Ronald Koeman would never admit it, but I’d wager a fair amount of money that when he saw three center-backs on West Ham’s team sheet before Saturday’s match, he thought: “Hell, we might be in real trouble here.”
Let’s be clear — Everton’s display at West Ham on Saturday was unacceptably poor, and any attempt here to explain tactical issues that may have been out of the Toffees’ control does not absolve the players of some underwhelming individual performances. But, to pretend that the players available to Koeman were only poor in execution and solely responsible for their own failure would be an unfair conclusion as well.
Instead, a combination of poor Everton play, a smart tactical tweak by Slaven Bilic, and the absence of key Toffees created a largely unwatchable 0-0 draw at London Stadium.
Let’s take a look at both teams’ lineups to better understand where exactly things went wrong for the Toffees.
There were no surprises in Koeman’s team selection. Ross Barkley returned to his role on the right wing alongside Romelu Lukaku and Kevin Mirallas. Tom Davies, Idrissa Gueye, and Morgan Schneiderlin again formed the midfield trio, with the typical combination at the back. The only surprise was in goal, where Maarten Stekelenburg replaced Joel Robles.
West Ham haven’t used three center-backs frequently this season — in fact, one of the club’s few adventures with such a system came in the reverse fixture at Goodison Park, a 2-0 victory for the Toffees. There were two major differences between that match and this one though; neither change played to Everton’s advantage.
- West Ham’s three center-backs when the teams played in October were Winston Reid, Angelo Ogbonna, and Cheikhou Kouyate — a solid defender, an underwhelming (and ultimately injured) Juventus reject, and a midfielder. On Saturday, the ageless James Collins and newly-signed Jose Fonte joined Reid, a significantly more talented supporting cast to flank the New Zealand international.
- More importantly, Everton’s two most important players when these teams played in October were Seamus Coleman and Yannick Bolasie — both out injured on Saturday.
Often, the best way to attack a team with three center-backs is to look to get in behind the wing-backs, forcing one or more of the center-backs or central midfielders into an uncomfortable wide position and creating space for a cross or pull-back into the central channel.
Against West Ham the first time around, such a chance looked like this:
Bryan Oviedo dodged a tackle from the West Ham right-back, pulling a central midfielder and center-back out of position. This opened up a ton of space for Barkley near the top of the box.
A simple pull-back gave the English midfielder a glorious scoring chance.
Given that West Ham’s full-backs on Saturday were Arthur Masuaku (a player with only 12 appearances this year) and Edimilson Fernandes (a central midfielder by trade), Koeman surely would have liked to have repeated those efforts. But a lack of wide attacking players severely limited his team’s ability to do so.
Ross Barkley and Kevin Mirallas were, as usual, tasked with drifting inside to create link with Lukaku and create space for the full-backs. On the right, this was Mason Holgate, a player who has shown a decent ability to get forward for a young center-back playing out of position — but who nobody will mistake for Seamus Coleman any time soon.
Take a look at Holgate’s passing and crossing, courtesy of EvertonFC.com.
The young defender got into decent positions, but failed to do anything with the ball when he got it.
On the left, Leighton Baines took up his usual spot. While it is obvious that Baines is a superior player to Oviedo, who filled in for the Englishman in October, he’s not as quick or willing to take players on 1-v-1 as the now-departed Costa Rican. With the idea being to get behind and quickly attack West Ham’s full-backs, that skill set was missed on Saturday.
Faced with an inability to strike down the wings and a plain numerical disadvantage in the center of the attacking third, Koeman made two reasonable changes at half; Gareth Barry and Ademola Lookman entered for Davies and Gueye. The result was the following:
Koeman opted for a 4-2-3-1 in the second half, with an aim to accomplish a few things.
- The addition of Lookman and re-configuring of Mirallas’ position gave Everton two dedicated wide attackers to go at West Ham’s wing-backs.
- Using two dedicated holding midfielders allowed Barkley to play very freely in the No. 10 role.
- Schneiderlin and Barry are Everton’s best passing options in the holding midfield position — Koeman surely hoped that the pair would help create chances in the central channel.
In reality though, none of that came to fruition. Everton dearly missed Enner Valencia (unavailable to play against his parent club), as Lookman failed to do against the Hammers what Valencia did last week against Burnley.
Sloppy passing characterized the play in the midfield, and pulling the wingers into a slightly deeper role isolated Lukaku at the top of the formation. Koeman pulled the right strings — but because he was missing his top bench player and the execution was simply sub-par, it didn’t help to turn things around.
In the end, it led to one of the saddest maps of completed passes you will ever see.
This map shows every pass and open-play cross Everton completed for the entire match — the yellow lines are key passes. It’s nearly as though there is an invisible wall just above the 18-yard box, where the Toffees magically could no longer move the ball. The few passes in the dangerous areas came only through two separate instances — an interplay between Holgate and Lookman on the right, and between Baines and Jagielka on the left.
Outside of those two moments, Everton couldn’t solve West Ham’s back-three in the center, and didn’t have the wide players needed to pull those players out of position. With Chelsea up next, the league’s best club with three at the back, there should be immense concern about how the Toffees can create chances at Goodison Park next week.