Everton’s 3-0 win over West Brom was a breath of fresh air. Instead of playing down to their opponents, the Toffees were incisive in attack, solid in defense, and rarely lacked control. In stats nerd terms, it looked something like this:
xG map for Everton - WBA. Hey, remember when West Brom's super cool new attack was the hip story of the season? pic.twitter.com/xPu3FA06s9— Caley Graphics (@Caley_graphics) March 12, 2017
Here on RBM, Adam Braun’s post-game tactical analysis singled out Gareth Barry’s inclusion as a key factor in Everton’s success, and I’m inclined to agree. I’ve been rather rough on Barry in this space over the last year or so, mainly due to his age and declining mobility, and my frustration at Everton’s annual failure to recruit a true replacement.
While it’s true that Barry tends to be outpaced and overrun by the league’s more mobile sides, he is both comfortable and effective in less frenetic matches in which Everton control the flow of play, primarily for the reasons Adam highlighted in his piece: ability to keep possession, ability to pick a pass from deep (especially when not pressured), and keen positional awareness.
The interesting wrinkle is that Everton’s golden signing and fan favorite Idrissa Gueye is not so good at those three things. He’s effective at other things—for example, chasing and hassling and harrying all who enter his realm—but he’s not particularly creative from a deep role and, most importantly, his positioning is often crap.
Paul Riley has been beating his drum for a little while, and I must admit I’m a bit torn about it. I really really like Gueye for the same reasons most fans do: he’s full of effort and energy, he’s good in transition, and he’s often a one-man wrecking crew in breaking up opposition attacks. Unfortunately he’s also often a one-man wrecking crew in terms of ruining his own team’s organization.
Almost like we're a better side without the headless chicken charging around fvcking the shape up #efc— Paul Riley (@footballfactman) March 11, 2017
One of these days I’m going to put some clips together to illustrate this but I think we’ve all seen it: Gana goes on one of his runabouts and misses a tackle, and all of the sudden the whole midfield is completely disorganized and there’s a gaping hole in a dangerous area, leaving one of the center backs exposed. If there’s anything we know about our center backs, it’s that they’re not so good one-on-one.
Anyway, my current thinking on all of this is that against a team like West Brom, Koeman got it spot on. Barry is exactly the sort of player you want along side Morgan Schneiderlin in that particular scenario. This brings me, finally, to Hull.
Hull City are pretty bad: 18th in shot differential, 18th in shot on target differential, bottom three in xG differential depending on your model. They also sit incredibly deep. According to Objective Football, no team in the Premier League spends more time in their own third, both with and without the ball. Similarly, no team spends less time in the attacking third.
Riley noted this back in December, saying this:
Hull pass the ball around the back like an elite team. The numbers surpass even those of Manchester City, Manchester United, Arsenal, Tottenham, Chelsea and Liverpool...Hull pass the ball out from the back like a relegation team. The team cannot get the ball out of its own half and keep possession.
Later when he developed his expected passing model to assess difficulty and execution of passes. Here was Hull’s result:
The only four Hull players who consistently attempt passes that are above average in difficulty are two center backs, a left back, and a right back. Here’s an example of what that looks like in terms of passing networks:
We see lots of movement up the flanks (in this case, mostly one flank), zero connection to the striker, zero sense of anyone fulfilling a central attacking midfielder role. Tom Huddlestone at least seemed to connect with Kamil Grosicki a little bit but it’s far from enough to carry the team. It’s worth noting that Hull still created more than Swansea and won the game, but that was more down to late heroics from Oumar Niasse (ha!) than sustained pressure. Before their first goal in the 69th minute, they created almost nothing.
Matching up with Everton
Before their December meeting, I wrote some of the same things I did above, namely that Hull were stuck in their own end and that they were generally a bad team whom Everton should beat. Of course then Everton could only muster an ugly 2-2 draw. There is some reason to think this time will be different around, however. Firstly, Koeman seems to have figured some midfield issues out since then. The lineup in that match included Gueye, Barry, and Ross Barkley, and Everton had difficulty creating through the middle. Now, the Tom Davies/Barkley combo has alleviated at least some of that, and the Barry/Gueye midfield 2 has been abandoned. Secondly, Hull’s second goal was a trademark Robert Snodgrass free kick; he was probably Hull’s best attacker and he’s since been sold to West Ham.
All of this leads me to think that Koeman should stick with the exact same lineup and tactics that beat West Brom last week. Both teams sit quite deep with men behind the ball, and similar attacking approaches are required. It is worth noting that Hull’s buildup play is quite different from Albion’s - WBA are direct and play lots of long balls, whereas Hull, as we’ve discussed, play at a slow tempo and like to pass around the back aimlessly. I think, though, that Barry and Schneiderlin can deal with the long ball game, and Everton again could do without Gueye’s “headless chicken” routine.
The last thing I’ll note is that like any other team staring down the barrel of relegation, Hull should have no problem motivating for this one. With Everton chasing an outside shot at Europe, hopefully they won’t either.