Last season, Everton played out a dour goalless draw with Wigan at Goodison Park, continually thwarted by their visitor’s resilient defence. The Toffees still dominated statistically, hitting 14 shots to six, sending in 36 crosses to 13 and missing four clear cut chances to two. Evidently, as well as their opponents defended, the Toffees clearly lacked an element of luck.
Despite several players leaving in the summer transfer window, the likely line-up for tomorrow will potentially be similar to a year ago.
Only three players from this team did not feature in the draw against Aston Villa. At right back, Phil Neville is likely to return for Tony Hibbert and record his 200th Premier League appearance for Everton. That means Steven Pienaar and Louis Saha may be the only absentees a year on. Royston Drenthe and Leon Osman are potential replacements, but with such a similar unit, how can Everton improve from last year’s showing?
One method is to begin focusing on other ways to carve open a defence and not solely rely on Leighton Baines. Last season, Everton’s Player of the Year was his side’s attacking fulcrum. He recorded 11 assists, created 74 chances and unleashed 351 crosses during the season. Incredibly, of the 233 accurate crosses Everton supplied all year, Baines was responsible for 43% of them – almost half. Last season against Wigan, of the 36 crosses Everton sent in, Baines was behind 56% of them, certainly an indication that Everton sought the diminutive left back at almost every opportunity.
Whilst it is unsurprising that Everton looked to him as often as possible, such is the quality of his left foot, it will gradually become more predictable for defences to prepare for. This season, Everton must factor in how Baines’ frequent forays forward are likely to be more closely monitored by defences, who may even double up on him at times.
Already this seems to be apparent statistically. Despite still producing countless deliveries, Baines is being shadowed far more. Compared to the 56% of crosses he sent in against Wigan last season, in the three games so far this year he has sent in 37% of Everton’s crosses, and only 30% against QPR and Blackburn. This is still a very large proportion for one player, but not anywhere near the ratio he registered during so many appearances last season, including against Wigan.
This is why other creative providers need to step forward and provide quality earlier in a move. With a left back gaining so much added attention this season, the likes of Drenthe and Osman, or whoever else plays left, should seize the extra freedom and deliver the ball early, not just wait for Baines to arrive. With attention more likely to be on Baines, the left winger should experience far more space and have greater chance to create. When in possession, the opposition will be catering for a cut back to Baines, anything else would be more of a surprise.
Similarly on the right, Seamus Coleman needs to supply far more end product. Against Aston Villa, on the eye he was one of Everton’s best players. On countless occasions he took on his opponent and beat him, yet his cross was poor. Out of the 36 crosses sent in against Aston Villa, the Irishman only delivered two, yet made the bye-line several times. If Wigan shuffle another central midfielder further left to stifle Baines’ production, Everton must up their passing tempo, shift possession from left to right, and enable Coleman the opportunity to exploit any extra space and create chances.
With Baines so often the architect in a move, Everton tend to pass the ball laterally at home, waiting for him to overlap, and then eventually fathom out a chance for him to deliver. The fact this works is testament of Baines’ technique, as defences are generally set and ready for this. Strikers are also static and do not get a chance to properly attack the ball, so however good a cross is, scoring is far more difficult.
If Baines is nullified out of an attack, with the pace on the ball so slow, Everton struggle to find an alternative opening. This is why pace on the ball is so important. When Coleman makes that break on Saturday, he must deliver. Not ship the ball back to the his right back, who would slowly start sending the ball left, as Everton wait for Baines to be freed. Similarly, whoever is on the left must have confidence to take the responsibility themselves and catch Wigan off guard with an early cross. It is likely to be a cagey affair tomorrow. Wigan and Everton are rarely separated by more than a goal and whoever has the more dangerous delivery may well end up the winner.
Far from saying Everton should avoid using their primary creative asset, there simply needs to be more variety in Everton’s attacking philosophy to keep Baines’ production from being so potent. Everton have an opportunity to attack elsewhere with opponents expecting it to mostly come from Baines.
Over the past season, Everton’s creative department has began to wane. Last year Baines had Mikel Arteta and Steven Pienaar to share the workload. Now, Everton need to find other reliable ways to unlock defences to avoid predictably ushering Baines forward. However good his cross is, scoring will become harder if defences are waiting for him. By exploiting the extra space elsewhere and having the confidence to cross early, the Toffees can catch Wigan unaware tomorrow, and fashion some better chances from other sources.