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Everton finds success in the 4-4-2, with Enner Valencia the unexpected hero

A change into a two-striker system powered the Toffees to their best half hour of the season.

Everton v Southampton - Premier League Photo by Clive Brunskill/Getty Images

There have been two constant themes associated with Everton’s struggling attack since the club began its downward spiral in mid-September.

  1. Everton lacks a creative central midfielder to pick the difficult passes needed to pass out of the back and create chances in the final third.
  2. Romelu Lukaku is not getting enough support from his attacking midfield teammates.

Before Monday’s 3-0 victory over Southampton, Ronald Koeman had found only brief glimpses of solutions to these problems. The Toffees’ 2-1 victory over Arsenal felt like more of a smash-and-grab affair than a genuine turning point, and their 2-0 victory over Leicester City came while the Foxes were missing three regular starters.

From the opening whistle against the Saints though, Koeman was determined to shake things up in a substantial way. His starting lineup looked like the following:

Dominic Calvert-Lewin got the start up top, alongside Lukaku. Ross Barkley was moved from a central position out to the left, while Tom Davies partnered with Idrissa Gana Gueye in the center of midfield.

On its own, we cannot guess too much about how Koeman wanted this group to play. Calvert-Lewin was withdrawn due to injury in the 12th minute, and two or three of the minutes prior to his substitution were spent tending to the 19-year-old and the injured Southampton full-back, Cedric Soares.

At this stage, Koeman had a choice. He could bring on Enner Valencia in a like-for-like swap, or bring in a different player and adjust his formation.

He opted to leave Valencia, who played 74 minutes against Hull City on Friday and 267 minutes in the month of December, on his bench. Instead, Kevin Mirallas came on, and Everton shifted into a familiar 4-2-3-1.

The Toffees fell into similar predictable pitfalls in this setup. For whatever reason, Everton focused its attack almost exclusively down the right side, as this graphic from EvertonFC.com clearly demonstrates.

From the time Calvert-Lewin left the pitch to the time Valencia entered it, 50% of Everton’s attack came down the right wing, while only 21.8% came down the left.

Why the Toffees choose to attack through Lennon, who is better as an off-ball winger, and not Mirallas, who is much better with the ball in his feet than without it, is totally mystifying.

The result was a familiar 45 minutes of football. Everton had the better of possession by a small but clear margin, yet remained handcuffed by the two problems I opened with — the lack of a true playmaker and support for Lukaku up top.

Take a look at a few graphics, all representing what happened to Everton between the time Calvert-Lewin exited and Valencia entered.

Let’s start by looking at Everton’s passes during that 45 minute span, courtesy of FourFourTwo.com.

This graphic is slightly more flattering than similar ones have been in past matches, but they still tell the story of Everton’s inability to find the killer ball in the final third. The Toffees created a few, low-quality chances in this period, but it wasn’t enough to find a breakthrough.

Next, let’s take a look at Lukaku’s passes received in the same period.

Zero passes received in the box, with only a few passes finding him even close to dangerous areas — not exactly the ideal situation for the big Belgian.

So from minutes 15 to 60, Everton looked much like the team they’ve frequently been for the past few months: average in possession, often rudderless in attack, and defensively sound, but with danger always looming.

Koeman then made another change, bringing on Enner Valencia for Aaron Lennon and moving back into a formation similar to that which he started the match in.

Barkley was once again shuffled out wide, this time with Valencia up top supporting Lukaku. This move completely altered the Toffees’ fate in the match by opening up space for Lukaku to operate and for Everton’s midfielders to find passes.

The Blues’ first two goals provide prime examples of how the insertion of Valencia completely changed the match in Everton’s favor. Let’s start with the buildup to the first goal.

The play begins with a pass into Lukaku from the left side. Valencia is the player I’ve circled in blue — by making a progressive run into a dangerous area, he’s drawn three Southampton defenders, leaving Lukaku with only the Saints’ left-back to contend with. The big Belgian was always going to out-muscle the smaller man, and managed to play a ball into Coleman down the right.

Coleman got the cross into a dangerous area, where eventually Valencia knocked it home. It’s a simple play, but one that we simply don’t see if Lukaku is playing up top by himself.

If the Toffees only had one striker in at this point, Lukaku would be covered by at least one center-back and one full-back, if not both center-backs — making it nearly impossible for him to receive a pass and play Coleman through. Valencia’s job is straightforward enough, but he does it well, giving Lukaku space to work with.

On Everton’s second goal, Valencia’s well-timed runs again made the difference.

The play starts with Leighton Baines on the ball on the left side. Notice, once again, that Valencia has made a run into the box, drawing both Southampton center-backs. This opens a massive hole between the right-back, central midfielders, and center-backs, which Mirallas can easily run into and Baines can easily pass into.

There’s nobody within five yards of Mirallas when he receives Baines’ simple pass. The first Southampton center-back has no choice but to chase Mirallas down in this dangerous area, leaving the Ecuadorian striker 1-v-1 in the box. When Valencia receives Mirallas’ pass, he’s a well-timed turn away from putting himself through on goal.

Maya Yoshida senses that danger and overcommits on his challenge, fouling Valencia and giving Baines the opportunity to double the lead.

Valencia did exactly what I imagine Koeman had in mind for him in this match — he ran a lot, drew attention from Lukaku, and opened passing lanes for his teammates. In terms of technical skill, he’s not proven himself to be anything more than an average player, but the Ecuadorian has pace to burn and the willingness to spend it, which is all the Toffees really need alongside Lukaku.

I have my doubts that Koeman wants to stay in the 4-4-2 long term. Most managers would prefer to have five in the midfield, which provides more defensive stability and an advantage in possession. But to do that, a team needs a creative midfielder who can pick difficult passes into the striker and wingers who can provide ideal support to the lone striker.

Right now, Everton has neither. So, Koeman’s best bet is to continue using a pacey, hard-working second striker alongside Lukaku for now, be it Valencia, Calvert-Lewin, or perhaps the rumored Ademola Lookman. If it worked against Southampton, it should work against most non-top-six sides, which comprise all but one of Everton’s matches until the end of February.

If used effectively then, the two-striker system could help Everton go on a late-winter run.