Everton’s switch to a 5-3-2 in January sparked a substantial uptick in form, with wins against Southampton, Manchester City, and Crystal Palace leading to a perfect Premier League month for the Toffees.
As you’d expect, Ronald Koeman sent out his side in the same formation that brought so much success last month, using this lineup:
Morgan Schneiderlin took the place of Gareth Barry in the center of midfield, but the team was otherwise unchanged from the Crystal Palace match. Kevin Mirallas lined up alongside/behind Romelu Lukaku, with Tom Davies and Ross Barkley partnering in the center of midfield ahead of Schneiderlin.
The biggest strength of the 5-3-2 was that, at least against January’s opponents, it masked three of Everton’s biggest weaknesses:
- The team struggles to pass its way out of the back when under pressure.
- The team lacks an ideal creative central midfielder.
- The team hasn’t had a consistent, game-changing attacking wide player since Yannick Bolasie got hurt.
Unfortunately for Everton, each of these problems reappeared against Stoke City on Wednesday. Through solid goalkeeping, the strong play of Schneiderlin, and a little bit of luck, the Toffees earned a deserved point at the Bet365 Stadium — but to take more from matches like these, Everton needs improvement in these areas.
Let’s go through each problem individually and see where things went wrong Wednesday.
Dealing with pressure out of the back
Of the three problems Everton has dealt with this season, I’m least concerned about this one — a quick look at the trends of the match makes this clear. In reality, this was only a problem for the opening 10 minutes of the match. Of course, that was enough to put the Toffees behind early.
Take a look at Everton’s passing map from the opening 10 minutes of the match, courtesy of FourFourTwo.com.
Yikes! That is very, very bad.
In this system, it is the responsibility of the deep-lying midfielder to receive the ball from the defenders or other midfielders and pick the forward passes that transition the team from the defensive to middle third.
Let’s see then — how much did Schneiderlin get the ball in the opening 10 minutes?
The Frenchman received three passes in the opening 10 minutes. In the eight other 10-minute increments of the match, he received no fewer than six passes! So, it’s no wonder Everton was out-possessed 80-20 in the first 10 minutes of the match.
Once he started receiving the ball regularly, Everton began to turn the possession battle in their favor, keeping the ball more regularly. Schneiderlin was at the heart of that.
He completed 70 of 74 passes (94.6%), easily the best percentage on the team for the day. There aren’t a ton of incisive, attacking passes in this bunch, but he did a good job of switching the field and moving the ball from defense to attack.
If Schneiderlin can continue to fill this role as he did for the final 80 minutes, Everton will be fine in this sense going forward. I’m honestly not sure what went wrong in the early going — was he not targeted? In the wrong position? Not yet comfortable in the match?
At the end of the day, the cause doesn’t really matter — he got things sorted out and appears to be prepared to be Everton’s all-important deep-lying midfielder going forward.
Creating chances through the center of the pitch
For the majority of the season, the Toffees have struggled to generate dangerous attacks through the center of the pitch. It started with the use of Ross Barkley as a true No. 10, which he decidedly is not at this stage of his career.
Barkley’s struggles early in the season were as much Koeman’s fault as his own, as putting the Englishman in that position sets the player and the team up for failure — and goodness was there plenty of that.
The most recent solution to the problem — and one that came about as much by necessity as by design — was to put Tom Davies alongside Barkley in the midfield and Kevin Mirallas alongside Lukaku at the top of the formation. Adding two more players to the central attacking areas means the opposing defense cannot simply swarm the ball when an Everton player gets possession in the center of the final third.
Davies has taken the majority of the playmaking burden from Barkley since entering the lineup, as I discussed during last week’s analysis after the 1-0 victory over Crystal Palace. Barkley’s role last week was as more of a possession recycler than a chance creator, a role perhaps better suited for the 23-year-old.
This week, neither player really excelled in either role, as their passmaps make clear (only Barkley’s first half is displayed below, as he moved out to the wing in the second half).
Barkley’s possession retention was decent, but he was forced backward far too frequently. Davies did his best to create chances, but didn’t have a ton of success either, outside of his feed to Ademola Lookman that nearly led to a second-half goal.
In all, Everton’s chance creation map is pretty unimpressive — take a look at all Everton’s created chances, courtesy of EvertonFC.com.
There’s nine chances created on this map, though it doesn’t include the play that ultimately led to Everton’s goal, so I’m inclined to say the Toffees created 10 chances against Stoke. However, only four of those (counting Seamus Coleman’s “assist”) wound up in the box. Only two came from the center of the final third (one of which was from Lukaku, whose chance is hidden behind Barkley’s in the center).
Again, this combination has worked in the past, so this isn’t a “sky is falling” moment, but it is something to keep an eye on going forward.
Lack of quality wingers
This problem is ultimately one of the major reason Koeman moved to a 5-3-2 in the first place — since Bolasie got hurt, there’s been no consistently high-quality wingers in the side. Going to three center-backs and pushing Seamus Coleman and Leighton Baines higher up the field creates at least a temporary respite from that problem.
This has been particularly impactful on Coleman, who is at times the fulcrum of the Everton attack. When in the 5-3-2, the side often looks more like the following in attack:
Coleman shoots way up the right wing, playing almost as an out-and-out winger at times. The center-backs cheat to the right to compensate for his absence, while Baines doesn’t get quite as involved in the attack, in order to keep some semblance of defensive stability.
It has created an often-imbalanced attack, but that on its own isn’t a significant problem. They’ve created chances regardless, and used Baines and Barkley on the left in advantageous moments, so I’m not too concerned about that development.
But, with Stoke consistently targeting Mason Holgate and his team struggling to create chances, Koeman felt it was necessary to make a change. He brought in James McCarthy for Holgate, changing the team’s setup to this:
With Barkley and Mirallas playing out wide up front, Coleman and Baines were relegated to a more defensive role alongside the two remaining center-backs.
You would hope that with two attacking players dedicated to utilizing the wide space, the Toffees would find some joy out there, but it just didn’t pan out that way. Barkley is clearly not a wide player, and Mirallas’ continued success in the center of the park seems to indicate he’s not a wide-first player either, so instead we saw two players look somewhat uncomfortable in their roles.
The result was a lack of consistent contribution from those areas, as Everton’s second-half heatmap shows.
The Toffees didn’t consistently get into those deeper wide areas like they did in the first half, and the result was a reduction in chances created. Everton created six chances in the first half, but only four in the second.
If Koeman doesn’t figure out a solution to this problem when playing in the 4-3-3, sticking with that formation isn’t going to be viable, regardless of what his defenders and midfielders are doing in the 5-3-2.
To be clear, this wasn’t a dreadful performance or an incomprehensible tactical showing. Rather, it reflected what Everton ultimately is, has been, and will be for the rest of this season — a talented, but still flawed team that is probably better than most teams in the Premier League, but not quite ready to jump into the elite level.