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Has Everton turned a tactical corner?

Big Sam’s first match in charge brought a coherent plan, and three points with it.

Everton v Huddersfield Town - Premier League Photo by Jan Kruger/Getty Images

For most of the season, I’ve insisted that Everton needs to actively make three tactical decisions in order to find success. Those were:

  1. Play two true wingers
  2. Use Gylfi Sigurdsson as a central attacking midfielder between those wingers
  3. Utilize a true No. 6 (deep-lying, distributing midfielder) to manage transition from defense to attack.

And yet here we are, with the Toffees looking at six points from the last two matches, despite having done none of those three things.

What happened?

To take a closer look, I’m going to focus on Saturday’s Huddersfield Town match and basically ignore that Wednesday’s 4-0 victory over West Ham United ever happened. Reasons for this include:

  • David Unsworth is no longer managing Everton
  • West Ham is utterly atrocious
  • Wayne Rooney was playing about four different positions in that match, and that’s not a recipe for long-term, sustainable success.

Let’s take a closer look at what went right against Huddersfield then, starting with Sam Allardyce’s first Everton lineup.

“But wait!” I hear you say, “Big Sam used the same lineup as Unsworth did against West Ham!”

And, dear reader, you’d be right about that to a substantial extent. Allardyce trotted out the same 11 players in the same basic positions as Unsworth did on Wednesday — but Allardyce had a clear plan for those players, whereas Unsworth’s plan was to let Wayne Rooney run around a lot and hope for the best.

Allow me to double back to the three points I opened with — because although Sam didn’t directly meet any of the criteria, his setup absolutely address the underlying issues related to all three points. Those were:

  1. Play two true wingers
  2. Use Gylfi Sigurdsson as a central attacking midfielder between those wingers
  3. Utilize a true No. 6 (deep-lying, distributing midfielder) to manage transition from defense to attack.

Let’s take a look at numbers one and two in tandem, because in Everton’s tactical system against Huddersfield, these were inexorably linked. My rationale for wanting Everton to utilize two true wingers is relatively simple — a player with pace and ability on the ball on either wing keeps the opposing defense spread, allowing space for Sigurdsson to operate in the center of the pitch.

With Sigurdsson out wide, things obviously cannot happen that cleanly, but there was a definite plan in place to let the Icelander use his strengths to the fullest.

Everton attacked pretty exclusively down the right side, utilizing its one true winger, Aaron Lennon, and it’s best available attacking full-back, Jonjoe Kenny. Tom Davies, as the right-sided central midfielder, also looked to contribute to the attack on the right wing.

52% of Everton’s possession in the Huddersfield defensive third came in the right channel, with the remainder of the possession split evenly between the left and central channels — so make no mistake, this was a very intentional development.

With that in mind, take a look at how the Everton lineup often looked in practice, especially in the attack.

Lennon, Kenny, and Davies looked to overload Huddersfield on the right, drawing defenders in, whipping crosses in to Dominic Calvert-Lewin, or pulling the ball back to Sigurdsson or Rooney in the center of midfield.

Note that because possession was so focused on the right side, Sigurdsson was able to pull into the central channel at will, rather than being forced to pull wide left to create width for his teammates.

Take a look at his heatmap and passing map from this match (courtesy of

Yes, things are a little tilted to the left, particularly in the defensive third. But for the most part, his actions and placement are much closer to those of a No. 10 than a winger.

In no instance was this tactical plan more clear than on Gylfi’s goal.

The play starts when Aaron Lennon receives a pass from Idrissa Gueye down the right wing.

The two Everton players on top of each other are Calvert-Lewin and Davies, with Sigurdsson acting as the trailer — look at how he’s already on the right half of the field.

Because Lennon represents a legitimate on-ball threat, Huddersfield is forced to leave two defenders out wide to handle him (and neither does a particularly good job, at that).

Once Lennon beats the first man, there’s too much movement in the box for Huddersfield to handle.

Davies occupies one of the central defenders, creating space for Lennon to play the ball into Calvert-Lewin. Sigurdsson, making a run from a deeper space on the right into the box on the left, isn’t properly tracked by the Huddersfield midfield or defense.

Gylfi is at his most comfortable in the middle, and he understands how to find and utilize space. He needs only a moment of uncertainty from the opposing defense to get himself open, and the gorgeous layoff from DCL puts him through on goal. One confident finish later, Everton is up 1-0.

So, Allardyce didn’t use two true wingers, or use Sigurdsson as a central creative midfielder — but he allowed the play of his one true winger (and others) to create an opportunity for Sigurdsson to often play as a No. 10. It isn’t necessarily perfect, nor the long-term answer, especially when Yannick Bolasie returns from injury.

But, it made sense, his players seemed clear on how to execute, and it put his best players in positions to do what they do best.

With those points covered, let’s take a look at how Big Sam addressed my third key point, utilize a true No. 6 (deep-lying, distributing midfielder) to manage transition from defense to attack.

One of the biggest problems Everton has faced this season is an inability to move the ball forward once winning it in defensive positions. There have been a lot of factors that have contributed to this issue, some of which include:

  • Refusal to use true wingers limits options to outlet to in transition
  • Morgan Schneiderlin’s poor form
  • Managerial decision to hoof the ball long at every opportunity, rather than ever trying to keep possession.

But, even without using a true No. 6, Everton managed to solidify its transition game through the use of several players in specifically defined roles.

That starts with Idrissa Gueye, who played as the deepest of the three midfielders. Now, just because he’s the deepest of the central midfielders does not make him a No. 6, at least not as I’m choosing to define it.

A true No. 6 is a player who will serve as the midfield hub, receiving the ball from defenders and other midfielders and finding the difficult forward pass to wingers or attackers in order to progress the game forward.

That just isn’t Gana’s game, though. He’s gotten much better in possession this season, but he’s still not the guy you want pinging balls forward to spring the attack. Take a look at his passmap from the match.

There are some forward passes, both completed and failed, but his role is primarily to keep possession when Everton is on the ball, rather than to try to advance the play. That role fell more to Wayne Rooney, whose passmap is below.

You can see that a fair number of those forward passes failed, but the intent behind his usage is pretty clear. Rooney dropped quite deep at times to find the ball and work it forward — something that I’m still not sure is a sustainable model for success.

The third central midfielder was Tom Davies, whose role was a little more nebulous. Take a look at the youngster’s passmap.

There’s very little from a possession-keeping or ball-advancing perspective here. Instead, he tended to drift forward down the right to create a third option for combining along with Lennon and Kenny.

He was ineffective for large spells of the match, but as I pointed out earlier, his run on the first goal helped to create space for DCL and Gylfi to operate.

Allardyce does have another option in terms of a central midfield trio. He could utilize Morgan Schneiderlin as the deepest of the three (and a true No. 6), with Gana and Rooney ahead of him. Gana could, more responsibly and intelligently, fill the role that Davies did in this match, while Rooney continues to do what Rooney does.

Big Sam did just that when he brought the Frenchman on for Davies in the 66th minute, and it helped to earn Everton a second goal. Gana, in a more advanced position, had the freedom to chase down a loose Huddersfield touch. He won the ball, which went to Rooney, who made a lovely pass through to Calvert-Lewin on the break.

That strategy does have its potential problems though. Has Schneiderlin turned a corner? Can he cover enough ground as a lone deep-lying midfielder? Can Gana be trusted to pick the right spots to press? Can Rooney provide enough defensively in front of a less athletic deep-lying midfielder?

I’m not sure what the answers to any of these questions are, but Allardyce will need to figure it out over the course of the next week.

In the interim though, Big Sam found a moderately successful setup that worked against an inferior opponent — something Everton has often struggled to do this season.

He may have to get creative with Liverpool and the Merseyside Derby approaching next weekend, but for now, he’s made me relatively confident that he’s at least got some idea how to handle Everton Football Club.