Tuesday, January 22, 2013

Tactical Analysis: Everton 0-0 Southampton

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Southampton earned a point in Mauricio Pochettino's first game in charge following the sacking of Nigel Adkins. It was a less dour contest than the 0-0 scoreline suggests but there was a profound lack of quality in the final third from both teams, summed up by Nikica Jelavic's second half whiff from 10 yards out.

Southampton were much the better side in the first half but weren't clinical enough in front of goal as they failed to convert a host of decent opportunities. Everton created the better chances in the second half but didn't do enough to deserve the win.

Pochettino recalled Gaston Ramirez and Rickie Lambert to the starting 11 meaning Jay Rodriguez and Steven Davis, starters in the 2-2 midweek draw with Chelsea, were left on the substitutes bench. David Moyes' only change to the side that drew 0-0 with Swansea was to replace Victor Anichebe with Steven Naismith at right midfield.

First Half
The most interesting tactical feature of the first half was Southampton's pressing and their defensive positioning against Everton's favored left flank.

The Saints' four most advanced players Puncheon, Ramirez, Del Prado and Lambert looked to quickly close down Neville, Osman, Jagielka and Distin in Everton's defensive half. You could hear Pochettino through the television mics urging his players to press high up the field. The strategy made sense- the Neville-Osman midfield combination isn't especially fluid and too often there was a large gap between the two and Fellaini. As a result, Everton struggled to link play with its more advanced players through the middle. Without being afforded the time and space to play comfortably between their center backs and holding midfielders, Everton's only passing option up the field was often a long ball from the back towards Fellaini. The Saints' pressing allowed them to nick possession in Everton's half and spring dangerous attacking moves. The graphic below shows passes received by Fellaini in the opening half, many of which came from long balls, and Southampton's first half interceptions.

At times this season Everton have used long balls into Fellaini to great effect. He's able to use his size to hold off opposition defenders and flick balls on for the striker or wingers making narrow runs in behind. This strategy was largely responsible for the Toffees season-opening win over Manchester United, when the Belgian used his physical advantage to bully Michael Carrick in the center of the park (due to injuries Carrick was playing out of position at center back that evening). However, against a side sitting towards the bottom of the table, Moyes surely wouldn't have expected his side to be so outplayed in the center of the pitch.

That Everton's deficiencies in the center of the pitch were so noticeable is attributable to how effectively Southampton defended Peinaar and Baines down the left channel. The Toffees rarely rely on their central midfielders to provide the link between defense and offense- instead they advance the ball into the attacking third through the combination play of Baines and Peinaar on the left. Peinaar frequently tucks inside from the left, forcing the opposition right back in field with him and allowing space for Baines to overlap near the touchline and whip in crosses.

Southampton employed a clever defensive approach that denied Baines opportunities to overlap into space. Rather than having the right back Nathaniel Clyne track Peinaar in field, thereby opening space for Baines to overlap down the wing, Jack Cork shifted to his right from center midfield to pick up Peinaar when he came in field. This allowed Clyne to sit deeper and deny any passes into Baines high up the field. As a result, Baines was forced to receive the ball in much deeper areas than he's used to in the first half, denying him the opportunity to get in positions to apply his trademark crosses. He didn't complete a pass in the attacking third in the first half and managed just one cross from open play from a deep position (the other two crosses in the graphic below were a corner and an Everton free kick in the middle of the pitch near the halfway line).

Rickie Lambert lacks the pace to get in behind defenses. Everton therefore played a high defensive line to keep him away from the box where his size and strength can be put to greater use. However, their pressing and efficient use of the channels enabled them to create some decent opportunities. They frequently looked for Lambert peeling off to the back post to knock the ball back across the six.

Second half
The game began to shift towards David Moyes' side after he was forced to make a 58th minute substitution for Seamus Coleman after the right back suffered an injury. Moyes brought on Anichebe to replace Coleman; Neville dropped to right back, Fellaini dropped to a deeper midfield role alongside Osman and Anichebe went up top alongside Jelavic in a 4-4-2. Fellaini's switch to a deeper role, which he views as his best position, immediately made Everton more fluid in midfield, with the Belgian offering more attacking thrust than Neville. After a poor outing Jelavic was replaced in the 67th minute by Kevin Mirallas- making his first appearance since Dec. 9 after being sidelined by injury. Everton moved back into more of a 4-2-3-1 with Mirallas playing off of Anichebe. The move further increased Everton's fluidity in midfield and the tempo of their play noticeably grew. Mirallas's movement in between the lines was good- however his lack of match sharpness showed as he missed a good opportunity after controlling the ball well and misplaced a few passes.

Southampton's press was less effective in the second half. In the opening 45 minutes they won 7 tackles and 9 interceptions in Everton's defensive half. In the second half they managed 4 tackles and 5 interceptions in Everton's defensive half. As a result, they were unable to spring the same types of quick attacks they created in the first half and failed to register a shot on goal in the second 45 minutes.

Southampton were stronger in the first half; Everton were better in the second. Both sides had opportunities to win the game but both lacked composure in front of goal. In the end it was probably a fair result.

Pochettino will likely be the more pleased of the two managers. His side were well organized and showed good energy levels to press for the majority of the game. More clinical finishing would have given his team a massive three points, but a difficult point to a top five side should be applauded.

Moyes will rue another missed opportunity at 3 points. He'd have viewed this as a good chance to cut into Tottenham's lead in the race for fourth. It's his sides 11th draw of the season, tied with Stoke for most in the Premier League.

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