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David Unsworth failed to learn from Ronald Koeman’s mistakes

The interim manager proved why he should only be that — interim.

Leicester City v Everton - Premier League Photo by Shaun Botterill/Getty Images

Well, you didn’t genuinely expect the optimism to last, did you?

After a decent performance against Chelsea on Wednesday, Everton took a big step backwards, losing 2-0 to Leicester City in a deserved defeat. It was a miserable, hard to watch performance.

The match should have felt all too familiar, as it once again featured a manager who completely wrecked his team’s chance to succeed. Of course, this time it was David Unsworth’s mistakes, not Ronald Koeman’s, earning the headlines.

In the aftermath of this match, I saw some online reframing the narrative surrounding the Toffees, focusing on the players the club failed to bring in, rather than the mismanagement of those who are currently on Merseyside — perhaps the most notable among them was former Everton keeper Neville Southall:

There may well be a conversation worth having around this point, but the reality is that it isn’t going to matter until January anyway. The Toffees have the players who they have for now, and need to improve results — and quickly.

Before we take a look at what went wrong in this match, then, we need to take a look at what the composition of this Everton squad is, and what its manager needs to do to puts its players in a position to succeed. In the shortest possible terms, here’s how I see it:

  • Everton’s defense, overall, is decent. Jordan Pickford has been solid since signing, Phil Jagielka is in the midst of a resurgence, and Michael Keane has been decent when paired with Jagielka. Right-back remains a problem spot until Seamus Coleman returns, as does depth at all positions.
  • The center of midfield is Everton’s strength. Idrissa Gana Gueye and Morgan Schneiderlin are both proven high-level contributors in the Premier League. Tom Davies is a useful, promising player who can contribute as well. Beni Baningime’s development has also added some more depth here. Gylfi Sigurdsson is the obvious choice to play ahead of the defensive midfielders as the No. 10.
  • At wing, Everton has a few useful, if not spectacular players. Aaron Lennon and Kevin Mirallas are capable of doing a job out wide in the Premier League — they aren’t game changers, but they can consistently provide width and pace to the side. Ademola Lookman and Nikola Vlasic represent solid and promising depth here.
  • Up front, things get messy. None of Oumar Niasse, Dominic Calvert-Lewin, Wayne Rooney, or Sandro Ramirez are capable of taking a match over themselves. They need a fair bit of help from the players around them to score goals.

With that in mind, any successful Everton lineup should consist of all of the following:

A True No. 6

When we talk about central midfielders, they are usually described using one of three numbers — a 10, an 8, or a 6. The 10, as you probably know, is the attacking midfielder — the playmaker, if you will. The 8 is a box-to-box midfielder, doing lots of running, breaking up plays in the midfield, and occasionally getting into the attack as well. In Everton terms, think of an 8 as Idrissa Gueye.

That brings us to the 6 — the deep-lying central midfielder, who sits just in front of the backline. The No. 6 has two separate, but important jobs. First, he’s the last player separating opposing attackers from the defense. It’s imperative that he sits deep and breaks up opposing attacks that get past the other central midfielders — even if that means taking a tactical yellow card sometimes (see: Barry, Gareth).

Often more importantly for Everton though, the 6 is responsible for moving the ball forward from defense to attack. When the defense wins the ball, they look to the 6, who must be an excellent passer. It’s his job to pick out wingers, the 10, or the striker, depending on who is available and what system the team is playing in.

Because the Toffees don’t have wingers capable of consistently carrying the ball up the field, nor a striker who can easily win the ball in the air or get in behind, the 6 is imperative for the attack. Without a deep-lying midfield player capable of picking passes forward in transition, Everton will never get out of his defensive third.

Morgan Schneiderlin is the obvious choice at this position, but Beni Baningime has recently shown well at this spot too.

Two Actual Wingers

Even if Everton’s wingers don’t have the world’s greatest technical ability or end product, their mere presence on the pitch completely shifts the way teams have to defend the Toffees.

When Kevin Mirallas and Aaron Lennon are on the field, they occupy wide spaces and, with their pace, opposing defenders always have to respect their ability to get in behind the backline. This spreading of the defense creates space for the 6 to move the ball in the middle and defensive thirds.

In the final third, their ability to get in behind or take full-backs on 1-v-1 creates space for the striker to make runs (absolutely crucial given the relative lack of talent at that position) and for the 10 to pick passes out to the striker, wingers, or full-backs.

Without true wide players, the attack winds up narrow, predictable, and easy to defend.

A No. 10 — or something close to it

Having wide players available doesn’t do much good if there’s nobody around to pass it to them. Without any single attacking threat capable of occupying defenders and creating space for his teammates, Everton has to have a solid playmaker just in behind the striker.

Gylfi Sigurdsson is the obvious option here, though Wayne Rooney has done a better-than-expected job at picking passes from creative midfield positions as well.

All of this is a (very) long way of saying Everton doesn’t have the talent to get cute tactically. To succeed, the Toffees must utilize their best players in their best positions in a straightforward style of play.

I can’t believe I’m having to state something that should be so evident when working with a struggling team, but here we are. Ronald Koeman failed to do it, and it’s the biggest reason he’s now out of a job.

David Unsworth failed to learn from those mistakes, and it is probably going to cost him a chance at replacing the Dutchman full-time. The lineup he selected, for whatever reason, was the following.

Unsworth handed consecutive starts to Aaron Lennon and Kevin Mirallas out wide, filling one of the three criteria mentioned above. However, he introduced several less pleasant surprises, all down the center of the pitch.

Michael Keane missed out on the match after suffering an infection in a cut on his foot, so Unsworth was forced into using Phil Jagielka and Ashley Williams in the center of defense once again — through no fault of his own.

In the center of midfield though, things really fell apart. Instead of utilizing one of his two true 6s, Unsworth elected to play Idrissa Gueye and Tom Davies as his holding midfielders — two box-to-box players.

This duo simply isn’t capable of picking the important forward passes that could move the Toffees into dangerous positions in the final third. Check out their passmaps from the first half, courtesy of

Their passing accuracy in the half was uncharacteristically good, but largely because they didn’t really attempt any passes into the final third. Gana and Davies recycled possession well, but in the absence of the ability to move the ball forward, the Everton attack was stuck in neutral for most of the first half.

The result? Wayne Rooney dropping very deep to try to facilitate forward motion.

Take a look at his heatmap and passmap from the first half.

Rooney had moments of getting into dangerous areas, but too much of his half was spent around the center circle, trying to keep Davies or Gana from having to do too much.

Ultimately, this created a disjointed Everton attack — one where the striker and wingers were extremely isolated from the midfield.

In fairness to Rooney, when he did get into dangerous positions, he managed to create two dangerous chances by sending Lennon in behind the Leicester defense down the right. In one instance, Lennon passed across the box to Dominic Calvert-Lewin, who whiffed on his shot; in the other, Lennon was taken down on what should have been an obvious penalty.

Those kind of chances came far too infrequently though — with the shortcomings obviously related to Unsworth’s decision to forgo the criteria I mentioned above. He played with true wingers, which created the few chances the team did have, but with no 6 and only a marginal 10, the Toffees were always going to struggle.

So, Unsworth gets a 1.5 out of 3 in the first half on the AB15 managerial rating scale (patent pending).

Unsworth didn’t wait to make changes after an indifferent first half, which I suppose I should praise him for. But, after making those changes, he was left with the following lineup, so you’ll have to pardon me for not throwing him a parade.

Unsy gets a point from me for introducing an actual 6 into his lineup — though I feel I should dock points for going with Beni Baningime when Morgan Schneiderlin was available on the bench.

However, any semblance of progress goes right out the window with the premature exit of Mirallas and Lennon, leaving his team absolutely no attacking width. The result was a cluster of not-attacking-inclined players in the midfield, full-backs trying to bomb forward to cover for the lack of width, and two strikers starved for service.

Or, in fewer words, this passmap:

There are a few key points here. First, note the activity of the center-backs. Kenny whipped in a ton of crosses (which didn’t work out well for Everton, because Calvert-Lewin and Niasse were never going to out-jump Wes Morgan and Harry McGuire), while Baines barely got to the endline at all.

Both come as a result of the full-backs having no one out wide to interplay with. Kenny has the pace to get in behind and get on the ball, but with no winger around, he had no choice but to cross directly into the box after receiving it — whereas in the first half he could work the ball with Lennon.

Baines doesn’t have the raw pace to get behind defenders, and instead relies on quick interplay with wingers to create space for him near the endline. No winger and no space meant no real impact from the left-back.

With Leicester facing no real concern in the wide areas, they were free to clog up the central channel to their hearts’ content. Recall that this is a team that won a title two years ago by bunkering and countering — and imagine their joy at being handed such an easy bunkering assignment, given their aptitude at handling such situations.

Everton v Arsenal - Premier League Photo by Tony Marshall/Getty Images

With the match at 2-0, the Foxes would have been happy to hold out for another half hour against a narrow Everton attack — it’s what they do best.

Unsworth brought on Sigurdsson in the final 15 minutes, but there was just no space in which he could operate in the face of Leicester’s deep-lying defense. By that point, the damage was already done.

Unsworth’s second half also earns a 1.5 out of 3 on the AB15 managerial rating scale (patent pending). Bringing on a 6 was the right move (even if it was the wrong one), but it was all undone by taking off both wingers. The Toffees never had a chance after that.

It’s hard to see David Unsworth’s campaign to take over Everton full-time becoming a success after this match. He faces a tough trip to France and a must-win match against Lyon on Thursday, followed by a match against overachieving Watford on Sunday.

He’d have to win both of those matches to really stake a claim to a permanent position, and it’s just too difficult to see that happen. He had to win this one to have a real chance at the job.

I’ve spent a lot of time since the match on Sunday trying to figure out exactly what the hell he was even trying to do. I think Unsworth is a pretty bright guy, but the choices he made both in his starting lineup and his substitutions just didn’t make any sense, and likely cost him a chance at his dream job.

After much considerations, I’ve come up with two possible explanations.

  • Unsworth was looking to bring back a certain “Everton-ness” to his side, trying to use players who came through the academy or have spent a fair bit of time with the club to win this match. I think a fair bit of ambition comes along with this theory as well. Perhaps he thought, “Boy, if I can get a win with this ‘Everton-y’ side, I’ll really look like I know this club better than anybody, and it can help me get the job.”
  • Unsworth preferred to go with players he knows well in key positions, rather than players who might have been a better fit tactically. Davies and Beningime, who he worked with at the U23 level, were both preferred to Schneiderlin, a relative unknown to Unsworth. Rooney, who Unsworth played with at Everton, was preferred to Sigurdsson, another player Unsworth has worked with very little.

At the end of the day, the interim manager’s thinking doesn’t really matter. He made poor personnel and tactical decisions, proving he’s not yet fit for the full-time manager’s role. The hope for Everton Football Club now must be that he can learn from these mistakes and a more ideal long-term candidate can be identified and recruited.