With a visit from David Moyes and Sunderland on Saturday, Ronald Koeman’s Toffees faced something they’ve struggled with at times this season — a deep-lying, defensive-minded, bunkering opponent. Most recently, we saw Everton struggle to create quality chances against Middlesbrough, leading the team to a disappointing draw that put fading hopes for a sixth-place finish even further away.
So, Everton supporters could have been forgiven for being a little concerned that a Moyes-coached side might too be able to stifle the Toffees’ attack. Fortunately for Everton though, Koeman’s players were much more effective this week — powering the club to a 2-0 victory over Sunderland.
In particular, Morgan Schneiderlin and Seamus Coleman starred in a convincing home victory for the Toffees. Let’s start by taking a look at the Everton lineup from the win.
On paper at least, Everton lined up in a 4-3-3 — this was the same setup we saw against Boro two weeks ago, and with some of the same tactics in mind. The team’s success came as a result of two factors: reliance upon and successful play from Seamus Coleman, and improved usage of the team’s central midfielders.
The clear weakness of the 4-3-3 presented above is the lack of true attacking wide players — meaning that the full-backs have to get involved in the attack to get true wide play. Against a side packing the defensive box, width is crucial for chance creation.
So, in attack, Everton looked more like the following:
Leighton Baines and Seamus Coleman bombed forward early and often, with Everton’s attack more focused on the right wing. Ross Barkley, playing in front of Coleman, tucked inside to an extent, giving the Irish right-back space to operate, but also a player to interchange with.
It isn’t common for teams to attack primarily through a right-back, but there’s no doubt that Everton did exactly that on Saturday — and not for the first time this season.
Just take a look at how frequently Coleman was targeted in the midfield, courtesy of FourFourTwo.com.
This led to a pretty expansive heatmap (for a right-back in a four-man backline, anyway) from the Irishman (courtesy of EvertonFC.com).
Overall, 43.2% of Everton’s possession in the attacking third was spent in the right channel, compared to 29.2% in the center and 27.6% on the right.
Coleman’s nearby winger, Barkley, spent a fair amount of time on the ball as well, both outside and inside Coleman’s normal position down the right.
The constant movement of these two kept opposing left-back Bryan Oviedo in constant motion and confusion. The Costa Rican was often isolated by his winger and center-backs, giving him no way to prevent attacks on his own.
This was clearly on display in the buildup to Everton’s first goal — where the Toffees put on a clinic on the importance of wide play and quick passing against a bunkering opponent.
When Davies plays this ball forward, Barkley cuts toward the middle, where Oviedo has little help from his center-back. The Costa Rican has to track Barkley’s run toward the middle — vacating the wing, where Coleman is running into space, untracked by Fabio Borini.
With that one pass, Sunderland’s compact back-four is completely dismantled.
Oviedo can’t get out in time to close Coleman down, no one is marking Barkley, and Idrissa Gueye is sneaking in at the top of the box. Coleman picks a perfect pull-back, and Gana smashes it home.
This goal only happens because Coleman has adopted such an advanced starting position — one that allows him to get in behind the Black Cats’ backline after only one solid pass. But that kind of play from a full-back can’t happen in a vacuum; he must be getting support from his central midfielders in order to play that style.
Enter, primarily, Morgan Schneiderlin.
The Frenchman, as I indicated on the lineup above, dropped very deep when Everton was in possession, playing as essentially a third center-back between Ashley Williams and Ramiro Funes Mori. In that position, he had two important roles: maintaining possession and helping out defensively.
With his full-backs so far up the pitch, Schneiderlin and Everton could not afford to give the ball away cheaply, for fear of conceding a very dangerous counter-attack against Jermaine Defoe. Thankfully, his passing was spot-on for the entire match.
He completed 90.6% of his passes, with most of his failed attempts coming in areas where a turnover generated no real danger. His heatmap reflects similar activity — he was sitting deep, but very active.
Defensively, the Frenchman made more than a few key tackles and interceptions in front of Everton’s center-backs, without which Defoe and Co. could easily have gotten in on Joel Robles.
Schneiderlin’s positional awareness, strong passing, and defensive play also allowed Gueye to do what he does best — run around and wreak havoc on the opposition, as his heatmap shows.
He was all over the middle and attacking third, with his most obvious contribution coming on the match’s opening goal. Having license to run around the midfield without having to worry too much about what happens behind him lets the Senegalese midfielder be at his best.
But, he only can have that license when Schneiderlin is so effectively mopping things up behind him.
One final thought on the way this match played out — and what it might mean going forward.
Because Coleman was the focal point of the attack, Tom Davies was largely rendered invisible. Take a look at his passing map, keeping in mind that he was playing the closest thing to a No. 10 position Everton had against Sunderland.
He only attempted 29 passes, a pretty low number for a player who traditionally shoulders a fair amount of his team’s creative burden. It bears mentioning again, obviously, that it was Davies’ pass that sent Coleman through in the buildup to Everton’s first goal — so this isn’t a criticism of his play.
However, it seems that Ronald Koeman may be starting to accept that he doesn’t have a central playmaker he’s comfortable putting a substantial creative burden on at this stage, meaning we could see a Coleman-centric attack more frequently in the coming weeks.
I don’t think that’s a long-term attacking solution, nor do I think Koeman does either. But, against less talented and defense-oriented teams, it may be a reasonable solution to the team’s inability to break down compact blocks of four.