Everton’s defence has come a long way from the last two seasons when they were one of the most porous in the Premier League. With just one change, swapping John Stones for Ashley Williams, the defence as a whole has caulked a lot of leaks and looks more like the backline that David Moyes left.
In a far-reaching interview with the Liverpool Echo at Goodison Park during an Everton in the Community Showcase event, club captain Phil Jagielka talked about how Ronald Koeman has made some changes to the philosophy that Roberto Martinez left the team with.
“Game to game it slightly differs but in terms of starting positions, the full-backs are nowhere near as high as they would have been, when we have got the ball.
“I feel like we are, probably, in better defensive positions to defend.
“If you look at the games, we’ve not kept as many clean sheets as we would like but if you look at some of the goals we have conceded, we have been a little unfortunate.
“We’ve not given our opponents that many opportunities, bar the Bournemouth game in the first-half which was our worst defensive display as a unit but the second-half was a little bit different, they had something to hold on to, we were more aggressive and how we want to be.”
The easiest way to describe the difference between the two managers would be that Koeman prefers the team to be more compact, while Martinez liked to see more expansive football.
“But there are different things, you have to call people in.
“If you want the left-back to go that little bit higher and tighter quicker, or the left winger, then you need to be pulling the right-back further round, so we are shortening the gaps between the defensive unit where, previously, we may have wanted to shorten the gaps but the gaps were potentially bigger because of the more expansive football we were looking to play.
“So if you’ve only got to shorten it from five yards then it is easier than potentially having to shorten it from 15.
“So there have been little tweaks and aspects and it depends if the manager wants Gaz (Gareth Barry) on his own in front of us or Gana (Idrissa Gueye) as well, or whether he gives Gana that licence to hunt people down, which we know he has done really well so far.”
There’s a lot more support for the fullbacks when they go on their forward forays now.
“If Bainesy (Leighton Baines) goes to press and is beaten, slips or whatever, he knows that Ash, for instance, is close enough to him, Gaz is close enough to him, I’m close enough to Gaz and Seamus (Seamus Coleman) is close enough to me.
“It’s a knock-on effect and previously we were almost left, not isolated, but that bit more isolated.
“The left centre-half wasn’t close enough to the left-back so if he did get beat then he couldn’t do anything about what was happening in the next phase.
“So you’re not talking ridiculous distances but you need to know that the person closest to you can you help you out because he’s in a more defensive-minded situation, rather than previously where we would spread that wide to get the ball and be productive.
“It worked in certain games but when it didn’t work, Bainesy, for example, would feel that bit more isolated and wouldn’t be in a rush to sprint to his man because he knows that if he was beaten then it was.....”
The Bournemouth game was an anomaly for a team that did well pressing high and covering each other until that game.
“There was a build-up, there were all sorts of little chances, they hit the post, they hit the bar.
“Their movement was good and we didn’t do either: we didn’t press and we didn’t sit off and make ourselves hard to beat.
“We, basically, half pressed which left three or four people out of it and were too easy to get past and someone else would come out of position when maybe they shouldn’t have, but they were doing it for the right reasons.
“It was almost a comedy of errors for 20, 25 minutes. When we should have pressed, we didn’t. And when we shouldn’t have pressed, we did.
“We’ve seen the video and it’s only little tweaks (that are needed). If someone stands five yards to the left then it means they can’t play the ball which meant we would have been a sounder defensive unit but, as it happens, we were sloppy, lazy, not thinking which allowed them to cut through us and before you know it....”
Koeman doesn’t like to practice dead-ball situations by rote, banging in corner after corner at Finch Farm. Instead, he prefers to put the team in ‘realistic situations’ like they would get during a game.
“It is hard to do a lot of that because you’re asking for injuries.
“There will be the odd occasion when he does it. If he goes through a little bit of shape on a Thursday or a Friday he will have at least one or two wide free-kicks or corners put in but he doesn’t tend to do 25 corners and ‘make sure you don’t concede’.
“That is possibly more of a thing we did a couple of times in pre-season but once the games come, the risk versus reward (has to be weighed up) because you are asking for contact.
“But if there is a problem I’m sure the manager will be more than happy to lose a few and do the contact, that’s the sort of guy he is, but when we have training sessions and there is a point where there’s a free-kick or thrown-in or whatever he will make sure it is properly defended.
“And most of the time, if not all the time, the session is on video so there is nowhere to hide when it comes to stuff like that and he is not shy about asking someone why they are stood where they are stood. You are accountable for your decisions.
“He normally asks you the question after you’ve seen the video which is okay but it’s when he starts asking you the question before you’ve seen the video is when you start getting a bit nervous.”