Look, I don’t want to think about Saturday’s utter humiliation against Tottenham Hotspur anymore than you do.
Everton traveled to Wembley (the players were physically present, at a minimum), and absolutely collapsed in the second half. It was a completely unacceptable performance on many levels.
There’s a reasonable temptation, I think, given the way things panned out, to chalk this one up to a lack of effort, commitment, and organization, and move on. All those things were indeed lacking, and that’s troubling — but it doesn’t tell the whole story.
Tactically, there were two problems (okay, well, maybe more than two, but let’s not ruin everyone’s weekend looking at every issue) that torpedoed Everton’s chances from the start — and they were problems we’ve already seen this season. If Sam Allardyce wants to get Everton back on track, he’s got to recognize these issues and address them, quickly.
Let’s start by looking at Everton’s lineup for the match.
The Everton Twitter account actually reflected what the Toffees did out on the pitch (for a change). James McCarthy joined Idrissa Gueye in the center of midfield, Phil Jagielka and Mason Holgate partnered in the center of defense, and Cenk Tosun got a debut up top.
The first lesson comes from that central midfield pairing, where Sam Allardyce learned a lesson that Antonio Conte and Chelsea should heed after an unsuccessful week as well — you cannot pair two technically mediocre box-to-box midfielders and expect to create attacking chances.
At Stamford Bridge this week, N’Golo Kante and Tiemoue Bakayoko struggled to work their way through a Leicester City high press because...well...that’s just not what they’re good at. The pair will win you the ball over and over again, but when it comes to moving the ball forward into the attack, they just aren’t built for it.
It’s the same story with James McCarthy and Idrissa Gueye at Everton — there’s a lot of effort, steel, and desire in that midfield, but there isn’t a ton of distributive ability.
Take a look at their combined passmap from the match, courtesy of EvertonFC.com.
It’s not horrific, but there’s an unsettling number of short, sideways, or backwards passes missed, which is usually an indication of a turnover in a scenario that could lead to a counterattack.
The forward passes to Everton’s creative players in dangerous areas are limited as well, with only a handful of final-third passes completed.
Defensively, the issues with this kind of midfield pairing are often even more obvious. Gana and McCarthy both are at their best when they’ve got license to roam the midfield on defense, chasing down the ball and winning it back from the opposition.
That’s great to have when you’ve got a partner in the midfield shielding you — but when both midfielders play that way, you’re liable to get pulled out of position quite easily, creating space ahead of the back four to build attacks.
Take a look at the McCarthy / Gana heatmap from this match.
(A heatmap isn’t a perfect way to display defensive positioning, as it only shows when players were on the ball, but it’s a decent tool to get a rough estimate of defensive positioning for central midfielders.)
There are some massive gaps in where Gana and McCarthy played in this match, and when you see the areas in which they were not spending time in this match, it’s no wonder that Spurs scored four times.
The solution here is simple — there has to be a true holding midfielder in the lineup with these players. James McCarthy’s best play at Everton came alongside Gareth Barry; Idrissa Gueye’s alongside Barry in the first half of last season, and Schneiderlin in the second half of last season.
If Big Sam was looking to give Schneiderlin a rest, or trying to motivate him via a brief benching, that’s totally fine — but a similar player has to come into the lineup as a result. Beni Baningime is the only other player in the current squad who fits that description, so if Schneiderlin gets a rest, Beni needs to play.
The second lesson is one I’ve been mulling for awhile, but after Saturday’s limp display, I’m ready to commit myself to. Big Sam needs to swap his wingers in order to get the most out of all his wide players.
Let me explain exactly what I mean.
The preferred front four at the moment appears to be Cenk Tosun up top, Wayne Rooney behind him, Yannick Bolasie on the right, and Gylfi Sigurdsson on the left. The Icelander tends to drift toward the middle of the pitch, where he is at his best, and combine with the other players from there, while Bolasie hugs the right sideline to create as much width as possible.
This unbalanced setup can be tenable going forward, but at the moment, it’s got a massive flaw.
When Sigurdsson drifts inside, he’s drawing the attention of all the opponent’s nearby defenders, as he’s often the most dangerous player Everton has in the midfield. That’s not a bad thing, as it creates a ton of space down the left wing for the full-back.
The problem — as you may have already figured out — is that the left-back at the moment is Cuco Martina. The Curacao international had a rough match on Saturday (as did most), but on the whole, his defensive play has been respectable since being forced into duty on his off wing because of the injury to Leighton Baines.
But, he’s not great going forward to begin with, and now he’s a right-footed player operating on the left side, which severely handicaps his ability to whip accurate crosses in from that open space.
The result? Opponents are willing to give him that space, double down on Gylfi, and trust that they’ll be able to close Cuco down before he can set up his body to move the ball into the box. This makes things really tough on Sigurdsson, who is already playing at a somewhat unnatural position — and then drawing the attention of multiple defenders on top of that.
My solution? Swap Bolasie and Sigurdsson. Let the Congolese winger play on the left side, and bring Gylfi over to the right.
The gameplan remains exactly the same, just inverted — Yala continues to create width on his wing (the left), while Sigurdsson drifts into the center from his side (the right). Now, if defenders focus solely on the Icelandic midfielder, they’re leaving Jonjoe Kenny in space on the right side.
Kenny isn’t as good an attacking full-back as Seamus Coleman, but he’s A) on the side of the pitch benefiting his preferred foot, and B) a substantially better attacker than Cuco Martina.
If Big Sam learns those two lessons from this match, the Toffees will be in a better place going forward — and we can all try to forget this miserable day.
If not, history is doomed to repeat itself.