Let’s start with an important warning: Everton was probably going to lose to Liverpool on Saturday, regardless of Ronald Koeman’s tactics.
Seamus Coleman and Morgan Schneiderlin are the Toffees’ two most important players not named “Romelu Lukaku,” and their absence was going to exponentially complicate the process of getting a win at Anfield, where Everton hasn’t won since Tom Davies was 15 months old. The loss of Ramiro Funes Mori further complicated matters.
So, when I say that Koeman’s tactical decisions were absolutely horrific, I say it with the clear understanding that even if the Dutchman had gotten everything right on Saturday, it was still going to be incredibly difficult for the Toffees to get even a draw, much less a win.
That being said, Koeman’s tactical decisions were horrific, and it warrants discussion. Let’s start by taking a look at Everton’s lineup for the Merseyside Derby.
Despite the absence of Funes Mori and Coleman, Koeman elected to go with a five-man backline, slotting Mason Holgate in at wing-back and Matthew Pennington in at center-back.
Tom Davies and Idrissa Gueye partnered in the center of midfield, with Ross Barkley playing ahead of them in a No. 10 role. Romelu Lukaku and Dominic Calvert-Lewin partnered up top.
I want to focus primarily on the back seven, but I have to briefly mention the shortcomings of the front-three as well.
Barkley’s return to a central role was sensible, given how much his success on the right wing had to do with combining with the now-injured Seamus Coleman. Unfortunately, his good form appeared to run out after he returned to the middle. His passmap (courtesy of FourFourTwo.com) tells part of, but not the entire, story.
Barkley certainly popped up all over the pitch, a decent development for a player in the major playmaking role, but his pass accuracy was underwhelming. The most important aspect of his match though doesn’t appear in this graphic.
He had the opportunity to spring counter attacks with the ball in his feet on multiple occasions, but failed to get off any pass before dribbling into a defender. Given that Everton was out-possessed and without two important playmaking contributors, the ability to create via the counter attack was crucial for success — and Barkley failed to make it happen.
Further up the pitch, Calvert-Lewin contributions were easily the most mystifying aspect of Koeman’s plans. In attack, the young Englishman was definitely the second striker, playing alongside Lukaku. When Liverpool was in possession though, Calvert-Lewin dropped off to more of a left midfielder’s role.
Take a look at his heatmap, courtesy of EvertonFC.com.
I suppose, in theory, he may have been tasked with helping to control Sadio Mane on the Liverpool right / Everton left. In reality, he didn’t really contribute anything defensively, and wound up isolating Lukaku up top.
The Belgian’s hold-up play wasn’t great, but he was so criminally isolated that I’m not convinced any striker would have been able to hold up the ball long enough to bring the rest of Everton’s attackers into the play. Take a look at his passes received map.
Pretty much everything Lukaku received came as either a long ball, or a short pass along the right sideline — not exactly where you want to see the striker. The result was an offensively anonymous performance from the Toffees, Pennington’s brief equalizer notwithstanding.
The bigger issue for Everton though, was the play of the back seven — in particular the holding midfielders, Davies and Gueye.
With Coleman and Funes Mori out, the back line was always going to be an area of weakness against Liverpool, whether Koeman elected to go with a four or five-man defense. Those injuries aren’t the manager’s fault, but he needs to be aware of that weakness when choosing the rest of his lineup.
Instead though, he left career back-line-shielder Gareth Barry on the bench, played a two-man midfield, and chose two players who tend to run around with a limited understanding of defensive shape to compose it.
The results were predictable — and plain to see on Liverpool’s first two goals.
On Liverpool’s first goal, the play starts with essentially no danger evident. But, note the space between Gueye, Baines, and Jagielka at the top-left of the image — Mane reads that space and begins to drift into it.
When the pass comes in to him, Gueye immediately tries to close down and win the ball from him, rather than simply containing the player — despite the fact that Mane is 50 yards from the Everton goal. Because there’s only one other player in Everton’s midfield, that simple mistake is all Mane needs. A quick one-two with Roberto Firmino takes Davies completely out of the play as well, and Liverpool’s most dangerous player is away on goal with only Everton’s depleted back line in his path.
I’ve spoken about Gueye’s tendency to chase the ball in this space before, so he does have to take some responsibility for the poor decision that ultimately breaks the Everton midfield line. However, Koeman also needs to know that the Senegalese midfielder is who he is, and asking him to play as the most defensive player in a holding midfield two is asking for this kind of mistake to happen.
Gueye was in the middle of Liverpool’s second goal as well, though I’m much less inclined to place individual blame on him for this one.
Here, Liverpool starts with the ball on the right wing, with Davies the closest Everton player. Gueye slides over toward the left side to mark Firmino, as he must, but it leaves a huge gap on Everton’s right side.
Two passes later, Phillipe Coutinho has the ball in 15 yards of space — it’s far too easy for Liverpool to get there. Gueye goes his best to get over and cut down Coutinho’s space, but he’s entirely isolated, and a missed tackle means that the Brazilian is 1-v-1 with Pennington.
You’d love to see Pennington do better there, but if Everton’s system creates scenarios where Coutinho is 1-v-1 with a 22-year-old center-back in his fifth senior appearance, there are bigger issues than a Pennington missed tackle.
More often than not this season, Ronald Koeman has gotten his tactics right. He was in a tough situation with the injuries in his squad this week, so I’m very willing to simply move past this match — but it’s plain as day that he got things very wrong against Liverpool, and that’s a criminal error when managing Everton.
The Dutchman spent much of the week using words like “fearless” and “courage” in regards to how his team needed to approach Liverpool. Bravery is all well and good, but his team simply didn’t have the personnel needed to be “fearless” against the Reds at Anfield.
Hopefully, Everton and its Dutch manager have learned a lesson about balancing courage and pragmatism that they will carry for the rest of this injury-plagued season.