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How can Everton overcome injury woes?

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Ronald Koeman needs to figure out how to replace one of his most important players.

Republic of Ireland v Wales - FIFA 2018 World Cup Qualifier Photo by Ian Walton/Getty Images

You would suspect, at least at first glance, that an attack built largely around a right-back would be destined to fail. Any team looking to a defender to be a primary playmaker is going to struggle, right?

Not when that defender is Seamus Coleman. Much of Everton’s success in 2017 has come because the Irish right-back creates such match-up and tactical headaches for the opposition. The resurgence of Ross Barkley, the golden-boot performances of Romelu Lukaku, and the seamless insertion of Morgan Schneiderlin are all directly related to what Coleman brings to Everton.

And now, crushingly, the Toffees will be without him for the foreseeable future.

The Irish skipper’s good form, along with many other positive factors over the last three months, has propelled Everton into a position where a top-six finish is a real possibility, but to get there, Ronald Koeman is going to have to figure out and implement a new solution quickly.

We all know that Coleman provides significant thrust to the Everton attack while remaining defensively competent, but what exactly has he done in 2017 that’s been so crucial?

His biggest contribution has been helping Ross Barkley back into good form. The English attacker’s return to success has coincided with his appearance on Everton’s right wing, where Coleman usually provides the most width. With the full-back flying forward and drawing defenders out wide, Barkley has found space, and success, in the right-central channel.

Koeman’s long-term solution at right-back must be able to replicate or replace this success; but in the short term, the Dutch manager has to get through next week, which includes trips to Anfield against Liverpool and Old Trafford against Manchester United.

So, considerations for Everton’s lineup without Coleman must be broken into two categories:

  1. Next week’s matches against Liverpool and Manchester United, in which the Toffees will likely be missing Morgan Schneiderlin, Ramiro Funes Mori, James McCarthy as well.
  2. The rest of the season following those matches. It is likely that Schneiderlin and McCarthy will be back by then, and the level of the opposition will be significantly lower, giving Koeman more flexibility.

Let’s start by looking at Koeman’s two main options for the next two matches first.

4-3-3

The most simple, and I think most likely solution for next week’s matches is to bring Mason Holgate in for Coleman and Gareth Barry in for Schneiderlin. Koeman has been reluctant to change formations until after something has already stopped working, and I think he’ll be particularly hesitant to move Ross Barkley and Tom Davies from the positions where they are currently doing so well.

The reality is that the Toffees are probably going to defend pretty deep in both of these matches, given the level of the opposition and the injuries the team currently faces. So, Barry won’t have to do too much running, and can leave that to Idrissa Gueye and Tom Davies ahead of him.

On the right, Holgate won’t be able to get forward as well as Coleman can, but that isn’t really a huge loss for these matches.

Koeman surely would have loved the idea of getting the Irish full-back to harass the less-than-stellar left-backs at Liverpool and United, but because Everton needs to adopt such a deep defensive posture, Coleman probably wouldn’t have been able to get forward anyway.

This setup does leave Everton a little exposed in the wide areas ahead of the deep-lying back four, as well as leaves the potential for Lukaku to get isolated up top. Personally, I’d choose the following option.

4-4-1-1

Instead, Koeman could go with a 4-4-1-1, with Gueye alongside Barry in the midfield, and Barkley and Davies as the “wide” midfielders. Koeman used a system similar to this against Tottenham Hotspur earlier this month.

The idea here, in defense, is to get two compact blocks of four in front of Joel, helping to compensate for the loss of Coleman and Schneiderlin. In attack, the goal is to bypassing playing through the midfield as much as possible, especially against Liverpool’s high press.

Instead, Everton would look to use the passing ability of Davies, Barry, and Barkley to pick out long balls to utilize the strength of Lukaku and the speed of Enner Valencia or Dominic Calvert-Lewin. It won’t be a pretty gameplan, but it may well be effective against a Liverpool backline that lacks the speed to handle well-placed balls over the top.


Those two lineups are the most likely for next week’s matches, but after those, Everton will get Schneiderlin and McCarthy back and see the quality of the opposition dip significantly.

Let’s take a quick look at some options for filling Coleman’s absence for the remainder of the season — and yes, some of them involve Aaron Lennon.

Standard 4-3-3

Pro:

  • Avoids the need for more upheaval in terms of system and tactics.

Cons:

  • Relies heavily on full-backs to provide width, and Holgate may not be up to the challenge in that regard.
  • Similarly, Barkley’s recent success has relied on having an attack-minded full-back to combine with. I don’t think Holgate can give him that — and the last thing Everton can afford is Barkley to take another dip in form.

4-3-3 with Barry and Schneiderlin

Pros:

  • The presence of two true holding midfielders allows Davies freedom in the final third.
  • Schneiderlin is shaded to the right and can provide defensive support for the young Holgate.
  • Having three good passers in the center of midfield may help to offset the loss of Coleman’s creative ability.

Cons

  • The need for an attack-minded right-back remains.
  • Teams with speed through the midfield may be able to use their pace to beat Barry and Schneiderlin in front of the Everton back four.

4-3-3 with Lennon at right-back

Oh yes, now the experimenting truly begins!

Pros:

  • Lennon has the ability to get forward and support Barkley in the wide spaces down the right.
  • Schneiderlin can still provide defensive support for the right-back.

Cons:

  • Can Lennon actually defend enough to play right-back in a back-four? There’s certainly plenty of reasonable doubt there, which brings me to the next two ideas...

Important Note

The lineups below were created before Ramiro Funes Mori picked up an injury on international duty over the weekend. I seriously doubt that Koeman would want to go to a five-man backline on such short notice, against two quality teams, so his injury probably won’t impact much against Liverpool and United.

But, I’ve included him below because he’d be an obvious inclusion in a five-man backline. If his injury is serious, and he has to miss significant time, the viability of a five-man backline is substantially dented. Asking the less-than-mobile Jagielka to play on the outside of a back three is already a stretch — asking him to shift over to the left side as a right-footed player seems an even worse idea.

Holgate could come in at right-center after moving the skipper, in theory, but I don’t know if Koeman would be willing to take that big a leap of faith.

All that said, I’m going to assume for now that Funes Mori won’t miss much time, and include him in the lineup projections past next week. If it turns out he won’t be available past that, then these will need to be revisited.

5-3-2

Pros:

  • Allows Lennon (and Baines) to get forward much more freely, and eases their defensive duties.
  • Allows Everton to optimally utilize full-backs while maintaining a three-man central midfield.

Cons:

  • If the full-backs get pinned back, any semblance of width disappears.
  • Lukaku could very easily get isolated alone up top.
  • Takes Barkley out of his position on the right wing, where he has had so much success.

We can eliminate the cons of this system with a few tweaks, though it gives us something even more experimental...

5-2-3

Pros:

  • Creates a full-back / Barkley partnership down the right without sacrificing defensive stability.
  • Reduces the likelihood that Lukaku becomes isolated up top.

Cons:

  • Gives Davies a substantial amount of defensive responsibility, rather than the attacking freedom he’s accustomed to.
  • Leaves the Toffees at risk of being overrun in the midfield.

5-2-3 with Davies in attack

Pros:

  • Gives Davies attacking freedom.
  • Barkley / full-back partnership remains intact.

Cons:

  • The possibility of being overrun in the midfield remains.

One closing thought — the reality is that we won’t see just one of these formations for the majority of Everton’s remaining matches. Coleman is an integral part of what Everton does, and replacing him is going to require something different on a match-to-match basis.

If Koeman is wise, he’ll utilize a few of these options, depending on the quality and style of the competition. He cannot replace Seamus Coleman — but he can lessen the blow of his injury by intelligently compensating for his loss.