Everton has been absolutely sublime at Goodison Park in 2017 — so sublime, in fact, that even in spite of a miserable first half performance against Burnley on Saturday, you couldn’t help but feel the team would turn it around, simply because they’ve been that good at home.
The Toffees’ superior quality shone through clearly in a much improved second half against Sean Dyche’s side, powered by a smart substitution from their own manager, Ronald Koeman. The 3-1 victory was deserved on the balance of the second half performance, though Burnley could certainly have made things much more complicated if they capitalized on their superiority in the first half.
To understand what went wrong in the first half, and how Koeman corrected it, take a look at Everton’s starting lineup from the match.
There were no real surprises from Koeman in this one, as he went with the lineup that’s powered his side to such a good 2017. After getting Everton started on the front foot against Leicester, Kevin Mirallas kept his starting place on the left wing, while Mason Holgate continued to fill in for Seamus Coleman at right-back in a four-man backline.
Everything else was as it has been for most the calendar year: Ross Barkley lined up at right wing, Tom Davies, Idrissa Gueye, and Morgan Schneiderlin partnered in the center of midfield, and Leighton Baines, Ashley Williams, and Phil Jagileka filled out the rest of the defense corps.
Everton has relied on the 4-3-3 with Barkley as the right winger for much of 2017, and his creative presence on the wing, coupled with that of Davies in the No. 10 role, has really helped the Toffees to break down bunkering opponents, particularly at home. It’s been a huge boost for a team that struggled to create chances against deep-lying teams for the first half of the season.
There was a pretty reasonable expectation that Burnley would fit that bill and come into Goodison Park looking to park the bus and strike on the counter, as has been their general operating procedure for most of the season.
RBM’s Mike Godamski took an in-depth look at what Burnley has typically done this season before the match — and as he says, Burnley are “your classic deep-lying, long-ball-playing, just-got-promoted, 4-4-2 English team.”
Imagine my surprise then (and the surprise of the Everton players, evidently) when Burnley came out pressing the ball high like this:
This was one of Burnley’s best chances of the half, and it came as a result of pressure from not only the Clarets’ strikers, but their midfielders pushing forward to cut off passing lanes as well.
This was not a one-off incident, nor was it just the strikers given permission to chase the ball down from the center-backs. Burnley came out at Goodison Park with a clear plan to press Everton’s defenders and midfielders into making mistakes in the middle and Everton defensive thirds.
Even on plays as simple as goalkeeper clearances, Everton’s players found themselves facing pretty high pressure.
The Toffees struggled to work through Burnley’s midfield pressure for the majority of the first half.
I imagine pure surprise at their opponent’s tactics played a role in Everton’s mediocre play in the first half — put simply, if you spend all week preparing to work through a parked-bus defense and instead find yourself facing pressure 75 yards from Burnley’s goal, you’re probably not going to be ready for that.
Second, Everton simply hasn’t been that good at working through high pressure from an opponent. Obviously the quality of the tactic is higher when clubs like Liverpool or Tottenham Hotspur are enacting it, but the Clarets proved pretty clearly in the first half that other teams can cause problems for the Toffees with this method as well.
In the first half, Everton had neither the personnel nor the system in place to work through the press. Let’s quickly review Everton’s lineup again, and see how the press impacted it.
We know that Schneiderlin is the best passer of the bunch, and ideally Everton would look to him to pick the necessary passes through the midfield. But, his deep-lying, central role puts him right at the heart of where the Burnley pressure starts (strikers Sam Vokes and Ashley Barnes), making working through him incredibly difficult.
With Davies occupying a more attacking role and Barkley and Mirallas tasked with moving centrally, rather than creating width to stretch Burnley, that left Everton with only Gueye in the center of the midfield as a realistic hub to move the ball from defense to attack.
Well aware of the struggles this situation created, Koeman made a sound substitution at halftime, bringing on Enner Valencia for his Senegalese midfielder. Valencia’s introduction was the catalyst for Everton’s second-half turnaround.
Three major factors changed in the second half to reduce the effectiveness of Burnley’s pressure and allow Everton’s superior quality to shine through.
Valencia (and Mirallas) Created Width
One way to counter a press is to use wide attacking players to make the pitch as wide as possible. This makes it difficult for the opposition to crowd the center of the field, as they face one of two options:
- Continue to crowd the middle of the field and hope to force turnovers, same as before. But, that means limited personnel out wide to stop quick players in wide positions if the ball gets worked out there.
- Ease up on the pressure in deference to the danger the attacking wide players present.
By introducing Valencia to the right wing position and bringing Barkley into the middle, Koeman presented Burnley with this challenge. Check out the difference in passes received between Barkley in the first half, while he was at right wing, and Valencia in the second half.
Some of Barkley’s work comes down the wing, but he’s really more interested in pulling into a more withdrawn, central role. To be clear, this is not a criticism of Barkley — that’s the way he prefers to play and what Koeman looks for him to do when playing in a wide position.
But, Koeman needed a more direct, pacey, width-creating player down the right, so he went to Valencia. His sphere of influence is clearly smaller than Barkley’s, but he kept Burnley honest by floating around on that wing.
Everton even created more width on the left wing through Mirallas in the second half than the first. Take a look at the Belgian’s passes received for the first, then second half.
(Recall that Mirallas was withdrawn around the 75th minute.)
Again, Mirallas didn’t do anything wrong in the first half — his role in that position is normally to drift inside. But, Koeman clearly changed his directive at halftime, and the Belgian stayed in more of a true wide position in the second half.
Everton’s Best Passers Got into the Heart of the Match
If a team wants to try to pass through the heart of a press, its central midfielders better be up to the task, as the brunt of that responsibility falls to them.
In the first half, that largely fell to Schneiderlin and Gueye. Davies was a central midfielder certainly in name, but was tasked with playing almost as a fourth attacker, interchanging with the central-drifting Mirallas and Barkley, as well as Lukaku up top.
With Schneiderlin largely shadowed by the press, that left Gueye with most of the responsibility to move the ball from back to front. The 27-year-old was by no means poor, but that simply isn’t his game — hence the halftime switch.
The substitution pushed Barkley into the No. 10 role and Davies back into the midfield alongside Schneiderlin. With Mirallas and Valencia playing as true wingers, Barkley was left playing as more of a true midfielder in front of Davies and Schneiderlin, creating a trio of solid passers in the midfield.
It’s Hard to Play a Press for 90 Minutes
The final factor wasn’t of Everton’s doing, but is worth noting. Applying high pressure takes a lot of energy, and doing it for 90 minutes is near impossible. Add in the fact that Burnley rarely plays this way, and it was inevitable that the quality of their pressure would drop in the second half.
Burnley’s fatigue, combined with Everton’s improved tactical setup, put the Toffees in the driver’s seat for the second half.
It wasn’t pretty, but Koeman and the players managed to find a way to keep the home winning streak alive and the chase for Arsenal’s sixth-place position very feasible. Enner Valencia again proved his worth to the Toffees, who will have to seriously consider making his move to Goodison permanent over the summer.
Ronald Koeman again showed his adaptability, and while the Dutch manager hasn’t been perfect this season, he’s gotten things right far more frequently than he’s gotten them wrong — and once again put his team in a position to succeed.