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 second post of this three-part tactical preview, I’ll focus on the defenders, as well as how they interact with the rest of the players around them. (Click here to check out Part 1 of the series, in which I took a look at the midfield.)
Because Everton doesn’t utilize a particularly extreme overall tactical setup (that is, they aren’t playing a Pep Guardiola-style of always play out of the back, nor a Jurgen Klopp-esque high press), its central defenders aren’t asked to do anything particularly out of the ordinary.
In most matches, their only real responsibility in getting the ball forward is to ping the ball up to the holding midfielder (Morgan Schneiderlin, usually) or to the full-backs (more on them later). It’s those players with the real responsibility for moving the ball from back to front, not the center-backs.
Occasionally, when an opponent is pressing the Toffees very heavily, Koeman will allow the center-backs to just look to play directly long to the forwards. This isn’t ideal, but if the ball can’t make its way to Schneiderlin, there’s little other choice. As it stands now though, I’m not sure Everton has forwards strong or quick enough to make this a tenable option, even in limited situations.
But that isn’t an indictment of likely starters Michael Keane and Ashley Williams, both of whom are comfortable enough playing the long ball to make things work against high-pressing teams — if they have a target.
In defense, the center-backs are shielded by a capable holding midfielder — either Schneiderlin or Gareth Barry — while the other two midfielders try to more aggressively win the ball back. Their understanding of space with the holding midfielder is crucial when the opponent has long spells of possession.
This is where things get interesting.
When at full health, Everton has one of the most dangerous full-back duos in the Premier League in Seamus Coleman and Leighton Baines — and much of Koeman’s tactical setup revolves around this fact.
In fact, Koeman prefers to use central-drifting players in the wide areas of his attack, largely so that there is space for his full-backs to make bombing runs forward while his attacking trio wreaks havoc in the central channel. When it’s effective, it’s nearly unstoppable.
While Koeman’s specific brand has some new quirks, the basic idea of the attacking full-back and central-drifting winger is far from new to Everton. Baines partnered with Steven Pienaar on Everton’s left wings for several years under David Moyes — a partnership founded on an excellent understanding between the players, individual technical ability, and Pienaar’s ability to pop up anywhere at any time.
It’s no real surprise then that Koeman’s top target this summer has been Gylfi Sigurdsson, a player similar to Pienaar in those ways. A partnership between Baines and Sigurdsson could be top class if the player ever actually comes to Everton.
On the right, Seamus Coleman has been one of the most consistently dangerous full-backs in the Premier League over the last five years, so it’s no wonder Koeman looks to play through him as well.
Both Coleman and Baines are comfortable playing the ball into the box on a cross, or working more intricate, technical play with wingers and central midfielders around them.
But there’s a big problem with this setup, as it stands now.
Seamus Coleman is hurt, and there’s no evident replacement in sight. Cuco Martina has been underwhelming in preseason, Mason Holgate proved last season he shouldn’t be trusted in attack, and Jonjoe Kenny has yet to earn his manager’s trust.
Without the proper full-back, the entire right side of attack falls apart. Opposing defenses simply don’t have to respect the possibility that the ball could get worked down that side, and can instead focus on shutting down the center and left sides.
In defense, the full-backs have to make a point of getting back into position in a hurry if Everton turns the ball over, because there will be space in behind them. The holding midfielder can cover that space to an extent, and the two more aggressive midfielders can slow up counterattacks by putting pressure on the ball right after it is turned over — but at the end of the day, it largely falls on the full-back to prevent deadly counterattacks in behind down the wings.
Ronald Koeman has made it known that at least one more player is needed at the back — he needs a backup full-back and a player who can play as a left-sided center-back — whether both of those needs are met by the same player is yet to be seen.
His starters at three of the four defensive positions are solid though, and are more than capable of fitting his tactical setup. The lack of a proper replacement for Seamus Coleman should be weighing heavily on the Dutchman though, whose entire gameplan could fall apart without the correct player on the right side of defense.