A trip to Stamford Bridge to play Chelsea just days after a do-or-die trip to Croatia was always going to be a massive challenge, and for a lot of reasons, Everton simply wasn’t up to that challenge on Sunday.
Some of the issues were quasi-tactical, but largely, this was a match featuring a well-rested, more talented team, against a poorly-rested, less talented team. Ronald Koeman has worked on (and is continuing to work on) bringing in more talented players, but his squad simply can’t stand up to Antonio Conte’s under those conditions.
So, to prevent us all from jumping to the wrong conclusions, let’s take a look at what it is fair to say this match was and this match was not.
This match was not, as some have suggested, an overall tactical failure by Ronald Koeman. His setup was essentially identical to what he did against Manchester City so successfully in the first half last week, and it provided his players the best possible chance to compete with Chelsea.
Koeman again went to the 5-2-2-1, but with somewhat different personnel than we saw against City. Sandro Ramirez got the start up top in place of the heavily-used Dominic Calvert-Lewin, Gylfi Sigurdsson started in the attacking midfield two, while Tom Davies took the place of the suspended Morgan Schneiderlin in the holding midfield.
Without Schneiderlin (and perhaps even with him), Everton had no chance to not be overrun by Chelsea in the midfield if Koeman’s boys tried to take it to the Londoners. So, he was forced to return to the back five, with Davies and Idrissa Gueye sitting in front of them, in an attempt to frustrate the Chelsea attack.
And for the most part, that was pretty successful.
xG map for Chelsea - Everton. For the most part Everton's dour back five did prevent chances. For the most part. pic.twitter.com/SL0VMiuL1t— Caley Graphics (@Caley_graphics) August 27, 2017
Holding Chelsea to 1.1 xG (expected goals) at Stamford Bridge, three days after playing in Croatia, without their best holding midfielder, was not at all a bad result for the Toffees.
This match was puzzling, due to Ronald Koeman’s insistence on having his team attack down the right wing.
According to EvertonFC.com, 41% of Everton’s first-half attacks came down the right wing, which was occupied by Mason Holgate and Wayne Rooney. Holgate — and I really cannot stress this enough — is not a true right-back, nor is he an attacking player.
Almost everything he tried to work forward missed its target (though Sandro shoulders a little of the blame there too).
This all went down while Leighton Baines and Gylfi Sigurdsson — unarguably Everton’s two most creative players in the starting XI, lingered essentially unused on the left wing.
Against Manchester City, it made sense to play down the right side. For much of the match, Leroy Sane was City’s left-back, making that area an obvious target. Chelsea’s left-back, however, was Marcos Alonso — a better defender than Chelsea right-back Victor Moses. Koeman should have had his more creative players attacking Chelsea’s less defensively sound wing-back.
This isn’t the first time Koeman has forced his team’s attack down the right since Seamus Coleman’s injury, and it almost always hasn’t made sense. The Dutchman needs to either re-think that strategy or better communicate to his players what he is looking for.
This match was not an indication that the team has no depth overall.
Muhamed Besic put forward a solid second-half performance in the face of trying personal circumstances, Aaron Lennon had a decent showing off the bench for the second straight match, and the Toffees clearly have three first-team center-backs they can rely on.
Koeman has made clear that he wants to bring in another center-back who can also fill in at left-back, so which overall gives the Toffees a fair bit of depth in the midfield and defense.
Up top, however, is a different story.
This match was an indication that Everton needs another striker desperately.
Sandro did not have a good match playing as a lone striker. He struggled to find space between and behind the Chelsea defenders, and the result was extraordinarily few touches.
If the plan is to continue using Wayne Rooney primarily as an attacking midfielder (which has been a good role for him so far), then Everton cannot solely rely on young Calvert-Lewin and Sandro to get things done up front.
Calvert-Lewin has been good so far this season, but he cannot be expected to be the primary striker given his youth and inexperience. It’s also worth noting that his best performance came against a defensively-poor Manchester City team against whom he found plenty of space in behind. He cannot expect that against most Premier League and Europa League competition — and I’m not convinced he has the skill to help break down bunkering teams.
Sandro has more experience, but simply hasn’t found his footing at Everton thus far — understandable given his early season injury. It’s also a little unclear what Sandro’s best position will be at Everton. Is he a striker? Is he an inverted winger in Koeman’s more preferred 4-3-3? Time will tell — but the Toffees can’t afford to find out in late October that the Spaniard isn’t the answer up top either.
In all, this match served a dose of sobering reality, but shouldn’t really have taught us much more than we already knew. 2017-18 Everton already has more evenly spread talent throughout the squad, even with some key players injured. Ronald Koeman is willing to utilize a variety of systems, most recently the 5-2-2-1, to complement his preferred 4-3-3 — and these have worked to a reasonable extent.
But the Toffees still sorely miss Seamus Coleman — and Koeman has to stop trying to approximate his contributions through Holgate or Cuco Martina. He’s got a perfectly good left-back in Leighton Baines, and that wing should be utilized more frequently.
Most importantly, the Toffees still have a Romelu Lukaku-sized hole in their attack. No single player is going to replace all of the Belgian’s production, and Calvert-Lewin’s emergence has softened the blow. But Koeman knows he cannot rely on a 20-year-old to power his team to victory across two competitions.
He wants to bring in a big striker — and Everton needs one to be competitive in future matches like this one.