To start, I have to begrudgingly admit I owe Ronald Koeman an apology.
Ahead of this match, he suggested his team ought to play more direct, and he might employ players a little more capable of moving the attack forward quickly, rather than the slow, plodding nonsense we’ve grown accustomed to this season. I, in essence, called bull— on that — simply thinking he was too stubborn to make such a change.
Well, the Dutchman is still intolerably stubborn, and made plenty of mistakes on Sunday against Burnley, but he was true to his word that he’d change his team shape and look to play more direct.
Koeman elected to go with genuine pace up top with Dominic Calvert-Lewin and Oumar Niasse, giving his side something it has sorely lacked most of the season.
In the midfield, Nikola Vlasic and Gylfi Sigurdsson brought plenty of technical ability, but relatively little speed out wide. From the wingers back, there were no real surprises, with Michael Keane returning to the lineup alongside Ashley Williams, as Phil Jagielka once again missed out.
Burnley, to Sean Dyche’s credit, came out playing relatively aggressively, at least by Burnley standards. The result was a pretty open first 20 minutes, in which both teams created decent chances.
I’d like to focus on what Everton did right in attack during those opening 20 minutes, largely because we’ve had so little positive to discuss in terms of attack this season. The majority of the positive play came from the relationship between Oumar Niasse and Gylfi Sigurdsson.
Sigurdsson has gotten off to a pretty rough start to his Everton career, but that’s largely because he’s been forced to operate out wide on the left wing — which is not where he can most positively impact the match. He needs to be in the center of the pitch, facilitating play, creating chances, and getting shots.
Though his starting position was on the left Sunday, his relationship with Niasse allowed for him to work the center of the pitch. Niasse tended to drift left, drawing Burnley defenders and pushing them to sit deep out of respect for his pace — in turn, Sigurdsson could come into the vacated, deeper, more central space.
Check out the Icelander’s heatmap from the opening 20 minutes of the match, courtesy of EvertonFC.com.
Gylfi didn’t get on the ball a ton, but when he did, it was in a central area — either deep enough where he could look up and try to pick a pass into the final third, or close enough to goal to play the key pass or get a good shot.
In just the 20 minutes before Burnley opened the scoring, Sigurdsson recorded three chances created and a shot on target (on which he probably should have scored). You can tell he’s still suffering the effects of having no real preseason, and hasn’t gotten a true chance to acclimate because of where Koeman has forced him to play — but you can also tell that he’s got real quality, and properly utilized he can make a big difference.
Leighton Baines and Nikola Vlasic got in on a few chances as well, as the team’s overall passmap from the opening 20 minutes shows.
There were a fair number of failed long balls in this period, but a decent chunk of successful ones too. Calvert-Lewin and Niasse did well to chase passes down and hold possession in the middle third to move the team forward, and the result was Everton’s creative players getting the ball in the attacking third.
But, everything changed after Everton conceded.
Two predictable things happened after Jeff Hendrick put Burnley ahead in the 21st minute — Everton lost its confidence and Burnley sat deeper. There isn’t much left to say about the Toffees’ crisis of confidence at this point. To me, it must largely be related to Koeman’s inability to put together a coherent tactical plan — but of course, I’m not in the locker room, so that’s only a best guess.
However, I don’t need to be in the locker room to speak to the issues Everton had with Burnley’s adoption of a deep line.
Burnley’s defensive shape meant Niasse could not as easily drag defenders away from the middle — the Clarets were already playing so deep that dragging them even closer to their own goal wasn’t feasible, and their bunkering central midfielders had the central channel covered completely.
The result? A passmap that looks like this.
This map covers the period between the 21st and 63rd minutes, that is, the period between Burnley’s goal and Everton’s first substitution and subsequent change of shape.
Note the number of passes that go across the backline, either between center-backs or from the center-back to full-back / full-back to center-back. The Toffees were able to easily possess given the lack of high pressure from Burnley, but their two blocks of four prevented any real attacking momentum from building in the center of the pitch.
Everton out-possessed Burnley 70/30 in the second half, but with nowhere dangerous to move the ball, the Clarets were ultimately pretty happy with that.
The result is the other major characteristic of this passmap — lots of hopeful long balls forward. Six-foot-three Burnley center-back James Tarkowski was only too happy with that development though, easily managing the danger of Everton aerial balls alongside defense partner Ben Mee.
And so it went, pretty blandly, until the 63rd minute. Koeman brought on Wayne Rooney for Morgan Schneiderlin, and shortly thereafter Tom Davies for Nikola Vlasic, changing his team’s shape.
Koeman elected to completely forgo any semblance of width, instead opting to put three of his most creative players in the center of the pitch ahead of Idrissa Gueye and hope for the best.
The team passmap from this portion of the match (from after the first sub until the end of the game) actually reflects pretty kindly on the switch — perhaps more kindly than it deserves.
Once again, it was Gylfi Sigurdsson getting involved in everything the Toffees did right. He created four chances in the final half hour, to go along with three in the opening 20 minutes.
In the 40 minutes between, when he was forced to play more as a true winger, he completely only 10 of 16 passes, 0 of 4 crosses, created zero chances, and had zero shots on goal.
Gylfi Sigurdsson has to play in the middle of the pitch. Period. End of discussion.
Continued misuse of the Icelandic superstar is only going to drive the team’s attack further into the ground. Everton will not consistently score goals while he is isolated on the left wing.
Of course, Everton didn’t score during this period either, and that is largely because Koeman’s tactics played right into Burnley’s hands.
Bunkering teams love when their opponents play narrow. Putting the five most advanced players all within 20 yards of each other makes life exceedingly easy for teams looking to defend this way.
Let’s take a quick look at the tactics board to talk about this problem.
Let’s start with the basics — if we assume Everton’s front five, plus the full-backs, get into the attack, there are seven players going forward. We know Burnley is defending deep in two blocks of four, so there are more defensive players than attacking ones.
The attackers have to do something special to make a play, because they will always be outnumbered. So let’s see what the problem is for Everton in its current setup.
Let’s assume Sigurdsson has the ball in this situation. Because Everton has only one wide player on each side, Burnley’s wide midfielders are free to come to the inside to help out with covering central attackers.
From the Everton perspective, there just isn’t enough room to operate for a few of the central players. Both 3 and 5 are stuck between several Burnley defenders, but don’t really have anywhere to go — and Gylfi doesn’t have an obvious passing option. Now, let’s reimagine this situation, but with Sigurdsson at the 10, and Rooney and Davies replaced by true wingers.
Just a slight re-positioning of the Everton attackers opens up way more space for Everton and creates tough decisions for the Burnley defenders.
With true wingers out wide, the two strikers both have a lot more room to run into — both because their teammates aren’t blocking the way and the wide defenders and opposing midfielders have to stay wide to respect the Everton width.
If the wide Burnley midfielders over-commit to the outside, the full-backs or wingers can cut into the space at the corners of the box and look to whip a shot or cross in, but can also continue to stay out wide if the strikers have space in the middle.
Unfortunately for Everton, Koeman never opted to throw true width on the pitch. Ademola Lookman sat on the bench for the full 90, while Kevin Mirallas and Aaron Lennon waited who-knows-where for the match to be over.
There are, then, two important lessons to be learned from this match.
- Gylfi Sigurdsson needs to play in the middle — no qualms, no hesitation, no questions. The Toffees lack creativity, and the Icelander has plenty to offer. Koeman needs only to let his best playmaker make plays.
- Everton needs to use its wide players. I can’t believe I’m stating this like it’s not excessively obvious, but here we are. Teams with world-class creative and striking talent can get away with playing five or six central attacking players, pass the ball between them, and rely solely for width. Everton does not have that level of talent.
So yes, Koeman made a change against Burnley, and brought something that the team needed into the match — a little extra pace and direct play. But until he brings these two things into the picture as well, things are only going to get worse.