I have been very critical of Ronald Koeman this season. Actually — maybe very critical isn’t strong enough of a characterization. Every tactical analysis following a Premier League match this season has included some harsh criticism for the Dutch manager — and yes, even from the victory against Stoke City on opening day, the away draw against Manchester City, and the stunning victory against Bournemouth.
Let it not be said, though, that I’m only full of empty criticism. With the international break upon us, I’d like to put my money where my mouth is, so to speak, and propose five lineups I believe would be a clear improvement over what Koeman has utilized so far this season.
Let’s start with what I think should be the base lineup until Yannick Bolasie and Seamus Coleman return from injury.
Let’s start with the obvious choices and get them out of the way. Phil Jagielka and Michael Keane have been the team’s best center-back pairing, and Leighton Baines is the obvious choice at left-back. Morgan Schneiderlin and Idrissa Gueye are automatic locks into just about any Everton lineup, so they naturally feature here as well.
The rest of the choices are, in one way or another, either more difficult or noteworthy. Until Coleman is back, the right-back situation remains a bit problematic — for now, Cuco Martina and Jonjoe Kenny should rotate at the position. Neither has proven to be defensively sound enough to outright earn the spot so far.
Gylfi Sigurdsson features as the most advanced central midfielder — the position he must play in. Koeman has used the Icelander largely as a faux left wing to this point, and he just hasn’t been able to impact the match out there anywhere near as much as he does in the middle. You’ll notice that Sigurdsson taking up a central role is the hallmark of most of my lineups.
It’s no secret that Everton’s front three is where most of the questions come in. Let’s start in the middle, where either Dominic Calvert-Lewin or Oumar Niasse need to be the starter.
Niasse is a goal poacher inside the 18 — and even though he doesn’t bring a whole lot more in other places on the pitch, the Toffees need the goals he brings. Calvert-Lewin has the pace and size to ask opposing defenses questions, particularly in transition, even if his technical ability still needs work.
Wayne Rooney doesn’t fit in as a lone striker at this stage, at least not as a starter. He’s not got the size or speed to concern opposing defenders, and his touch on the ball isn’t good enough to offset that.
Out wide, we’ve got two actual wingers — another hallmark of most of my setups. Kevin Mirallas brings the best combination of pace, strong buildup play, and finishing among potential left wingers, and Everton needs all three from its wide players. If the Belgian struggled though, I’d love to see Ademola Lookman get a chance here as well.
On the right, I’ve slotted Aaron Lennon in for two main reasons. First, like Mirallas, he’s got pace to stretch the backline and create space for Sigurdsson and the striker in the center of the pitch. Koeman has failed to create that space for his central attackers this season, and they’ve struggled as a result. Second, Lennon is the best defensive winger the Toffees have, and their fill-in full-backs need the defensive help.
Lennon isn’t a long-term starter, but until Coleman comes back, he’s the best option to fill needs on both ends of the pitch.
The Toffees are currently in the Premier League, Europa League, and Carabao Cup, so they need the ability to rotate players in and out of the starting XI. This lineup represents what a second-string squad would look like in a 4-3-3, though it is more likely that a few of the added players would filter into the starting XI at a time.
Ashley Williams comes in for Phil Jagielka at the center of defense — the Welshman hasn’t been good this season, but Jags can’t play twice a week all season, and Mason Holgate is an even worse option. Keane and Baines will remain every-match players, while Kenny and Martina continue to rotate at right-back.
Davy Klaassen, Tom Davies, and Muhamed Besic come into the midfield. Davies has had his bright moments, and we more or less know what Besic brings at this point, but Klaassen is the big question mark. He’ll have to make use of limited opportunities to create a case to break into a talented central midfield trio in the starting XI.
Up front, Niasse and DCL continue to rotate, while Nikola Vlasic and Ademola Lookman fill in the wings. I don’t love having Lookman play in front of Kenny or Martina, but none of the secondary winger options can provide much defensive cover, and the youngster must start getting some playing time.
I don’t expect that the 4-3-3 be the solution to every situation — particularly against high-flying opposition. So, here are two additional lineups that could be used in matches where Everton expects to defend for long periods.
Now, I know what I said about Sigurdsson playing wide before, so hear me out on this one.
In the opening 20 minutes of the Burnley match, Oumar Niasse did a good job of drawing defenders and making runs out wide to the left, creating space for Gylfi in the middle. I’m trusting that the pair can recreate that effect, especially against teams committing extensive numbers forward in order to break down a bunkering Everton side.
Sigurdsson and Lennon are both willing defenders, so when Everton doesn’t have the ball, they’ll drop deep and form two blocks of four in front of Jordan Pickford in the Everton goal. Once the ball is turned over, Lennon’s pace is dangerous on the counter, while Sigurdsson’s passing ability is a huge difference-maker in transition.
The only other spot worth mentioning is up top, where I see Wayne Rooney or DCL filling in alongside Niasse. The choice will really depend on how Everton sees the match going. If Koeman thinks pace over the top on the counter is the best option, DCL is the obvious choice.
However, if another player will be needed to drop deep into the central channel to facilitate quick passing on the counter, Rooney is the guy for that — as he showed against Manchester United earlier this season.
This setup is pretty self-explanatory — rely on wing-backs for width, get as many guys behind the ball as possible in defense, and hope that Gylfi can spring counters to the strikers and attacking wing-backs as possible.
Full Strength 4-3-3
We’ve been led to believe that Seamus Coleman and Yannick Bolasie should be back some time in November — so let’s take a quick look at what an ideal lineup that includes those guys looks like.
It’s a complete restructuring of the right side of the team, with Bolasie coming in at right wing and Coleman in at right-back. The Irishman’s return signals the end of the need for extra defensive help on that side, so Bolasie can safely slot in ahead of him.
At that point, the left wing spot would be essentially up for grabs. If Lennon showed well at right wing prior to the Bolasie/Coleman return, perhaps he could get a look on the left as well. If not, Mirallas and/or Lookman could continue to play in that role.
Is there any hope that Ronald Koeman actually uses any of these lineups? Probably not.
The Dutchman has been incomprehensibly stubborn on a number of factors, and I just can’t see him making changes this substantial. He doesn’t have an outlandishly talented squad, but he’s got a group of players with more than enough talent to show much better than they have been so far this season, if they are used appropriately.
If Koeman does follow this advice, he could well save an Everton season that is teetering on the brink of disaster.
If not, he could be out of a job before Christmas.