Formations and philosophies are the foundation of all football. Every manager has one, every team plays in a certain way and some systems work miles better than others. To win trophies and reach targets, it’s so crucial you have the right formation to maintain and achieve greater things. For Everton, after a transitional season, Koeman has to find the right system especially as our spending has gone up significantly. There’s a lot of pressure on us now and a massive point to prove to end a 22-year drought, lead a successful European campaign and to smash into the top six party. Here’s how I think Everton need to set up this season.
So how do other teams in the Premier League line-up and how often do they change it?
One thing is guaranteed in a Premier League season, the team that comes out on opening day isn’t the same as the last. What I mean by that is formations and the starting line-up can chop and change throughout a campaign, stubbornness can make a team go backwards but if you find the perfect system, you should stick to it. It’s hard to call when a formation goes wrong, but if your results deteriorate then you must change it and that’s the same from top to bottom.
Here is a table of formations used by all Premier League clubs. As you can see, clubs from the bottom half are far more likely to rotate their starting line-up than teams above them, mainly due to the dreaded drop into the second division. Arsenal rotated their formation the least, only twice, moving into a 3421 towards the end of the season; which you could argue saved Wenger’s job. Liverpool, Chelsea and Burnley also didn’t change their squads as often, all 3 having successful seasons.
As for Everton, only West Ham and the bottom four clubs changed their starting formation more times than we did. So, has Koeman found his perfect system at Goodison? – Probably not. See last year was recovering from the damage Martinez left us with, it’s led to several different changes in the team but our most common formation was amazingly the 4231! Yes, we haven’t used that formation since around December, changing it plenty of times since, but it suggests just how much wreckage there was to clear up. Let’s go into more detail about the formations we used.
The 4231 – Why we need to stay away from it
The last two clubs to have won the league are the teams to have broken down the 4231 the easiest. Leicester with a 442, Chelsea with a 343. The 4231 is a death of a formation to use as shown in Everton’s downfall over the last few seasons.
Defensively, we were exposed very regularly, even at the start of last season.
Here’s a prime example of why we shouldn’t go near it, away to Southampton which was one of the worst performances we had last season. Firstly, there was zero cover for Coleman and Baines as they moved forward, which Southampton completely exploited. Most the Saints touches during the game was in the flanks which led to a number of good chances being created from these positions.
The amount of shots Southampton had in this game was ridiculous (17 in total), especially in our penalty area. It’s a concerning reminder of how poor we are using this system. Yes, we didn’t have the solidarity of Michael Keane or Morgan Schneiderlin at the time, but when you consider how much Coleman, Baines and Jags declined over the past few seasons in the “Martinez default formation”, then the club isn’t going to move forward if Ronald goes back to it, regardless of who’s in the team.
Not only defensively are we worse but offensively too. There was zero link between Barkley or Lukaku at all, and this wasn’t just a one off. Neither of the club’s biggest stars could link, despite Barkley often having more touches of the ball than anyone else. It affected us so bad we had to revert to long-ball tactics with Gareth Barry hoofing it from the half-way line to our 6ft3 striker who had a touch of a kerb.
I’m not saying the 4231 hasn’t worked, look at the success of Bayern Munich and Pochettino’s Spurs over the past few seasons, but they have world class players and strength in depth in their armoury.
The 433 – Koeman’s most common
After years of working under his mentor Johan Cruyff, it’s not really a surprise that Ronald Koeman has inherited the 433. Obviously, we aren’t a carbon copy of early 70s Ajax or 91-92 Barcelona, but a 433 is still a contemporaneous formation in modern football. However, is it a formation that suits Everton?
The 443 formation was designed to retain the ball and, for Everton, we do keep the ball in this system better than other formations we have used. On average, we obtain 52% possession in a 433, without it’s around 50%. Against mid-table/lower mid-table teams, a 433 can be useful; as shown beating the likes of Bournemouth 6-3, Leicester 4-2 and Burnley 3-1 whilst playing it.
Our front 3 last campaign was Barkley, Mirallas and Lukaku. This has changed with Lukaku at United and Barkley on the move, so chances are it’ll be Sandro on the right, Mirallas/Sigurdsson on the left and Rooney/Giroud up front, if transfers are looking the way they’re heading.
In terms of pressing, chances are we’d be getting the exact same as last season despite the changes. Barkley wins the ball back in much higher areas of the pitch compared to Sigurdsson, whilst players like Mirallas (when he turns up) and Sandro Ramirez have the pace to apply a higher press.
When we saw Everton in a 433 against Slovakian’s FK Ruzomberok. Ok, Everton weren’t up to scratch; they’ve been back for a couple of weeks, but I thought our build-up play appeared to be far more focussed at times, with the lively play involving new signing Davy Klaassen – a player who has played the system throughout his time at Ajax.
Not only was Klaassen’s link up play seemed fundamental to ball retention but also part of how we moved the ball forward, his runs beyond Rooney gave Everton an entire new way of breaking through the final third.
So offensively, you could argue we perform better, but what about defensively?
Well we conceded 14 goals from 12 games in the formation last campaign, keeping 4 clean sheets in that period. In a 433, Everton conceded an average of 12 shots per game, this amount is the exact same without the formation… so why do we concede more? I believe it’s from the quality of these shots that we concede.
Look at the two Swansea games for an example, the entire backline and goalkeeper were the same. In both fixtures, the opponents scored once, but look at the different shot positions in the game. Not only did Swansea have 8 shots in our own box, but 3 of them were forced to be saved and one of them hit the post.
It wasn’t just the Swansea game either, matches against Arsenal (17 shots), Bournemouth (18 shots – the same fixture we scored 6 in) and Manchester United (18 shots) had shooting statistics well over the average amount we concede. The signing of Keane could help lower this, but when you consider that Martina is the only other addition to our defence, it’s a worrying factor.
Koeman has a lot of work to do with our defence, of course it’s a massive improvement from the days of Martinez, but whether it’s good enough to achieve our goals set by our Dutchman this season remains to be seen.
Three at the back – the future of football?
Ever since Conte put Chelsea in the formation, it has returned to Premier League football. Three at the back is currently the “trendy” system, a big reason for this is building from the defence. Pickford’s distribution is the big talk around him, not about how far he kicks it but about his accuracy too.
With ball-playing centre-half’s such as Mason Holgate in the team, building from the back could be a completely new option for Ronald Koeman to use. Not only that, but the better performances from Williams and Funes Mori have been when they are in a back three, not a back two. It could also give the option of wing-backs, a system that could improve the likes of Jonjoe Kenny in the side.
Of course, Everton have played three in defence already, and it provided our best performance last season, at home to Pep Guardiola’s Manchester City.
The press produced from our attack was incredible, often creating a 2v1 against the MC defenders. When the ball would arrive to Clichy or Sagna, you’d straight away see Coleman and Baines both move up another 20 yards up the pitch.
With the ball in our own half, our defence would be man-marking every single option the ball carrier would have. The only player without a man to cover in the picture was Ashley Williams, who played the role as sweeper. In the game, Manchester City would have 866 touches of the ball and made 672 passes, all to completely no effect whatsoever.
For pressing, it’s by far the best formation Koeman used and it wasn’t the only time we used a 3 in defence. When facing Crystal Palace, the following week, Everton had 16 shots at goal and it was arguably our most creative performance in quite a while. We managed to create a good amount of chances into the Palace box, Gareth Barry’s long ball distribution coming into play and both Coleman + Baines flourishing as wing backs.
Everton played 7 games with just 3 defenders starting, winning 4 of them and losing just 1.
Conclusion – What system should it be?
The main benefit of having three at the back however is when the team interchanges and gains possession so a midfielder joins the attack a defender joins the midfield creating overloads in any part of the pitch.
I’d ideally like to see 352 being our go-to formation, Koeman has said he doesn’t like rotation of players but my hunch is that we will see more rotating the formation depending on who we are facing. A 433 will be our most common system regardless, used to face mid-table teams, but against teams that are likely to hold the ball for long periods, that’s when we need our pressing game to play and we press better with wingbacks.
What we have seen already with our new additions is that Everton encouragingly seem more versatile, a big step forward.
Stats via Squawka, WhoScored and @footballfactman,
Up the Toffees.