Everything revolved around Romelu Lukaku — was he signing a new contract? Turning it down? Does he require Champions League football? What in the world is his agent trying to do?
It was a fitting turn of events, then, that Lukaku was at the center of everything that went right for Everton on Saturday. In the midst of a generally drab performance by the Toffees, Lukaku made a few simple, key plays that helped put and keep his team in the league.
Let’s start by looking at the team as a whole, then focus on Lukaku’s contributions.
Idrissa Gueye returned to the lineup after being replaced by Gareth Barry last week against West Bromwich Albion. Dominic Calvert-Lewin replaced Kevin Mirallas on the left wing.
Out wide, the Everton gameplan looked much like it always does. Ross Barkley and Calvert-Lewin spent much of the match cutting inside, opening space for Leighton Baines and Seamus Coleman to get into the attack. This has become the staple of the Koeman 4-3-3 in 2017.
Before looking more closely at Lukaku, let’s briefly focus on the Everton central midfield three, which has been pretty variable since Morgan Schneiderlin arrived from Manchester United.
I was a little surprised that Gareth Barry didn’t feature from the start in this one, as he did against West Brom last week. Hull City brought a similar challenge to the Baggies, namely a defensive-minded team playing a very deep line. Instead though, it was Schneiderlin alone at the base of the midfield three, with Davies in a very free No. 10 role and Gueye in a roving box-to-box role.
Davies definitely utilized that free role to get all over the pitch — both in the space behind Lukaku and the spaces out wide often vacated by the wingers. Check out his passing map from the match, courtesy of FourFourTwo.com.
This is a pretty standard passmap for Davies when he plays in the advanced midfield role. His overall pass completion percentage (75%) isn’t going to wow you, but he’ll pick one or two very important passes in that time that probably leads to a great chance or goal.
But, that means that the Toffees have to rely on their two less advanced midfielders to get the ball forward into the attacking third. Last week, that pair was Schneiderlin and Barry, who did an excellent job of keeping the Toffees moving in possession.
It was for this reason that I was surprised Gueye entered the fray in Barry’s place, as the same requirement was going to exist against Hull City. Obviously, Schneiderlin’s injury brought Barry into the match regardless, at which point neither player was particularly effective in getting the ball forward.
Their passmaps are below.
Barry did manage to play a couple of balls forward into the box, but also missed on nearly half of his attempted passes into the final third. Gueye, on the other hand, was the square pass king, playing the majority of his passes either sideways or backwards. In his few attempts at breaking Hull’s line, he was largely unsuccessful.
Ultimately, these struggles caused what we saw for the middle hour of Saturday’s victory. Everton was able to keep possession without too much of a struggle, but converting that possession into chances frequently proved challenging.
When that’s the case, a team needs its attacking players to come up with one or two moments of brilliance to shake the midfield mediocrity — bringing me back to Romelu Lukaku.
In the midst of the Belgian’s best goal-scoring season ever, the less glamorous parts of his game have been largely ignored, but they helped Everton jump out to an early lead and double the scoring against Hull City. His contributions to Everton’s first two goals, so simple at first glance, truly exemplify his transformation into a complete striker.
Let’s start by looking at the match’s opening goal.
The play starts innocuously enough — Barkley receives a pass from Gueye in the midfield and dribbles forward into the space available in front of Hull’s very deep midfield block. Davies, correctly reading the play, slides out to the right wing to compensate for Barkley’s inside run.
There’s no lane for Barkley to really go anywhere at the moment though. In the past, Lukaku probably would have made the predictable run — try to split the center-backs and hope for a ball over the top from Barkley. Instead, the Belgian moves in the opposite direction.
Look at Lukaku’s body language as he steps forward — I genuinely don’t think he even expects the ball to come to his feet. He’s simply stepping into the space between the lines to draw Hull’s left-back out of position and create space for Davies down the right.
It’s such a subtle move, but it completely opens up the Everton attack. Davies does extraordinarily well to hold his run until Barkley plays the perfect pass — the rest is history.
Lukaku was a bit more involved on the second goal.
This play starts in a similar fashion to the last one. An Everton player is carrying the ball through space, looking for a passing option. In the past, Lukaku would have tried to exploit the space between the center-backs and get in behind the Hull defense. That wouldn’t be a bad run, but it would force a difficult pass from Enner Valencia, who isn’t exactly a world-renowned playmaker.
Instead, much like on the first goal, Lukaku instead pulls into the space in front of the back four and draws all the attention to himself.
The moment Valencia plays the ball to Lukaku’s feet, three Hull City defenders start to move toward Lukaku with absolutely no concern for the Ecuadorian striker. Because the Belgian is such a dangerous goalscorer, as he clearly showed on Everton’s third and fourth goals, defenders have to respect the possibility that he could turn a defender or have a go at any time.
So, when he pulls into spaces between the midfield and defense, he is going to draw defenders with him 9 times out of 10 (and on the 10th time, he’s probably going to get an open shot and score!). In this case, he plays an inch-perfect ball for Valencia, who does well to control the pass and calmly double the Toffees’ lead.
The 4-0 final scoreline was flattering to Everton on Saturday. Ronald Koeman’s men were listless in attack for large portions of the match, though his defense deserves credit for allowing very little from the Tigers’ attack.
Bad performances are going to happen from time to time — and the injury to Schneiderlin certainly didn’t help what was already a deteriorating performance at the time of his departure — but world-class players make plays that pull their teams through matches like this one.
Romelu Lukaku is a world-class player.