Hrishi Anand –
Goodison Park played host to an interesting tactical showdown between Ronald Koeman’s Everton and Pep Guardiola’s Manchester City in which Everton ran riot winning 4-0. The scoreline, however, was more to do with Guardiola’s set up rather than a complete performance from the Toffees. At the same time it was definitely Koeman’s best game in charge of the Merseyside club.
Guardiola has taken criticism in recent weeks for not anticipating the pace and rigour of the Premier League which has been a drawback of his tactical set-up thus far. Pep’s persistence in playing out from the back and dominating possession was nullified by Everton crowding the midfield and picking off City on the counter attack. Furthermore Guardiola has seemingly trained his centre halves to avoid tackling as a result of which they were unable to cope with the physicality of the likes of Lukaku and Barkley.
Ronald Koeman, like his former teammate and counterpart Guardiola, has been underwhelming in his duration in charge of the Toffees. Interestingly though, the Dutchman mentioned in his pre match conference that he had set his team up to counter City’s style of play rather than adopt an independent form.
Ronald Koeman became the latest manager to adopt a 3-4-3 set up. The three man defence comprised of Mason Holgate, Ramiro Funes Mori and Ashley Williams. The objective was to reduce the space and time Sergio Aguero had to make his darting diagonal runs in the box but at the same time offer a formidable physical presence. A compact midfield of the impressing Tom Davies and Gareth Barry was introduced to reduce the options of David Silva and Kevin De Bruyne on the ball. Seamus Coleman and Leighton Baines were set up as wing backs tasked with handling the movement of Kevin De Bruyne and Raheem Sterling respectively. Most notable was the attacking trio of Mirallas, Barkley and Lukaku. Barkley was offered the freedom to play in a number 10 role while Mirallas took up a wider position.
Pep Guardiola set his team up in a 4-2-3-1 formation. Pablo Zabaleta and Yaya Toure formed the double pivot while De Bruyne, Silva and Sterling were fluidic and rotational in their positioning. Gael Clichy and Bacary Sagna took up their preferred positions on the flanks. John Stones, who has been in the spotlight for being drilled by Guardiola to play out from the back continued in central defence alongside Nicolas Otamendi. Claudio Bravo who has split opinion continued in goal while Sergio Aguero led the line.
Everton were straight off the blocks from kickoff, an indication of the pressing mechanism that Koeman has set up to pressurize City on the ball. In the initial 20 odd minutes, this was effective as Everton harried City and won free kicks in dangerous positions by inviting fouls. The wing-backs Coleman and Baines had much joy in playing high up the pitch essentially as wingers and putting in dangerous crosses for the target man Lukaku. Predictably, the game settled down after Everton stopped pressing and were happy to let City have the ball in their own half. The back 3 were also largely reluctant in playing a high line. It was difficult to understand what exactly Guardiola wanted City to adopt. Yaya Toure played as a regista and frequently became a 3rd centre back. Zabaleta was largely anonymous and clearly uncomfortable in midfield. City also missed Fernandinho’s ability to break up attacks as compared to the languid attitude of Yaya Toure defensively. Notably City did have a couple of decent chances when Sterling, De Bruyne and Silva were picked out in the final third but to no avail. Everton took the lead in a manner that will annoy Guardiola. John Stones, in his attempt to play out from the back was out of position before Gael Clichy’s poor pass was intercepted. Teenager Davies picked out Mirallas in space out wide and the Belgian squared it to Lukaku to finish. The first half ended with City still toothless in possession but Everton potent on the counter.
Any thought that City would up the ante in the second half were quickly dismissed by a Kevin Mirallas strike in the 46th minute. Again, the goal was a result of poor play from City. Yaya Toure was outmuscled by Barry after receiving a pass. The ball fell kindly to Ross Barkley who threaded it through to Mirallas for a great finish. Mirallas was afforded the space by an out of position John Stones while Gael Clichy failed to mark his run into the box. The Belgian slotted into the far corner to increase Everton’s lead. Guardiola sat pondering on the touchline while City were trying to create chances. The lack of a link between defence and attack meant that attacking players like De Bruyne and Silva were forced to drop deep to receive the ball. Zabaleta looked out of place and did not offer much in terms of defence or attack. The Argentine was soon hauled off for Kelechi Iheanacho who played alongside Aguero who had been quiet all game. City particularly missed Ilkay Gundogan’s drive from midfield meaning that space was wasted in the attacking third as players dropped to receive the ball. Schneiderlin and McCarthy came on for Everton to shore up the defence. City continued to enjoy possession albeit with no attacking threat while Everton sat back and soaked up pressure. The 3rd goal came when an enthusiastic Tom Davies, who had been excellent all night, ran the tired City defence ragged pulsing through midfield and chipping the ball over Claudio Bravo after receiving a return pass from Barkley. The teenager summed up a great performance with a well taken goal. City had no answer to Everton’s pragmatic yet powerful approach. The 4th goal was inevitably a result of a mistake from John Stones, the Englishman lost the ball to debutant Ademola Lookman who slotted between Bravo’s legs for a fourth.
In summation, Everton’s emphatic win was more down to poor individual errors from City and an unsure tactical setup by Guardiola. Having said that, take nothing away from Everton who combined intelligence with intensity to give Guardiola another headache. Manchester City have serious questions to answer after their worst defeat of the season and don’t look like a team that will finish in the top four let alone challenge Chelsea for the title.