Sean Dyche’s reign as Everton manager started with tough successive contests against two of the Premier League’s best sides in Arsenal and Liverpool.
Leeds United were, on paper at least, a more affable opponent on Saturday afternoon. However, the Yorkshire side brought with them a different type of challenge for Everton to overcome.
The Blues conquered it in a more emphatic way than the 1-0 scoreline suggests, but how?
Although not carbon copies of each other, Arsenal and Liverpool share key tactical traits that have a huge bearing on how their games against most opponents are likely to play out.
They usually dominate both possession and territory. Each of them rank inside the Premier League’s top five for highest average possession share and highest number of attempted passes this season.
For Everton, the goal against both was to minimise their threat with hard work out of possession. Dyche did so by instructing his players to forgo the battle for the ball and to sit in a disciplined and compact shape.
The Blues' own attacking threat almost exclusively came through counter-attacks and dead-ball situations. The latter, of course, handed Everton the winning goal against Arsenal and nearly gave the Blues what would have been a potentially pivotal lead at Anfield.
Stylistically, though, the Leeds challenge required a different game plan. The visitors were unlikely to dominate the ball or territory. Therefore, the onus was on Everton to be the more assertive team.
Purpose in possession
That mission was one they accomplished.
Early in the week following the defeat at Anfield, Dyche laid down the gauntlet to his players when he stated: "That next step is to be brave with the ball, not just without the ball.”
That call, plus hard work on the training pitch this past week, contributed to a display on Saturday afternoon with visibly more purpose in possession.
The Blues registered 31 take-on attempts, 16 of which were successful. Both of those are league highs this season.
They also finished the contest having made 43 progressive passes, this being a pass that moves the ball at least 10 yards closer to the opposition’s goal, or one that successfully enters the penalty area. It doesn’t include passes from the defending 40 per cent of the pitch, removing defensive clearances.
Impressively, only once this season have Everton bettered that total of 43.
Alex Iwobi was Everton’s star man in this regard. He contributed nine of those progressive passes, more than any other play on the pitch.
One of those was the deep curling pass into the path of Seamus Coleman that led to the game’s decisive goal. That handed him a sixth Premier League assist of the season, equalling his best return since the 2018/19 season when he was still playing for Arsenal.
With over a third of this campaign still to go, he’ll hope to set new individual high in the coming weeks and months.
Improved attacking threat
The above culminated in a much-improved attacking display from the Toffees.
A 1-0 scoreline may not paint the picture of a lopsided contest, yet, delving into the underlying numbers does.
The Blues accumulated 15 shots in total, you would have to go back to the 1-1 draw against Nottingham Forest for the last time they registered more. Their 24 penalty box touches was also their highest at Goodison Park since before the World Cup break.
Dyche would have wanted to see a more clinical edge to Everton, as their performance warranted a bigger margin of victory. However, there were positive signs that their attacking potency is starting to build.
Rock solid again
Despite their league position, Leeds do carry threats and have tools that could have hurt Everton.
Although now under the stewardship of interim boss Michael Skubala, remnants of the previous regime led by Jesse Marsch remain. Under him, Leeds usually played in a 4-2-3-1 formation, and this was how they set up on Saturday afternoon at Goodison.
The three behind the striker attack narrowly and there is a strong emphasis on vertical fast passing along the ground.
Dyche countered this threat on Saturday by slightly adjusting the set-up of his team. Although Everton lined up in what has become a familiar 4-5-1 under the new boss, Idrissa Gana Gueye’s role was crucial.
He’d often operate as the deepest midfielder of the five, governing the area between the Blues’ defence and midfield and trying to limit the success Leeds had in finding the feet of their key attackers who would try to come short in dangerous central areas.
Everton made 33 tackles + interceptions across the contest, with the hard-working trio of Gana, Iwobi and Abdoulaye Doucoure ranking in the top three for the metric.
Leeds’ issues in successfully finding their key men inside the Everton half led to a hugely disjointed attacking display from the away side. They managed just 14 touches inside Everton’s box – their joint-second lowest total this season – and failed to register a single shot on target.
Despite the Blues producing a performance that made them worthy winners on Saturday afternoon, it still took a moment of magic from Coleman to seal the three points.
Although the clash was approaching the final 25 minutes, there we no signs of fatigue from the 34-year-old when he made a lung-busting sprint from the halfway line to meet Iwobi’s pass.
Then from the tightest of angles, he struck a scintillating shot that bamboozled Leeds goalkeeper Illan Meslier as it flew past the near post and into the back of the net.
This angle 😮💨— Everton (@Everton) February 19, 2023
It was no fluke, although the typically modest Coleman played down his technical prowess post-match: “Everybody was predicting the cross, but the way my hips were feeling, I couldn’t wrap around it.
“I thought I would take on the shot because I knew he [Meslier] would be anticipating the cross. Thankfully I have caught it well. I am not sure I would catch it like that again if I hit it another 10 times.”
That was Coleman’s first league goal since he bagged the opener against the very same opponent 12 months ago, and it was a fine reward for a wider imposing display.
He won 3/3 attempted tackles, 2/3 defensive challenges and 2/3 of his aerial duels. That’s particularly impressive when you consider the Republic of Ireland international spent much of the afternoon facing Leeds’ Wilfried Gnonto, a tricky and speedy attacker who is 15 years his junior.
Gnonto came into the game having attempted at least one shot in 10 straight outings, scoring four goals within that run. Thanks in a big way to the performance of Coleman, he failed to get a single shot away at Goodison on Saturday.