In a fairly entertaining match between two sides who press and pass well, value possession and play in a proactive, eye-pleasing style, two moments of individual mistakes handed Southampton three points and likely ended Everton’s dream of a top four finish and Champions League football. The Saints came into this home tie having picked up just four points from their last five matches but did lose out to Cardiff and Spurs by just one goal and despite having nothing to play for have not seemingly started vacation early like fellow mid-table occupants, Newcastle. Everton had impressively taken twelve points from their last possible fifteen, including a recent 2-0 win over Manchester United that saw former manager, David Moyes, get the sack in the aftermath of the match.
Due to injury concerns, Roberto Martinez fielded John Stones and Antolin Alcaraz as the centre-back pairing between Seamus Coleman and Leighton Baines, the fullbacks. The three attacking midfielders behind Lukaku were Steven Naismith on the right, Ross Barkley centrally and Gerard Deulofeu on the left, all in front of the reliable double holding midfield pairing of James McCarthy and Gareth Barry. Southampton selected Luke Shaw, James Lovren, Jose Fonte and Nathaniel Clyne from left to right across the backline with Jack Cork and Victor Wanyama the ‘2’ in Southampton’s 4-2-3-1, behind Adam Lallana on the left flank, Steven Davis on the right and Rickie Lambert in behind Sam Gallagher.
Before the match had any chance to find it’s rhythm, Everton found themselves down a goal inside the opening minute when Rickie Lambert received a pass wide left of Everton’s area and sent a cross towards Gallagher, which was headed into Tim Howard’s net by Alcaraz. It looked like Alcaraz should have been able to head the cross back in the direction from which it came but instead headed it towards the byline and into his own net. Shortly after on five minutes, the Saints’ high press delivered a shooting chance for Gallagher, who had his shot blocked. Everton recovered well enough from the early setback with the same attacking outlet as last week against United, Seamus Coleman from the right-back position.
In between the first and second own goals, Coleman had a cross from a good area blocked, found Lukaku inside the area for a miss hit shot and received a cross field pass, cut in, slipped a pass to Naismith and won Everton a corner. It looked as if Everton were going to enjoy open space down their right yet again. The side benefit of Coleman’s surging runs forward was both Naismith, Everton’s right mid, and Lallana, the Saints’ left mid, were both drifting inside, leaving Shaw to deal with Coleman’s forward runs and keeping him from influencing Southampton’s attacks.
Everton had a similar problem dealing with Southampton’s right-back, Clyne on their left flank. Deulofeu was visibly not interested in tracking back whenever Clyne moved in advance of him, allowing Clyne to skip forward on that flank and take on Baines the Everton and England left-back. The most obvious area for either team to get the next goal was down their respective right sides through an attacking fullback. What wound up happening for the Saints’ second goal actually involved a combination between both right-backs, as Clyne took on Baines wide of Everton’s area and his cross found the head of Coleman who inadvertently headed the ball into his own net. Much like the first own goal, Coleman was not under an immense amount of pressure and seemingly had the time and space to clear without issue.
Everton went into half-time losing by two goals that were down to individual errors, aside from the miscues they defended quite well and created some chances of their own. Southampton pressed excellently, recovering possession 36 times in the first half and usually far from their own defensive third and controlled the central areas well. They did leave Everton with the ability to cross from wide and they did reasonably well in this regard in the first half, completing six of fifteen crosses and creating three chances, including a header from Lukaku that went over the bar from point blank range. Coleman passed successfully to Lukaku seven times from his advanced positions and Everton went into the break having had 54% possession and completed 83% of their passes.
At the start of the second half, Leon Osman came on for Barkley who was shackled by Wanyama and Cork in the first half, he had no shots and created no chances. Osman went left, Naismith went behind Lukaku and Deulofeu was shifted out to the right. It was interesting that Deulofeu was not the first one off, he had influenced the match to that point more than Barkley, but not by much, and had also shown unwillingness in tracking back. He should have either been moved centrally or taken off, Barkley did an excellent job with his defensive duties against United last week in a wide area, maybe moving him to the flank would have given him more space to get into the game and kept at least one of the Saints’ fullbacks from charging forward.
Instead, Shaw immediately came to life and began to move further forward and get on the ball in more advanced, open, wide positions. On the other side, Osman was more diligent minding Clyne. It seemed an odd trade to shutdown Clyne but free up Shaw. It would not last much longer however, as by the 59th minute, Martinez had seen enough and replaced Deulofeu with Aidan McGeady, who went left, Naismith went top, Lukaku went over to the right and Osman moved into the middle. Osman didn’t receive possession centrally though, so he was forced to drift out wider left closer to McGeady to get on the ball.
The move to put Lukaku wide right attempted to recreate the approach used successfully against Arsenal in their 3-0 win over the Gunners. What they should have done was attempted to recreate what they did against Alexander Buttner, the left-back who bombed forward when Everton faced Man U; in that match Lukaku dropped off to the right side and joined Coleman and Mirallas (playing as the right mid) to overload United down that flank. Against the Saints, Lukaku was the right mid and Shaw continued to get forward with Everton unable to counter into the space he left behind.
Much of the reason for that is, of course, United do not press with the energy and numbers Mauricio Pochettino’s Southampton does, any gaps they leave behind are harder to exploit because they pressure the opposition player on the ball immediately, wherever he is on the pitch, and then flood players in and take away all of his passing options. Even sitting on a 2-0 lead, Southampton did not change their approach, an admirable trait of this squad. Far too often we see sides get a lead and then alter the approach that put them ahead in the first place, drop off, tighten up and try to soak up the mounting pressure from their opponent’s and see the match out. But not Southampton. Even in the context of their season, they have nothing to play for, they can’t reach Europe, are in no danger of going down and the team closest behind them, Newcastle, started their summer holiday a few months early. But still they play their style with vigour.
After completing 177 passes to Everton’s 210 in the first half, the Saints completed 255 passes in the second half to Everton’s 152 and swung the possession battle from 46/54 in favour of Everton to 54/46 in favour of themselves by the match end. That’s protecting what you have but not in the usual sense, they protected what they had by keeping the ball, not defending in the shadow of their own goal. A large portion of the second half resembled a training ground possession game, the goals and keepers were hardly needed. Everton produced three shots, one on target, and Southampton had seven but just two on target. After completing six crosses in the first half, Everton completed one in the second.
Everton’s best chance of the second half again came off the head of Lukaku, as a cross from McGeady was knocked strongly on target from close range, straight at Artur Boruc. Coleman had a late enterprising run overlapping down the right off a pass from Lukaku, but the chance went away when Shaw dispossessed him. Even in that situation, the Saints had far too many players shifted to the flank for Everton to pose much of a threat.
In a match with four excellent fullbacks, Clyne and Shaw got the better of Everton’s fullback pairing. The Saints’ fullbacks combined to created five chances and recovered possession sixteen times. Shaw received a pass twenty-nine times in the second half once he was free to move beyond his direct opponent, as opposed to twenty-one times in the first forty-five minutes. Clyne shackled Deulofeu and McGeady well and was successful in all nine of his attempts to get in and make a tackle.
The two teams’ approaches were both positive and both cancelled each other out. It was an entertaining match of passing, controlling of possession and effective defending of the central areas and excellent pressing. It did lack quality goals and an abundance of chances but it was a match free of wasted clearances and negative, pragmatic tactics from both sides. It is a shame that Everton’s chase for the Champions League was ended by two poor errors in judgement that led to a pair of own goals. They have got so much right as a team this season and been a far more delightful side to watch than in years past, and they deserved to bow out of the race for top four in better fashion than this.
As for Southampton, Pochettino has a motivated, hard working side that has bought into his ideals of how to play football, how much more they can challenge for next season will be down to how much of the squad, that has all the big clubs in England looming to raid them, remains. And Pochettino himself is caught up in the rumour mill, with clubs like Tottenham allegedly looking towards him to improve their sides. Whether Pochettino could get a more senior squad like Spurs to play in this fashion is a big question mark. They are definitely a side to be watched in the closing weeks of this season, they have nothing to play for but you would never know from watching them play. And entertain.