Tactical Analysis: The Everton Back 3 Experiment

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The  Stoke Problem

Our recent record against Stoke has been  poor with no wins in our last 4 matches against Pulis side and no clean sheets. Often we have failed to win the territory / aerial battles and been outnumbered through the middle on the second balls.  The problem was even more problematic given the absence of Fellaini – one of our most aerially dominant players – due to suspension.

Ever the reactive tactician, Moyes looked to combat this through springing a surprise in his selection, opting to deploy three centre backs (circled blue) with Coleman and Baines providing the width (as they usually do anyway) as wing backs in a 3-4-3- ish system.

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In midfield,  Osman/Gibson supported an attacking trio of Mirallas, Anichebe and Jelavic with the Croatian through the middle and Anichebe (right) / Mirallas (left)  playing more supportive roles on the flanks (3-4-2-1) when we didn’t have the ball (circled yellow) and then when possession was regained Anichebe would come inside alongside Jelavic with Mirallas in behind (3-4-1-2). The tactical change was surprising given that such a setup is un-chartered territory for Moyes who always prefers a back four.

Many sides have used a similar back three setup against Stoke over the last season to combat the route one punts down the middle of the park – some with more success than others.  In terms of shape, Jagielka was the middle man who would predominantly attack the long deliveries –he won the most headers (8) on the pitch – whilst Distin came in on the left with Heitinga on the right.

Pros and Cons of 3 at the back

The key benefit of the back three is that it gave us a man advantage against Stoke’s two centre forwards Crouch and Jerome . This gave us better coverage through the middle and led to our figures in terms of aerials and second balls improving based on recent games against the Potters.

In this game we won 49% of the aerial duels which was a better figure than the game earlier this season (37%) and last season’s games home and away. Having more players in this central area meant we were better equipped bodies wise to hoover up the second balls too. In the corresponding fixture last season Stoke won  73% of their second balls whilst yesterday we restricted them significantly in this area to just 56%.  Heitinga is the better of the three on the ball and with Distin and Jagielka picking up Crouch/Jerome it meant Heitinga was usually  free to mop up and bring the ball out from the back unopposed. As the passing network shows he pushed the ball into midfield more than any of the 3, predominantly picking out Gibson who in turn looked to pick out Coleman to start attacks down the right.

In terms of the flanks it meant that wing backs  Baines/Coleman could focus more on the attacking role which is where their best attributes reside.

The disadvantage on the flanks was that we were numerically outnumbered and couldn’t engineer the 2 v 1 situations in the final third which is usually a hallmark of our attacking play.

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This is particularly evident when looking at the passing network with Baines only receiving 2 passes from Mirallas in front of him compared to the double figures he usually gets from Pienaar and thus Baines was largely reliant on Leon Osman for service down his flank. This led to us firing in just 20 crosses compared to the 44 we desperately hammered in last season against Stoke.

One of the reasons the back three system is favoured against Stoke is because the numerical deficit on the flanks isn’t really exploited due to Stoke’s full backs primarily tucking in and rarely crossing the half way line to exploit this  advantage with their wide midfielder.


The ends justifies the means and you would have to say the back three experiment did the job in what was always going to be a war of attrition against a hard to watch Stoke outfit.The result also puts us in good shape for some of the crucial battles against key rivals in the coming weeks.

Offensively the lack of numbers on the flanks meant we didn’t create much with the exception of Mirallas excellent goal. Defensively however we looked more secure through the middle and restricted Stoke to few scoring chances with the Potters as usual very reliant on set plays.

Stoke look in big trouble; despite investing  heavily in the playing squad they are on course for their worst points total since returning to the top flight as well as their lowest goals output and seem incapable of creating anything from open play.


Tactical Deconstruction: Stoke 1-1 Everton

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In normal circumstances a point away at Stoke is not a bad result, especially given their impressive home record this season.  However, with the impending ban of key player Marouanne Fellaini the negative impact of this game could be far reaching as we embark on the festive fixture marathon without arguably our two most potent players….

Passing / Territory Stats

Stoke’s general strategy was the usual territory based approach. Given that our game is also more about territory and less about possession this one was always destined for deadlock with us slightly shading territory 50.5% to Stoke’s 49.5%.Possession wise, we also marginally shaded it with 51.2% of the ball to Stoke’s 48.8% which is more even that it usually is in our clashes.  Our pass completion was down on the average of 79.9% to 73%, slightly better than Stoke’s 70%. I’d put this differential down to the pressure they put on us when we had the ball.  Our passing in the final third was much better, with 68% completion to Stoke’s 51% however Stoke were more positive on the ball with 58% of their passes played forward compared to our 48%.

Stoke Attacks…

Stoke attacked us down the flanks and predominantly the right. Begovic pumped long diagonals to Walters to use his height advantage on Baines and this passing combination was Stoke’s second most frequent, taking place 9 times. Whilst Stoke won most of the aerials we did well in picking up a lot of the second balls with Osman nabbing 4 interceptions which was the most of any player on the pitch. The most frequent passing combination in the game was Cameron to Etherington down Stoke’s left flank which took place 12 times. The former West Ham man doesn’t possess the pace he once had to get to the by-line and whip in deliveries and got little change out of Coleman who was excellent, winning 7 out of 7 tackles resulting in the winger creating no chances. The completely ineffectual Charlie Adam mostly wandered around the final third like a lost soul and it’s difficult to see exactly what he brings to the Stoke party.

Even the goals were crud…..

Overall Stoke created more chances than us, with 10 chances to our 7 although most for both sides were the result of pressure or errors rather than fluid football. In keeping with the standard of the game, both goals were terrible. First, Shawcross – who was involved in all the key incidents –  comically headed a routine cross over his own keeper before Tim Howard gave Moyes another reminder that his days as No1 at Goodison are coming to an end as he feebly misjudged a Jones header from a Shawcross punt. In between, Leon Osman continued his personal crusade for worst shot of the season with this week’s effort featuring his signature pee roller which went wide with the goal and the game gaping.
Stop, Start, Stop….

The game was broken up by foul after foul, re-taken dead balls and constant hold ups in play which was no big shock given that his game pitted the leagues most persistent foulers (stoke) with ourselves who are the third worst in the foul play league. As a spectacle it was truly dire and whilst it wasn’t quite the self harm level of the game at Goodison last season it wasn’t too far away.

Fellaini’s GBH on Shawcross is of course what the game will be remembered for. Like it or not, opposition teams target the Belgian as a loose canon. This season, hatchet men such as McAuley (wba) and Caldwell (wigan) have succeeded in getting very tight on him and waiting for him to implode. We’ve noted before how Fellaini’s temperament is poor, remember the red card vs. Bolton which ruled him out of for three games in 2010 and I’m pretty sure he and Shawcross butted each other in the bore fest at L4 last season. Basically this was an accident waiting to happen.

When Fellaini loses his head his game deteriorates and he fails to do the things which make him such a key man such as controlling longer balls on his chest and general link up play with our attacking midfielders and Jelavic. All these abilities disappeared yesterday once his head had gone and the red mist descended. Granted, Shawcross is a lumbering galoot who will take the physical side of the game to the limit, but what the Belgian did was plain daft.

With the media biff’s baying for blood it’s anyone’s guess when we will next see the Belgian. With Mirallas out for a spell also we now look very short on firepower and incision going into the Christmas games. The only game we’ve had to play without both was the insipid Norwich contest last month which was perhaps our worst display of the season after yesterday. Given the options available I’d like to see the special talent of Barkley given an opportunity in midfield with Osman further forward in fellaini’s slot.

Final Verdict

In conclusion, this was a fairly lame display by us. Osman should have wrapped the game up prior to half time and in the second period we created hardly anything in front of goal.  With the exception of a 15 minute spell at the start of the second half Stoke were equally gash and a draw was probably a fair result.


Scout Report: Moyes Tactical Blueprint for Stoke

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Love or loathe their style, Stoke’s start to the season has put them in a position to achieve their best ever campaign in the top flight yet. Their already mean defence has this season tightened up even further and they can boast a league high of 8 clean sheets. At home they are particularly formidable, conceding just two goals and unbeaten at the Britannia since February which after us is the longest unbeaten home record in the top flight.

Stoke: A gradual evolution of playing style?

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Their clear threat is in the air where they have won the highest percentage of aerials (58%) in the top flight. In Begovic they have the biggest kicker in the division and he will instigate most Stoke attacks. Moyes looked to combat this last season by telling Jelavic to stand on the Serbian’s toes when he had the ball and force him to kick out of his hands (and not of the floor) meaning he can generate less distance on the ball. Fellaini was positioned in a deeper role to assist the centre backs in winning the ball from the kick outs or hovering up the second balls which is a trademark of the Belgian. It wouldn’t be a surprise if Fellaini swopped roles with Osman especially when we didn’t have the ball. The tactic worked to an extent, however Stoke’s most frequent passing combination was still Begovic to Crouch, a combination which took place 8 times.


Unsurprisingly, Stoke have the worst disciplinary record in the top flight with the most fouls per game (14.1) leading to 32 yellows and 2 reds with serial clogger Dean Whitehead  the dirtiest in the league with 5 yellow and 1 red despite starting just 6 games.  As long as the free kicks conceded are outside the box it won’t bother Stoke as they are so well drilled in defending set plays.

Passing wise, Reading’s arrival in the top flight means Stoke now have just the second worst average share of the ball (42%) and second worst pass completion (71%). Passing is focused down the right wing which will mean Pienaar will need to be a bit more defensively focused. Charlie Adam was brought in to develop their play and has been deployed in the advanced number 10 role since arriving which has yielded a few goals and assists. Adam is decent if you let him play on his left so we need to press him and keep him on his right. Generally they have struggled for goals and have not scored more than two in a game in their last 41 matches.

Moyes Dilemma

Moyes conundrum is deciding how much he wants to modify our expansive game to deal with the specific threats Stoke pose. For example, Anichebe is always selected against Stoke, usually in a wider role away from the centre backs. It’s a given that we will have 60% of the ball but Stoke will be happy with this. Like Pulis, Moyes approach is all about territory and less about dominating the ball and Moyes will look to defend high up the pitch, pushing Stoke’s strikers away from goal meaning their wide men can’t get into good crossing positions in the final third. When Moyes has tinkered too much or been forced to deploy square pegs in round holes this season we have invariably struggled to establish a rhythm on the ball with our key threats reduced. Whereas we are usually happy to invite the crosses and pack the 18 yard box, this tactics doesn’t work against Stoke as they showed the season before last when Kenwyne Jones scored from an Etherington delivery with little pressure on the ball from Neville.

At the back, Huth and Shawcross live and breathe defending crosses into the box and both possess the full repertoire of blocking runs, elbows and anything else that will give them an advantage. Last season, Stoke well and truly did a number on us in the fixture at Goodison in the kind of game that makes self-harm seem an appealing option. We had 33 crosses with none leading to an attempt on goal with a lack of movement in the box from us the key flaw.  If we are to cross they will need to be drilled / pulled back to the near post for Jelavic or stood up to the back post onto their less aerially equipped full backs for Fellaini to attack.  What the lumbering duo of  Huth and Shawcross don’t like is quick feet running at them with pace which is why the loss of Mirallas is a hammer blow. The speed and movement of players of that ilk is crucial against well organised sides as they can expose gaps before defensive shape is restored in counter attack situations. When Stoke do have the ball in the attacking third its vital that we break at pace with Gibson looking to start quick attacking 2 v 1 transitions with his long range pings from central to wide areas.


Selection wise, with Anichebe out, the only real options Moyes has to tweak aerially is Apostolos Velios. The Greek was well and truly schooled by Huth in last season’s fixture and I’d doubt Moyes will start him again here. Mirallas is out for a few weeks and Hibbert is unlikely to feature until the new year so Naismith will start in the only change from last week. For Stoke, Crouch and Adam should return for Jones and Whitehead whilst Ryan Shotton is suspended.


If you don’t bet your xmas shopping money on this being a draw you need to ask yourself some serious questions. Stoke and Everton are the league’s draw specialists with 50% of their games this season ending all square with the games between the two sides always tight. Simply everything about this one points to a draw. With our last 12 games featuring an efc goal and no clean sheet the 1-1 at 11/2 with willie hills looks decent. There has been just six goals in the last four meetings between the clubs and BetVictor will offer you 4/6 on under 2.5 goals. If you are confident we can eek out a win you can get 33/10 with ladbrokes for us to win by 1 goal.

 Finally, Neville Southall will be signing copies of his autobiography The Binman Chronicles in Llanelli this week – which we at EB can confirm is superb. The former Everton and Wales goalkeeper will be at WH Smith, Trostre and then at WH Smith, St Elli Shopping Centre on Saturday 15th December.James Corbett will also be signing copies of his Everton Encyclopedia this Saturday with former Everton manager, Howard Kendall. They will be at Waterstones, Birkenhead at 12:00 and then at Waterstones Bold Street 14:30.Its expected that all signing sessions will be busy, so its recommended to arrive early to avoid disappointment!

Stoke v Everton – 5 Point Tactical / Betting Preview

1.Team News

I’d expect the sides to line up a bit like this…

Gibson did come off against Fulham with a knock and there is the option Fellaini could spin back into midfield with Cahill restored to the midfield / forward pivot role. By pushing MF  forward you lose some bite in midfield but you gain the advantage of being able to use his energy to press better higher up field which is especially useful against sides who play out from the back like it was with Man United/Fulham. For Stoke its probably less worthwhile given that there is less opportunity to press in these zones given that stoke kick long from the keeper and thus bypass defenders and the Belgian’s height would be better utilised further back the pitch. If Gibson is fit I’d leave out Neville and go with Felli in midfield for his aerial assistance on Crouch from kick outs and restore Cahill to the frontline.

2.Dealing with the Stoke Style

Playing a high line enables us to impact where the long balls are coming from i.e. if Stoke are allowed to get within 10 yards of our 18 yard line the cross will be potent given the quality they have in the wing berths. If we keep a line higher the opponent gets the ball further from goal and the threat of the delivery is reduced. By playing higher upfield it pushes Stoke’s defence back and makes long balls to Crouch come shorter up the pitch.

One aspect which will need to change from our normal game is in terms of where we press. In the 4-2-3-1 we’ve been using lately we  press high upfield onto opposition’s fullbacks. Against Stoke though, there is little point in pressing these areas as neither of Stoke’s fullbacks are selected for marauding runs or for their distribution skills. Begovic will pump balls up to Crouch with the defence/midfield zones bypassed so there is no opportunity to press at Stoke’s defensive line. The alternative is to drop off and keep things tight between our back four and midfield 5 and hoover up the second balls.

Direct Balls into the box are Stoke’s key weapon; they have scored a Premier League high proportion of their goals from headers (39%) this season. They certainly play to their strengths having won the most aerial duels per game (15.2) in the league. Due to this they have the highest – by some distance  – % of goal attempts from inside the opposition 6 yard box (17%)

Enter  ‘The Delap-idator’. This phenomenon has waned in terms of its effectiveness but still brings back nightmares for Tim Howard and co from our first meeting at The Britannia when it caused havoc and created both Stoke goals on the day. The above image shows how we defended them last season. If Delap is selected (and I’m not too sure he will) I’d stick with this and try to turn the tables and look to use it against Stoke through quick counter-attacks as soon as we win the ball back to expose Stoke over committing players. It can be dangerous but the opposition then has to think about marking our players.

3.Toffee Tactics

It’s a given we will have more possession than our visitors on Tuesday; Stoke have posted the lowest possession (39%) and lowest pass completion (69%) per game in the top flight this season. Stoke play quite a flat midfield 4 (although Walters can sometimes drop to pick up the opposing side’s anchor man) so if we deploy 4-2-3-1 we will get some joy in between the lines and hopefully move the ball around the Stoke midfield.

Good movement is always a key factor in breaking down a stubborn opponent. Stoke will set up with 2 centre backs screened by two defensive midfielders players . Fullback’s Shotton and Wilson  will tuck inside close to their centre backs. To get through this defensive wall we will need to move the defenders about to create space.

In the past we have struggled to break down organised sides who sit deep due to our poor incision/movement in the final third – for the record we’ve scored just once in our last 360 minutes against Stoke but hopefully the incision of Pienaar and the movement and goal threat of Jelavic will remedy this.

4. Last Meeting

Despite having 67% of possession the Blues failed to create any goalscoring opportunities meaning that Sorensen didn’t make 1 save in the entire game which we lost 0-1. The team was basically setup in a 4-4-2 with Cahill and Velios upfront. Breaking down a side as rigid as Stoke is tricky but it is achievable with good movement being key. There was simply no movement from Cahill or Velios when we had possession. Both allowed themselves to be marked by their respective defenders meaning when we had the ball there was nothing happening through the middle of the pitch.

Stoke are a specialist set piece side who live and breathe defending crosses. Our lack of attacking options meant that inevitably Baines was the only out ball and Stoke seemed fairly happy for him to have it, knowing that a cross would be incoming and with the heavy artillery they have in the air there was only going to be one winner. The sheer volume of numbers Stoke cram into their box , coupled with the deliberate blocking of our runners (Fellaini / Cahill especially) led to 33 of our crosses amounting to zero attempts on goal. When Stoke did cross their halfway line and we won the  ball back our passing was laboured meaning that by the time we did move the ball forward on the counter, Stoke’s compliment of defenders were all back behind the ball and in position ready for our next cross.


Congratulations to anyone who backed last weeks EB tip of Jelavic anytime /Everton win double vs Fulham at 5/2. The same bet is available for this fixture priced at 12/5 with Willie Hills, with  Jelavic 11/2 with bet365 to be the game’s first scorer. We are best priced at 7/4 with Stan James to win the game. Our last 5 league games have involved 4 goals or more which is 16/5 with Willie Hills. Since being pushed into a more forward role Fellaini has scored in both games and you can get him to score anytime /Everton win double at 10/1 with the same vendor.