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Koeman admits tactical mistake, Everton defeats Stoke City anyway

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The Toffees got an opening day victory after using an experimental setup in the first half.

Everton v Stoke City - Premier League Photo by Jan Kruger/Getty Images

After a preseason that included its fair share of experimenting with tactics and personnel, Everton supporters were ready for a lot of possible lineups against Stoke City on Saturday.

This wasn’t one of them.

Dominic Calvert-Lewin on the right of a back five probably wouldn’t have cracked my top 50 potential lineups for this match, yet Ronald Koeman sent out the young English striker as a wing-back to start this match.

After the match, Koeman had the following to say about the decision:

“I expected to get the space on that side,” he added. “So instead of playing Tom Davies, Mason Holgate or Cuco (Martina), I decided to put a winger there. It wasn’t really good but that’s not because of Dominic. That is my fault.

From the look of it, Koeman expected Stoke to play passively, and felt that the left side of Stoke’s defense would be the best place to look to make breakthroughs against a defensive side.

If you watched the match, you know full well that Koeman’s decision to play with three center-backs and Calvert-Lewin on the right side of defense created an imbalanced, somewhat disorganized Everton attack that struggled to consistently create chances, or even long spells of possession.

The reason Koeman’s plan didn’t work? Stoke applied pretty consistent high pressure to Everton’s defense and midfield, completely flying in the face of what the Dutchman probably expected from Mark Hughes’ side.

The most important effect of that pressure was the neutralizing of Morgan Schneiderlin. The Toffees look to Schneiderlin to build possession out of the back. When defenders win the ball from the opposition, they look to get it to the Frenchman, who works the ball up the field.

In the face of pretty intense pressure from the Potters though, the defenders struggled to get the ball to Schneiderlin, and Schneiderlin struggled to get the ball forward when he did get it. Take a look at Schneiderlin’s passmap (courtesy of EvertonFC.com) for the first half.

It isn’t uncommon for Schneiderlin to attempt 80 or more passes over a full match, but he only had about 30 in the opening half, well below what Everton would hope for. Even more telling, look at the direction of his passes — almost everything is horizontal or backward.

In the absence of Schneiderlin’s ball-moving contributions, the Toffees went to an unrefined Plan B — knock the ball in the air to Calvert-Lewin, in hopes that he could control the ball with his size.

Just take a look at the first-half passmaps of Jordan Pickford and Michael Keane, which really tell this story.

The result was an average setup that looked less like the true 5-3-2 depicted by the club before the match, and more like...some other unholy mess.

Calvert-Lewin pushed very far up the right wing to provide a target for his teammates after winning the ball. Michael Keane slid out to the right, almost as a true full-back at times, in order to compensate.

Idrissa Gana Gueye was the right-most player of the midfield three, and came in pretty close to Calvert-Lewin on that wing in order to provide a passing option. Schneiderlin, the deepest and most central player of the midfield trio, often did the same.

There also needs to be a quick word on two of the players completely isolated by these events — Leighton Baines and Davy Klassen.

Klaassen was the left-most player of the midfield trio, playing a less advanced role than we’ll normally see him in the season. When the ball (rarely) made its way out to Baines or Klaassen on the left, neither player had anywhere to go with the ball, because the strikers and central midfielders were shaded so far to the right wing.

Take a look at the Everton heatmap for the first half to see how clear this issue was.

Neither Klaassen nor Baines had a particularly good match as a result, but there’s no reason to be concerned about either player. Their inactivity was a result of the strange setup, rather than any individual shortcomings.

In a true turn of footballing irony, however, the tactical choice that handcuffed Everton for most of the first half also significantly contributed to the match’s only goal. Take a look at the sequence below.

We start here with Michael Keane on the ball after Everton won the ball in the defensive third. There is, in this instance, a fair bit of space down the right wing, which Calvert-Lewin has already moved into, well ahead of his defensive counterparts.

When the ball comes to Gueye in the midfield, Calvert-Lewin is playing as a full-fledged winger, with Keane floating around the area you’d typically expect the right-back in. Look at how many bodies Everton has committed to the right channel — Rooney, Sandro, and Calvert-Lewin are all lurking, Keane is playing as the right-back, Gana is on the ball, and even Klaassen is cheating toward that side.

This is a clear attempt to overrun the Potters with numbers.

The upshot? After some decent movement and passing, Calvert-Lewin finds himself wide open on the right wing, able to whip in a great cross.

Take particular note of Klassen in this GIF — his intelligent run from the center to the the right completely draws the attention of Kurt Zouma and Ryan Shawcross, leaving Rooney unmarked at the back post. With a patented finish, Rooney gives the Toffees a lead they never surrendered.


Single moment of brilliance aside, Koeman knew his first-half tactics didn’t work. He brought in Cuco Martina for Ashley Williams at half, and reconfigured things to look like the following.

Calvert-Lewin became the first player I can think of to play both right-back and striker in the same match, Martina played right-back in a back four, and Rooney and Sandro played the “wide” roles in support of the main striker.

The Toffees looked more in control in the second half, playing a system we’ve come to expect from them. Rooney and Sandro dropped deep and central in a somewhat playmaking role (Rooney in particular), Martina and Baines looked to get wide, and Gana continued to do what Gana does best — chase opponents to no end.

The results of the half spoke pretty clearly to where Everton is at right now. Jordan Pickford is a quality goalkeeper, there’s a pretty solid back line in place (except maybe at right-back), the central midfield trio combines strength and skill in good measure — and the result was a half of football where the Toffees were the better side.

But a lack of explosiveness and creativity up top was evident, and Everton couldn’t turn a fair bit of positive play into many good scoring chances. Koeman still needs to bring in a winger and a striker to turn his team into a genuine threat against better teams.