Written by Matthew Mak
The Premier League is back with Everton travelling to the Tottenham Hotspur Stadium, trying to take all three points in the first fixture in the 2020/21 season. The previous Toffee campaign was a disappointing one, as Marco Silva was sacked, then surprise the footballing world by hiring 3 times Champions League winner Carlo Ancelotti in December, although the performance of the team was not enough to get into the European competitions.
However, given the reputation of Ancelotti, the project of Everton was still an exciting one, plenty of big signings were made to reinforce the team. With a very fresh and new midfield, the away side successfully won the game against Tottenham. In this tactical analysis, I will delve into the Toffee’s tactics, evaluating the team from both an offensive and defensive standpoint.
Ancelotti already played a very strong side even the shortened preseason period, it was a 4-3-3 on paper:
Jordan Pickford; Seamus Coleman, Yerry Mina, Michael Keane, Lucas Digne; Allan, Abdoulaye Doucoure, Andre Gomes; James Rodriguez, Richarlison, Dominic Calvert-Lewin
Positional interchanges in the build-up
Just like the previous campaign, they attacked with a 2-3-5, pushing the full-backs high and dropping the midfielders to the second line. Last season, it would be Gylfi Sigurdsson, Tom Davies and Anthony Gordon playing, not the best choices for Ancelotti. Given the upgrade of each individual from an offensive point of view, the midfield formed by Allan, Gomes and Doucoure operated better.
A variation of the midfield pattern would be Allan staying wide as a result of possession turnover, allowing either Gomes or Doucoure to occupy the centre and play the forward pass.
Below is a strong combination pattern between the left-back and the left-winger. It was about making a 1-2 pass, initiated by Digne. Richarlison also has the physical superiority to use his upper body holding against the right-back, separating the ball and the opponent, then, a playing a quick release pass. Digne would then quickly carry the ball into advanced areas.
But, Richarlison should also be aware of not going too deep, as Matt Doherty was behind him. Staying higher could enlarge spaces for himself and Digne, respectively.
If Tottenham set a mid-block and not pressing the ball, the Evertonians could spread into a 2-3 shape to construct an attack. Considering neither Mina nor Keane was good at passing, using this structure could allow the best passers (Allan, Gomes and Doucoure) facing the goal and pick an attacking option.
As shown above, Everton full-backs pushed high and wide, inverting the wingers narrowly. The team should be able to occupy all five vertical zones on the pitch. Another benefit from this approach was the strong passing range of the ball-player, so the front five do not have to drop too deep which potentially compress spaces.
To avoid the verticality and closed body of receiver, Doucoure might not pass to Rodriguez directly, the ball might go through Coleman first.
However, when Tottenham committed numbers forward to press the ball side, it was more uncontrollable in the build-up. As mentioned in the above analysis, the centre-backs and Pickford did not match the same passing level with the midfielders, Everton tended to lose the ball if the midfielders could not get on the ball.
After the hour mark, the situation was slightly better since the likes of Calvert-Lewin was better in terms of the second balls. In fact, this also why Doucoure would be important to the team. The former Watford man was strong to deal with air balls, either by flicking it or keeping it on the ground – a man needed in the transitions.
Dynamism and passing directions
In addition to the build-up, with Rodriguez and Gomes on the pitch, two great passers, the dynamism of the attack was extremely strong. Also, the false positions and use of hybrid players has allowed Everton to attack Tottenham with huge unpredictability.
The dynamism is particularly strong on the left flank, which was a source of goal-scoring opportunities of the game. Although Richarlison was a left-winger on paper, he has done more than that.
The rule was simple – when Digne pushed up, the Brazilian should run into the forward position, like a partner of Calvert-Lewin. If the wide zone was vacuum and Rodriguez was looking for a switch, then, Richarlison should get the ball out wide.
I am pretty sure that many of us were astonished by the performance of Rodriguez – the passing range and diagonal balls from the 29-year-old were exceptional. Given all sorts of methods to avoid closing his body when receiving the ball, like the passing pattern of the team from a tactical perspective, or dropping with half-turn from an individual perspective, Rodriguez could always turn and make that pass in this game.
Also, the aggressive from Ben Davies was not weak. When Rodriguez dropped, the left-back seldom followed tightly to pressure him, allowing him to turn face the attacking field. This was how the dynamism was generated. With Moura almost never being able to catch the speed of the ball or chase Digne, Doherty was being overloaded in a 1 v 2. The diagonal passes from Rodriguez were perfect in terms of the speed, height, and power, allowing the receiver quickly to make his move.
Here, notice how Richarlison got into the striker position as another striker, just like the 4-4-2 system that operated last season. He and Calvert-Lewin could then be able to attack the penalty box with a 2 v 2 against the Spurs centre-backs.
Ideally, the way that Everton to attack the box should also has strong dynamic, using the example above as a reference, we can predict how the Toffees are going to develop.
With Richarlison and Calvert-Lewin to attack the six-yard box, the crosser should be able to find multiple options in the penalty box. As a follow-up and a secret weapon, Doucoure should make the deep runs and late runs, delayed runs to attack the penalty spot, as another layer of the cross. Rodriguez and Gomes would lurk at the edge of the box, or either getting into it. This should be a part of the offensive marking, controlling the rebound zone, while potentially converting the second balls into shooting opportunities. As the sole pivot remaining, Allan should stay a layer deeper to stop the transitions as well.
It would be intriguing to see the job of Coleman, as the unused right-back in these attacks, probably he should stay a bit narrowly, on the same layer with Allan. The intention was the same – stop the transitions.
Apart from Rodriguez, André Gomes was another player who contributed a lot in terms of ball circulation. The Portuguese midfielder also excelled large passing range, being able to send the ball to all areas on the pitch.
In the second half, the excellent vision and passing ability of Gomes also helped Everton to dominate in the transitions. For example, releasing Richarlison with a first-touch long pass into the final third at the 55th minute.
Defensive rotations and shifting
Defensively, Everton were not too aggressive – mostly setting a midblock and keeping the engagement line near the central third. More works were related to the shifting of the defence, and the process were easier as Tottenham were not used to play out from the back.
In general, the midfield shape was a 1-2 triangular one, with Allan as the base initially. This zonal approach was highly flexible and required the players to move according to each other’s positions. When Calvert-Lewin left a Tottenham pivote to press, another midfielder would have to push higher to provide the defensive cover. This avoided the opposition’s organizer – Harry Winks and Pierre-Emile Højbjerg getting the ball.
A small issue of the game would be the habits of the pressing, as Everton never attacked the ball and the opponent. Instead, the ball-player sometimes enjoyed spaces to pick his option, which could be dangerous if the behaviours were the same against stronger opponents.
With a three at the midfield, as suggested, a 1-2 triangular shape, Everton tried to defend central spaces with numbers. In this zone-oriented system, even numbers are matched, Ancelotti’s troop still seldom man-mark the opponents. Instead, Allan trying to lure the ball into Dele Ali’s feet below and intercepting it.
This approach was highly flexible, as long as the 1-2 shape was maintained, Everton should be safe. When Allan moved to the wide zone during the press, either Doucoure or Gomes would automatically move as the base position, ensuring those spaces are covered with a pivote.
Note that the wingers were asymmetrically positioning themselves, with one deeper and the ball-far one staying higher as a gambling winger. In this case, Rodriguez was far deeper than Richarlison. As the game went on and past the hour mark, the Brazilian was still energetic and kept using his pace to attack spaces behind Tottenham backline during the transitions. In another day which Richarlison has a better form, surely he would register a goal.
However, this was a potential issue of Everton. I am not sure whether the centre-backs were not fully fit, or the judgments were suboptimal. At times, when Mina stepped up, he went too close to Kane, being anticipated and bypassed. At some moments, Mina and Keane should also do better to prevent the receiver from turning or releasing the third man, which they failed to do so, resulted in some chances that required Pickford to rescue.
If the intensity to compress spaces around the ball was enough, the above strategy could be a pressing trap of the team. Of course, this would require more training for the team to control the distances between players and line tighter to do so.
When inviting the ball into spaces behind the midfield, the defender should step up to press, this was the principle that was explained earlier. When the midfielders were quick enough to turn, the receiver would have to engage pressure from at least two different angles, or three in the below example.
Executing this tactic well could help Everton to win the ball back and starting an offensive transition.
When defending deeper inside the penalty zone, Allan also made an impact while the rest of the team was disciplined. Given the early pressuring behaviours of defenders, horizontal gaps appeared quite often when the ball was at the wide zones. Therefore, Allan should drop to the last line to cover those gaps. Here, Mina and Coleman were pulled wider, Allan was between the centre-backs.
Then, the second layer should be formed by at least two players – Doucoure and Gomes to cover the rebound zone. It would be even better if a winger also drop to the same horizontal zone to cover larger spaces for the second balls, as I have drawn below.
Similar to the above examples, the wingers defended asymmetrically to trigger potentials counter-attacks as the gambling player. This time, Rodriguez was higher than Richarlison.
Of course, just like other zone-oriented system, there was a potential issue for Everton in the future – what if the opponent overloaded Allan behind the midfield? For some cleverer positional plays team, they could overload the central areas by inverting the wingers or dropping the striker. In case Allan was under-loaded, without sufficient pressure on the ball, the first two layers of the mid-block was breakable.
Yes, it was still in the very early stage of the season, and too early to judge whether Everton would challenge the top six. However, the signings look great and they operated very well, though the game was not yet perfect. Rodriguez was definitely classy, and he must be the main man to watch in the future games.
Tactically speaking, the away side has more shots and chances, and the win was deserved. There are still some limitations in the team, such as the individual ball-playing ability was inadequate at the back-line. When being pressed man-to-man at the midfield, passes Mina, Keane and Pickford lacked the accuracy and optimal speed to continue an attack. It would be intriguing to see how Ancelotti to develop his team further in the future.