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Everton’s victory over Manchester City was incredible — but don’t expect it to be sustainable

Ronald Koeman had the perfect gameplan to take down Pep Guardiola’s side. Unfortunately for the Dutchman, no one else in the Premier League plays like Manchester City.

Everton v Manchester City - Premier League
Make no mistake: Ronald Koeman outdid Pep Guardiola at Goodison on Sunday.
Photo by Michael Regan/Getty Images

Everton’s performance at Goodison Park on Sunday was nothing short of sublime. Ronald Koeman and the Toffees had a perfect plan to bring down Manchester City, executed it expertly, and rightfully earned a victory.

Barring a victory at Anfield later this season, Sunday’s victory will likely go down as Everton’s marquee triumph this season — the match that we’ll all point to as the 2017-18 season approaches and say, “That is what Everton Football Club should be capable of next year.”

While Sunday’s win was phenomenal, enjoyable, and perfectly designed, I feel the unfortunate need to temper the enthusiasm following the Toffees’ 4-0 victory. Koeman and the players deserve a ton of credit for the way they set up and executed in this victory — but Sunday’s victory and the gameplan that accompanied it aren’t necessarily indicative of long-term success for Everton.

To back up my point, let’s start by taking a close look at what Manchester City’s general setup was, as this is what dictated Everton’s plan for the match.

You can start by taking a look at Mike Godamski’s tactical preview of Manchester City from before the match. The short version of his piece is something you probably already know — under Pep Guardiola, Manchester City aim to dominate possession and slowly build attacks through their talented attacking midfielders. This means lots of passing out of the back and circulating the ball through the midfield, waiting for the proper time to strike.

With that in mind, let’s take a look at City’s starting lineup from the match.

That front four might be the best in the Premier League, but once you get to the back seven, things look substantially weaker. Claudio Bravo has come under significant criticism, particularly in the aftermath of this match, some of which is probably warranted, some of which definitely is not. City’s full-backs are both experienced Premier League players who can contribute both in attack and defense.

It is in the center of the park where things start to get problematic for the Citizens. John Stones and Nicolas Otamendi aren’t terrible...but they aren’t good either. Otamendi is an experienced player who has had an indifferent time since moving to City. We know Stones well from his time at Everton — both his strengths and weaknesses.

To me, City’s major problems are in the center of midfield. Yaya Toure has never covered much ground, and he’s certainly not getting any younger. His partner was Pablo Zabaleta... who is decidedly not a central midfielder, regardless of what Guardiola thinks.

So City had an explosive front four, a mediocre back four and keeper, and a central midfield pair capable of very little from a defensive perspective. Guardiola’s plan, as always, was to dominated possession and build up slowly out of the back.

None of this was a secret, and Koeman’s plan for the match reflected his knowledge of his opposition. Everton lined up like this:

There’s a few interesting things going on here, so let’s start at the back and move our way forward. Koeman went with the same back three that served him well in Everton’s last league match against Leicester City. Manchester City and Leicester City couldn’t play the game any more differently, but this back three held up well against both, in large part due to the mobility of Ramiro Funes Mori and Mason Holgate.

A frequent downfall of a three-man backline is the inability of its wider players to effectively cope with attacks when they’re forced toward the sideline. Both Funes Mori and Holgate are comfortable playing as full-backs, however, so being dragged out wide as part of a three-man backline is of little concern. This setup has allowed Koeman to get the most out of an admittedly unimpressive (at times) group of center-backs, by utilizing one of their key strengths: mobility.

Speaking of mobility, let’s talk about Gareth Barry. Gaz has found himself criticized by supporters in recent weeks because he struggles to cover significant ground, which became apparent when he was part of a two-man holding midfield in a pressing system.

Concerns regarding his usage in such a system are warranted, but Barry still absolutely has his uses in the right system. Sunday’s was exactly such a system — with Ross Barkley and Tom Davies marauding in front of him, Barry’s main responsibility was to sit deep and shield the back three.

Take a look at his heatmap from the match, courtesy of EvertonFC.com.

He very occasionally got on the ball in forward positions, but the majority of his touches came right at the top of his own box, the position that you want to see the 35-year-old in. Look at his average position compared to that of Davies (#26) and Barkley (#8).

His average position was substantially deeper than both the full-backs and Barkley and Davies — in a place where he can break up attacks without having to cover much ground.

Now let’s bring Barkley and Davies more precisely into the picture. The play of Everton’s central midfielders has been something of a consistent problem this season. Idrissa Gueye has come in and been a player who covers tons of ground and makes loads of tackles and interceptions, but no central midfielder has been able to consistently be a playmaker next to or in front of him.

The two problems Everton has frequently faced can be summed up in this way:

  1. Everton, at times, struggles to play out of the back through the center of the pitch. The team is often forced to resort to long balls to Lukaku or to send the ball to the full-backs and hope they can find a route through the middle third.
  2. The killer pass in the attacking third has been utterly lacking. In situations where the Toffees do get sustained possession in the final third, far too frequently the play ends with a hopeful-at-best cross or poor turnover in a dangerous area.

However, Manchester City’s personnel choices and style of play allowed Everton to completely bypass both of these issues. Let’s start with #1.

To put this as simply as possible, Everton didn’t even bother trying to pass out of the back on Sunday. Not even a little.

Take a look at a few graphics from FourFourTwo.com to understand how blatantly obvious this was.

Everton cleared the ball 25 times according to FourFourTwo.com, a moderately high amount, but nothing that appears particularly excessive. But consider this — below I’ve placed graphics showing Everton’s passes in the defensive third, middle third, and final third. I’ve split them up this way to make things a little more comprehensible.

Note where most of the passes start and end, or perhaps more importantly where they don’t start and end.

There are essentially no short passes, completed or failed, out of the positions you’d expect the center-backs and Barry to be playing from. Everything that comes from a deep central position is going long, most of which didn’t find their intended target.

This isn’t a complaint, mind you, simply a statement of fact. Sure, you can say that Everton had only 25 clearances in the match, but most of what FourFourTwo considers “long-balls” are glorified clearances that might have found a blue shirt on occasion. In reality, the Toffees’ mentality was much more “boot it long” than it might appear on first glance.

“Alright,” you might think, “So they didn’t play short passes out of the back, but that doesn’t really solve the problem noted above, as they lost possession the vast majority of the time they sent it long.”

Against most teams in the Premier League, you’d be right — that would be a big problem. Most teams would strike back as soon as they recovered possession following a long ball, probably attempting a few long balls of their own as the Everton backline reorganized after the clearance.

But, as I mentioned in the opening, Manchester City are not most Premier League teams. To Guardiola, nothing is worth doing if it doesn’t guarantee continued possession or a high-quality scoring opportunity. There’s no such thing as a guaranteed scoring opportunity when you’re playing a ball 50+ yards from your own goal, so City simply played to keep possession and pass out of the back.

Everton’s response was a coordinated application of pressure to City’s defenders and holding midfield players, getting Lukaku, Mirallas, Barkley, Davies, and the full-backs all up into the space where the Citizens wanted to work the ball in the middle third.

The pressure wasn’t smothering or particularly high-risk, it was just enough to make City’s most questionable players have to work really hard to do what they wanted. The result was a few very poorly-timed turnovers in dangerous areas.

This brings us to problem #2 from above — Everton’s inability to find the killer pass. The Toffees still don’t have a player who specializes in that sort of thing, but forcing turnovers in dangerous areas makes it much easier to work around this problem. Consider Everton’s first goal.

The play starts with Gael Clichy in possession down the left. He’s about to have his pass intercepted by Davies, who is circled in blue.

I’ve circled the City back-four in black — look at how weak their defensive position is if they turn the ball over. Stones, the defender farthest up the field, I assume has stepped forward there to try to create a passing lane for Clichy. Bacary Sagna has adopted a very wide position, presumably for the same reason.

If Clichy turns the ball over in this spot, all that’s going to be separating Davies from the goal is Yaya Toure (circled in red, because what the heck is he doing in that role) and Otamendi.

Sure enough, Davies makes the interception and finds himself in space. All he’s got to do is play a pass that splits the spread-out Clichy-Stones pair and allows Kevin Mirallas to outrun Toure — not exactly a massive feat.

Don’t get me wrong, it’s a good pass and Davies deserves credit for setting up this goal. But, you expect players of Premier League caliber to be able to find a pacey attacker in that situation.

In the final insult to City’s defensive ineptitude, Otamendi completely loses Everton’s only runner, Romelu Lukaku, and allows him a relatively straightforward finish.

Mirallas’ goal early in the second half came about in a similar fashion.

Gareth Barry forces a turnover here, then plays the ball to Lukaku, who has Mirallas running out in front of him.

This is a good time to note how important it is to have a player dedicated to providing support to Lukaku up top. Mirallas did a great job of it Sunday, Enner Valencia has filled the role adequately at times this season, and I imagine we’ll see Ademola Lookman get a chance there too.

That player doesn’t have to do anything sublime or outrageous most of the match. He simply must make runs that pull defenders away from Lukaku, giving the big man space to operate. On the first goal, Mirallas’ run put himself in a position to set up his Belgian counterpart. On the second goal, his initial run opened up enough space to spring a quick counter, that ultimately led to a goal.

Once Lukaku has the ball, it’s another comedy of errors for City at the back. Stones tries to recover for his less-than-stellar starting position, but knocks the ball to Barkley, who was left open by Sagna. Three defenders converge on him while Clichy watches on, leaving Mirallas open at the top of the box.

At this point, I’ve spent nearly 2,000 words and 10+ images to tell you the following:

Everton’s plan from the start of this match was clear. They sent the ball long at nearly every opportunity, then pressed City’s questionable defenders and central midfielders into making mistakes. Barkley and Davies were able to pick out the crucial final ball against a stretched, underwhelming City backline. While City was in possession in advanced positions, Barry helped strengthen a back three that performed above expectations.

It’s a great plan to beat Manchester City, and one you’ll see more people utilize as the season progresses, but it just isn’t a plan that’s sustainable against pretty much every other team in the Premier League. No team in England has such a perverse obsession with possession, and no team that will substantially out-possess Everton will have such a weak back six.

I fear that, despite the fun and joy brought about by this victory, we’ll see a return of the two problems I mentioned earlier against Crystal Palace, a side that plays a more conventional style.