As I’ve investigated this week, after a year of experimenting and adding new players, Ronald Koeman has established his preferred tactical setup and style of play at Everton. The Toffees’ defenders, midfielders, and attackers all have their specific roles to play.
Of course, that’s not to say that Koeman has all the necessary pieces in play. There’s still a Gylfi Sigurdsson-sized hole on Everton’s left wing, and another, more capable, striker needs to come in to take the pressure off of Wayne Rooney and Sandro Ramirez.
The Toffees may suffer in the coming weeks for leaving some of their most important transfer business to the last moment — but let’s assume for the sake of argument that they bring in players who meet those needs. If they can bring in Sigurdsson and a talented striker — someone like Olivier Giroud, say — what kind of team will they look like?
More importantly — what will teams still be able to do to beat them?
Let’s take a look at three ways opponents could complicate things for Everton, as well as how the Toffees could potentially counter.
Hit Them Wide on the Counter
In attack, Everton looks something like this:
The full-backs are intricately involved in the attack, and will occasionally find themselves as Everton’s player farthest up the pitch. It can create odd-numbered situations in attack, and when fully healthy, Koeman has two of the league’s best full-backs at his disposal.
But the potential downside is clear — there’s lots of space down the wings for opponents to attack when the Toffees turn the ball over. Speedy wingers will be able to find that space, and can easily create 2-v-3 or 3-v-3 situations on the counter.
Michael Keane is a substantial upgrade at center-back and is much more capable of handling a speedster running straight at him than his predecessors, but Morgan Schneiderlin, Gareth Barry, Phil Jagielka, and Ashley Williams don’t quite have that ability.
How Can Everton React?
In a worst-case scenario, hack down an attacking player before a potentially bad counterattacking chance can get too dangerous. Barry is the king of the tactical yellow card, and Schneiderlin, Jagielka, and Williams are all more than experienced enough to know when it is time for a tactical foul.
Obviously though, Koeman would like to prevent things from escalating to that point. There’s two things the Toffees can focus on to limit the danger associated with wide counterattacks into the space vacated by the attacking full-backs.
First, they must balance the reward of trying to play a difficult pass or cross against the risk of turning the ball over in a dangerous area. Particularly if the Everton full-back is nearly hugging the attacking corner flag, the Toffees simply cannot loosely turn the ball over 20 or 30 yards from goal.
Second, the box-to-box midfielder playing ahead of Schneiderlin or Barry must smartly pick his battles. Idrissa Gana Gueye and Tom Davies, the top two choices at that position, tend to look to win the ball back immediately after it is turned over — and sometimes this is the right choice!
Even if they don’t immediately win the ball, by applying pressure to the ball carrier, they can force a few sideways or backward passes that buy the full-backs time to get into position.
But they’ve also got to understand when they’ve got no chance of impacting the play by pressing, and instead start booking it back toward the defensive third. Of all the players capable of getting back and breaking up a counter, Gana and Davies are likely the most athletic, meaning their decision-making is crucial.
Take Morgan Schneiderlin Out of the Game
When Everton wins the ball back from an opponent in the defensive third, its setup usually looks something like this:
The box-to-box midfielder (usually Gana) drops deep alongside the holding midfielder (usually Schneiderlin), with the wings coming back in defense as needed.
Once the Toffees have the ball, unless there is an immediate counterattacking chance on, the plan is simple — get the ball to Morgan Schneiderlin. They look to the Frenchman to be the attacking pace-setter, get the ball up the field, and position the team to create scoring opportunities.
Take away Schneiderlin though — either via advanced man-marking or a high press that positions opposing players between the Everton defensive line and Schneiderlin — and things can get dicey for the Toffees quite quickly. That leaves Gana and the center-backs responsible for finding a way to get the ball forward.
How Can Everton React?
Gana and the center-backs don’t have anything approaching Schneiderlin’s passing ability, so having any of them simply fill the Frenchman’s role if he cannot get the ball is not an option. Additionally, Everton’s wide players aren’t quick enough to drop deep, get the ball, and work it upfield via dribbling either.
Instead, the whole gameplan has to change.
The center-backs will have to launch long balls toward their attacking teammates — which can work if one of two things is true.
- The Toffees can utilize a big, strong, hold-up striker who can win long balls in the air and keep possession until his teammates work their way up the field.
- Koeman can use a speedy striker and have his defenders try to play the ball over the heads of the opposing center-backs and into the space behind.
As it stands, I’m not sure Everton has either kind of striker right now. Sandro might have the pace to make the latter work, but I’d have to see more of him to be certain. Ademola Lookman definitely has the pace, but probably isn’t ready to serve as his team’s sole outlet.
Strikers like Olivier Giroud and Edin Dzeko, with whom the Toffees have been linked, could definitely be the former, but they’d obviously have to come to Goodison Park to make that a reality.
Either way, if the newly-signed Everton striker can check one of those two boxes, Koeman will have a reasonable Plan B for if Schneiderlin is effectively taken out of a match. If not, he might have a problem.
Force Everton’s Box-to-Box Midfielders to Cope With Long Spells of Defending
Idrissa Gana Gueye and Tom Davies are both talented and hard-working midfielders who are tasked with winning the ball back for Everton in the center of the park. However, both players are a little prone to running themselves out of position in an effort to win back possession.
Any team with the midfield talent to pass the ball around Everton’s defensive third for an extended spell has a real chance of pulling one of those players out of position, creating space for attackers to run into.
How Can Everton React?
At the risk of over-simplifying things, all the Toffees need is to rein in their easily-excitable central midfielders. There’s a time and a place for midfield pressing and aggressive chasing of the ball, but it cannot happen when teams are efficiently passing around Everton’s defensive third.
If Koeman managed to enforce that message this off-season, the Toffees are in good shape on this point. If not, it could continue to be a problem.