YOU CAN’T ACCUSE EVERTON MANAGER Roberto Martínez of taking the easy route. Throughout his career he has made choices and moves that have taken him out of his comfort zone. These difficult choices have moulded him in to one of the most interesting young managers in the game today.
This tendency to do things differently can be traced back to his playing career where, as a young midfielder, he spent his formative playing years with his boyhood club Real Zaragoza and then with lower division Balaguer before he took a chance and moved to the north west of England to join Wigan Athletic, a move that would have a huge impact in the Spaniard’s career both as a player and a coach.
This willingness to take on new challenges and experience different cultures, both professional and personal, have moulded Martínez into a coach that stands across two very different coaching schools. His playing philosophy is very strongly based on his country of birth, but at the same time there are strong influences from the English game in his style of coaching and man management.
There are, however, issues with Martínez’s coaching style that have left some Everton fans unconvinced of his suitability for the club. There is a huge emphasis on the attacking transitions but defensively they can appear suspect, with clear instruction that play should be built from the back leading to mistakes that have proven costly this season. There is also an element in Everton’s plan that suggests that the coach is unwilling to adapt his philosophy and beliefs, or to incorporate a plan to change the style of play when the patient passing game is not working.
It is difficult, though, to see these aspects of play as entirely negative – Martínez may be more entertaining than efficient at times, but the right blend can certainly be achieved over time.
This season in particular there have been issues with Everton in the defensive phase. The fans seem to be assigning the bulk of the blame for these problems to both Martínez, for his unwillingness to change style, and to goalkeeper Tim Howard who, as the years go on, appears to be losing some of his speed and agility especially when dealing with shots from outside the box.
That said, however, there are some positive elements to the defensive phase of play.
In this image the attacking team are poorly set up and Everton have settled back in to a strong defensive shape. The back four are compact and well positioned across the penalty area but the two wide players have also funnelled back into the defensive structure and have covered the left and right flank.
The midfield structure in this image is particularly interesting as it shows the shape of the side changing from the attacking to defensive phase. In the attacking phase they use a double pivot at the base of the midfield with two central players providing the base of the attack while Ross Barkley is positioned as a 10. In the defensive phase the three central players rotate with one of the two in the double pivot sitting deeper and screening the back line, while Barkley rotates back to a deeper position.
In this instance the Norwich attack is concentrated on the right side of the pitch and again the wide midfielder – this time Arouna Koné – has funnelled back to support his defence. This willingness to track back and work in the defensive phase means that Leighton Baines is able to move infield to protect the dangerous channel across the six-yard box.
We can also see Gareth Barry looking to move deeper to join the back line, while Barkley is again moving back to support the defensive movement.
The positioning of the defensive block and the actions performed by the opposition that trigger pressing traps have become more in vogue recently amongst people that write about and discuss tactics. For those that are interested in this aspect of the game, Everton make an interesting study because they deploy a hybrid system.
In the match against West Ham we saw Everton play primarily in a medium block as they were away from home. They were happy to allow West Ham to build up patiently from the back before being triggered to press as the ball passed the halfway line. In this image Barkley is currently passive and positioned on the half way line while McCarthy, Barry and Koné are positioned deeper. When the ball travels across the halfway line the press is triggerd and the three deeper players will converge on the man in possession. Barkley will then cease to be passive and look to close the trap from the other side of the player in possession.
This time, against Aston Villa, we can see Everton looking to press in a much higher block. As Villa manage to regain possession the man with the ball is facing his own goal. This triggers an immediate press as Everton look to regain possession as quickly as possible and as high up the pitch as possible.
This is a pressing tactic that was highlighted by Barcelona under Pep Guardiola where they would try to regain possession within six seconds of losing the ball; if they failed to do so they would retreat back into an organised defensive structure.
The same thing happens here in the game against Norwich where, playing at home, Everton are extremely aggressive in their initial attempts to overturn a loss of possession. As Norwich win the ball back they are at least facing the right way, but in a tight space. Everton will initially commit five players to pressing the ball with more left in reserve ready to form a defensive structure.
Building up through the thirds
Playing through the thirds is an expression used to describe a team looking to retain safe possession of the ball as they move through all three thirds of the pitch – from the defensive block to the attacking block by playing the ball through midfield.
This is one of the key aspects to the Everton system under Martínez as he insists on the ball being played vertically along the ground into attacking areas. To do so, Everton split their players in the build up onto various receiving lines up the pitch. A receiving line is one that runs across the pitch on which players can positon themselves. The ideal in positional play is to ensure that you do not have more than two, or at most three, players on each of these lines of play to stagger your attacking system up the pitch. This should mean that as the ball moves forward there are always players providing angles further forward for the man in possession.
This is a very simple image to show what I mean at the start of the move. When building the play, one of the two deeper central midfielders – usually Gareth Barry – drops down into the defensive line; interestingly he does not always do so to split the central defenders and will occasionally drop to the left or right of the defensive line. As the midfielder drops deep the full-backs advance and straight away we have two receiving lines, one with the new back three and one with the full-backs. The deep central midfielder makes a third line and so on up the pitch. This is, in essence, the construction of the attacking structure for Martínez and his style of play.
Here I have highlighted four receiving lines at various points as Everton move up the field. I could have added a fifth and six line for Stones at the back and Coleman in an advanced central area but felt that these four were key to explaining the system.
If you look at the shape of the players on the first three lines you will see that they are positioned in a diamond. This shape gives the best angle for passing the ball forward through the thirds of the pitch and advancing towards goal. If the ball moves from the first to third line, we can see that Kone and Coleman are already positioned to start forming a second, more advanced diamond. As the ball moves forward then players follow into a more advanced structure, creating more receiving lines to fully support and strengthen the attack.
Stretching the pitch horizontally
Recently there was a segment on Sky’s Monday Night Football where Thierry Henry discussed some of the attacking mechanisms that were used by Pep Guardiola when he played for Barcelona. In this piece Henry described his role as the wide attacker in a 4-3-3 system where he was expected to stretch the width of the field as much as possible to open attacking channels for central players like Xavi and Andrés Iniesta.
You can see this aspect of Barcelona’s positional play replicated by Everton under Martínez.
Ross Barkley has possession of the ball in the left half space of the opposition half with Arouna Kone maintaining width on the left flank. With Koné playing very wide, the Crystal Palace defensive structure is stretched, with a large gap opening up on the side of the ball. Barkley is able to play a very simple wall pass with Romelu Lukaku in the centre of the pitch before moving inwards to the free space at the edge of the pitch for a shot at goal.
This style of play is called Juego de Posición – loosely translated as Positional Play.
Over the last two or three seasons Seamus Coleman has gained a reputation as an outstanding full-back who is capable of overlapping and attacking the opposition penalty area. His role this season, however, as changed as Martínez has built another wrinkle in to his system.
Martínez uses his wide players to stretch the full width of his pitch. There is a slight variation, however, in regards to how they build up on the left and the right of the field. On the right the aim is to isolate Spanish winger Gerard Deulofeu in as much space as possible against the opposition full-back. That means that instead of making a supporting run on the outside of the winger, Coleman makes an inverted run into a central area.
With John Stones in possession of the ball, Coleman has made an angled run inside and left Deulofeu isolated in the wide area of the pitch. As Coleman moves inside he immediately attracts the attention of two opposition players who are unsure whether to cover the full-back or support their defender against the winger.
This time, Deulofeu has the ball in the wide area and is isolated one on one against an opposition attacking player. Coleman has moved into the central attacking position and the opposition full-back is now attracted towards the Irishman. Everton also benefit from having a striker with the presence of Lukaku who holds the attention of both central defenders, ensuring that they cannot shift across to reinforce their full-back.
Romelu Lukaku is perhaps an obvious choice to look at from a tactical standpoint due to the sheer volume of goals that he has scored so far this season. His role in the build up play and with linking the attack is perhaps more impressive than even his goals.
As the ball is fed from a deep central position into the feet of Lukaku, he is able to play the ball first time with his back to goal. In this instance he played the ball off and then immediately went to run through the defensive line looking for a quick return pass. Instead, the ball was spun quickly out to Koné on the left flank and his cross resulted in a scoring chance for the Belgian.
Another interesting aspect of Everton’s build up play is the willingness of Koné to move infield at times to link and connect closely with Lukaku. The two attacking players have developed a strong understanding and are able to play off of one another, causing issues for the opposition.
While the plan on the right flank is to isolate the winger and have him attack the opposition defensive line, on the left Koné is expected to create width to a point but then he is free to drift inwards to central areas.
Here, Barkley takes up the empty space on the left wing and attacks inside using the dummy run across him. As he moves inside the opposition defence now have two central attackers in Lukaku and Koné to contend with.
Everton’s tactical system is not perfect under Martínez, and he may well be too dogmatic and unwilling to bend and consider new styles, but his team play exciting and inventive attacking football. As his career as a coach has progressed from Swansea to Wigan, and now to Everton, he has built on his approach and refined his career. Despite his doubters, Martínez has developed his own system and style, and has all the ingredients to be a success at the very highest level of the game if he can find a successful balance between defence and attack.
By Lee Scott. Follow @FMAnalysis