Eighty minutes into a tight affair at Old Trafford, Everton had kept their defensive solidity and held the score to just 1-0 against Jose Mourinho’s Manchester United. Seeking a goal to get back into the match, they instead conceded a further three to be handed their fourth consecutive loss.
After a summer of promising signings and talk of new ambition from a club that qualified for this season’s Europa League, Ronald Koeman’s Everton have failed to kick on, instead passing through a spell that has seen them winless in six, picking up just two draws, and conceding twelve in their last four.
What could have gone wrong for a side that seemed to be getting everything right? The truth is, there are a variety of tactical problems that are preventing Everton from being a successful side, and with the transfer window closed, vast improvements will need to be made to get them out of the bottom ten, let alone challenge for the top four.
These problems stem back to the beginning of the summer, when they strengthened their squad massively, but failed to make many adjustments necessary to create a tactically balanced and effective unit.
Gylfi Sigurdsson and Davy Klaassen are excellent footballers, but both occupy similar positions on the pitch, and accounted for £78 million of Everton’s expenditure, In other words, Romelu Lukaku’s entire selling fee was used to purchase two players who cannot play together in their best positions, unless one of Idrissa Gueye or Morgan Schneiderlin, arguably Everton’s two best players after Lukaku’s sale, is benched.
The model of playing an attacking midfielder alongside Wayne Rooney has already been disproven because the former United and England captain is known to drop deep and receive the ball. Signed for free, many would have expected Rooney’s move to be sentimental, but he has started every single match for the Toffees this season.
With these three players in tandem, there is no focal point, but instead a group of players occupying the same space on the pitch.
Considering Manchester United were willing to pay £75 million for Lukaku to replace Rooney, it makes almost no sense that Everton were willing to replace the Belgian with an ageing player who couldn’t hit double figures in all competitions last season. Their other forward signing, Sandro, is a bargain-buy, but he and Rooney scored fewer combined goals (24) than Lukaku (26) last season.
Spending £78 million on two players who play the same position as Ross Barkley, who didn’t leave Goodison Park, the Toffees didn’t spend more than £5.4 million to replace their best player, who left early enough in the transfer window for a someone to be signed.
Then, in trying to throw these players onto the pitch at the same time, the result has been a congested attack in which creative players have nobody to create opportunities for. Yannick Bolasie, the only requisite source of pace and width at Everton, remains out with a long-term anterior cruciate ligament injury that could threaten his career.
The same applies to Seamus Coleman, who broke his leg playing for Ireland last season- Everton have since replaced him with free signing Cuco Martina, who has become a target for opposition teams. Jose Mourinho deployed Ashley Young at left-back to give Martina, isolated on the wing by Everton’s lack of width, a particularly challenging time at Old Trafford.
Everton’s lack of width has resulted in a side that completed the fewest dribbles of any team in the Premier League, with the second fewest shots. The most prolific crosser in the side is Rooney, the main striker, and Sigurdsson, who was stunning for Swansea last season, seems to have taken a step down despite moving to a much bigger club.
Manchester United have conceded two goals in the Premier League this season, both of which came from crosses, but Everton attempted just seven in the match, completing one. Opposition teams can simply match Koeman’s Everton centrally, and then play quick channel balls to the wings- defensive errors from out wide led to three of United’s goals on Sunday.
For Everton to turn around, they will need to establish a method of moving the ball out wide and penetrating teams, or install a system that allows Sigurdsson and Klaassen to play together and have passing options. Right now, the only option that has resulted in goals is Rooney, Everton’s sole goal-scorer in the Premier League with just two.
Fortunately, an innovative manager, very talented players available in most positions, and the ability to grind out results should ensure that the Toffees eventually reach the peak of their abilities. However, the length of time it takes to solve these conundrums will dictate how much damage they have on Everton’s season.