Tactics writer Sam Tighe casts an eye over Premier League leaders Everton in his latest Tactical Watch column, in association with Sportsbet.io.
This weekend Southampton welcome an Everton side to St Mary’s that can legitimately claim to have been the best in the Premier League over the first five games of the campaign.
They sit top of the league, are one of just two without a loss to their name and won their first four in a row before holding reigning champions (and local rivals) Liverpool to a draw. There’s quality and confidence on show in this Toffees team.
But having secured seven points from the last nine available themselves, Saints are in a good vein of form and will be buoyed by their last-gasp goal at Stamford Bridge last weekend, earning a draw against Chelsea.
Here are the three keys to getting the better of Everton on Sunday.
No James Rodríguez – so what now?
Everton did some good business in the summer, signing several excellent players, but James was the headline act.
A global football star who had perhaps been left in neglect, we’re realising (or remembering) just how influential he can be when given the role of alpha playmaker.
He’s registered three goals and three assists in five games, showcasing a long-range strike, an inch-perfect pass and a wicked, whipped delivery from dead-ball situations.
Operating from a narrow right-wing position with license to roam and find space to receive the ball, he’s moving with the flow of the game. That’s Carlo Ancelotti’s attempt to free him up, and it’s working a treat.
He’s received an average of 49 passes per Premier League game so far; his teammates can consistently find him because he drifts and forces markers to pass him on, making the supply to him really hard to stop.
He’s turned that service into a truckload of chances created; he ranks joint-second in the league for shot-creating actions (27) in the first five games, level with Kevin De Bruyne and behind only Mohamed Salah (32), and netted some for himself.
The statistics bear out just how dominant James has been since he entered the league, but concerningly for Everton, he’s been ruled out of this clash due to injury. Add in the fact Richarlison is suspended and the entire Toffees attack will take on a new look.
What that looks like, how Southampton deal with it, but perhaps most importantly how Everton deal with it, will go a long way to shaping how this game plays out.
The James -> Digne -> Calvert-Lewin sequence
There’s a clear pattern or preference to how Everton look to create chances. It inevitably involves James, but links in two equally important attacking cogs later down the chain.
When James receives the ball in the attacking third on the right, look to the left, where you’ll see Lucas Digne making Olympic-speed sprints into space. The switch ball from right to left often finds him, and from there Digne’s dangerous crossing comes into play.
He can whip them in low or loft them in high, aiming for Dominic Calvert-Lewin, the joint-top goalscorer in the league so far with seven in the bag already.
Calvert-Lewin’s leap and spring make him a menace in the air, while he’s also got a nose for a scrappy goal, often finding himself in the right spot to convert a stray ball in the box.
The nature and speed of this move – James to Digne to Calvert-Lewin – turns and pulls defences, forcing them to play reactively, not proactively. But James is out, so whether or not that breaks this chain is a key to how this game pans out.
Will Everton place another playmaker in James’s spot and try to replicate the move, or will they abandon the first stage and try to progress the ball up the left flank via Digne from a deeper starting position?
Saints’ full-backs will have had a pretty clear idea of what was going to happen in this game; now, not so.
Defensive questions to answer
Presuming Ralph Hasenhüttl sticks with his established 4-4-2 shape, Saints will once again pit two strikers against the opponent’s two centre-backs in an honest, old-school duel.
It’ll be the first time the Toffees face that this season. Michael Keane and Yerry Mina have been largely solid so far, but haven’t had to face the kind of one-two punch combo Danny Ings and Ché Adams provide.
That’s the combo that left Chelsea, West Brom and Burnley’s defences reeling, with Adams’s aggressive running and Ings’s intricate link play too much to handle.
Given Keane and Mina’s susceptibility to pace in behind all of last season (in addition to the new, prowling presence of Allan in midfield ahead of them), it’s worth testing some more direct balls into the channels for Adams to hunt down, offering something uncomfortable for the centre-backs to deal with.
On the right side, Séamus Coleman’s injury means Everton’s established dynamic on that flank has been broken up.
The Irishman did a lot of James’s running and covered the gaps the playmaker leaves. Ben Godfrey did a good job (out of position) in the Merseyside derby, but without the adrenaline of a debut in a rivalry game firing him up, will there be a drop-off?
It’s a question Nathan Redmond can tease out the answer to, no doubt.