Ronald Koeman’s first year in charge of Everton was, in a lot of ways, an experiment.
The Dutchman joined a club with a world-class striker, two of the best full-backs in the Premier League, — and not a whole lot else. He spent a fair bit of time last season trying to figure out how best to utilize his most important players, while also bringing in and acclimating new players of his choosing.
That world-class striker is gone, and one of the two star full-backs is out with a broken leg, but the summer has given Koeman plenty of time to continue adding players to his squad and another preseason to put those players into his preferred positions. With that information, it’s become pretty clear what Everton’s manager wants to see from his players — a setup I’ve outlined below.
In the first post of this three-part tactical preview, I’ll focus on the midfield — the heart of what Koeman aims to do.
The Basics of the Koeman 4-3-3 — Starting in the Midfield
The 4-3-3 is among the most common formations in football today. What usually separates one iteration of a 4-3-3 from another is the configuration of the central midfield three — Koeman’s preferred formation is no different.
What makes Everton’s 4-3-3 unique is the clear and separate definition of roles among these three players.
It starts at the base of the triangle with the holding midfielder — Morgan Schneiderlin more often than not. This is usually the most important player on the pitch, as he plays a crucial role in both attack and defense. In defense, he sits in front of the back four, where over the course of just a few minutes, you might see him:
- Drop between the center-backs as essentially a third central defender.
- Slide out to cover the wide area if a full-back is in attack when the ball is turned over
- Step forward to win the ball as the more advanced midfield players force mistakes from the opposing players
Once Everton wins the ball back, this player is the hub through which defense transitions into offense. The center-backs and keeper will look to him when working the ball out of the back, and it falls to the holding midfielder to pick out the full-backs, wingers, attacking midfielder, or striker to start an attacking sequence.
When this player is having success moving the ball forward, Everton will likely dominate the match. When he is struggling or pressure is forcing him to make mistakes, the Toffees will struggle.
Ahead of the holding midfielder is the box-to-box midfielder — likely Idrissa Gana Gueye. To put it most simply, this player has one major job: to cover tons of ground in an effort to harass opposing players and win the ball back in the midfield for his team.
When the team has the ball and is attacking, he isn’t particularly involved in the buildup. He’ll serve as an option to recycle possession, but he won’t look to advance the ball too much on his own. However, if the ball is turned over, he’ll often press up the pitch to try to quickly win the ball back.
In defense, he may drop deep next to the holding midfielder if Everton gets pinned back for a long stretch. But, in an ideal world, he’ll press into the midfield to try to win the ball before things reach that point.
The most important thing to understand about the attacking midfielder in the Koeman 4-3-3 is that he is not a true creative No. 10 as you may typically understand it. In this setup, that playmaking role often falls to the wingers (more on them later).
While the attacking midfielder — usually Davy Klaassen — will sometimes pop up between the midfield and defensive lines and try to pick the key pass, he’ll more frequently either sit deep alongside the box-to-box midfielder or work directly off the shoulder of the striker. His late runs ideally cause havoc for opposing defenses in the box, who will likely already be overwhelmed by the presence of a striker and both wingers.
In defense, he has to work harder than a typical No. 10 — he’ll look to win the ball back quickly after turnovers by pressing the opposing defenders and midfielders.
Everton’s midfield is easily the most well-defined aspect of the team at this stage. The holding midfielder, box-to-box midfielder, and attacking midfielder all have clear roles, and should combine to form a cohesive unit.
Luckily for the Toffees, the club is pretty much set in terms of both starters and backups at each position. Schneiderlin, Gueye, and Klaassen each perfectly fit the role asked of them in this setup. Gareth Barry is a solid substitute for Schneiderlin when needed, and Tom Davies is capable of playing either Gueye or Klaassen’s role if needed.
If you’re looking for the strength of the club as it stands right now — both tactically and in terms of personnel — look no further than the center of midfield.