One of the most intriguing features of Everton since Ronald Koeman took charge last summer has been their tactical versatility. Where previously they were wedded rigidly to a 4-2-3-1 shape, the Toffees have been enhanced by a new-found flexibility under the Dutch manager’s guidance.
And, while the 4-2-3-1 has remained their system of choice, including for recent 3-0 and 4-0 thrashings of West Brom and Hull respectively, they have also experimented with 4-3-3, 3-5-2, and 3-4-2-1 formations this season.
The Merseyside derby may not be the most obvious environment for experimentation, however, if Koeman sees victory at Anfield this Saturday afternoon as a viable objective, he would be wise to consider fielding one of his lesser used systems, namely the 3-4-2-1.
NUMERICAL ADVANTAGE AT THE BACK
Liverpool’s attack is one of the most inventive and incisive in the Premier League, something that is proven by their having scored 61 goals this season, more than any other team in the English top flight. Finding the net at a rate of over two goals per game, they are a fluid and dynamic offensive side capable of completely overwhelming opposition defences.
The trio of Sadio Mane, Roberto Firmino and Philippe Coutinho may not include an out-and-out, true number nine, but is all the more effective for it. The skill, awareness and connective play of Firmino, the drifting movement and raw pace of Mane and the imagination and creativity of Coutinho ensures Liverpool’s attack remains highly potent even without a traditional centre-forward to lead the line.
If Everton are to combat their city rivals’ attacking capability, they may need to consider giving themselves numerical superiority defensively. While a fairly simplistic solution, moving to a back three could aid them in keeping out Coutinho, Firmino and Mane, with a trio of Phil Jagielka, Ashley Williams and Mason Holgate supported by wing-backs who move inside to form a five-man defensive line when appropriate.
The absence of Ramiro Funes Mori and Seamus Coleman through injury is an issue, as Koeman lacks alternative options in their positions. Funes Mori is Everton’s only left-footed centre-back and the only player who naturally fills the left-sided role in a back three, while Coleman is one of the best full-backs in the Premier League.
With James McCarthy also out injured, there is no standout replacement for Coleman in the right wing-back berth. As a consequence, Koeman may have to opt for youngster Jonjoe Kenny. The 20-year-old hasn’t played this term, but did feature in the squad for the last derby in December.
With Kenny and Leighton Baines taking it in turns to support attacks and drop in to create a back four, Everton’s defence would be able to constantly create an extra man in their bid to stifle Liverpool’s attacking trident.
BYPASSING LIVERPOOL’S PRESS
Jurgen Klopp takes his team’s approach to not having possession of the ball extremely seriously. Indeed, he considers it to be an opportunity as opposed to a threat. His Liverpool side defend aggressively from the front, pressing high and with intensity. And, even immediately after losing the ball, they counter-press effectively. “Counter-pressing makes exactly the same [influence as a playmaker],” Klopp told Sky Sports earlier this season while discussing his philosophy of football. “No playmaker in the world can be as good as a good counter-pressing situation.”
As a consequence of Liverpool’s speed, intelligence and urgency in the early stages of the defensive phase, as well as in defensive transitions, many opponents struggle to safely progress the ball from the back against them. And, as a team who like to play out, Everton will need to mitigate this on Saturday.
The back three would offer Koeman’s side help in this respect. With adequate spacing between the players, a three-man line can be harder to press due to the space they cover. Were Liverpool’s front three to focus on pressing Ashley Williams, for example, Jagielka and Holgate would act as outlets for sideways passes, while the wing-backs (Kenny and Baines) could offer diagonal out-balls in wide positions.
Bypassing Liverpool’s press is a way of instantly undermining their strategy, and a back three with wing-backs on either side could help Everton to do just that.
FREEING UP BARKLEY AND CONFUSING LIVERPOOL’S CENTRE-BACKS
The 3-4-2-1 has been used to a high level by Antonio Conte’s Chelsea this term. Top of the league by 10 points, the Londoners are on course to win the title in style, and their system has played a large part in their success.
One of the main aspects of the system’s effectiveness is that it has enabled Eden Hazard and Pedro to take up more central roles in the attacking phase. Operating in what many managers term the ‘half-spaces’ between the flanks and the centre of the pitch, the pair have wreaked havoc on opposition defensive lines on a weekly basis.
Playing in the areas between the opponents’ full-backs and centre-backs, and behind their midfield lines, Hazard and Pedro have caused headaches, and Everton can do something similar against Liverpool should they opt for the same system.
Koeman is not short of attacking midfielders who can fill the inside forward roles in a 3-4-2-1. The most enticing candidate is Ross Barkley, who thrives when given the sort of creative license such a role would afford him. At his best when driving at defences, the 23-year-old’s concoction of pace, power and skill make him a daunting player to mark, harry or face up to in one-on-one situations.
And, alongside Barkley, Koeman could choose between the quick feet of Kevin Mirallas, the playmaking instinct of Tom Davies, or the speed of Ademola Lookman in the other inside forward role.
In Romelu Lukaku, Everton have one of the best striker’s in the Premier League leading their line. His movement, athleticism and physical strength allow him to drag defenders and create space for those behind him, Barkley and one of Mirallas, Davies or Lookman, to exploit.
At the same time, the positioning of the inside forwards could cause confusion for Liverpool’s centre-backs, as they would have to choose whether to step up and mark Everton’s inside forwards, leaving space behind for Lukaku, or stay deep and give the inside forwards space to roam in.
While Liverpool’s attack is scintillating at its best, their defensive record is the poorest in the Premier League’s top six. Indeed, they have considered six more goals than Everton thus far. With the 3-4-2-1, Koeman’s side could cause chaos in what is an unsteady back line.