Direct approach pays off for Everton as Leicester's problems go on
Everton scraped to their first Premier League away win in seven attempts with a 2-0 triumph at Leicester on Boxing Day. The game was not easy on the eye, with both managers adopting direct and low-risk approaches, and it felt suitable that both goals came from long clearances.
Claudio Ranieri stuck to his 4-4-2, but his side were hampered by the absences of three key players, and it did not help that the Italian benched Riyad Mahrez over apparent poor form. With Jamie Vardy one of those absent, the Foxes became one-dimensional and predictable.
Meanwhile, Ronald Koeman switched to a 3-4-3 in order to have a spare centre-back against the two strikers. It worked well defensively, but neither Everton created much.
A lacklustre first half saw Ranieri go 4-5-1 in the second, which prompted Koeman to adapt as well, changing from 3-4-3 to 4-2-3-1. That moved Kevin Mirallas in centrally behind Romelu Lukaku, and it was the midfielder who scored the opener from a long kick from goalkeeper Joel Robles. Ranieri then reverted to 4-4-2, but Lukaku made it two late on.
Everton lacklustre in 3-4-3
While this contest will not be released on DVD anytime soon, Koeman will have been pleased with the grit and solidity Everton showed. The Dutchman started Mason Holgate, Ashley Williams and Ramiro Funes Mori at the back, who did well to contain Shinji Okazaki and Islam Slimani.
One downside, however, was that Everton were so poor going forward. Their game plan was designed to attack through wing-backs Leighton Baines and Seamus Coleman, while Mirallas and Aaron Lennon were supposed to drift infield between the lines. But Okazaki and Slimani defended deep enough to pick up cautious central midfielders Gareth Barry and Idrissa Gueye, which left Andy King and Daniel Amartey free to protect the defence and track runs. As such, neither Mirallas nor Lennon managed to find these spaces regularly, which in turn left Lukaku isolated.
That set the scene for direct football, with cohesion and precision largely absent. Some decent moves materialised down the right through Coleman, but most were stopped by the excellent stand-in left-back Ben Chilwell. On other occasions, Everton simply hit it towards Lukaku, who recorded a woeful pass completion of 52.8 percent.
One the occasions when Leicester pressed a bit higher, Everton did not even try to play their way out. At half-time, the visitors had managed just two attempts - none on target. "We like to play from the back but if the opponent is pressing then we don't take risks," Koeman said. "Then you need to play the long ball and push up and fight for second balls."
Absentees reduce Leicester's creativity
Unfortunately for the neutrals, Leicester were not much better. A direct style has long come to be expected, but as with all approaches, it works better when the top players are around, and the absentees here included Christian Fuchs, Robert Huth and Vardy, all suspended, plus Mahrez. With Okazaki and Slimani up front, there were nobody running in behind, which saw Leicester resort to trying to find wingers Marc Albrighton and Demarai Gray between the lines.
This did happen at times, but no clear-cut chances materialised. Everton stayed deep and compact, and the possession Leicester had before the break largely took place in harmless zones. They managed three shots in those 45 minutes: a Gray strike flying wide, an Amartey effort straight at Robles and a blocked shot from King. All came from outside the box.
Beyond that, there were long goal kicks, free kicks lofted towards the box and, as with Everton, a dreadful number of misunderstandings and misplaced passes. The Foxes recorded a pass completion of 67.6 percent, well below their general average of 71.2.
Koeman switch to 4-2-3-1 rewarded
Given the lacklustre nature of that half, it was not surprising to see the managers shake things up at the break. Ranieri removed Okazaki for Danny Drinkwater to go 4-5-1, while Koeman switched to 4-2-3-1. The latter move may well have been an improvised reaction: Koeman had played 3-4-3 in order to have numerical superiority at the back, yet it made little sense to have three centre-backs marking one striker, and switching to a back four was logical once Ranieri had made his move.
Indeed, before the half started, Koeman could be seen giving a long talk to Mirallas, one of the players most affected by the formational tweak. Everton immediately moved Holgate to right-back and Coleman to the right wing, while Lennon moved to the left and Mirallas up front behind Lukaku. This did not transform their way of playing, but it did mean that, on 51 minutes, when Robles smacked a clearance upfield, Mirallas was in a central position to take advantage.
The goal was lamentable from Leicester's point of view, the clearance somehow slipping in between centre-backs Wes Morgan and Marcin Wasilweski for Mirallas to score. It made Robles the 50th goalkeeper to record an assist in the Premier League, while Leicester are now on a run of 11 league games without a clean sheet.
The Tinkerman tinkers, to no avail
Ranieri could not simply stand by and watch this. After 64 minutes, he took off King and Gray for Mahrez and Leonardo Ulloa, signalling a return to 4-4-2. True to form, Koeman reverted to a back three about three minutes later.
Everton were now only interested in defending and avoid mistakes. They sat deep to clear away a steady stream of crosses, except one by Danny Simpson that found the head of Ulloa, who directed it straight at Robles. So it went until Lukaku picked up a clearance, muscled past Morgan and made it 2-0. It was anything but pretty but, given the poor away form Everton have endured recently, Koeman will not have cared.
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