Everton bounced back from their midweek Merseyside derby despair against Liverpool with a late 2-1 victory over Aston Villa at Goodison Park on Saturday.
Two pieces of individual quality firstly from Steven Pienaar to cleverly play in Steven Naismith to equalise after Leandro Bacuna’s first-half strike, and then from Kevin Mirallas’ stunning 30-yard free-kick sealed the points for the Toffees and moved them up to fifth place in the Premier League.
In a game that was always going to be tough for Everton to try and be themselves, with morale low from their thrashing at Liverpool on Tuesday, injuries and Villa’s promising away mentality, coming back from a goal down to win showed strong character and resilience in which Roberto Martínez described the result as “the most satisfying win of the season” for him and his players.
Everton made three changes from the side that faced Liverpool at Anfield, with Sylvain Distin, Leon Osman and Aiden McGeady all coming into the starting line-up.
The Blues kept the same tactical shape they’ve used for most of the campaign so far, opting for a fluid 4-2-3-1 system which creates itself from a 3-4-3 base when playing out of defence with Gareth Barry dropping deep to receive the ball, and both full-backs advanced.
Paul Lambert slightly tweaked his formation from the one that was deployed in their 4-3 triumph over West Bromwich Albion on Wednesday, with both Nathan Baker and Grant Holt moving into the starting line-up as Matthew Lowton and Karim El Ahmadi dropped to the bench.
The Villans are easily the best counter-attacking side in the top-flight and give every team a tough test away from home, with Lambert’s men suffering just seven defeats in their last 25 away outings beforehand including wins at Arsenal, Southampton and a 2-2 draw at Liverpool.
Villa often flirt with different tactical variations, with the visitors being comfortable in a back three, four or five, and against Everton, they started the first-half in a 5-2-3 shape which pressed Everton high up, retreated into a deep 5-2-1-2 when in their own half and a 3-4-3 when they had possession.
As the game went on, when Holt was substituted for El Ahmadi after 60 minutes of play, Villa switched into a 5-3-1-1 and had just Christian Benteke as a singular aerial outlet rather than two, before moving into a 4-3-3 when Ron Vlaar was taken off for Marc Albrighton on the 80-minute mark.
Whilst it was expected that Everton would be the more likely to enjoy possession and have the bigger onus to probe, Villa were comfortable defensively – with two bits of class ultimately separating the sides in the end – and it was their first-half setup that frustrated Everton the most.
Villa are more than sheltered to play counter vs. possession and Everton struggled to find any openings in central areas in the first period.
Martínez’s side dominated the ball, having 71% possession and completing 85% (491) of their 576 attempted passes compared to Villa’s 57% (135) success rate from 235 attempted, but Villa’s compact 5-2-1-2 shape meant Ross Barkley was tremendously quiet and had no room to manoeuvre.
They allowed Everton to run and construct in the wide spaces, particular down the left-hand side with Leon Osman linking up well with Leighton Baines’ marauding runs, as Villa’s full-backs in Bacuna and Ryan Bertrand joined their trio of centre-backs (Vlaar, Ciaran Clark, Baker) in a defensive block of five when Everton were in their half.
The top seven pass combinations in the game for example involved Everton players moving the ball going into wide areas or the wide men playing it from those positions in-field, thus highlighting the liberty Villa gave the home side in those parts.
While this style worked well to prevent the likes of Barkley making his renowned powerful runs between the lines and into central pockets of space, the same system meant Everton identified were they could capitalise more on in the second-half – which was in wide zones – and that they needed a change if they were to make something happen in the middle of the field. This was addressed by replacing Barkley for Pienaar at half-time.
The pivotal observation that came from Villa’s first-half approach was the instructions both Ashley Westwood and Fabian Delph carried for their team.
Against Liverpool two weeks ago, both midfielders stationed themselves high in the first-half and pressed and outmuscled the likes of Steven Gerrard before remaining deep when they had a 1-2 lead, and only then breaking forwards when latching onto the second balls via knock-downs from Benteke.
This was a similar occurrence against Everton, performing in the same intense manner in the first-half against Barkley, yet Villa knew that Everton lacked a natural forward thus they had a little bit more licence further forward.
With the absence of Romelu Lukaku, Everton couldn’t play the “quick transition” pass for him to hold up and bring others into play when needed therefore with several floating players taking turns operating as the striker like normal, but this time with no physical presence, Westwood and Delph could both press with more latitude and this is how their goal came to fruition.
For Villa’s goal, Westwood and Delph joined Andreas Weimann, Benteke and Holt in pressuring Everton when they tried to play out from the back and Delph closed Barkley down high up and the counter was therefore launched, with Bacuna firing low past Howard from Benteke’s sideway pass.
But whilst Lukaku was missed in stages for Everton, Martínez observed the situations as to where Everton could make a breakthrough in the game and his substitutions to try and do so in Pienaar and Naismith worked well and ensured they could cope without the Belgian in the end against Villa.
Everton and Martínez were always aware that they had space on the flanks and the channels but they just needed to avoid being caught by Villa’s offside trap in those places, with Baines being caught offside twice in the first 45 minutes, find more urgency in creativity via a sharp pass that could split them open and add more players in-and-around the box centrally.
Pienaar’s appreciation for space, low sense of gravity and ability to float as an interior, with Baines applying the width around him, allowed Everton to “empty and fill” spaces a lot quicker whilst he was simply more suited to conjure up a goal against a resolute side than Barkley – who similarly struggled to do so against another defensive unit in Stoke City last month.
Mirallas’ working of the channels and attempts to exploit the large amounts of space in behind Villa’s high-line was also much more purposeful, as Naismith operated the striker role whenever he vacated it.
With the Scotland international replacing John Stones after 70 minutes, Everton didn’t change their formation – with James McCarthy moving into the right-back slot and Osman dropping into his place from the left – and could thread the ball through Villa’s tight midfield core faster through Pienaar as Barkley’s sturdiness when carrying the ball was futile against the type of opposition Villa are.
For Everton’s first goal, Barry – who completed the most passes in the game (67), made ten ball recoveries and three interceptions – forced well again and found Pienaar in that crucial space between Villa’s lines, who actually had a numerical advantage, and it was a touch from a genius to play in Naismith 1v1 for a first-time finish.
Pienaar, who created the most chances in the game with three including his assist, made the difference in the creativity department as Villa proved to be a tough nut to crack as always, with just six Everton chances being manufactured throughout.
The second goal and the decisive winner was nothing more than a beautifully curled, long-range Mirallas free-kick which gave Everton their first league win over Villa on home soil since the 2005/06 season.
Whilst Villa have every right to feel unlucky, as they managed to frustrate their opponents for large parts of the game, Everton showed great tenacity to stick to the same way of going about things and eventually found openings against a solid side when they’re on their travels.
Everton rarely had any defensive problems to deal with themselves, with Villa having just four shots in total all game, and it was just about biding their time as the substitutes done their job, whilst Mirallas continued his recent rich vein of form with another superlative free-kick that grabbed the coveted three points.
Top pass combinations image via the excellent FourFourTwo StatsZone app.
Matthew is currently studying a Journalism degree at Liverpool John Moores University and writes Player Focuses, Team Focuses, Player Analyses, Transfer Reports, Scout Reports and much more for EPL Index. He is also a writer for FTBpro and an Everton juror every two to three weeks for the Liverpool ECHO newspaper.
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