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Everton’s tactical success (and failure) against Manchester City was a tale of two halves

Koeman’s plan worked to perfection in the opening 45, but he failed to adjust to a changing match

Everton FC v Hajduk Split - UEFA Europa League Qualifying Play-Offs Round: First Leg Photo by Jan Kruger/Getty Images

These tactical analysis pieces are so much simpler to write when Ronald Koeman either does blatantly well or blatantly poorly in the way he sets Everton out against its opponents.

But, things get a little more complex when the Dutchman floats in the areas between praise and criticism. That’s exactly where he finds himself after this week’s 1-1 draw against Manchester City — as was the case after last week’s 1-0 victory over Stoke City as well.

Last week against the Potters, Koeman admitted he got things wrong in the first half, and after a smart halftime change, his team looked much more in control in the second half. This week against City, he got things right for the opening 45, but struggled to find a way to win his team a foothold in the second half, despite being up a player.

Let’s start with what he got right — his plan from the opening whistle. The Toffees set out in the following way.

When Everton posted the 11 players to feature in this match, I anticipated a 5-3-2 with Wayne Rooney alongside Dominic Calvert-Lewin in front of a tight midfield trio of Tom Davies, Idrissa Gueye, and Morgan Schneiderlin. I was not quite right.

Instead, Schneiderlin sat in as a very deep-lying midfield duo, while Rooney and Davies played as a more advanced midfield two ahead of them, with Calvert-Lewin alone up top. There are a number of reasons why Koeman’s setup worked for long spells in the first half.

  • The design of the central midfield essentially gave Everton a back seven when City had long spells of possession, with Schneiderlin and Gueye tucking in just in front of the center-backs. With only one true wide player in the lineup, City was forced to work through the center of the pitch, and Everton had that covered.
  • Gueye’s position on the right side of midfield made a substantial difference in defense. He was able to assist Mason Holgate in handling the one true wide player in City’s attack, Leroy Sane.
  • Rooney and Davies, the pair sitting in front of Gueye and Schneiderlin, brought the best combination of willingness to drop deep in defense and ability to play long balls into the space for Calvert-Lewin.

The most obvious factor in Everton’s first-half success was its young striker, Dominic Calvert-Lewin. Playing as a lone striker with some support in behind, DCL had license to wander into whatever space he could find between City’s center-backs or behind its full-backs — with the knowledge that if he pulled into a wide area, Rooney and Davies would fill the space in the center.

This gave Everton a first-half attacking shape that looked something like the following.

There are three things to look for in these maps from @11tegen:

  1. The size and placement of arrows, which indicate the frequency of successful passes between two players. The bigger the arrow, the more passes completed.
  2. The location of the player dot, which indicates the average position of that player’s touches.
  3. The size of the player dot, which indicates the frequency with which the player was on the ball. The bigger the dot, the more touches for the player.

With that in mind, there are two things worth noting from this map (which only reflects up to Everton’s double change in the 63rd minute).

First, notice Calvert-Lewin’s position on the right wing. With Leroy Sane playing left-back and Nicolas Otamendi at left-center-back to start the match (he swapped with Kompany around the 30th minute), the right side was the obvious weak spot in City’s defense.

DCL did a good job of working that space, and it was ultimately a forced turnover in that area that led to Everton’s only goal of the match.

Still, this map doesn’t really reflect exactly how one-sided Everton’s attack was. Take a look at this graphic depicting Everton’s touches in the attacking third in the first half, courtesy of

A whopping 83% of Everton’s attacking third touches in the first half came down the right channel — and there’s absolutely nothing wrong with that.

The Toffees had a clear plan to attack what they thought was a weak spot in City’s defense on the counter — ultimately, it worked pretty well. It wasn’t pretty, but Everton had City worried about the counter attack, so much so that Pep swapped the positioning of his center-backs after a half hour.

Let’s look back to the distribution map now though — notice that Idrissa Gueye, not Morgan Schneiderlin, was the focal point of midfield. I don’t think there was an active decision from Koeman to make Gana the midfield hub; rather, he needed to be on the right side to help Holgate out in defense, and Everton wanted to work the attack through the right side.

So, he became the de facto midfield distributor.

When asked to fill that kind of role last season, Gueye simply wasn’t very good. His passing tended to be sloppy and he often dawdled too long on the ball. Against City, however, he was a revelation.

Take a look at his passmap for the match.

In the face of extensive Manchester City pressure, Gana missed out on only three passes over the entire match — one was a long ball, and two were in the attacking third.

His work in moving things quickly from defense to attack, and more importantly not giving City turnovers on which they could counter, was perhaps the biggest factor in Everton’s first-half success.

Everton nicked a first-half lead and spent the second half up a man — so what went wrong in the second half that let City back into the match?

In short, Koeman’s substitutions didn’t match the gameplan on the pitch. Whether that was a shortcoming of the manager’s planning, communication, or the player’s ability to follow direction is unclear — but a few simple graphics display how desperately problematic Everton’s efforts were in the final half hour.

Let’s start with the basics — here’s how Everton looked after Davy Klaassen and Gylfi Sigurdsson entered for Ashley Williams and Tom Davies.

In theory, this move made at least a little bit of sense. Manchester City had true attacking wide players in the match at this stage, so the addition of more wide players for Everton (Sigurdsson and Rooney) meant that more than just Holgate and Baines could work on slowing down City’s wingers.

More importantly though, this move gave Everton the ability to move the ball through the center of the pitch (again, in theory). Rooney and Sigurdsson, though “wingers” in this system, ought to have been tasked to cut inside and serve as creative outlets for Schneiderlin and Gueye to work the ball to.

As an aside, get used to this inverted-winger setup, because with Gylfi in now, I expect Koeman will look to use it even more frequently.

The problem for Everton was that neither Rooney nor Sigurdsson managed to get onto the ball in the central channel. Check out their heatmaps from after the substitutions took place.

Not a whole lot of action for either player in the center of the pitch. The same could be said of Davy Klaassen, who played a central attacking role, but isn’t a creative-type player in those spaces. His heatmap is below.

The upshot was a very sad overall passmap in the final half hour of the match.

The balls into the central channel 40-50 yards from goal were almost exclusively long balls from defenders or the goalkeeper, and very few of them found their target.

Instead, Rooney and Sigurdsson played too much in the wide positions, perhaps because the full-backs couldn’t get forward to fill those spaces. These players, lacking the pace and strength of Calvert-Lewin, couldn’t get anything done on the counter attack either.

The result was an increasingly out-possessed Everton performance, that finally ended in a late Raheem Sterling equalizer.

Overall, taking a point from the Etihad is an excellent result, but one where the Toffees will feel they could have done more. Kyle Walker’s first-half red card gave Everton a chance to see this match out, either via continued bunkering and countering, or more sustained possession through the midfield.

Instead though, Koeman’s side found itself caught between the two options, and Pep Guardiola’s men eventually found their equalizer.