I don’t want to panic you, but I’m starting to get genuinely worried about Everton.
I wasn’t particularly worried after the thrashing at Stamford Bridge against Chelsea before the international break — the Toffees were missing Morgan Schneiderlin, playing away from home, against a top-tier Chelsea side. There’s something different about this loss, though.
Everton had a full complement of players (at least as full as it will be until one of Seamus Coleman or Yannick Bolasie returns; Everton was playing at the friendly confines of Goodison Park; most important, the Toffees were playing a relatively handicapped Tottenham Hotspur side.
Through a combination of injury, resting of key players, and very recent arrivals to the club, Spurs wound up missing both their top-choice holding midfielders and full-backs — four very important players in all.
Yet the Toffees were second-best from the opening whistle. There’s a very specific tactical complaint I have for Ronald Koeman in this match, but it does come with a caveat.
Though I vehemently disagree with the way he handled one particular aspect of this match, I have genuine concerns about how many superior options he has at his disposal — and that’s scary, because he’s stuck with the players he’s currently got until January.
So, let’s look at the problem I had with Koeman in this one, then we can talk about its overarching implications.
As expected, the Dutchman sent Everton out in a 4-3-3.
Nothing in this lineup should come as a surprise, as it’s pretty similar to 4-3-3s we’ve seen Koeman utilize. I’ve been on Twitter enough in the past 72 hours to know that most people’s reaction to a setup like this is something akin to: “OH MY GOD WE’RE SO SLOW HOW WILL WE EVER SCORE” — and I promise you that we’ll get to that.
But for right now, I want to focus on one very specific issue from this match: the relationship between Wayne Rooney and Sandro Ramirez. (Important note: I’m only focusing on the first half, because Koeman’s tactical changes in the second half were entirely impossible to draw conclusions from after Spurs’ third goal completely demoralized Everton.)
I’ve listed Sandro as the central striker and Rooney on the right wing in the graphic above, but in reality, you could just as easily reverse the two, because they were tripping all over each other in both the central and right channels for the entire first half.
Before we can talk about the issue here, let’s quickly review how things are supposed to go in a 4-3-3 of this nature. The idea is that the wingers, in this case Rooney and Sigurdsson, drift into the center to help handle playmaking duties and work the ball from defense into attack.
As they work the ball up the field among themselves, in coordination with Klaassen and the striker, the full-backs get into attacking positions as well, providing width.
The idea is that once the team is into the final third, they’ve created passing triangles in dangerous areas with their best attacking players, like so:
Imagine here that the ball is with the right-back (ideally Coleman, sooner rather than later). He’s got the option to whip a ball into the box, or to pull it back to the right wing. If he goes to the winger, the winger can play back to Coleman, into the striker’s feet, out top to the left wing, and so on.
There is absolutely nothing wrong with this setup in a vacuum. Once Everton gets the ball into the final third, I think a setup with inverted wingers and attacking full-backs (again, especially once Coleman returns) is ideal, but there’s a big problem with that which the Toffees are currently facing.
In this setup, they are struggling mightily with getting the ball forward from defense into attack.
This brings us back to the Rooney/Sandro fiasco from the match on Saturday.
In order for there to be space for the inverted wingers to operate in the central channel in the middle third of the pitch, the central striker has to make runs that occupy the opposing defense. Instead, in this match Rooney and Sandro didn’t appear to have clearly defined roles — so both players somewhat aimlessly wandered around the midfield hopefully looking for the ball, while neither player kept the Spurs backline honest.
Check out Rooney and Sandro’s heatmaps (courtesy of EvertonFC.com) from the first half for a clear picture of this point.
Both players meandered around in transition — neither player consistently getting open in the midfield, nor making runs that opened up space for the other.
Positional freedom in attack is a hallmark of teams that don’t play with true wingers, but positional freedom in transition from defense to attack is surefire suicide unless your players have otherworldly talent.
Because Sandro and Rooney weren’t creating space in the center, the third attacker, Gylfi Sigurdsson, was forced to find space in the only area he could — very wide left. Take a look at the Icelander’s heatmap from the first half.
It was smart play from Gylfi to at least find some space anywhere, and the team occasionally created some danger through he and Leighton Baines on that wing in the first half. But, that surely is not the space Koeman and Everton paid 45 million pounds to see Sigurdsson in.
The upshot was a first-half team heatmap that was downright depressing.
You can plainly see the huge holes in the attacking areas just to the left and right of center — the areas where Koeman will want to see his inverted wingers making an impact on the match. But, without a striker pressing the backline and creating space for the wingers, there was no space for that creativity to flourish.
There’s one other quick point to be made about the ugly Rooney/Sandro relationship on the right side of attack.
Because both players had a free role, rather than one defined as the striker and the other as a winger, neither player made any concerted effort to get back in defense. The result?
A very very isolated Cuco Martina on the right side of defense, as the average position map from the first half shows.
It doesn’t feel like this needs to be said, but after the way the first half went, apparently it does. Leaving your worst defender completely isolated at the opponent’s preferred point of attack is a recipe for disaster.
Many were ripping Martina in the aftermath of this one, but the reality is that Mason Holgate, Jonjoe Kenny, Aaron Lennon, you, me, your second cousin who almost made it pro, and just about anybody else available at right-back would have had the same problem — because he simply had no help.
That’s all there is to say about this match from a tactical perspective. Koeman went to a 4-4-2 diamond with Rooney and Dominic Calvert-Lewin up top and Sigurdsson at the 10 to start the second half, but the early goal completely obliterated any confidence Everton could have built from that point — making the whole half an exercise in futility.
If you’re an optimist, you may well be saying right now, “Well yes, Everton’s been battered by some of the league’s top teams in the past few weeks, but there’s no reason to think they’ll struggle the same way when playing inferior opposition.”
I admire that optimism...but I’m not so sure.
Here’s the thing — Everton’s one league match against less talented opposition featured a lot of the same problems we’re seeing against teams like Spurs and Chelsea. Think back to that Stoke match; in the first half, the Toffees played out almost exclusively through wing-back Dominic Calvert-Lewin because they couldn’t figure out a way to work through the Stoke City pressure.
Think about that. Everton had to resort to hoofing long balls to a striker playing wing-back. At home. Against pressure from...Stoke City.
The point that bears repeating is this — the Toffees have struggled to move the ball from defense to attack in every Premier League match this season, and I’m not sure they have the personnel to do things in a substantially different way than they already are.
Calvert-Lewin’s play at striker has been good enough to open up space for the inverted wingers to work, but asking a 20-year-old striker to be the sole player carrying the load in transition is troubling.
Sandro, in theory, has more than enough pace to keep opposing defenses honest as well, but for whatever reason, we haven’t seen him making those kinds of runs thus far. Is it his injury? A lack of tactical awareness? Specific instructions from Koeman? It’s hard to be sure after such a short period, but his inability to make an impact in that way is troubling.
If Koeman wanted to change his whole system, he could use true wingers like Aaron Lennon and Ademola Lookman, as well as more pacey wide players like Kevin Mirallas and Nikola Vlasic. But where would that leave new signings Gylfi Sigurdsson, Davy Klaassen, and Wayne Rooney? If two true wingers started with DCL or Sandro up top, there would likely only be room for one of those three players in the lineup.
The Dutchman could also try to use Sigurdsson as a true No. 10, either in a 4-2-3-1 or some variation on a 4-4-2. Again though, this would potentially remove Klaassen from the lineup.
The Toffees’ next league match is against Manchester United, which could be an ugly one, even if Koeman gets his tactics exactly right. After that, it’s Bournemouth, Burnley, and Brighton, in three matches his team should realistically take at least 7 points from.’
If this trend keeps up though, don’t be surprised if those “lesser” teams come out and press Everton in the midfield early, just like Stoke City did on opening day. Koeman has yet to find a for his existing players to deal with any substantial pressure in the midfield, and I’m not convinced that he has the personnel to do it.