If you’ve been reading Royal Blue Mersey throughout this dumpster fire of a season, you have surely heard my two requirements for a successful Everton lineup against a team of equal or less quality:
- Gylfi Sigurdsson must play in the middle of the pitch as a No. 10.
- True wide players must be used in the wide attacking positions.
So, there were mixed emotions at first when Ronald Koeman trotted out the following lineup against Brighton and Hove Albion.
Mercifully, Sigurdsson finally got a start in an attacking midfield role, rather than out on the left side. There were other problems with his usage in this match, which we’ll touch on in a bit, but first let’s focus on the more clear issue.
Koeman deployed Dominic Calvert-Lewin and Nikola Vlasic as his wingers, a pretty clear violation of Condition 2 above. DCL has proven beyond any doubt he is not a winger, and needs to be used as a central striker, either alone or with a strike partner.
To be clear, the issue isn’t that Calvert-Lewin doesn’t have enough talent — and the young Englishman can actually whip in a decent cross, as he’s shown on occasional counter attacks this season.
Instead, the issue is a little more nebulous than that. His positioning out wide is often wrong, he lacks the ability with the ball in his feet to take players on, and he doesn’t get open when Leighton Baines has the ball down his wing. His skill set simply isn’t that of a wide player.
Check out his passmap from EvertonFC.com to get a visual representation of this.
He didn’t work the ball into or from dangerous positions, save one key pass in the 80th minute.
His discomfort in the position is clear, and Koeman needs to realize he’s misusing a highly-gifted prospect by playing him in the wrong place.
On the right, Nikola Vlasic had another fine match, but he’s not a true winger either. Per TransferMarkt.com, Vlasic has played 43 club matches as a wide player — compared to 59 as a central player.
His skill set is really more that of a central playmaker than a true winger — he’s more crafty than quick, more creative than explosive. His passmap from this one reflects that.
He’s not a player looking to get to the endline and whip in crosses — instead, he looks to cut to the inside and play short passes with the central attackers and his full-back. In a vacuum, there’s absolutely nothing wrong with having a wide attacker who plays this way — hell, Steven Pienaar made a nearly decade-long Everton career out of that play on the Toffees’ left.
There are two problems with Vlasic playing that way for now, though. First, the Toffees are already painfully narrow on the opposite side, given Koeman’s ridiculous unwillingness to play a true winger on either side. This really compacts Everton in the attacking third, allowing opposing defenders to cover several attackers with ease.
Second, inside-cutting wingers need talented full-backs to overlap and create danger in the vacated wide areas.
Vlasic had Mason Holgate. Yes, that Mason Holgate, whose pass completion percentage in Premier League play is 60%, easily the worst on the team. Yes, that Mason Holgate, who has completed 7 of his 56 attempted crosses as an Everton player.
Yes, that Mason Holgate, whose passmap for the match looked like this.
So, Koeman’s decisions in terms of personnel out wide were bad. But at least Sigurdsson played in the middle, right?
Let’s take a look at Sigurdsson’s passmap and heatmap from this one.
If your response to both of these graphics is, “Boy, that looks pretty bad!” — you’re right! Gylfi didn’t link up with anybody in the center of midfield, and failed to get on the ball in the crucial area around the top of the 18-yard-box.
If your next response is, “See, Adam? I told you. Gylfi Sigurdsson isn’t good for anything but set pieces.” — just slow down for a minute.
Take a look at Wayne Rooney’s graphics for this match as well, and see if you notice something.
Notice how Rooney spent much of the match operating in the space you’d expect Sigurdsson? Yeah, that’s pretty much his thing.
Rooney, as a central striker, wants to drop deep and receive the ball into his feet, then work it to the midfielders and wingers to recycle possession and move the ball forward. It’s been in this role that he’s had the most success since his return to Everton.
Except that in doing so, he crowded Gylfi Sigurdsson to the point that the Icelander could barely get on the ball — and when he did, he had nowhere to go with it, because his striker was on top of him and his wingers were creating no width.
The result was (stop me if you’ve heard this before) tons of meaningless possession, hopeful crosses whipped in by an unimpressive right-back, and ill-advised shots ripped from outside the box — all because there were no more productive options available in attack.
Everton managed to snatch a late point from this one, only because a Brighton player felt the need to decapitate Calvert-Lewin.
Everton nearly took all three points — a late save from Brighton keeper Matt Ryan kept Kevin Mirallas out at the death.
Everton deserved to take nothing from this match.
Koeman’s attacking tactics continue to stupify, mystify, and confound. He continues to take a group of attacking players that doesn’t have a ton of talent to begin with and still make them substantially less than the sum of their parts.
Even if he continues to freeze out his wide players (Kevin Mirallas, Aaron Lennon, Ademola Lookman), he’d do well to at least keep Sigurdsson in the center of the attack, but with a striker who will look to make runs in and around the backline when Everton is in possession, instead of Rooney, who occupies the Icelander’s space.
Outside of that, there’s little else to say of Koeman. He’s ignoring players who can help him, wasting players he brought in himself, and failing to take the blame for the club’s atrocious start to the season. As long as he’s still in charge, the team will continue its free fall — possibly even into a relegation battle if he’s allowed to remain into 2018.