When Everton released the lineup for Saturday’s match against Southampton, most of the talk was about the exclusion of Moise Kean from the matchday squad.
I get why, mind you. You spend the money Everton did to bring in a highly-touted striking prospect, then drop him from the 18 after just 270 Premier League minutes and you’re going to turn some heads. Our Matthew Chandler took a look at the situation over the weekend — and it is worth discussing at least to an extent.
But the Kean talk overshadowed the bigger news, which was Cenk Tosun’s first Premier League start since the final day of last season. The Turkish striker was assumed to be the odd man out after Kean signed on and Dominic Calvert-Lewin was given the prestigious No. 9 shirt — and through the opening portion of the season, it definitely looked as though that would be the case.
Tosun failed to make even the bench in five of Everton’s 10 Premier League matches before the Spurs match last weekend — a match in which, of course, he came on to score the late equalizer and earn Everton a point.
It’s funny, really, that it was likely his goal against Tottenham Hotspur that vaulted him into the starting XI finally, given that his true value was much more on display in his League Cup appearances.
Tosun notched assists against both Lincoln City and Watford FC in Carabao Cup play — both of the significant variety. Against Lincoln City, his knockdown in the box set up Alex Iwobi for the game-winning goal; against Watford, his inch-perfect breakaway pass to Richarlison set up the Brazilian for the dagger goal in the 93rd minute.
The point is this — Cenk Tosun is a good playmaking striker, and he’s exactly what Everton needs in matches like the Southampton match on Saturday. That need stems from a couple of different things.
First, Everton has struggled to score against deep-lying opponents all season — regardless of the personnel in play. Tosun brings a level of creativity that can help to alleviate that, be it his intelligence in making off-the-ball runs or a better awareness of where his teammates are than his striker counterparts.
Second, and perhaps more pressingly, Tosun fits in best given the other personnel options available to Marco Silva right now. Bernard is out injured, and Theo Walcott is playing his best football since coming to Everton. That means a wing duo of Walcott and Richarlison.
Those are two players with plenty of strengths, but neither is really a playmaker (though both have higher xA per 90 this season than their career averages — something to be encouraged by). As such, the Toffees could really use another playmaker in the center of the pitch along with either Gylfi Sigurdsson or Alex Iwobi — even more so now that Everton’s best deep-lying ball-progressor, Andre Gomes, is out for the foreseeable future.
That’s where Tosun comes in. He’s the best option to drop deep alongside Sigurdsson and help funnel the ball forward into the wide areas, where Richarlison and Walcott can do the most damage.
Want the proof? Here’s Tosun’s passmap from Saturday (recall he played 74 minutes).
Two key passes is solid, and he kept the ball moving along the left wing pretty well. I know it doesn’t look mind-blowingly impressive, but compare this to Richarlison’s passmap against Spurs (he started at striker that day) and Calvert-Lewin’s against Watford.
There’s not really much comparison.
In addition to freeing Walcott and Richarlison to do what they do best, there are two other things of note about the use of Tosun as the starting striker against opponents like Southampton.
First, dropping another player into the area generally associated with the No. 10 — as Tosun can — will help to free up the actual No. 10. Take a look at Sigurdsson’s passmap from Saturday.
Look at all those touches! The man was everywhere! I even took set piece attempts (save key passes / assists) out of this and he’s still on the ball all over the place! What a world!
Second, there’s a perception that Tosun isn’t a good finisher in front of goal...and I’m not sure that’s entirely fair.
Yes, Tosun had a couple of bad misses last season — he finished with three Premier League goals on just about 5 xG. That’s a pretty significant underperformance, no denying that.
But in his first season with the club, he scored five goals on 3.2 xG — basically an equal overperformance to his 2018-19 underperformance. This season, he’s had one quality scoring chance, which he converted late against Tottenham.
In 2162 total Premier League minutes for Everton, Tosun has nine goals and 8.92 xG — basically a 1:1 finishing ratio compared to his xG.
Let me close with a final note — Tosun should not be the guy starting against top Premier League teams, and that’s by no means what I’m advocating for. The Toffees have had pretty good success playing a high press against teams that play out of the back, and Dominic Calvert-Lewin has proven definitively that he’s the go-to for those moments with his pace and workrate.
But in matches where Everton expect to have the lion’s share of possession, there’s no reason why Cenk Tosun shouldn’t be the starting striker of choice.