There remains a Steven Pienaar-sized hole in Everton’s midfield. Roberto Martinez’s makeshifts only served to isolate Leighton Baines and Ronald Koeman is repeating the error. So far this season, Everton’s vulnerability on the left of midfield has been a factor in all four goals conceded. Koeman is actively seeking reinforcements but there are underlying tactical concerns he must also address.
Last Monday as Everton hung on to a 1-0 lead against Manchester City’s 10 men, Gylfi Sigurdsson and Davy Klaassen attempted to block a cross from advanced right-back Danilo. No luck. One defensive error later and 440 consecutive minutes without conceding were cancelled out. Two number 10 tens going through the motions out wide seemed like a hopeful approach to blocking crosses.
Three days later in Split, the problem manifested itself differently. After Hajduk had made ground down the right, a switch to the centre freed Josip Radosevic. With Dominic Calvert-Lewin standed upfield, Baines was caught in between charging out and dropping to cover Ante Erceg’s run. A rush to block Radosevic was probably his best bet but he delayed, arrived late and eventually deflected the strike past Jordan Pickford. Two goals that could have been avoided with a diligent left midfielder.
Antonio Conte tweaked Chelsea’s approach to exploit Everton’s left. With Cesar Azpilicueta wide enough he was essentially a full-back, Victor Moses was able to pen Baines back and push Willian closer to Alvaro Morata, almost in a 4-4-2 at times. From a quick free-kick, Willian drew Phil Jagielka, Baines and Sigurdsson to the right before playing in Cesc Fabregas to ghost into the vacated space. Minutes later, Azpilicueta crossed from the right for Morata to score. Left midfield issues weren’t the only factors here, but they were surely significant enough to trouble Koeman.
Modern trends have dictated that just about any attack-minded player can start as a ‘winger’. If Emile Heskey can, anyone can – and so it has almost literally proved since. Post-Pienaar, Everton have explored that vague parameter with very little success: Steven Naismith, Arouna Kone, Tom Cleverley, Kevin Mirallas, Ross Barkley, Aaron Lennon. Game-by-game solutions that never materialised into substance. Square pegs with that showed no signs of becoming round.
It was unfortunate that Yannick Bolasie missed half the season after presenting himself as a good option on the left. However, Koeman could have afforded Ademola Lookman more than 12 appearances. The former Charlton man has been the only recognised left midfielder in the squad for eight months, but at last it appears he has company. Uncomfortably in the form of Sigurdsson who has lined up there twice now, and more conventionally in Hajduk Split’s Nikola Vlasic who is set to join.
Suitably impressed with his performances over two legs against Everton, and more extensive scouting you would imagine, Everton will beef up their already beefy number 10 contingent with the 19-year-old. Crucially, the Croatian can play on either wing. I can’t speculate about how to make the best of him but it would suit Everton if Vlasic could reliably assist Baines’ defensive work. It’s probably an unrealistic demand for a 19-year-old attacking midfielder new to the league, but it would make sense for Koeman to develop him this way for now.
Ideally, Vlasic would be part of a comprehensive restocking on the left, for a reserve full-back and a first-choice centre-back are still required. 33 in December, Baines cannot be expected to play every game of a campaign that’s seven matches in before September. He has started the season in impressive fashion but bringing in experienced cover or a youngster to intermittently develop would help avoid fatigue and offer protection in the event of injury.
Left centre-back is also a concern. At this stage, Koeman is likely to bring in a player to cover both roles but before long, specialists will be required. Of Everton’s five centre-backs, the only one suited to a role on the left of a back three is scheduled to return from injury in April. Jagielka has looked uncomfortable there except when forced inside by Man City. Like Ashley Williams, he is suited to the centre, while Michael Keane and Mason Holgate are comfortable on the right.
No fit left-sided centre-backs, one left-back compared to four right-backs, one 19-year-old winger on the left with two established options on the right – an unhealthy imbalance has been allowed to develop in the wide areas. Koeman must address this in the remainder of the transfer window but also tactically from now on.