye.
When these two got the ball forward to the attackers in the first half though, not much happened.
There was a clear focus on getting the ball to Yannick Bolasie down the right wing, with the Congolese winger receiving significantly more passes than Kevin Mirallas down the left.
Bolasie was dangerous all match, but didn’t manage to connect on any of his crosses in the first half. Mirallas was pretty invisible for the majority of the half, but through no real fault of his own, as he barely saw the ball.
Ross Barkley saw a fair amount of the ball across the attacking half, but did very little with it once he got it. His turnovers throughout the first half were well-documented, and were probably the biggest factor in his removal from the game at halftime.
Barkley came out at half, giving way to Gerard Deulofeu. Bolasie switched to the left side, Mirallas slotted into Barkley’s spot in the middle, and Deulofeu entered the game on the right wing.
Despite the change, not a whole lot about the way Everton was playing changed. Mirallas played essentially the same role as Barkley in the same way the Englishman did, just more effectively.
Look at some key indicators from Barkley in the first half and Mirallas in the second half:
Mirallas sat a little deeper than Barkley and had more success in passing, but both were involved about the same amount, both tended to drift toward the left wing, and both didn’t play a whole lot of passes from the middle of the pitch in the attacking third.
The team also continued to play almost exclusively through Bolasie when possible: in the first half when Bolasie was on the right side, 39.5% of Everton’s possession in the attacking third was on the right. In the second half when Bolasie was on the left, 48.6% of Everton’s possession in the attacking third was on the left.
In short, even after the break, it was Bolasie, not Mirallas, who was the focal point of the attack.
Yes, Mirallas assisted on Lukaku’s third goal, but that came after Sunderland entered attack mode and was completely shambolic at the back. Everton’s first goal was always going to be the toughest, and once Lukaku got it, things were always going to open up.
It is tactically noteworthy then, that the first goal came on a counter attack after a Sunderland corner kick, not as a result of improved attacking play or a new tactical setup. In fact, it came on a pretty mediocre counter attack, in which Deulofeu sent a hard pass directly into a Sunderland defender, which probably should have ended the attack altogether.
Instead though, the ball bounced to Gueye, who played an inch-perfect cross for Lukaku, opening the scoring.
What’s the lesson here then? There is definitely good news:
- The team still has the ability to score in bunches on the counter attack, even ones that aren’t executed that well.
- Once teams open up and give the Toffees just a little bit of space to operate, the team is capable of ripping the opposition apart with its pace, quick passing, and top-class striker.
- Ronald Koeman remains willing to shake things up when he needs to.
- Idrissa Gana Gueye is really really really good.
It isn’t all rainbows and butterflies though, as the team’s relative inability to break Sunderland down without the benefit of a fortunate counter-attacking goal is a little concerning.
Keep in mind that this is a team that scored twice on a Tony Pulis team that took an early lead in August, so there’s no alarm bells going off yet. But, it is something to keep an eye on as the team continues to play some bottom-of-the-table competition this month.
What’s the plan for breaking down a bunkering team? Give the ball to Bolasie and let him take defenders on out wide? Give the ball to the No. 10 and let him try to pick passes 40 yards from goal? Something else?