Let me start by getting something out of the way — Saturday’s match was a lot of fun. Watching a player like Oumar Niasse complete his transformation from outcast to hero was utterly sublime. Moments like these are the reason that we’re all sports fans.
I open with that sentiment because A) it’s very true and worth saying, but also B) because it’s basically the last positive thing I’m going to say this week, so enjoy it while you can.
Even on the face of it, the need for Niasse was troubling. Everton, at home, needed a player who supposedly wasn’t good enough for the club last season, to come on as a late substitute and score twice so that the Toffees could beat Bournemouth, one of the worst teams in the Premier League so far this season.
Let’s put it this way — if I told you on the eve of the Premier League season that Everton was going to need a quasi-miraculous performance from Oumar Niasse to beat Bournemouth at home, you probably would have been happy for Niasse, but you also probably would have thought: “Dear God, that cannot be a good sign for the rest of the team.”
And dear reader, you would be quite right about that.
So what exactly went wrong for Everton before Niasse started to turn the tide with his 77th minute goal? I’m glad you asked.
Let’s start by looking at Everton’s lineup.
The biggest shock was at the back, as both Michael Keane and Phil Jagielka missed out through injury, leaving a center-back pairing of Ashley Williams and Mason Holgate. Cuco Martina again got the start at right-back, with Holgate already starting in the middle and Jonjoe Kenny on the bench.
There are a few things worth noting about the situation up top as well, but a lot of the issues there stem from what’s going on at the back, so let’s start in defense.
Before we dig too deep, let me make a quick confession, for the sake of openness and honesty related to what you are about to read — I really do not like Mason Holgate.
I think outside of his size and pace, he’s got absolutely nothing positive to offer to the team. I’ve seen roadkill with quicker reaction times than Holgate, and his decision-making is so poor that sometimes I wonder if he’s actively trying to make the wrong decision at every turn — because there’s no way a player could make the wrong judgment that frequently by accident, right?
All that said, with the injuries to Keane and Jagielka, Holgate had to play at center-back on Saturday, and I will grant him that he is somewhat better in the middle than at right-back.
I don’t necessarily need you to agree with me on Holgate’s overall value. Instead, I say all that mostly to make a point I think we all can agree with — Ronald Koeman should have gone out of his way to make things easy for Mason Holgate, in his first match at center-back in a back four for Everton that I can remember.
If you have a defender who you know might be out of place or overmatched, you do whatever you can to help him. That doesn’t seem like advanced coaching advice to me.
Yet...here we are.
Once again, Ronald Koeman insisted upon using two central players (Wayne Rooney and Gylfi Sigurdsson) as his “wingers,” leaving the responsibility of providing width to his full-backs. Once again, for a reason I may never understand, he focused his team’s attack down the right wing, through Cuco Martina and Wayne Rooney.
Check out the breakdown of Everton’s attacking play, courtesy of EvertonFC.com.
Nearly half of Everton’s time in the Bournemouth defensive third was spent on the right wing with Martina and Rooney for...reasons...I guess.
This created at least four separate problems for Everton, all of which contributed to the Toffees falling behind early in the second half.
First, let’s look at how this attacking setup affected Mason Holgate in defense. For whatever reason, Martina was clearly instructed to continue to play very high up the pitch once Everton won the ball in defense, often isolating Holgate as a result. This affected Everton in both attack and defense.
When the ball made its way to Holgate out of the back, he often didn’t have an easy pass to make to his right because Cuco was already so far up the field. Now, this would be a potential problem even for a center-back who is comfortable with the ball at his feet. Mason Holgate is not that center-back.
According to Whoscored.com, Holgate’s pass completion percentage is 60.8%, making him easily the worst outfield player in the squad who has played more than only a few minutes. As a point of comparison, Phil Jagielka has completed 78% of his passes and Ashley Williams 85.4% of his.
So, it should come as no surprise that Holgate, when given a very difficult job in terms of distributing the ball, did not do a very good job.
Often lacking the composure to find an open central midfielder or to make a simple pass back to Williams, Holgate instead just hoofed the ball forward toward Martina up the field, with very limited success.
Perhaps the most frustrating part of Cuco’s position was that it was completely unnecessary. In past matches where we’ve seen Martina (or Dominic Calvert-Lewin in the opener against Stoke City) push really high up the pitch from the right-back spot, it’s been to serve as an outlet against a high-pressing team, largely because he was the only player with the size or space to win long-balls and threaten the opposing back line on the break.
Against Bournemouth, this simply wasn’t the case. The Cherries didn’t press Everton particularly high, and Martina didn’t need to serve as an outlet, because the Toffees had every opportunity to play the ball through the center of midfield.
For whatever reason, they often didn’t do that, and Martina left Holgate isolated as a result. This takes us directly into the second problem with Everton’s right-centric attacking plan.
Because Martina was frequently so high up the pitch, Mason Holgate was completely isolated in defense, which led to the Bournemouth goal.
Regardless of your individual beliefs on Mason Holgate, we can all, I think, agree on this — Holgate was pushed into the center of a back four, a somewhat unfamiliar position, with Everton’s third-choice center-back, so he should have gotten as much help as he needed in defense.
Instead, Koeman had Martina operating as both a right wing and right-back simultaneously, which potentially left Holgate alone on the right side of defense — just as we saw on the Bournemouth goal.
There is no situation in which a 20-year-old, positionally nebulous defender should be left looking at a 1-v-2 in open space — yet here we are.
Where is Cuco Martina, you ask? Hard to tell because he isn’t on the screen here as Bournemouth starts the attack, but I can only assume that Koeman has him playing striker because that’s just the way things have been going this season.
I will be the first to say Holgate should have done better on this play — he should have simply tracked Josh King from the start, rather than worrying about the other Bournemouth player carrying the ball along the sideline.
However, Koeman cannot leave his worst defender this isolated, ever. He’s done the same thing with Martina at right-back at times this season too, and his lack of understanding of the defensive capabilities of his own players at this point is utterly astounding.
You cannot play a system that so easily leaves mediocre players isolated. Period.
Koeman put his worst defender, Holgate, in a difficult position both in defense and going forward in this match, in order to set up a right-centric attack featuring Cuco Martina and Wayne Rooney. So, they must have done a lot with that responsibility, right?
You didn’t actually think the passmaps were going to look better than this, right?
Let’s start with Rooney. To be fair to the Englishman, he did a decent job at what it appears he was asked to do. Koeman wanted him to cut inside and combine with Martina on the right, working the ball to the full-back in the wide position.
He didn’t do much more than that, but he didn’t really have a ton of chances to against a pretty deep-lying Bournemouth side and with a pretty slow and predictable attacking setup.
That brings us back to Martina — and oh boy, that passmap isn’t pretty.
The Curacao international was the focal point of the attack for basically the entire time he was on the field. He completed one pass/cross into the box in the 75 minutes he was on the pitch.
If Ronald Koeman is going to sacrifice defensive stability, play at least two attackers out of position, and make the focal point of his attacking plans a right-back, he damn well better be able to find a friggin’ target on his crosses. Martina couldn’t do so for his entire time on the pitch, so Everton didn’t score.
Think about that for a second.
Everton spent upwards of £100 million this offseason — yet Koeman’s grand attacking scheme against mighty Bournemouth was to have a free-signing right-back, who was third-choice at a mid-table team last season, whip crosses into a 20-year-old, a 5-foot-9 aging former superstar, and a creative midfielder forced into a winger’s role. And when that didn’t work, Koeman had no plan B.
Well, perhaps that isn’t entirely fair — his plan B was to bring in a different, better attacking right-back, Jonjoe Kenny.
The introduction of Kenny, while positive, underlies the insanity of the entire system, and the mistakes Koeman has made in adopting it. By bringing on Kenny, he essentially admitted that Martina was not the best attacking option available at right-back, despite the fact that he used his right-back almost exclusively as an attacking player.
If a position is going to be used exclusively as an attacker, doesn’t it make sense to just start with the best attacker there in the first place?
Finally, I have to say a word about the left side of Everton’s attack. More pertinently, I have to ask — why are Everton’s two most creative attacking players playing bit-part roles on a team that cannot find the back of the net?
I’m going to make the assumption here that Leighton Baines and Gylfi Sigurdsson are Everton’s two most creative players. If that’s something you disagree with, I would be happy to hear your thoughts in the comments — but let’s assume it for the sake of argument here.
These two players have composed Everton’s left wing for most of the season, and neither has really gotten a chance to shine because Koeman ridiculously insists upon playing through less talented players down the right.
Let’s take a look at Sigurdsson’s heatmap for this match.
This is by far the best-looking heatmap Gylfi has had in a match where he’s played on the left wing this season, and it’s still pretty underwhelming. The idea when Gylfi is on the left, much like when Rooney is on the right, is that he will cut inside, allow the full-back to get forward down the wing, and facilitate attacks in the center of the pitch.
Yet his biggest points of impact, yet again, are very near the left touchline, because it’s the only place he can find space while Everton’s focuses its attacks down the right.
In a vacuum, this quasi-left wing role is a reasonable one for Sigurdsson. He is a good crosser of the ball, has good spatial and tactical awareness, and can curl a mean right-footed shot from the top of the box while cutting in from the left. But that all relies upon him actually getting the ball.
Again, this falls on Koeman, whose usage of the Icelander has been absolutely infuriating. Over the summer, Koeman insisted that Gylfi was the man he wanted, allowed the club’s transfer movement to grind to a half while a deal was agreed upon with Swansea. Everton paid £40 million for the 28-year old, breaking a club record, and then proceeded to add no additional players of note before the window closed.
At least the Toffees got their man, right?
Except that he’s been stuck out on the left, away from Everton’s point of attack, almost exclusively this season. Saturday’s match contained a new and surprising indignity, with Sigurdsson pushed into the wide left role in a 4-4-2 after the introduction of Oumar Niasse — put the Icelander not only away from the point of attack, but just generally far away from the goal.
He isn’t going to succeed if he keeps being treated this way, and neither is Everton.
Let’s take a look at his ignored left-side counter part, Leighton Baines.
Would you look at that — Baines completed two key passes into the box with substantially fewer attempts than Cuco Martina. Who could have guessed that Baines is a better passer and crosser?
Remind me again — why have we been playing down the right this season?
I’ve seen a lot of folks complimenting Koeman’s willingness to make the correct substitutions in this match, but frankly, I think that’s a load of crap.
It was Koeman’s ludicrous tactical system that isolated his defenders, froze out his most creative players, and put undue attacking burden on a player who should never have to shoulder it.
It was Koeman’s insistence that Jonjoe Kenny wasn’t ready that kept the young Englishman out of the lineup up to this point, despite the fact that he is clearly the best fit in Koeman’s incomprehensible tactical setup.
It was Koeman who told Oumar Niasse last season that he had no future at Everton Football Club, a sentiment that clearly was incorrect.
I’m even hesitant to give Koeman credit on the Everton goals, even though they both involved players he brought on as substitutes.
Everton’s first came via a long, central through ball from Tom Davies — the sort of pass that Koeman’s “give it to Cuco and let him cross it” game plan completely took out of play for most of the match.
Everton’s second came via a deflected cross — good on Niasse for getting to the ball first and being persistent enough to put the chance away — but it isn’t as though the play was borne of an ingenious tactical switch.
So yes, Oumar Niasse scored two massively entertaining and important goals, and his persistence and success are a true feel-good sports story. Nothing can or should take that away from him.
But to focus only on those goals means a substantial failure to recognize that Everton was in a very bad place against a clearly inferior Bournemouth side, largely because of mistakes made by Ronald Koeman. If he continues to set his team out like we’ve seen for most of this season, he’s going to need more than a little Niasse magic to keep his job.