Let’s start with a disclaimer: I still like Gareth Barry a lot. He’s not a week-to-week starter, and he’s not getting any younger, but he’s still definitely a useful player to have.
Last week, I used this space to defend his inclusion in Everton’s 3-2 loss to Tottenham Hotspur. You can read that analysis at your leisure, but the gist of it was this — Ronald Koeman brought Barry into the lineup to help limit the effectiveness of Christian Eriksen and Dele Alli — and that was a successful gambit.
Everton’s opponent this week, Tony Pulis’ West Bromwich Albion, could not be more different than the Spurs side the Toffees faced last week. After facing Tottenham’s high press and high defensive line, the Baggies’ park-the-bus mentality was a complete 180.
Pulis’ tactics are well known. His teams adopt a very deep starting position, defend in numbers, and look to strike their opponents on the counter attack and from set pieces.
With those tactics in mind, Ronald Koeman sent out the following lineup.
There were only two personnel changes from the Spurs match (Kevin Mirallas for Idrissa Gueye and Phil Jagielka for Ramiro Funes Mori), but it was accompanied by a significant change in setup.
The front three were similar to what we’ve seen in most matches in 2017. Romelu Lukaku lined up with Ross Barkley and another attacker behind him as faux wingers, cutting inside to combine with the Belgian and create space for the full-backs to bomb forward.
In defense, Jagielka’s insertion for Funes Mori meants Ashley Williams slid over to the left center-back positions. Credit to the Welsh defender, who has been shuffled between left-center in a back four, right-center in a back four, and center in a back three with no discernible drop off.
The midfield is where the interesting stuff happened, and that brings me back to Gareth Barry. He partnered with Morgan Schneiderlin in the deep-lying midfield roles, with Tom Davies playing in a much higher position than we’ve seen for most of the season.
Barry’s inclusion was a smart move by Koeman, who foresaw the issues that Pulis-coached teams tend to pose, and used the experienced Englishman to handle them expertly.
Let’s take a look at four things Barry, along with Schneiderlin, needed to do against Pulis’ bus-parking, deep-defending, counter-attacking club.
- Keep possession, particularly in dangerous areas
It’s not a secret that West Brom looks to hurt its opposition on the counter attack and on set pieces. To be successful against them, you must not lose possession cheaply in dangerous midfield areas.
This is particularly important for Everton, which has its full-backs get high up the field during buildups out of the back. If Barry or Schneiderlin turn the ball over in the holding midfield areas, West Brom’s attackers would find only the Everton center-backs between themselves and goal — exactly what Pulis wants to see happen.
Barry and Schneiderlin are the team’s two most reliable passers in the center of midfield (at least when not under pressure, which was the case Saturday), and they kept the team safe from these potential dangers. Take a look at their passmaps, courtesy of FourFourTwo.com.
Both players had a few failed passes, but they were largely up the pitch or out wide, where the danger following a turnover is significantly less substantial. According to FourFourTwo, neither player had an error leading to a West Brom shot.
- Complete passes into dangerous areas from deep positions.
I’ve frequently documented Everton’s lack of a true No. 10 player this season, and that absence tends to be most evident against defensively sound teams like the Baggies.
To counteract that gap, the Toffees need to do two things — use width to spread the opponent’s backline (thanks Seamus Coleman!) and have their deep-lying midfielders pick out a few key passes to create chances. FourFourTwo says that the pair combined for three key passes (two from Barry and one from Schneiderlin), but I cannot help but feel that they missed one...
Oh right, the one that led directly to Everton’s second goal.
I’d be interested to see what leads stats sites to define a pass as a “key pass” or “chance created,” but there’s little doubt that Barry’s inch perfect pass here created a chance for Everton.
This chance brings me to the third thing needed from Everton’s central midfielders on Saturday.
- Get forward at the right time
Because West Brom gets so many numbers into defense, it was imperative that Barry and Schneiderlin occasionally sneak into the attack to tip the odds in their team’s favor. They couldn’t do this too often, at risk of disrupting the offensive flow and putting the team at risk of conceding a counter attack, but it was needed from time to time.
You can see Schneiderlin running to get into the attack in the GIF above. If you watched the match, you surely know that Lukaku eventually managed to get the ball to the Frenchman, who displayed a lovely bit of skill before doubling the Toffees’ advantage.
Schneiderlin put up 11 goals in three seasons at Southampton, so we know he’s capable of this kind of play from time to time. Surely though, Gueye would be better for getting into the attack than Barry?
If the team was striking on the counter, that would be the case. But, in a stationary offense, Barry’s experience and cerebral ability make him at least comparable to the Senegalese midfielder. Don’t forget that it was Barry who created Everton’s first real chance of the match.
It wasn’t necessarily pretty, but Barry got the ball into the space ahead of Lukaku, who could easily have picked the corner on this chance. At the very least, Barry and Schneiderlin kept the Baggies on their toes without conceding a dangerous chance on the counter.
- Give Tom Davies the freedom to roam
Against a compact opponent, it is important for the team’s attacking players to have freedom to move throughout the attacking third, unsettling defenders. The front three constantly have license to do so, but in past matches, Davies at times has not.
When Gueye is in the match, he has the ability to use his speed and strength to roam forward, meaning that Davies must stay central and be aware of his defensive responsibilities. With Barry and Schneiderlin stationed behind him though, Davies had the freedom to do as he wished in the attack.
His heatmap, courtesy of EvertonFC.com, reflects this.
It should come as no surprise then, that Davies was in three different places in the buildup on Everton’s three goals.
Davies finds himself in the right channel, left channel, and central channel on the three goals, drawing the attention of defenders away from the ball carrier or his target. It didn’t lead to a whole lot of individual glory for him on the day, but it was an important role, and one he was allowed to play because of the defensive and positional soundness of Barry and Schneiderlin.
Barry’s inclusion in this match made a lot of sense for the four points above, but there is one more thing that needs mentioning. Barry can only be effective if he doesn’t have to cover a ton of ground defensively or pass through an opponent’s high press.
The Englishman has proven to be incapable of doing both at this stage of his career, and Koeman would be making a grave error if he tried to trot Barry out in a match where he’d have to do either. However, this type of match is perfect for him, and allows Koeman to give Gueye a rest.
With Europa League play next season looking more and more likely, Barry’s ability to play this role in certain matches will continue to be key to the club’s overall success.