Before I dig into my admittedly controversial thesis (that Everton could have actually beaten Manchester United), let’s get an important point out of the way.
The Toffees did not play poorly on Sunday. Period.
I know the final score was 4-0, and that’s obviously very disheartening. But, United’s final three goals came with Everton chasing the game in a 5-2-3 with Gylfi Sigurdsson and Morgan Schneiderlin as the holding midfielders.
United still needed Ashley Williams to practically hand them a goal in order to make the score 2-0, at which point the team was deflated and in no position to defend for ten more minutes. Those ten minutes sucked, but they simply weren’t representative of how the match went as a whole.
Consider the following graphic from EvertonFC.com.
Everton (marginally) out-possessed Manchester United at Old Trafford. The Toffees managed to keep the match largely in the midfield and away from their own goal, with the final ten minutes skewing the data in United’s favor.
Obviously possession isn’t everything, and Everton was outshot 16-7 in total and 7-3 in shots on target, so I’m not suggesting this was a totally even match. But, it was close, and for spells Everton was the better team. A better finish from Wayne Rooney or Gylfi Sigurdsson in the second half and we might be talking about how the Toffees earned a point that could turn around the season — that’s how fine the margins were on Sunday.
With that stated, let’s talk about what Everton did to stay in the match on Sunday, and what Ronald Koeman could have done to create a more positive result. With a few tweaks to the system, the Toffees genuiely could have beaten Manchester United at Old Trafford.
Take a look at how the Toffees lined up at the start of the match.
It was an (understandably) defensive 5-4-1 from Koeman, with Wayne Rooney leading the line, Gylfi Sigurdsson and Tom Davies in the “wide” roles, and Cuco Martina preferred to Mason Holgate at right-back.
I had no problem with Koeman coming out very defensively in this match. United has been the best attacking team in the Premier League so far this season — and we saw why in the final ten minutes of the match. But there was a problem with the nuance of how Koeman set his team out.
The plan was pretty simple — when Everton won the ball, they looked to work it to Morgan Schneiderlin or Idrissa Gana Gueye, who worked it to Rooney, who dropped deep from his starting position up top.
Once the ball came to Rooney, it was his job to hold up the ball and find ways to work it forward into the attack. Somewhat surprisingly, this actually worked out pretty well. Check out Rooney’s passmap from the match.
I know it doesn’t look like much, but realize that the majority of those passes came with one of Phil Jones or Eric Bailly right on his back and frequently no real support around him. He was better than 50% in these circumstances, which is pretty good considering that the majority of his support came in the form of...Cuco Martina.
This is where we start to see the cracks in Koeman’s plan. Having a striker with decent creative ability drop deep to help work the ball forward is a reasonable plan — but only if he’s going to have forward-charging, pacy fellow attackers to get into the attack.
Ideally, the wingers in this situation would break into a sprint as soon as Everton wins the ball back, so that by the time Rooney was on the ball, they would already be forcing the opposing full-backs backward — or in a position for Rooney to play a ball in behind that sets the attack on goal.
Instead, his wingers were Tom Davies and Gylfi Sigurdsson — defensively willing, technically gifted, and only slightly faster than Andrea Pirlo and Gareth Barry competing in a 100-meter dash.
Leighton Baines isn’t exactly a speedster either, so Rooney’s preferred target on balls forward was Martina, which cannot possibly be the best attacking plan Everton can muster, even against Manchester United.
Take a look at Baines’ and Martina’s heatmaps to see their level of involvement.
The Curacao international was on the ball more and in more advanced areas than Baines, simply because he had the pace to get forward into the attack more quickly and give Rooney a target (though the fact that he was up against Ashley Young probably didn’t hurt).
Now, let’s be fair to Cuco Martina. He was clearly given a job in terms of getting forward, and he did his best to fill it. His forward runs did create space for Rooney, Sigurdsson, and Davies to operate in the middle third, which is more than we can say anyone did against Atalanta or Tottenham Hotspur.
But let’s take a look at Martina’s passmap.
So here’s the thing about Cuco Martina — he isn’t Seamus Coleman.
It isn’t Cuco Martina’s fault that Cuco Martina isn’t Seamus Coleman either. Instead, it’s Ronald Koeman’s fault that Cuco Martina was asked to be Seamus Coleman, instead of only being Cuco Martina — which he’s barely capable of doing to begin with!
So that was Everton’s biggest issue on Saturday. The tactical pieces were there to make something of the match — but the personnel was not. I think, however, one change in this lineup could have radically altered the outcome of this match, such that even an Everton victory would not have been an impossibility.
Let’s start by looking at the player who should never have been utilized in this match — Tom Davies. Davies wasn’t poor, he just...wasn’t much of anything, honestly.
Take a look at his action map, which includes his passes and defensive contributions.
His passing was reasonable accurate, but in incredibly few attempts. Defensively, he had one tackle, two recoveries, and a clearance.
His heatmap wasn’t much more complementary.
So, Davies didn’t get on the ball much and didn’t contribute a ton defensively.
A better player for that position? Aaron Lennon.
Lennon has proven to be as defensively responsible as wingers come, so I don’t think there would have been much lost in terms of protection of the back five had he replaced Davies.
More importantly, his pace in the counter-attack would have been a complete game-changer. Remember, United had a difficult time keeping track of Cuco Martina down the right side.
Imagine what a player with more pace, better positional awareness, and something resembling an end product could have done on that wing, particularly with Martina occupying space and the defense’s attention alongside.
The Toffees created two excellent chances in the second half through interplay down the right wing in the second half — imagine what more they could have done with a true winger testing Ashley Young and Phil Jones, creating space for Wayne Rooney, and whipping in crosses to Sandro Ramirez or Dominic Calvert-Lewin late in the match.
I completely respect Koeman’s desire to keep his team defensively sound against Manchester United at Old Trafford — that strategy largely worked before he had to throw on more attackers and hope for the best.
But, keeping his best defensively-responsible winger, Aaron Lennon, completely out of the 18 in a match where defense and pace were going to be crucial made absolutely no sense, and once again we find ourselves with the same talking point that has occupied much of the season.
Why is Ronald Koeman neglecting his wingers?