If you missed Everton’s match against West Bromwich Albion on Boxing Day because you were too busy getting a root canal, don’t fret! Your dental unpleasantness perfectly replicated the experience of watching what was, in name alone, a football match on Tuesday.
Sam Allardyce has gotten off to an excellent start at Everton, helping the club to victories against beatable sides and impressive draws against Liverpool and Chelsea. But, his setup against WBA was ineffective, and the Toffees struggled as a result.
Before I dig too deeply into what went wrong on Tuesday, I do have to briefly mention the factors going against Big Sam in this match — namely, the absence of key players.
In addition to the long-term absences of Leighton Baines and Seamus Coleman, Idrissa Gana Gueye and Wayne Rooney were both missing as well, through a hamstring problem and illness, respectively.
That put big holes in Everton’s preferred backline and midfield — Big Sam is accustomed to the former, but hadn’t yet had to deal with the latter. In an effort to combat those absences, and presumably to rotate his squad a bit in the midst of the holiday period fixture congestion, Allardyce chose the following lineup.
The best news of the day, by far, was the return of Yannick Bolasie to the starting XI after a year off the pitch. The Congolese attacker looked lively, if not a tad rusty, playing in an advanced role alongside Dominic Calvert-Lewin.
Morgan Schneiderlin anchored the midfield, playing just behind Tom Davies and Gylfi Sigurdsson.
To review the 5-3-2 used by Allardyce in this match, I’d like to look at three things — what went wrong (the first half), what went really wrong (the second half), and where to go from here (applicability of the setup going forward).
What Went Wrong
I have to imagine that this lineup was Allardyce’s response to not having two of his preferred central midfielders available.
- With Gana out, Everton was missing its best ball-winner — to compensate, Big Sam went to five at the back to solidify his defense.
- With Rooney out, Everton was missing one of its best creative players — to compensate, Big Sam pulled Gylfi Sigurdsson into the midfield.
On their own, those were moves that made at least some sense, but when combined, they caused problems in attack for Everton. Those problems were, at least in part, caused by a third problem as well.
Sigurdsson was put into the midfield to help facilitate movement from defense into attack, but his role as a left-central midfielder in a midfield three didn’t really allow him to have a big enough impact on the match. In an ideal world, the setup would have looked more like the following.
Allowing Gylfi to operate in front of Schneiderlin and Davies would have given him the license to find space between the West Brom defense and midfield lines, given Schneiderlin, Davies, and the full-backs passing targets when moving the ball forward.
But, Big Sam clearly didn’t trust Tom Davies in a deep-lying role — a decision I completely agree with. But the cost of the additional defensive stability was a somewhat crippled attack.
So, the attack often became a simple one — launch the ball forward to Calvert-Lewin, let him win it down to Bolasie, and let Yala do Yala things on the ball to create for Calvert-Lewin or hold the ball up until other Toffees got into the attack.
It wasn’t pretty, but it gave Bolasie a chance to shine in his return, and occasionally created half chances for Everton.
What Went Really Wrong
Around the 60th minute, Allardyce made two substitutions. He brought on Aaron Lennon for Bolasie and Oumar Niasse for Calvert-Lewin.
It made sense for both of those players to go out, as Bolasie just returned from injury and DCL has played a ton of minutes this season. But Lennon and Niasse couldn’t replicate the skill of Bolasie or the size of Calvert-Lewin — no one on the Everton bench had that ability.
So, if the Toffees were to have any success after those changes, there needed to be a change in system as well.
...and there was not.
Everton continued to struggle to create significant possession in the midfield, and now had no aerial target to hoof the ball to, nor a superior 1-v-1 player to create something out of nothing.
The result was a half hour of utter sadness against an eminently beatable side.
Where To Go From Here
The initial reaction, I think, is to dismiss the 5-3-2 entirely after such a dismal performance against a struggling opponent. I’m not entirely sure that’s wise, though.
The 5-3-2 should be hidden away in a drawer until the squad gets healthier, but imagine the following setup.
With healthy first-choice full-backs, this setup gets a dose of much-needed danger down the flanks — something it missed dearly on Tuesday. The return of Idrissa Gueye to the midfield frees up Sigurdsson to play a freer role, a role that could also be filled by Wayne Rooney.
Bolasie looked lively in a striker’s role up top, and could be dangerous chasing long balls, combining with Calvert-Lewin, or working through more traditional build-up play with Sigurdsson, Leighton Baines, and Schneiderlin.
I’m not suggesting this should be the go-to setup when those players return, but it is positively an option when that time comes.
All that said, the 5-3-2 was an abject failure on Tuesday against West Brom, and despite the notable absences from the Everton lineup, Big Sam still needs to shoulder the majority of the blame for this lackluster performance.
The issues his lineup presented were predictable, and his substitutions only served to exacerbate those problems. Hopefully, he’ll have learned from these lessons when Everton travel to Bournemouth on Saturday,