All the talk here on Royal Blue Mersey in the buildup to Friday’s match against Hull City was relatively straightforward — Everton needed to beat the newly-promoted side, which had been struggling mightily.
And yet, here we are in the aftermath of another disappointing result, having only drawn the Tigers. What went wrong against Mike Phelan’s side?
Half of the answer is obvious. Ronald Koeman’s side conceded twice to a team that had been scoreless in its last 300 minutes of play. That level of defense isn’t going to get you far in the Premier League.
The concession of an early goal, particularly a simple score from a corner kick, put some wind in the Hull City sails, providing some desperately needed momentum. The Tigers’ second goal came on a well-struck free kick, which was all Hull needed to take their second lead of the match.
There isn’t a whole lot that’s tactically interesting about those defensive breakdowns. It wasn’t about the team’s shape, the struggles of Phil Jagielka, or Gareth Barry’s lack of legs. In short, there’s nothing analytical to say about the goals Everton conceded, so I’m not going to focus on them.
Rather, as is often the case, I am choosing to focus on Everton’s attack. Let’s start by looking at Everton’s starting lineup.
Koeman reverted to the 4-2-3-1, with Kevin Mirallas and Enner Valencia as his wingers. Phil Jagielka returned to the starting lineup, playing alongside Ashley Williams in central defense.
When the Toffees have used a setup similar to this one this season, they’ve frequently encountered a significant problem — they struggle to work the ball through the center of midfield. Often, the central midfield trio (in this case, Gareth Barry, Idrissa Gueye, and Ross Barkley) cannot get the ball through the middle third and into the attacking third efficiently.
Fortunately for Everton, this wasn’t a major problem against Hull. Take a look at @11tegen11’s passmap from the match on Friday.
Interestingly, Gueye served as the team’s central midfield hub, rather than Barry. This is the first time the Senegalese midfielder has been preferred to Barry in this role when both have been in the lineup. But, you can see that both Barry and Gueye completed a fair number of passes forward to the team’s aggressive full-backs and wingers.
To take a closer look at specifically what Gueye and Barry brought in terms of moving the ball from defense into attack, check out their individual passmaps from the match, courtesy of FourFourTwo.com. For the sake of comparison, I’ve only included passes from the first 68 minutes of the match, before Barry was subbed out.
Neither player was utterly spectacular, but both were pretty good. To really hone in on exactly what I’m talking about, take a look at only the forward passes these two players attempted.
Both players were pretty successful at getting the ball forward to Leighton Baines, Seamus Coleman, Ross Barkley, Kevin Mirallas, and Enner Valencia into the final third.
So Everton solved a major problem against Hull City, empowering them to score twice and at least pick up a point following a poor defensive effort, right?
Hull City adopted a very deep defensive line, making it a lot easier for Gueye and Barry to work the ball through the midfield into the final third. They still had some work to do, but the challenge against such a defensive team is generally not in getting the ball into the final third, but doing something with it once you get there.
That has also been a problem for the Toffees at times this season.
Ultimately, it fell on Barkley, Mirallas, and Valencia to be the creative force in the final third — not exactly the ideal situation given the way the season has gone. Valencia has been a very useful player in the last month, but he’s not going to be creating chances with his passes (and that’s not his job frankly), so let’s throw him out of the equation straight away.
That leaves Mirallas and Barkley — so let’s take a look at their individual passmaps from the match.
Both players were pretty accurate in all, each with a couple of passes into somewhat dangerous areas. But, between the two of them, only three chances were created (the light blue lines), so I imagine that a fair number of their forward passes into or near the box were to Lukaku while the Belgian had his back to goal.
So despite a possession advantage and a fair amount of time spent in the attacking third, Everton failed to create a substantial number of clear-cut chances against a mediocre, but well-drilled Hull side.
In essence then, the Toffees faced the same problem they’ve faced for much of the last month, but this time a little closer to the opponent’s goal. In the moments Everton needs a precise pass picked out to move the ball forward and create quality scoring chances, the quality is often lacking.
The only Everton winger who can be relied upon to create chances with his intricate passes is Mirallas, leaving just Barkley with the weight of that creative burden. I’ve spent a fair amount of time in this space discussing how Barkley isn’t quite fit for that role. In fact, I think he’s best served playing as more of a second striker, making runs off Lukaku like the one that led to Everton’s late equalizer.
What have we learned from this match, then? Frankly, something that we already knew. Everton needs a better creator in the center of midfield, though another creative winger might also be on the wishlist as well.