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Everton’s loss to Manchester United came with a familiar tactical flaw

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Big Sam was guilty of a cardinal sin that dates back to the Koeman reign

FBL-ENG-PR-EVERTON-MAN UTD Photo credit should read PAUL ELLIS/AFP/Getty Images

When Sam Allardyce came to Everton in December, he inherited a strange situation.

The Toffees have a few very talented players, a host of promising youngsters, and a fair number of decent (if not spectacular) players with substantial Premier League experience. He also inherited a team missing both of its starting full-backs, a thin and aging center-back corps, and without a proven senior striker.

The club’s blistering start under Big Sam didn’t negate those negative factors, and the recent run of poor results doesn’t negate the positive ones.

Everton’s most recent setback — a 2-0 loss at home against Manchester United — came as Allardyce not only failed to minimize the shortcomings of the squad he inherited, but actually exacerbated them.

To look at this in more detail, let’s start by looking at Everton’s starting lineup against Jose Mourinho’s side.

Most notably, Nikola Vlasic was handed a start on the right wing, with Oumar Niasse and Yannick Bolasie starting up top alongside him.

Mason Holgate started at right-back, finally giving Jonjoe Kenny a rest after an interminably long stretch without a break for the youngster. Tom Davies also handed Idrissa Gueye a rest in the center of midfield.

That left some very important players — Gana, Kenny, Dominic Calvert-Lewin, Aaron Lennon, and Gylfi Sigurdsson — on the bench for what was always going to be a difficult match against a top team. Before I dig into the specifics of the tactics of this match, though, I do need to say a word about the exclusion of those players in this match.

There had to be a fair bit of rotation between the Bournemouth match on Saturday and the United match on Monday — that’s the nature of the holiday period in the Premier League. Yet, in the objectively easier match, Allardyce used Kenny, Gueye, Lennon, Sigurdsson, and Calvert-Lewin, all regular starters under his regime, knowing that they realistically could not start against United.

If his thinking going into the two matches was “Well, I don’t know if we can beat United with our best XI anyway, so let’s go big in the Bournemouth match,” that wouldn’t have been the worst idea — three points is three points, regardless of who you get them against.

But as soon as the Bournemouth match went bad, Everton was in a tough spot, and always likely to get zero points from the two matches.

In short, Sam had a tough job in finding enough capable players to play two matches in three days on a team that lacks depth at several positions, particularly given the injuries at full-back. He could have done a better job of selecting personnel in both matches, but I’m willing to grant him amnesty on that count because of the difficulty of the job.

Instead, let’s now focus on his usage of the personnel he selected, rather than the selection itself.

Everton utilized a plan that’s worked well under Allardyce thus far — putting a true winger on one side of the attack (Bolasie) opposite a more central player on the opposite wing (Vlasic), with Wayne Rooney playing in the midfield between them.

The idea is to create one of two scenarios:

  1. 1-v-1 situations with the true winger, Bolasie, against the opposing full-back. Let that player simply try to pull something off, get to the endline, and whip crosses in or pull passes back.
  2. Allow the opposite winger, Vlasic, to come central and combine with Rooney, creating space for the full-back to get forward in the vacated wide area.

Unfortunately for Everton, neither plan worked, though for different reasons.

(1) failed for reasons that seems entirely avoidable. For whatever reason, every time Bolasie got the ball down the left wing against out-of-position Victor Lindelof, Niasse drifted from his central position to that wing, dragging a center-back along with him and depriving the Congolese winger of space to work.

I don’t know why Niasse did it — it could have been his own failure to understand the system, or a poor direction from Allardyce. Either way, look at Yannick’s heatmap (courtesy of EvertonFC.com) from the first half for a clearer picture.

Yala got the ball plenty 35-40 yards from goal, but couldn’t carry it any deeper because Niasse occupied that space.

Niasse was better about spacing himself in the second half, but United dominated minutes 45-60, after which Bolasie left the match. Lennon came on in his place to play a similar role, but he simply isn’t as talented in those situations.

So, that forced Everton down the right — a lot. Take a look at how the team’s final third possession was broken down by channel.

That’s nearly 44% of the attack coming down the right wing, which on its own isn’t a bad thing. The Toffees have had success in the past with similar breakdowns, but only with the right personnel available.

This brings us to (2) from above: Allow the opposite winger, Vlasic, to come central and combine with Rooney, creating space for the full-back to get forward in the vacated wide area.

Vlasic got on the ball a fair bit in the final third, and showcased what he can do when given an opportunity to play. He’s not a true winger, lacking the pace and athleticism you look for in that role, but he’s more than creative enough to come inside from a wide starting position and do damage.

That drift toward the center of the pitch creates open space along the touchline for the full-back to get forward, work behind the opposing full-back, and create offense along the endline.

That duty fell to...Mason Holgate.

Here’s a few fun facts about Mason Holgate in the attack:

  • He has one assist in 33 matches across the Premier League and Europa League.
  • He has completed 67.1% of his passes in Premier League play this season, the worst of any non-forward or goalkeeper Everton player.
  • According to WhoScored.com, he has completed only 9 of the 59 crosses he has attempted in his career, a 15.25% completion percentage. By comparison, Jonjoe Kenny has completed 11 of his 34 crosses in his career, a 32.35% completion percentage.

So, it shouldn’t surprise you that forcing attacks through Mason Holgate didn’t work out for Everton. Take a look at his passmap for the match.

Holgate did manage two key passes — one difficult-to-finish cross to Oumar Niasse (put wide), and one flubbed pass to Tom Davies (who was tightly covered and had his shot blocked).

The map doesn’t quite capture his consistently unsure nature on the ball, his poor first touches, or his questionable attacking positioning — and it certainly doesn’t have a graphic for “horrific throw-ins leading directly to an opponent’s goal.”

If this sounds familiar, it should. Ronald Koeman did the same thing in Everton’s away match against United in September, just with Cuco Martina instead of Mason Holgate.

It’s easy to be upset at Holgate for those struggles, but Big Sam simply should not have put the English defender in that situation. If the plan for this match was to use Vlasic, he should have been paired with Kenny, and Holgate should have started at right-back against Bournemouth instead.

The positive takeaway for Everton, however, is that the combination of Vlasic and Rooney, much like the combination of Sigurdsson and Rooney, is capable of creating space in which other players can thrive.

It falls on Allardyce to ensure the players who surround Everton’s more creative central players are capable of effectively utilizing the space created for them.