Ronald Koeman has faced more challenges in the first six months of his Everton tenure than perhaps he expected.
His team’s fitness was below expected levels, players expected to play a significant role have experienced significant regressions, and the club’s new money hasn’t quite led to the complete fulfillment of the Dutchman’s transfer wishlist. The result has been an occasional state of confusion from Everton’s new manager.
On paper, the state of things should have gotten worse this month. With Idrissa Gueye, Everton’s best new signing of the season, southbound toward the African Cup of Nations, the Toffees appeared to be in trouble. Immediately after his departure, Everton lost 2-1 to Leicester City in the FA Cup, fueling the flames of concern surrounding Goodison Park.
Since then though, the Toffees have gone 180 minutes without conceding a goal, thrashed Manchester City, and managed a last-ditch victory over Crystal Palace.
The difference has been Koeman’s shrewd switch to a 5-3-2 — a formation that plays to the team’s current personnel strengths while still providing the team with the flexibility needed to handle the variety of clubs and styles Everton faces in the Premier League.
Let’s take a look at exactly how the team lined up:
Koeman’s lineup was unchanged from the side that obliterated Manchester City at Goodison Park last weekend. Kevin Mirallas partnered with Romelu Lukaku up top, while Tom Davies and Mason Holgate continued the youth movement in the Everton side.
Against Manchester City, this group had pretty simple directions — press the Citizens while they try to play out of the back and sit compact in front of Joel once City pushed into the final third. I took an in-depth look at that plan, and why it worked, on Tuesday.
In that piece, I warned that Everton’s success in that match might not be sustainable — Koeman’s plan to counter City worked well, but nobody in the Premier League plays like City, so I was concerned the success of the 5-3-2 wouldn’t transfer to others.
I may, as it turns out, have been wrong.
Let’s start by taking a quick look at what didn’t have to change much from last week — Everton’s defense. The strengths of this particular trio of center-backs are clear. Ashley Williams is the ideal organizer and centerpiece of a back three, with Ramiro Funes Mori and Mason Holgate, two mobile defenders, on either side of him. These three are equipped to handle both strength and speed from opposing defenders.
Gareth Barry sat in front of the back three, and his role is just as important as any of the center-backs. He shields the defenders, providing extra protection, particularly during counter-attacks. The team’s average position map, courtesy of EvertonFC.com, displays this pretty clearly.
(Lukaku is on there, he’s just in essentially the same space as Mirallas)
Defending Crystal Palace comes with a unique challenge, though. The Eagles tend not to build up through the middle, instead opting to play down the wings and whip crosses into Christian Benteke. With three center-backs (plus Barry) in the match, the Toffees elected not focus on cutting out these crosses from the source, but rather just handling them once they entered the box.
Take a look at Palace’s crosses and chances created for the match, courtesy of EvertonFC.com.
In all, Palace completed nine of 29 crosses, creating three chances from them. Palace’s only two chances of note came from crosses — Benteke hit the bar on an open-play cross from James MacArthur in the first half, and Scott Dann saw a header from a corner palmed out by Joel Robles in the second half.
Obviously, you’d prefer not to concede any chances, but giving up two decent chances over the course of 90 minutes is a pretty decent return.
The result was an expected goals (xG) output from Crystal Palace of less than 0.5, according to Michael Caley.
xG map for Palace - Everton. pic.twitter.com/atcb0NioUW— Caley Graphics (@Caley_graphics) January 22, 2017
Everton’s wing-backs, Leighton Baines and Seamus Coleman, had somewhat different roles in this match. Take another look at the average position map.
Coleman got much more involved in the attack than Baines, which was a little peculiar given that both teams’ attacks were pretty left-right balanced. If I had to guess, I would suspect that Coleman gets a little more license to roam in this formation, given that his pace lets him recover more easily than Baines.
Coleman was definitely an important piece of the Toffees’ right-sided attack though, as his passes received map (courtesy of FourFourTwo.com) makes clear.
By far though, the most interesting facet of Everton’s strategy for this match was the role of Ross Barkley and Tom Davies (and Gareth Barry, to a lesser extent) in the center of midfield. As I’ve said extensively this season, Everton has struggled to transition from defense to attack through the center of midfield, as well as to create chances via a slow, controlled buildup.
Against Manchester City, the 5-3-2 allowed the Toffees to simply bypass both of these problems. Everton managed to force turnovers in dangerous areas and turn them quickly into scoring chances before the City defense got a chance to get set. Against a much more conservative Palace team though, that was never going to be an option.
Both of the above problems stem from the Toffees’ lack of a true playmaking midfielder in the center of the pitch. Koeman hasn’t added a player that fills that need, but his three-man midfield lets him tackle the problems by committee, using the strengths of each player to build from back to front and create scoring chances.
When building out of the back, the 5-3-2 gives Everton substantially more stability and greater passing options than any other formation Koeman has utilized this season.
Take another look at the formation.
When the defenders/Barry are playing the ball out of the back, they’ve got as many as five passing options — Barkley, Davies, the full-backs, and whichever of the strikers checks back into the midfield.
To tightly mark all five of those players and put pressure on the player with the ball requires the execution of an inch-perfect press. Sure, that’s possible, but it certainly isn’t something you’re going to see regularly, particularly from bottom-of-the-table teams.
The result was a pretty impressive passmap from Barry, who did a solid job of moving the team forward out of the back in the opening hour.
There’s a respectable amount of forward passes on this map. These passes helped Everton get through the Palace midfield line and into the final third.
Once the Toffees progressed into the final third, the playmaking burden fell on the other two central midfielders, Barkley and Davies — at least on paper. In reality, something a little more complex took place.
Though they played essentially the same position, both players brought very different approaches to their role. Ross Barkley was the hub of possession, helping the team recycle the ball in the final third while trying to break Palace down. Tom Davies was more aggressive in his approach on the ball, attempting to play the killer ball forward to an attacking teammate.
Take a look at each player’s passing map.
Barkley attempted more passes, completed more passes, and completed a higher percentage of passes (87.5% to 81.25) than his English counterpart. But, nearly all of his passes were backwards or sideways, focused on keeping possession rather than directly breaking down the opposition.
On another day, I might have criticized Barkley for the lack of attacking initiative, but it seems as though that duty fell more to his 18-year-old midfield partner. He didn’t play a ton of forward, attacking balls, but he was a more frequent creator in this sense than Barkley, and created two attacking chances, including Seamus Coleman’s match-winner.
The Toffees created enough chances to win this match, and the re-configured central midfield trio played a significant role in that. Barry helped move the ball from defense to attack, Barkley helped keep the ball in the final third, and Davies found the key passes to turn possession into scoring chances.
None of these players are a pure playmaker, but they’ve each got their strengths and managed to combine to fill that role against Crystal Palace. Is that sustainable going forward?
Well, I’m not quite sure yet.
I have to imagine that sooner rather than later, Barry will be replaced by Morgan Schneiderlin in the starting XI. The Frenchman should be more than capable of filling that deep-lying, transition role, provided his teammates give him passing options as they did on Saturday.
Among Barkley and Davies, things are a little more dicey. Barkley has thrived since having the weight of the sole playmaker’s role taken off of him, but I’m not sure that he can be a possession machine against opposition of a higher quality. Fortunately, Everton’s next four matches are against Stoke City, Bournemouth, Middlesbrough, and Sunderland, so he should get a run of matches against relatively weak competition to continue acclimating.
Davies is an even bigger wild card. His ability to play the final pass has been evident in the last two matches, but is it really realistic to expect an 18-year-old to shoulder that kind of responsibility? The answer to that question is probably no — but that doesn’t change the fact that it may remain the team’s best option to do so.
One final point about the central midfielders — don’t forget that Idrissa Gueye is in Gabon playing in the African Cup of Nations right now. Based on his performance in the first half of the season, you’d suspect he must have a spot reserved for him when he returns.
He most naturally fits into Barkley’s role currently, but if things continue to go well, you’d suspect Koeman will be hesitant to change the heart of his lineup.
In all though, having too many competent central midfielders is a good problem to have, given that the inverse appeared to be true just a month ago. Time will tell if things continue to progress in that direction.