Often, the craziest matches are the hardest to analyze from a tactical perspective. If a match goes from 3-0 to 3-2 to 6-3, it was probably a story of individual excellence, poor defense, and and waves of momentum.
Everton’s 6-3 victory over Bournemouth featured all of these, but also a tactical wrinkle so simple that to focus on it feels nearly rudimentary. But, the dichotomy between Everton’s good periods and bad periods in this match points to a very simple conclusion — the Toffees’ success against the Cherries was largely a story of Everton’s midfield pressure (and at times its total absence).
Let’s start by taking a look at Everton’s starting lineup from the match, because it changed from most of what we saw in January.
Everton utilized a 4-3-3 with Ross Barkley at right wing and Ademola Lookman at left wing. James McCarthy, Morgan Schneiderlin, and Gareth Barry comprised the somewhat eclectic central midfield trio.
McCarthy played in what you might think of as the No. 10 role, but he filled it as more of an advanced stopper. Behind him, Schneiderlin also wreaked havoc among the Bournemouth midfielders, forcing turnovers and not allowing the Cherries to make any easy forward passes.
Within the first 30 seconds of the match, the pressure from these two players paid off.
After a forward pass from Ashley Williams went astray, Bournemouth’s defense tried to pass forward to a teammate in the midfield. Within moments, McCarthy and Schneiderlin are swarming, with Barry not far behind. The Toffees win the 50-50 ball, as they did with most in the first half.
Schneiderlin makes a simple tackle/interception/pass that finds its way to Romelu Lukaku. He and McCarthy play a pretty give-and-go, and the Belgian striker is through on goal. It’s a lovely finish from Lukaku, but the buildup is surprisingly simple.
This has been a regular feature of a successful Everton side this season. The Toffees struggle to break down teams that are defensively compact, so they often try to press opposing defenders and midfielders into mistakes while transitioning from defense to attack. If you can win the ball in this area, you are generally close to goal with the defending team out of position at the back.
In this case, Everton needed only two relatively straightforward passes to break down the Cherries after a turnover. This tends to be a little tougher against better teams, but the idea remains the same.
It was the pressing of Lookman and Lukaku that forced the Bournemouth mistake that led to the third goal, emphasizing the importance of a concerted team effort when it comes to trying to force the opposition into mistakes in its defensive third. If every midfielder and attacker steps up together, it can be very difficult to break out of — as we saw on Everton’s third goal.
If it isn’t a cohesive effort though, you usually end up with underwhelming performances, like the Toffees put up against Bournemouth in this season’s reverse fixture.
So — you may rightfully wonder — Everton was up 3-0 at halftime and completely dominating the match; what went wrong for 30 minutes in the second half that allowed Bournemouth to make it 3-2?
At the risk of oversimplifying things, the Toffees completely stopped doing what worked for them in the first half.
Everton completely abandoned its midfield pressure, instead sitting far too deep in its own defensive third. This allowed a struggling Bournemouth midfield to finally get a foothold in the match, while inviting pressure onto an at-times suspect backline.
Consider a few comparisons between the first and second half to illustrate this point. First, look at the heatmaps of the central midfielders in the first half compared to the second half, courtesy of EvertonFC.com.
Obviously in the first half (first graphic), Everton’s central midfield trio had more possession of the ball, but that isn’t the most important difference between the halves. Possession is always ideal when you’ve got a lead, but up 3-0, you’re equally happy to let the other team have the ball 50+ yards from your goal.
Instead though, around half of the possession held by Everton’s central midfielders in the second half (second graphic) was within their own defensive third. This is an indication that Everton was winning the ball deeper in the second half than in the first, meaning Bournemouth was more regularly getting near Everton’s goal.
Next, compare Everton’s defensive plays from the first half to those from the second, courtesy of FourFourTwo.com. Tackles are represented by X, clearances are circles, interceptions are diamonds, and fouls conceded are black triangles.
Again, compare the locations of the team’s activity between the first and second half. In the first half, a fair number of tackles and interceptions came in the middle third. In the second half, barely any did.
Instead, there’s a line of tackles, clearances, and interceptions at the top of the Everton box in the second half, right where the Toffees’ midfielders tended to sit until Bournemouth made it 3-0.
In practice, the deep-lying nature of Everton’s midfield led to plays like this one:
Look at how much space Barry and McCarthy allow the Bournemouth player to have before applying pressure. The Cherries frequently found themselves well into the attacking half before being engaged by an Everton player. On this particular play, Bournemouth took advantage.
Should Ashley Williams and Ramiro Funes Mori have done better? Probably. But, you cannot give players at this level that much time and space to operate.
This change was not only a defensive problem, but also an attacking one. With the midfielders sitting so deep, essentially on top of the defenders, there were very few passing lanes for the Toffees to use once they won the ball from Bournemouth.
The result? Long balls out of the back — and lots of them.
Compare Everton’s long balls in the first half to those played between the start of the second half and the 75th minute.
Everton didn’t hesitate to play a long ball if it was on in the first half (as has been a characteristic of Ronald Koeman’s team for much of the season), but it was an unsuccessful crutch for the opening half hour of the second half.
The Toffees’ long-ball success rate predictably dropped because most of their players were in incredibly defensive positions when the ball was play out of the back. That left Lukaku alone to fight off two or three Cherries at a time. Naturally, he failed more than he succeeded.
That loss of possession gave the ball back to Bournemouth, which easily marched down to Everton’s defensive third, given the lack of pressure from the Toffees in the midfield.
I don’t think Koeman in any way encouraged his players to sit deep in the second half — more likely it was a natural result of thinking the match was already over and the residual effect of an ugly match against Stoke on Wednesday.
To that point, Everton turned things around in spectacular fashion starting around the 75th minute, which culminated in this goal.
It’s no accident that once Everton’s midfielders decided to get to... well... the middle of the field, things shifted drastically back to the Toffees’ favor. The Blues had the better of the midfield battle in the first half while McCarthy, Schneiderlin, and Barry made their presence felt there, and the same was the case with Tom Davies, Barkley, and Schneiderlin once that focus was renewed.
Hopefully, this match will serve as a reminder to the players that this team is capable of some spectacular things when the gameplan is right and the work ethic is there — and that in the absence of those things, the players will fail spectacularly.