After a disheartening Merseyside Derby, and what felt like a loss at Manchester United midweek, Toffees supporters were understandably anxious heading into a match against a side POSSIBLY distracted (but DEFINITELY in form) Leicester side.
The questions were numerous:
- Would the Foxes lay down easy with a midweek trip to Atletico Madrid awaiting them?
- Has the defending champions separation from the relegation zone since changing managers relaxed the side and let them rediscover their league-winning form?
- How will Everton deal with the loss of their emotional leader Williams, especially without Coleman?
- Who is going to play defence exactly?
- How focused is Lukaku? Will he still show up?
but most importantly.....
WILL MORGAN SCHNEIDERLIN PLAY?!?!?!
Personally, it was the answer to the last question that left me most nervous.
If the Frenchman was in the side, I knew whoever ended up manning the back line would be offered a type of protection even Idrissa Gueye can’t provide.
So when the lineups were announced I, and every other Toffees fan, rejoiced:
It was Schneiderlin’s availability that gave Koeman the confidence to face Leicester blistering counter attack with a center back pairing of Pennington and Jagielka. (Not exactly a pair of burners.)
The Frenchman’s return also meant that Idrissa Gueye and Tom Davies were able to resume their attacking midfield roles with much more limited coverage duties as opposed to when Gareth Barry is the deep man.
This led to Gana having one of his best games of the season.
In the attack, Ross Barkley and Kevin Mirallas were stationed wide of (and underneath) Romelu Lukaku.
This is clearly Koeman’s preferred setup with his current personnel, and the fact that he simply swapped in Mason Holgate and Matthew Pennington for Seamus Coleman and Ashley Williams speaks volumes as to how highly the Everton manager rates the young pair.
Considering the skipper’s credentials, I can imagine Pennington and Holgate are gaining invaluable confidence knowing that he sees something within them.
Speaking of defending, the visiting Foxes shocked absolutely no one with their lineup, with defending Player of the Year Riyad Mahrez starting on the bench with Wednesday’s Champions League match at Atletico in mind.
Other than Mahrez’s absence and Wes Morgan’s injury-induced omission, it was obvious Craig Shakespeare did not want to risk losing the momentum of five straight league wins, and six overall, heading into Wednesday’s match in the Spanish capital.
With the Foxes in their traditional 4-4-2, the Toffees knew they would have a lot of the ball in possession, but would have to stay keenly aware of the counter-attacking threat posed by Vardy, Slimani and Co.
After 90 minutes it was Schneiderlin’s inclusion and Everton’s ability to (eventually) sort out their transition defense that would lead to an exciting 4-2 victory.
With that in mind, let’s take a closer look at how Everton were caught on the counter and how Morgan Schneiderlin resettled the side and brought out the best in Ross and Gana after a tumultuous week.
Before we get into the nuts and bolts of how Morgan Schnedierlin impacted the team, let’s take a minute to appreciate Kevin Mirallas effort on Tom Davies opener :30 into the match.
Mirallas took it upon himself to kick start the Toffees, ripping through the Foxes midfield and drawing a foul, and with the ref correctly playing advantage, saw Tom Davies calmly finish off the move to give the hosts the lead before most fans had settled into their seats.
After the early goal, and controlling the match in the ensuing few minutes, it was poor transition defense by a number of players that saw Everton give up the lead only minutes after their opener.
It begins with Leighton Baines making an under lapping run as Kevin Mirallas receives the ball out wide. Mirallas then cuts inside across both Baines and Tom Davies and looks to combine with Idrissa Gueye.
This draws Schneiderlin, from his position covering for the advanced Baines and Davies on the left, back into the center to cover for Gueye who is now involved in the play after originally sitting deepest to balance the squad and allow Holgate to get forward on the right (more on that later).
(Also note Islam Slimani’s (#19) position)
As Gueye receives he looks to combine with Mirallas, with the Senegalese man keenly aware that a turnover by him would almost certainly spring a counter attack.
Unfortunately for Gana, Mirallas slips and the ball is lost.
Now Everton is in trouble. Schneiderlin has obviously recognized the danger and is moving to close down the ball. You know, since we have six players in front of it!
Gueye is now out of the frame, leaving only Holgate and the center backs (all off screen) deeper than Schneiderlin. So when the Frenchman misses on his sliding tackle, it was obvious the Toffees were stretched.
If you look at Holgate, you will see that he is looking across the field and capable of seeing that after Morgan’s unsuccessful challenge the ball was now behind all three midfielders, AND the left back.
Davies, assuming Kevin Mirallas wasn’t going to slip, had been slow in rotating with Schneiderlin to cover for Gueye’s inclusion and now found himself ten yards behind Slimani.
So what should have happened? Holgate should have taken a yellow for the team right HERE
A hard slide through the ball as he arrived alongside Demari Gray would have at worst ended in a yellow and quelled what was quickly becoming a dangerous counter attack.
Alas, Holgate chose not to foul and the Foxes continued on their break.
Luckily for Everton the numbers were still OK.
Unfortunately, Phil Jagielka made one of his few errors in an otherwise brilliant performance.
As the break happens, Phil stays with Vardy too long (presumably to make sure Pennington was ok) and Slimani sees the chances he is going to have.
(Obviously! He is waving his hands in the air like he just don’t care)
Phil is doubly slow in recovering, however, and once he flips his hips he doesn’t slide to help cut down Slimani’s angle.
Gray realizes this and once Vardy finishes his run across Pennington’s face, Gray does well to engage, and freeze, Jags.
With Davies unable to close down the angle and Phil too far away (and too old) to slide across quickly enough, Slimani found himself 1 v 1 versus Joel and slotted it between the Spaniards legs to tie it up only minutes after Everton had taken the lead.
While it was certainly a frustrating goal, it was a perfect storm of unfortunate (Mirallas slip) events and poor individual decision making that ultimately allowed the Foxes to tie up the match.
Koeman will certainly be annoyed not to have done a better job to deny the visitors such a clear-cut opportunity.
The Foxes second goal was just as avoidable as Matthew Pennington took one too many touches before Jamie Vardy snaked it off him and forced the young Evertonian to foul him.
Drinkwater’s ensuing free kick exposed Joel’s positioning (again) and the Toffees were on their heels. That’s when they really clicked into gear and started to execute their game plan, which was largely unchanged in spite of the aforementioned absence of Williams and Coleman.
Holgate sat high on the right side with Gueye covering the gap (the first goal notwithstanding) and Barkley cutting in and combining with the Lukaku and Gana.
While Gueye and Barkley saw the bulk of the ball, it was due primarily due to Schneiderlin’s reintroduction.
Check out the amount of ground that the Frenchman covered in his 70 minutes.
Schneiderlin’s ability to blanket the back four allows Davies and Gueye to work to create space for Barkley and Mirallas to be dangerous.
Check out Lukaku’s first goal.
It starts out much like Leicester’s counter did, with Mirallas cutting in and Schneiderlin shading left.
Mirallas switches the ball all the way to Holgate, and Schneiderlin works across the field to cover. (This positioning should look familiar).
Holgate slips it back into Gueye who again attacks an advanced central area, trying to find Romelu Lukaku.
This pass is incomplete and is cleared wildly (and poorly) by Leicester.
Who keeps it alive?
He wins the ball to Davies, who slaps a clear header to Gueye.
Gueye, recognizing the numbers, slides it wide to Ross Barkley.
From there Ross gets off a peach of a cross and Lukaku ties it up.
While Schnedierlin’s name won’t show up in the stat sheet for that goal, it was his covering and 50/50 win that ultimately led to the opportunity being created.
As we also saw in that breakdown, Morgan’s inclusion has shown a tendency to bring out the best in Idrissa Gueye and Tom Davies, allowing them to support the attack.
The Senegalese and English midfielders plays better when they has fewer restrictions on them, and the attacking midfield role suits hthem well.
This allows Barkley and Mirallas to take on the bulk of the creative duties (9 successful take ons!!)
Gueye is left to work alongside Tom Davies to cover the space in front of Morgan Schneiderlin and put the front three into dangerous positions.
Look how often (and diversely) Gueye was able to influence the match:
Look at him and Barkley!!!!
They completed 42 passes to each other!!
With the form that Ross is in, seeing his name at the top of the touches count is always good news for Toffess fans, and no one is better at getting the ball to Gueye, especially with Schneiderlin freeing him from the tethers of the #6 role.
Assuming that Schneiderlin can stay healthy, I anticipate Everton to roll with this formation for the rest of the season and if the Leicester match is any indication it’s going to be a fun final few matches!