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Everton’s tactical fluidity not enough to defeat Middlesbrough

The Toffees continued to display tactical flexibility, but some problems still persist.

Middlesbrough v Everton - Premier League
Ronald Koeman looks cold and sad, just like we all felt on Saturday.
Photo by Jan Kruger/Getty Images

Under Ronald Koeman’s guidance, Everton has found a run of good form over the last two months. The Dutchman has tinkered with both formations and personnel in that time, sending out sides that defeated Arsenal, thrashed Manchester City 4-0, and scored six goals against Bournemouth.

Three different sets of players in three different tactical setups were behind those important victories, reflecting a growing sense of flexibility and depth in Koeman’s team.

In that same time though, the Toffees lost to relegation-threatened Leicester City in the FA Cup, needed a very late winner to earn three points against 19th-place Crystal Palace, and now toiled to a 0-0 draw against Middlesbrough, another relegation-threatened side.

In this week’s match against Middlesbrough in particular, Everton’s tactical fluidity was on display. The Toffees had several players filling multiple roles depending on the situation in the match — and none of the players looked particularly out of place in anything they were asked to do. Despite the result, that’s a huge asset to have going forward.

But, this match also points to a less complimentary conclusion as well — one that’s been building up throughout this positive period. The Toffees have the players and tactical acumen to respond to challenges presented by the opposition, but still have moments of weakness when forced to take the match to an opponent — particularly a defense-first club.

Let’s take a look at this match to get a closer look, beginning with Everton’s starting lineup from the match.

There were no major surprises, with Idrissa Gueye replacing James McCarthy, and the rest of the lineup the same from the 6-3 victory over Bournemouth.

Describing Everton’s lineup as a 4-3-3 is the most straightforward option, and for chunks of the match, the team did look pretty similar to what you see above. But, there were very clear instructions to alter the formation in long spells of attack and defense.

In attack, things shifted to something more akin to a 3-4-3.

Morgan Schneiderlin dropped deep between the two center-backs, while Seamus Coleman and Leighton Baines bombed forward. This created a faux back-three during the Toffees’ advanced spells.

The full-backs got forward so far that they more closely resembled wide midfielders, or even out-and-out wingers at times. They filled the wide spaces while Ross Barkley and Ademola Lookman pinched inside to interplay with Romelu Lukaku.

Tom Davies and Gueye sat in the center of midfield, recycling possession and spreading the ball out wide.

You might suspect that Everton would be susceptible to the counter when attacking in this fashion, but ‘Boro actually created very few chances in this way during the first half, when Everton had the lion’s share of possession in the attacking third. Schneiderlin filled the defensive role capably, and the full-backs managed to get back into defensive positions in a reasonable timeframe.

Of course, not turning the ball over in dangerous areas played a big part in that success as well.

When Everton was forced to defend for longer spells, as was often the case in the second half, the team switched to a clear 4-4-1-1.

Barkley and Lookman dropped into clear wide-midfield roles, with Schneiderlin and Gueye filling out the midfield block of four. Davies sat higher, playing just off Lukaku and giving the Belgian a player to link with during the transition from defense to attack.

One of Everton’s problems when playing in a one-striker system has been the isolation of Lukaku in the center of the pitch when not in possession — using Davies as a faux second striker represents a possible solution to the issue going forward.

The Toffees’ two blocks of four kept a toothless Middlesbrough attack from creating many quality chances on Saturday — Joel Robles was forced into only three saves.

This was Everton’s setup for basically the entire match; Koeman used all three of his substitutions, but never wavered from this 4-3-3 / 3-4-3 / 4-4-1-1 hybrid. In the first half, the setup was very successful and Everton won the possession battle 57-43. The second half was significantly more complicated, in large part due to a simple change from Middlesbrough.

After sitting very deep in defense in the first half, ‘Boro pushed their defense and midfield lines up 10-15 yards, making Everton work harder to get into dangerous areas. Everton has struggled when teams apply pressure in the center of midfield all season, regardless of what setup the Toffees use.

The result was a substantial difference in pass success between the first and second half. (Graphics from

Everton’s passing percentage dropped substantially in the second half, and the Toffees created only one chance, as opposed to the three generated in the first half. In the first half, Everton completed a ton of passes in the area where the middle and defensive thirds meet, largely because Middlesbrough simply wasn’t pressuring Everton in those spaces.

In the second half, those passes were no longer available, forcing the Toffees to play more hopeful long balls toward Lukaku and the wingers.

Even in the first half, when Everton could get into the final third, there were almost no passes completed within the 18-yard-box.

These graphics reflect the continued truth of two points I’ve been harping on for most of the season.

  1. Everton, at times, struggles to work its way out of the back in the face of moderate pressure in the midfield.
  2. Everton, more often than not, struggles to turn possession into quality chances due to its lack of a true playmaker in both the center of midfield and out wide.

Koeman and his many formations have been able to solve teams that come at him with specific gameplans (i.e., possession, pressing, cross-heavy, etc.), but against teams that sit deep defensively or apply moderate pressure in the midfield, his players struggle to cope with the two problems noted above.

Though this is a little deflating, I can’t say I’m surprised or particularly upset by it. The ability to win matches like Saturday’s are what separate the top-tier teams from the mid-table ones. Everton is close to breaking through into that top level, but Koeman and co. are still one or two players short of hitting that mark, admirable as his tactical nous may be.