In the summer Everton took one step forward and two steps back. They sold Romelu Lukaku, a striker who had been criticised for his failure to add much to Everton’s game beyond goal-scoring but was nevertheless very good at scoring those goals, then with the money gained bought a collection of playmakers but failed to replace the man who could finish the chances they created. On top of that, an aging backline plagued by injury ensured they leaked goals.
With little contingency plan in place, Ronald Koeman was let go and a month long hunt began for his replacement. Soccer betting sites went wild predicting the next manager, with the likes of Diego Simeone, Carlo Ancelotti, Thomas Tuchel, Sean Dyche and Eddie Howe all being pushed as possible replacements for the Dutchman, before Sam Allardyce was finally appointed after much deliberation.
The decision was initially met with scorn from Everton supporters, but a result in the Merseyside derby and a six match unbeaten run seems to have mellowed them, only for a downturn to reintroduce questions. So what exactly is it that Allardyce has changed and what does that realistically mean in the long term?
The primary alteration has been in defence. Everton were leaking goals at an average of two per game in the league, which Allardyce has got down to 1.22 – just over a third of those goals coming in their most recent 4-0 thrashing at the hands of Tottenham.
That Allardyce’s first answer was to bolster his defence wasn’t going to surprise anyone: his focus on defensive organisation was likely what won him the job with the perils of relegation looming, even if it has since appeared overblown. He’s used various formations since taking over on Merseyside, utilising a 4-4-2 against Liverpool and a 3-5-2 against West Brom but otherwise alternating between a 4-2-3-1 and a 4-5-1. The choice of shape mostly comes down to personnel available, with Tom Davies’ inclusion usually the sign that he’s opted for a 4-5-1, presumably not trusting the young local lad in a midfield two.
The overall plan remains the same regardless of shape though: the backline sit deep, the full-backs rarely venture forward and if so it’s not deep into opposition territory, and the deepest midfielder(s) shield them. The rest of the team tailor their positioning to where the opposition are – they can press forward to be proactive and win back the ball or they can shadow their opponent, following them deep to ensure they aren’t caught out. The only player immune to these defensive duties is the striker, who is left high up the pitch as an out-ball.
Allardyce’s idea is clear: “From a tactical point of view, I’ve simplified the game”. It’s nothing special but it’s undoubtedly been effective. Everton have missed all of their first choice back four for large chunks of the season and have unsurprisingly struggled – their new manager has stripped back some of the demands on them and let them focus on basic defensive skills as they are thrown it at the deep end.
The main focus is on protecting the box. The centre-backs remain deep and don’t get dragged into wide areas, ensuring there’s little space between them and new keeper Jordan Pickford for opposition forwards to attack. They can push forward to ensure a forward can’t turn on the ball so long as they don’t stray too far, but generally their role is to stay around the box, win their battles and clear the ball.
Aging quickly, Ashley Williams looked a dead man walking under Koeman but under Allardyce his lack of mobility isn’t exposed, albeit he still finds himself going into challenges second, while his usual partner Mason Holgate is strong and aggressive although still very raw at 21 years old – a good front-foot defender but with a tendency to go in for a challenge regardless of whether it’s the right choice or not, often seeming in two minds into what position he should take up. Williams isn’t capable of covering for him at this point in his career but Phil Jagielka is more comfortable despite slowing down too and may be able to walk him through games if given the chance, but Michael Keane should still be ahead of Holgate in the pecking order – the new signing’s struggled in the chaos around him, however he excelled in Burnley’s low block and Allardyce’s tactics should help him acclimatise.
The midfielders ahead of the centre-backs will look to shield them, forming a strong defensive box particularly in the 4-2-3-1, and, with the centre hard to play through, the opposition are generally forced wide. With the centre-backs maintaining their ground in the middle, the full-backs are left alone to win their battles in wide areas. Jonjoe Kenny has done well in Seamus Coleman’s absence but Cuco Martina has struggled on the left, often beaten although able to use his pace to recover. Both men have a tendency to get caught up in following their mark and ending up deeper than the rest of the defensive line though, rendering the offside trap useless.
Although they don’t help engage the opposition wide-man, one of the defensive midfielders will typically drop in between the full-back and centre-back to ensure Kenny and Martina aren’t isolated, offering insurance if they are beaten.
The rest of the team then defend with man-orientations, looking to cover each other but mainly sticking close to their opposite number, with Everton’s wingers often ending up deeper than the rest of their midfield as the opposition full-backs push up.
With the defence sitting deep though, the playing space is often simply too big for the midfielders to push up without leaving space behind them, so Everton can often end up sitting deep in two lines. While they are defensively sound, it also means they only really pick up the ball deep in their own half and struggle to get forward quickly as there’s only one player ahead of the ball. In the 4-2-3-1, the attacking midfielder at least offers some connection to the striker, but in the 4-5-1 the midfield three are frequently pulled back close to the defence.
This has been the greatest issue with Allardyce’s tenure so far: while he has corrected the defensive failings, it’s difficult for them to attack. This is in part simply a numbers issue: the centre-backs stay deep, the full-backs rarely venture forward and if they do it’s not into the final third, and at least one of the midfielders is held back. That leaves a maximum of five players, four of which are more than likely going to be starting these attacks deep in their own half. Out of those, how many players are going to be able to break forward quickly? Gylfi Sigurdsson and Wayne Rooney don’t have the pace, Idrissa Gueye doesn’t really have the technical ability and Yannick Bolasie has just returned from a year-long injury, essentially leaving Dominic Calvert-Lewin up front and Aaron Lennon and Tom Davies if they are picked – not enough to make it a valuable strategy.
The 4-2-3-1 at least makes it slightly more workable, as it gets Rooney closer to the striker, but also typically allows Gueye to operate a bit higher. The Senegalese is Everton’s best ball-winner but when playing as the lone holding player in the 4-5-1, he doesn’t get the opportunity to use these skills as he has to sit and shield the defence. If his partner is content to sit back, that allows Gueye to step up into midfield and win the ball, which in turn allows Everton to win the ball higher up the pitch and attack quicker. This is shown perfectly in Calvert-Lewin’s goal against Huddersfield: Gueye wins a tackle close to the half-way line, Rooney pounces on the loose ball and slides an inch-perfect through ball into the path of Calvert-Lewin to finish. In the 4-5-1 that’s probably Davies or Rooney trying to win the tackle, both defensively weaker than Gueye so more likely to lose out, while the Senegalese shields Williamson and Holgate.
It also highlights the importance of another change made by Allardyce: bringing Morgan Schneiderlin back into the team. Poor performances and attitude left him excluded by Koeman and caretaker David Unsworth, but Allardyce gave the Frenchman a lifeline that’s rewarded him since. Schneiderlin isn’t particularly talented – he’s neat in his passing, but has little range and even defensively he comes out of many challenges second best – yet his addition makes a big difference to the team as he allows his colleagues the freedom to use their talents.
As stated before, in the 4-5-1 Gueye is left alone in front of the defence, which means he doesn’t get the opportunity to push forward and win the ball in the midfield as he has to worry about leaving space in front of his centre-backs. With Schneiderlin alongside him, Gueye can get stuck into challenges in the midfield safe in the knowledge that the Frenchman is covering him.
It’s not just a matter of formation though. Against Tottenham Everton played with a 4-2-3-1 but Allardyce partnered Gueye with James McCarthy, a similar ball-winning midfielder, which meant that both men went rushing into midfield to win the ball back and leaving the defence unprotected. Schneiderlin may offer less in winning the ball than McCarthy, but his passiveness allows Gueye to go full throttle and make the best of his abilities.
This willingness to hold his position in front of the defence also benefits Everton going forward. Gueye isn’t much of a passer but he can carry the ball forward fairly well, so having Schneiderlin happy to cover lets him join the attack, while Rooney’s willingness to drop back deeper into the midfield allows Everton to shift shape to a 4-3-3 in possession if they wish, making them less predictable.
Schneiderlin has little range and can’t really dribble himself, but he’s neat on the ball, playing short quick passes into the feet of his defenders or Gueye. His greater value is in his positioning though: he’s good at making himself available for a pass from the defenders (which is particularly useful with Holgate, who is brave on the ball but also has a tendency to play the first pass he sees, so having Schneiderlin as a simple option makes it less likely he gives it away cheaply) although more useful at distracting opposition players, moving wider to drag them away from the middle and opening up passing lanes for the defenders to pass into the feet of Rooney and Sigurdsson, or playing one-twos with Gueye so the Senegalese has space on the ball and can turn, face play and stride forward without immediate pressure.
This is important for Everton in possession because, as they attack in few numbers and at little speed, it’s important that those few attackers get as much space and time as possible so they can use their talents. A little unusually for an Allardyce team, Everton build up quite patiently, passing amongst the defenders and defensive midfielders until they can pass through to one of the attacking midfielders, who then look to move quickly at the opposition defence. Lennon hugs the touchline on the right to provide width and his quick direct dribbling is useful at putting defences on the back foot in a way that Bolasie, still struggling to gain match fitness after a long lay-off, doesn’t.
Meanwhile Rooney and Sigurdsson, drifting in off the left, are the main creators through the middle. Sigurdsson really struggles on the left flank, often having difficulty finding an angle for his passes and a little slow at turning, but shows his quality when he’s able to combine with his teammates in the middle. With the Icelander a bit wasted out wide, it would make sense to give him a run in his natural central position, however Rooney’s claim to retaining it is arguably greater.
The local lad has endured a lot of criticism in recent years, much of it justified, but seeing him now makes you wish he had left Manchester United a few years earlier. The return to his boyhood club has revitalised him, running harder and playing much sharper than he has for years at United, where he looked devoid of motivation for most of the decade. Sigurdsson could act as the creative hub, yet the play moves much quicker through Rooney and playing in the middle of the 4-2-3-1 gives him greater flexibility that let’s him make use of his versatility.
He’s strong on the ball, capable of holding up the ball with his back to goal and brushing off defensive pressure, but frequently lays it off quickly to his teammates – either back to the midfielders behind him or to the sides, before moving into space to receive it back again. Having him in the middle means that the ball is constantly moving as he receives the ball, lays it off quickly, moves, receives it back again, then lays it off again.
A central position gives him five clear passing options: the two midfielders, the winger, Sigurdsson on the left and the striker, whereas if he were to take up a position out wide, that leaves with with just three: the attacking midfielder inside, the striker and a midfielder. The same would be true of Sigurdsson of course, yet there’s not the same snappiness to Everton’s play when he’s on the ball: he has the tendency to take a touch, looking to find that gap to play through, whereas Rooney moves the ball on quickly, moves into space then tries to find that gap once he’s received the ball back, having already had the chance to look at what’s ahead of him.
The real difference between them though is that Rooney is a natural forward. You could point to Rooney’s inch-perfect passes to Calvert-Lewin for his aforementioned goal against Huddersfield or to win the penalty that gained them a point at Liverpool as proof, but Sigurdsson could probably have pulled off the same. Instead, it’s the tap-in that saw them scrape past Newcastle that makes Rooney more useful in the central area: he is very good at finding pockets of space in the box and working out where the ball is going to drop loose, and, bearing in mind his slowing pace, it’s simply much easier for him to get into those positions from the central role.
Also, when Everton do decide to go long, he’s a more natural fit to run beyond the striker for flick-ons, which, again, is easier to do from a central area. Calvert-Lewin’s ability to win balls in the air and also chase down long balls has made him a good outlet for Everton, however he doesn’t currently possess the quality on the ball to make him a game-changer for Everton with such little support – Cenk Tosun may offer that, but it remains to be seen.
Allardyce may have corrected the issues that put them into freefall this season, but he doesn’t seem the man to improve the problems that existed before then – making up the difference between them and the teams at the top of the table. It’s worth pointing out that despite some decent results Everton haven’t actually dominated a game under Allardyce. Players like Rooney and Sigurdsson have the quality that means Everton will often win closely fought games against weaker or equal opponents, but just keeping it tight and organised will probably end up in a lot of draws too.
Huddersfield, Swansea and Newcastle were beaten in balanced games with the help of good individual play, penalties and scrappy tap-ins, but they lost to Bournemouth and drew against West Brom in games that weren’t much different. Big Sam may have arrested their freefall, but that doesn’t necessarily mean they are going to push on under his stewardship.