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Big Dunc keeps it simple in debut win over Chelsea

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Everton’s biggest change was in mentality, but Ferguson got his tactics right too

Everton FC v Chelsea FC - Premier League Photo by Tony McArdle/Everton FC via Getty Images

When I put together the Projected XI post for last weekend’s match against Chelsea, I was pretty open about the fact that I didn’t have any concrete idea as to what Duncan Ferguson would do in his managerial debut. There just wasn’t a body of work to judge from.

The one thing that seemed relatively likely, though, was that Big Dunc wouldn’t put together anything too elaborate from a technical perspective. There wasn’t enough time, there were too many injuries to overcome, and the players’ form just wasn’t in the right place.

And so it was, with Ferguson rolling out a pretty standard fare 4-4-2.

The plan was simple — sit deep, defend in numbers, and look to hit the ball long over and behind a suspect Chelsea backline. And somehow after conceding five to Liverpool midweek, the plan basically worked.

The Toffees gave up one quality chance to Tammy Abraham in the 25th minute, on which he missed the target — but other than that, Chelsea didn’t really generate a ton of danger. Mateo Kovacic deserves plenty of credit for the goal that made it 2-1, but that sort of shot isn’t one that will make defenders or coaches lose sleep. Sometimes good players hit outrageous shots and there’s not much you can do about it.

So, credit to all 14 Everton players who were on the pitch for this match. They were clearly committed and engaged from the start — willing to play a physically demanding style to get a result against a technically superior side.

And of course, credit to Duncan Ferguson — for the obvious motivational factor he brought to the table in a match that was only ever going to be won by his team exhibiting superior effort, yes. But also for getting his tactics right.

As I said, there wasn’t anything over complex about his gameplan, but there were definitely little tweaks and decisions made by the manager that helped Everton to take a much-needed three points. In no particular order, let’s take a look at a few of them.

Stay Away from the Vacuum

I’m not sure if you’ve heard about this, but N’Golo Kante is pretty good at football. The man is, in no uncertain terms, a ball-winning machine.

Mateo Kovacic is no slouch either. The Croatian actually averages more tackles per 90 than Kante — 2.7 to 2.1 — though Kante is the team’s runaway interceptions per 90 leader with 2.8 compared to Kovacic’s 0.9.

Everton, on the other hand, has its preferred midfield pairing out with long-term injuries, and went with Morgan Schneiderlin and Gylfi Sigurdsson in the midfield on Saturday. I like both Schneiderlin and Sigurdsson significantly more than most Everton supporters these days, and I’d still be the first one to admit that the midfield matchup had the potential to be a nightmare for Everton on the ball.

The solution? Kick. Ball. Far.

The Toffees committed to playing the long ball to an almost hilarious degree. They attempted 255 passes, 74 of which were long balls — 29% of their passes. By comparison, just 17% of Everton’s passes against Liverpool were long balls.

The lesson? You just can’t give Kante and Kovacic the chance to turn you over in midfield. They’re too good at winning the ball back and too good at springing the break, and Schneiderlin and Sigurdsson don’t have the pace to shut down counterattacks in time.

So instead, Ferguson was willing to forfeit possession a fair amount of the time by just launching the ball toward his speedy front four — Theo Walcott and Dominic Calvert-Lewin in particular. They’d only get to the ball 30% of the time, but that was a dangerous 30%, with the other 70% conceding possession to Chelsea 80 yards away from Jordan Pickford’s goal.

Picking the Front Two

If you’re going to empty your midfield to play a front two, then you best have a good sense of how the front two can interact and operate in ways that overcome your numerical disadvantage at the center of the park. Against Chelsea, Duncan Ferguson did just that.

There were four players at Dunc’s disposal up front — Dominic Calvert-Lewin, Cenk Tosun, Moise Kean, and Richarlison. Ferguson went with Calvert-Lewin and Richarlison.

In doing so, he opted for a pair of players with different, but complementary skillsets.

Calvert-Lewin’s work off-the-ball in possession historically hasn’t been great, and he’s not great at creating his own shots, but the guy is built like a brick house and moves like a Ferrari on the open road. In a match where you’re knowingly conceding the possession battle, you need a guy up top who is fast enough to latch onto balls over the top and strong enough to hold up the ball with his back to goal while his teammates get into the attack. Enter DCL.

Richarlison doesn’t have the pace or strength to match Dom, but he’s just so damn sneaky off the ball. I’ve long advocated in this space that the Brazilian shouldn’t play striker, because he’s at his best when sneaking into the central channel off the left wing, while the main striker occupies the opposing center-backs.

Well, I might have to alter my stance to be that he should never play as a lone striker, because as part of a two-man front, he found his half-yard of space behind Calvert-Lewin for the first goal of the match, after Djibril Sidibe placed a cross right on his forehead.

One final note on the strikers — it isn’t tactical, but it bears stating nonetheless. Let’s give some credit to Dominic Calvert-Lewin where it’s due. Many supporters, myself included, have at times been critical of DCL for his final product in front of goal, but you’d never have guessed it based on the Chelsea match.

Both of his goals were absolute gifts granted by ineptitude at the back from Chelsea, but they still required a striker to battle, latch onto the end of them and put the ball in the back of the net — Calvert-Lewin did so decisively both times the chance was granted to him. Saturday’s performance gives him five goals on 5.04 xG, so he’s basically finishing at the rate you’d expect a striker at this level to finish.

Oh, and did I mention that his 0.58 xG per 90 is ninth best in the Premier League among players with more than 500 minutes played? Better than Anthony Martial, Danny Ings, Bernardo Silva, Sadio Mane, Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang, and Roberto Firmino, to name a few? He’ll need to prove his generation and conversation rates are sustainable to legitimately enter the conversation of “top Premier League strikers”, but he’s not as far from that conversation as you might sometimes think.

Choices on the Wings

Generally, I like to see Everton come out with a combination of speed and technical ability on each wing. That usually means someone with some technical ability on the right wing, ahead of the speedy Seamus Coleman or Djibril Sidibe, with a speedster ahead of the more technically gifted Lucas Digne.

Dunc went with the opposite against Chelsea though, pairing Theo Walcott’s speed with Sidibe on the right, and Iwobi’s technical prowess with Digne on the left.

This created an interesting dynamic. The majority of Everton’s attacking third possession somewhat predictably came down the left wing, with the connection between Digne and Iwobi serving as a vital one. But the majority of the true danger came from Walcott and Sidibe bearing down on an often haplessly overwhelmed Cesar Azpilicueta, taking advantage of the veteran’s lack of pace.

It was that combination that opened up so much space for Sidibe to cross in for Richarlison on the opening goal.

I’m not sure that Ferguson actively planned to exploit that speed advantage on the right wing over Azpilicueta, or if he simply put Walcott and Iwobi on the wings they’ve generally preferred for most of their careers — but the interplay between both pairs is something he’ll have to consider going into next week against a suddenly resurgent Manchester United side.