Everton hosted Burnley this past weekend during a shortened Premier League fixture list due to the winter break. The match was a close battle despite what the scoreline suggests. Everton was looking to keep up their impressive form and push for a Champions League place that seems extremely attainable after the past few weeks. Teams such as Manchester United, Chelsea and Tottenham have all dropped points. No one seems to want to command and challenge that lucrative 4th spot in the table. Meanwhile, Crystal Palace was searching for their first win this calendar year. A poor run of form sees Roy Hodgson’s men in a position just above the relegation zone. This tactical analysis will break down how the match ended in a 3-1 victory for Everton.
Both squads lined up in fairly similar formations. The hosts were in a 4-4-2 formation with Richarlison and Dominic Calvert-Lewin leading the line. Everton had a balanced midfield with Gylfi Sigurðsson being the main creator with the role providing passes out to the pacey wingers. Their formation stayed consistent as they continued their good run of form under Carlo Ancelotti. On the team sheet, there were no surprises.
Crystal Palace set up in a 4-1-4-1. Tactically, this suggested that Roy Hodgson wanted more cover in the midfield while relying on Christian Benteke’s physical presence up front to fight for real estate in the opposition’s box. With the talent of both Wilfried Zaha and Jordan Ayew on the wing, Crystal Palace looked dangerous. One surprise was seeing Ayew out on the right-wing because he traditionally plays as a number 9 for Palace. He was playing out of position, however, in this match analysis, it will uncover that Hodgson had other ideas for Ayew.
The Midfield Battle
One of the interesting tactical battles occurred in the middle of the park. As stated in the lineup section of this analysis, Everton had two flat midfielders while Crystal Palace formed a triangle. This suggested that Palace were perhaps set up more defensively. These tactics from Hodgson strayed from his typically 4-3-3 formation which sees the wingers pushed further up the pitch. Hudson foresaw how Everton would attack and made adjustments accordingly. He wanted to play a more defensive game. Perhaps this was due to the fact Palace were away from home and were hoping for a point or a “smash and grab” type of victory. His analysis led him to believe that Richarlison and Calvert-Lewin would be the focal point of the attack. With the strikers scoring 8 and 10 goals respectively before this match, there was a need to congest the middle of the park and prevent service to the strikers.
This graphic shows how dangerous Everton was in attacking the center of the pitch. They were limiting the attacks down the lines and focusing on feeding the strikers. One reason for these tactics could be because of Theo Walcott’s injury early in the match, limiting Everton’s ability to attack due to Djibril Sidibe’s more defense tendencies. With Sidibe likely to be less attacking, this could have been beneficial for Palace. However, Everton attacked the center of the pitch a remarkable 73% of the time. They had an expected goal ratio (a metric that assigns to every shot a probability of how likely it is to score from the position, type of assist, preceding events, etc) of 1.47, which is a high figure.
Despite focusing on attacking down the middle of the pitch, Everton did not overload the midfield. This is where Palace caused aches for Everton. Due to their formation, Palace had a numerical advantage in the midfield. They played in a triangle midfielder shape with Luka Milivojević playing as the base midfielder just behind James McCarthy and James McArthur. This benefited Palace in both attack and defense. While attacking Milivojević had more time to pick out long balls. He completed 7 out of 8 of his attempted passes into the final third, reflecting on both his ability and time while in possession. Defensively, the midfield three could close in on Sigurðsson and try to limit his creativity.
Here, you see Everton looking to get the ball into Sigurðsson’s feet. However, with the three holding the triangular shape, there is nowhere for the Everton number 10 to turn if he were to receive the ball. He has to go back to his defenders and can not progress the ball forward. This limited Everton from their attacking focus explained earlier in the analysis.
One tactical decision that hurt Crystal Palace (and ultimately cost them a goal conceded) was Hogdson’s decision to give Ayew a free role in the attack. As referenced too earlier in this analysis, Ayew started in a usual position of right midfield. However, the positional maps of the match showed otherwise. Ayew can be seen just as central as the main striker in the lineup, Benteke.
This place on the positioning map was influenced by his free-roaming role given to him by the Crystal Palace manager. The decision to make a right midfielder license to roam was an interesting one. Typically, managers would assign the free role to an attacking midfielder, a position that usually requires less defensive responsibility. However, Ayew would appear pressing the ball in the opposite flank to where his position was. Reasons for this tactic could be that with an overload in the midfield, Hodgson hoped to win possession and attack quickly with the help of Ayew.
This analysis shows Ayew out of position, an action that leads to an Everton goal. This causes major problems for Palace. His freedom to roam the pitch and take up positions in the middle means he is not fulfilling his defensive duties. Here, Ayew is caught ball watching and he did not track the run of Bernard. James Tomkins and Joel Ward were marking other players in the box and were occupied. They needed help from the right-midfielder. With Everton flooding the box, Ayew must get back to defend. This is the role of a right-midfielder in a flat four midfield. Hodgson gave the striker too much responsibility and ultimately he paid for it with a goal.
After the half-time break, Crystal Palace made tactical changes that influenced the match. Hodgson reverted back to his favoured 4-3-3 formation which saw a much better Crystal Palace attack. At this point in the match, Palace were 1-0 down, so he had to attack the game. By allowing the wingers to push further up the pitch, it allowed for more attacking freedom. It was the midfield three’s job to play more defensive and track runners. With the three forwards now pushing higher, Crystal Palace was able to see much more of the ball. Statistically, the change was incredibly positive. During the 45-60th minute, Crystal Palace had possession 60% of the time and had an attacking rate of 0.67 per minute. Both of these stats were the highest compared to any other period in the match for both teams.
The shape of the forward line became far more compact during the time period where Palace was creating many more chances. In the first half, Ayew would be closer to Zaha than Benteke. Below, he is sticking to a more wider role, completing the forward three. In this analysis, the front three and close together and ready to attack together after Palace wins the ball of a goal kick. By doing this there were able to occupy the center-back and make it more difficult for them. This is a crucial difference from the first half where Zaha and Ayew were sitting deeper. Since they could not press the backline of Everton, the center backs had more time and ability to positively affect the game defensively because they only had to take care of Benteke. Now, they are split in multiple different directions defensively. Michael Keane is seen engaging the ball while Yerry Mina has two Palace forwards to deal with. As Benteke wins the ball in the air, it leaves the Everton center-back exposed. This play resulted in Palace scoring their only goal in the match.
This match was tactical warfare. Carlo Ancelotti and Roy Hudson started sides that were capable of winning the match. Despite making many smart decisions, Hogdson’s Palace could not find enough goals. They dominated the possession and certain key periods of the match. Despite that dominance, Everton found ways to hit them on the break and were far more clinical than Crystal Palace.
Moving forward, Crystal Palace must find ways to score more goals. They currently have scored 23 goals in the Premier League, which is the lowest amount. Even Watford and Norwich City, who are 19th and 20th respectively, have 24 goals this season.
For Everton, the future seems bright. With a free-flowing striking partnership thriving, it seems as if they can continue to be successful. Everton’s next four matches include trips to Chelsea and Arsenal and home matches against Manchester United and their main rivals, Liverpool. The next month will be extremely crucial in defining their season’s success.