Tuesday, January 21, 2014

Tactical Analysis: West Brom 1-1 Everton

Diego Lugano headed in a second half equalizer to give Pepe Mel a 1-1 draw with Everton in his first game as West Brom manager. Lugano was an unlikely hero- he had been largely responsible for Everton's opener after his slow reaction to a Romelu Lukaku flicked header left Kevin Mirallas through on goal to finish with ease.

It was a strange contest with few clear cut scoring opportunities. Everton were a far cry from the energetic, attacking side they've become known for under Roberto Martinez and West Brom didn't have the quality in the attacking third to offer a consistent goal scoring threat.

Martinez went with his usual 4-2-3-1. Ross Barkley remains sidelined with a broken toe and Steven Pienaar missed out with a groin injury so Martinez had to do some shuffling with his three attacking midfielders. Kevin Mirallas played through the middle, Leon Osman played on the left and Brian Oviedo on the right.

Mel opted for a 4-4-2 in his first game in charge. Matej Vydra partnered Nicolas Anelka up front. James Morrison was chosen ahead of Youssuf Mulumbu to partner Claudio Yacob in the middle of midfield. They were flanked by Christ Brunt on the left and Zoltan Gera on the right. Gareth McAuley was unable to recover in time from a hamstring injury and was replaced by Lugano at center back.

Probably the most interesting tactical feature of the first half was West Brom's pressing in midfield. They defended in banks of four. Morrison and Yacob would immediately close down Gareth Barry and James McCarthy when they received the ball in deep positions in midfield. Behind them, Olsson and Lugano would stick tight to the backs of Lukaku and Mirallas and follow them when they tried to drop off into midfield to find space. The midfield pressing limited the amount of time Barry and McCarthy had on the ball and forced them into making backwards and sideways passes. They struggled to play penetrating passes into the front four and as a result the pace of Everton's passing moves was much slower than we're used to seeing.

That Everton's goal came from an uncharacteristically direct move was in part due to West Brom's pressing. Martinez's side had been struggling to transition from the midfield to the attacking third when Sylvain Distin bypassed the midfield altogether and clipped a long ball into Lukaku making a diagonal run. Here, West Brom's tactics hurt them. Because Morrison and Yacob were pressing Barry and McCarthy in midfield, it meant neither were available to pick up the #10 Mirallas in between the lines. As a result, one of the two West Brom center backs had to step out and stick tight to him rather than tucking in and providing cover on Lukaku. The screen shots below show the sequence leading up to the goal. Lugano steps forward to get tight on the back of Mirallas while Olsson marks Lukaku (image 1). Lukaku makes a diagonal run in behind Lugano, forcing Olsson away from his left center back position towards the right channel, leaving an ocean of space through the middle of the pitch (image 2). Lukaku flicks a header on into that space and Mirallas spins off Lugano and beats him in behind for pace. Without a spare center back to provide cover it was an easy finish for Mirallas.

Image 1: Lugano and Olsson tight to Mirallas and Lukaku
Image 2: Olsson forced to track Lukaku's run towards right channel, Mirallas sprints into space left open in behind
West Brom's primary attacking approach in the first half was through the channels. Both Everton fullbacks Seamus Coleman and Leighton Baines are encouraged to provide width high up the pitch when Everton are in possession, thus leaving space in behind them for the opposition to counter into. Anelka would quickly drift wide into this space when West Brom won the ball back and receive outlet passes in the channels. He'd look for Vydra or one of the midfielders breaking forward but too often West Brom's passing was sloppy on the break and they couldn't take advantage of some favorable positions in wide areas.

Mel changes to 4-2-3-1
They key to West Brom getting back in the game was Mel's change in shape to 4-2-3-1 after he introduced Mulumbu for Gera in the 60th minute. Mulumbu played in midfield alongside Yacob, allowing Morrison to move into an advanced #10 position behind Victor Anichebe who had come on at half for Vydra. Anelka moved to the right wing. The shift to three in central midfield allowed West Brom to more comfortably keep possession in attacking areas. Morrison provided the link forward that had been missing when the shape was 4-4-2. West Brom had completed 56 passes in the attacking third in the first hour of play before the change. They completed 45 attacking third passes in the 30 minutes after it, a spell that saw them get an equalizer and close out the contest looking the more likely to find a winner.

The 1-1 result was fair as neither side did enough to win this. Despite looking less than their best Everton were the better side in the first half. West Brom improved in the second half and Mel deserves credit for the impact his switch from 4-4-2 to 4-2-3-1 had on the balance of play.

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