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Koeman’s defensive tactical changes were actually successful against Tottenham

Everton lined up in an unconventional 4-2-2-2 against Spurs, leading to both expected and unexpected outcomes.

Tottenham Hotspur v Everton - Premier League
Ronald Koeman had a plan to handle Mauricio Pochettino’s top playmakers, but his team’s execution was poor.
Photo by Dan Mullan/Getty Images

Despite Everton’s excellent start to 2017, the club’s predominately cushy schedule through January and February left some doubt as to what this team’s ceiling is for the rest of the season. Sunday’s match against Tottenham Hotspur represented a true litmus test for the Toffees — can they legitimately make a top-six or top-four push this season, or are they simply stuck as “the best of the rest” for this season?

After a match filled with tactical tweaks, excessive errors in execution, and a constant sense of being second-best, the latter has been made unfortunately clear.

Things should be far from doom and gloom though, as the Toffees still nearly nicked a result from an incredibly difficult match! However, a closer look at the intricacies of the match do reveal that both Ronald Koeman and Everton have a little further to go before they can reach their goals.

Let’s start by looking first at Tottenham’s setup, as it dictated Koeman’s lineup choices to a significant degree.

As has frequently been the case in recent weeks, Spurs lined up in 5-2-2-1 or a 3-4-2-1, depending on how you want to look at full-backs Ben Davies and Kyle Walker. This is an attractive setup to Mauricio Pochettino for a number of reasons that may be familar to Everton supporters.

Spurs have very dangerous attacking full-backs in Walker and Danny Rose, but lack particularly effective attacking wing players — so utilizing the full-backs as the team’s true wide players makes a lot of sense. Rose is out injured currently, so Davies fills in on the left. Their three center-backs all move well, a must-have for any team playing with a three-man backline, not to mention Vertonghen’s experience playing as an out-and-out left-back for both club and country.

The biggest advantage to this setup is up front though, where the ever-dangerous Dele Alli and Christian Eriksen can make plays behind Harry Kane. Eriksen has spent some time in a wide position this year, but is definitely at his best in a more central role. In the 3-4-2-1, he and Alli are both afforded this privilege, while Moussa Dembele and Victor Wanyama marshall the rest of the midfield.

With the dangerous duo of Dele and Eriksen lurking, Koeman changed his side pretty substantially on Sunday.

Koeman elected to go with a very clear 4-2-2-2, a significant deviation from what we’ve seen in recent weeks from the Dutchman. The only personnel change from last week’s win against Sunderland was the introduction of Gareth Barry in the place of Ademola Lookman, but as you’d expect given the differences between those two players, this was accompanied by a significant switch in system.

The choice to play in this system came with a very clear goal in mind — stop Alli and Eriksen from having a substantial impact in the middle of the Spurs attacking third. Barry and Schneiderlin were tasked with marshalling the area just in front of the back four, where those two dangerous players look to operate.

Koeman, Barry, and Schneiderlin essentially met this goal.

Take a look at the passmaps of both Alli and Eriksen, courtesy of

Don’t let Alli’s assist (the yellow pass on his map) fool you — that came on Kane’s second goal, shortly after Joel Robles’ bewildering pass out of the back. There’s no fault to be placed on the central midfielders for failing to track him on that play, given that the keeper essentially passed him directly through Everton’s backline.

Outside of that, the pair had only one key pass between them, which was actually the only pass either even completed inside Everton’s defensive box.

The result was that the Toffees, despite pretty evidently being outplayed, didn’t give up a ton of quality chances, and those that they did were largely caused by errors related to execution, rather than tactics.

  • Barry and Gueye probably should have closed Kane down on Spurs’ first goal more quickly, but the shot should have been stopped by Joel.
  • Joel passed his team into trouble ahead of the second goal, which he may as well have simply punted into his own net.
  • Half of Everton’s players completely fell asleep on Tottenham’s third goal, what should have been a harmless late set piece.

It’s tempting to see the Toffees uncharacteristically give up three goals, recognize the change in system, and blame Koeman for those shortcomings. But a closer look at the way his players limited the impact of Spurs’ key players, and the ridiculous nature of Tottenham’s goals, largely vindicates the Dutch manager.

However, these moves also completely stifled Everton’s attack for 60+ minutes, making it incredibly difficult to bounce back from the early error that put Spurs in front.

With Davies and Gueye playing as Everton’s “wide” midfielders, obviously Seamus Coleman and Leighton Baines were going to be the only players who could give the Toffees any attacking width.

However, a team has got to be able to move the ball into the attacking third to effectively get full-backs into the attack — and Everton simply couldn’t beat the Spurs press to do so.

The Toffees spent far too much of this match trying to pass through Tottenham’s high pressure, something that they couldn’t manage to do for most of the game. This led them to passes in the middle third that looked like this.

There’s a ton of successful backwards and sideways passes here, but not much success moving the ball forward — though it certainly wasn’t for a misguided lack of trying. Eventually, Everton moved to a more long ball-focused approach to bypass the midfield logjam.

In a vacuum, this was the right move. As part of the high-pressing plan, Spurs often adopted a very high backline, something that Romelu Lukaku has the speed and strength to beat if approached correctly. However, his partner up top, Ross Barkley, was the wrong candidate to assist in that effort.

Lukaku’s strike partner needed either to be a strong, target forward who could win the aerial battles and work the ball to the Belgian, or a speedster who Lukaku could try to play through after winning the ball himself. Instead, he had Barkley, a player who has a fair amount of both skills, but not an overwhelming amount of either.

The result was a lot of unsuccessful long balls...

...and a failure to regularly complete passes in the final third.

The Toffees caught a bit of luck when one of the few passes to Lukaku in a decent area let to a slip from Vertonghen and set the Belgian striker through on goal. From that point forward, the match was a mad scramble, rather than a continued tactical battle.

The short assessment of Koeman’s afternoon then, is this:

  • His plan to adopt a defensive-minded structure actually worked pretty well. Had Joel had a better day, we easily could have found ourselves complementing Koeman for utilizing a system that got his team a 0-0 or 1-1 draw.
  • His players tried too hard to pass through Spurs’ high press, something that was never going to work out. Whether or not this was his direction, or just the natural course the match and the players took, especially in the first half, is unclear. So, we’ll give him a pass on this one.
  • His choice of a partner for Lukaku, however, does fall solely on the Dutchman’s shoulders. Barkley does not have the speed or strength to play in a long-ball first gameplan, and with Ademola Lookman and Kevin Mirallas both on the bench, there are questions to be asked about that decision.