Under Carlo Ancelotti, Everton shined at the beginning of the 2020/21 campaign. They have won the first seven games, including four Premier League games and three Carabao Cup fixtures. The experienced Italian manager is improving the team following an unsatisfactory season with big names such as James Rodríguez, Allan and Abdoulaye Doucouré joining the team. Not only that but the current squad players like Richarlison and Dominic Calvert-Lewin keep improving as well.
Apart from having stronger performances in open plays, Everton also improved their set-plays.
This set-piece analysis will dissect the attacking routines of the Toffees in dead-ball situations.
Until 17 October 2020, the league average of xG generated by corners was 0.37 with teams acquiring 2.9 shots. Compared to their rivals, Everton were far better than the mean with xG of 0.91 and four shots on average. The data has shown the success of Ancelotti and his coaching staff’s set-piece tactics.
The below graph summarises their deliveries. Apart from a few short corners, most of the deliveries went to the six-yard box (highlighted in blue). 16 out of 23 Everton corners were placed into this region for an impressive 69.57% of the time. The team has several strategies and designated targets to attack efficiently.
Below is the basic setup of one such attacking corner. Usually, there are five players in the penalty box, sometimes four. The secret is the multiple starting positions in this setup – players in the penalty zone occupy at least three different heights before the delivery. One would stay in the six-yard box, serving as a blocker, while the other two could make runs to attack the space.
Near the penalty spot or at the farther side, the Toffees had Calvert-Lewin and Yerry Mina to attack, varying from groupings to creating ‘traffic’ or isolations and separations. Also, it is easier to create a mismatch in this zone, and the farthest attacker could run into the region to attack those spaces as well.
The below example shows the general setup of the Everton corner. There are five players in the penalty box plus a three-man layer in the rebound zone. If the player in the six-yard box does not serve as the blocker, he then moves laterally towards the flag to offer a short option for the kicker.
The players in the box usually run in opposite directions. Here, Calrvert-Lein and Alex Iwobi moved to the far side while Richarlison and Michael Keane went to the front post. Against a man-marking approach, this can open the space that is occupied at the centre (marked in black).
The first routine is creating an overload in a certain area, for example, the edge of the six-yard box. This setup is mainly relying on individual physical superiorities of individuals to attack the ball since Everton possess tall players.
According to Transfermarkt, Calvert-Lewin is 187cm tall, Mina 195cm, Keane 188cm and André Gomes 188cm. These players should be able to leap high and head the ball, especially Mina. Even though Richarlison is shorter (184cm), he is good at heading, so using an overload is a good strategy for the team.
Attacking zonal gaps
As mentioned in the above analysis, runs in the box mainly diversified into two directions – front post and back post. Since Calvert-Lewin and Mina were more likely to attack the far side, Keane became the main target to attack the near post delivery.
The former Manchester United defender is strong at identifying zonal gaps in the first defensive line, as well as arriving at the optimal moment. Here, against Salford City, Keane arrived from the penalty spot to the first gap in the defensive line and headed the ball into the net.
It was not a coincidence for Keane to bag three goals in just eight appearances for the club this season.
Regarding the starting positions of players, the players inside the penalty zone spread into three layers, forcing the man-markers to defend the ground vertically. Therefore, the running path is wide open for Keane to arrive into the gap.
In addition, it is also easier to create a mismatch as the defensive side tends to place physically weaker players in the man-marking roles. For this particular goal, the man-marker could not do anything to stop the run of Keane.
Keane’s goal in the Merseyside Derby was another routine, but the concept to attack the zonal gaps was the same. Everton changed most of the setup in this game but Keane was still the player to attack the front post.
Here, Mina was the player closest to the keeper. Meanwhile, Keane was also inside the penalty box, staying on the blindside of Fabinho and Jordan Henderson. He identified the gap between the two nicely.
The pinpoint delivery from Rodríguez should be appreciated, as it precisely went between Fabinho and Firmino. Keane was arriving at the right gap at the right moment, instead of pre-occupying the region, so it was easier to generate power given the few steps to travel. Otherwise, the static positioning of the player might hinder him from heading the ball with power.
Meanwhile, Mina is another player to attack the second gap, while Gomes blocks the keeper.
Calvert-Lewin and Mina
Apart from Keane, Calvert-Lewin is another designated option as a target at the far post. The 23-year-old English international is physically strong, quick, and determined to get into good positions from corners. Combining with Mina as a two-man team, there are some intriguing variations to analyse.
The duo is strong and competent at creating space or running paths for each other. The first example shows Calvert-Lewin and Mina positioned around the man-marking group and on the far side which was initially crowded.
However, Mina was clever to manipulate the positioning of his man-marker to open a running route for Calvert-Lewin. Seconds later, the Colombian central defender moved apart, dragging the marker away from the crowded area. As a result, the path was opened for Calvert-Lewin to run into the highlighted region.
Another tactic used here was diversifying runs to create isolations. As mentioned earlier, the runs mainly go in two opposite directions. Keane and Richarlison both moved to the front post, hence, leaving Calvert-Lewin to deal with the marker alone. Traffic was avoided as the kick was delivered.
Here are some more examples at Selhurst Park as Everton tried to free Calvert-Lewin as the target to attack the far side. The concepts and ideas were similar to the previous one – starting as a two-man group, ending up with 1 v 1 separations.
Here, the overload was near the penalty spot. Mina, Gomes and Keane were all in this area, absorbing most of Palace’s pressure. Consequently, Calvert-Lewin was in a 1 v 1 situation with the last defender on the far side. The striker was often smart enough to lurk at the blindside of the defence to generate a dynamic superiority, only appearing at the right moment. The gap he attacked was between Cheikhou Kouyaté and Joel Ward.
The below example gives us a clearer picture of how Everton created a huge gap between the opposition defenders. Again, it was about the movements to attack the front post. Kouyaté was the man-marker of Mina and as the Colombian defender moved towards the ball, Kouyaté must follow.
The far side was left with a lot of space and only Calvert-Lewin against Ward.
Minutes later, the same pattern has created another opportunity for the team. Again, Kouyaté followed the lateral movement of Mina and thus enlarged the horizontal gap with Ward.
As Calvert-Lewin was the last player, he has more time to judge the ball than any other teammate. Meanwhile, it is also likely to gain a dynamic advantage as the defender could only look at the ball, so the late movements of Calvert-Lewin were difficult to track.
Calvert-Lewin himself can be a blocker as well, if not attacking the ball. Usually, he stays with the last defender of the second layer, so spaces behind him are free to exploit. If Calvert-Lewin knows the delivery is not reaching him, he immediately turns into a blocker to ensure spaces behind are opened.
With his physical strength, it is not difficult to do so. The below example against West Ham United shows this pattern. Again, we see the reversed directions of runners to leave a two-man group at the far side. This time, however, the ball was dropping behind Calvert-Lewin, hence, the forward blocked the defender for Fabian Delph to enter the highlighted region. An attempt was made in this attack.
The rest defence is formed with a 1-3 or a 2-2 layer, with players such as Doucouré and Allan as both are strong at stopping the transition opportunities. The midfield duo also showed strong athleticism to track runs and cover large areas. Particularly, Doucouré is strong at dealing with the air balls, which helped Everton control chaotic situations better.
Sometimes the wider player in this layer could turn himself into a short-corner option. Nevertheless, Everton tended to deliver the ball into the six-yard box more often.
Offensive indirect free-kicks
Apart from the offensive corners, indirect free-kick is another source for Everton to score. Mina, Keane, and Calvert-Lewin have all scored from free-kicks already. The Toffees were clever to attack the zonal gap or create a 2 v 1 overload on a certain target, as well as using blockers to free the runners.
In general, the taker is Rodríguez, who has mastered the art of crossing. If the taker is either Digne or Gylfi Sigurðsson, usually these two might be joined by Allan to disrupt the timing of the kick. However, the most important were the movements and setups inside the penalty zone.
The starting positions of players must be staggered, with strikers and midfielders occupying the first line of the defence. One centre-back shall stay deeper to make the run and, this player should have a dynamic advantage given his timing and initial positioning. Mina was the deep runner in the below example.
Because of the initial distanced position, Mina has more free time to see the direction of the ball and make the run. With the first defensive line following the initial movements of Keane and Calvert-Lewin towards the six-yard box, spaces were available. At that moment, Mina had dynamic superiority to attack the gap or the highlighted region, depending on the direction of the ball.
Combining the use of deep runs, Everton also use blockers to attack the gap. Against zonal gaps, the Toffees were clever enough to identify the relatively larger horizontal gap and exploit through numerical superiority (2 v 1 or 3 v 2).
To free the deep runners who could attack the ball, Calvert-Lewin or Doucouré would block the defender to make sure the horizontal gap existed when the delivery was made. The below image shows the staggered positions of Everton players.
Then, Doucouré quickly turned himself into a blocker to enlarge the gap. Mina, who was coming from deep, capitalised on the late shifting of the zonal defence. The Colombian defender was at the gap to head the ball without an opposition player contesting the header.
Another element of the team in these tactics is the early movement. Sometimes one player would move or adjust his position early to disrupt the defenders. This could either open a gap, a running lane or avoid offside traps (if the runners were attacking depth).
Here, the zonal line of West Brom was compact and it seemed the horizontal gap did not exist. Keane is the deep runner in this scenario, while Doucouré and Calvert-Lewin placed themselves in the zonal chain.
However, Doucouré was clever enough to move away from Calvert-Lewin early. Intentionally or not, the West Brom defender slightly adjusted his position to gain better control on the former Watford midfielder.
This was how the horizontal gap was created for Keane to curve his run into the zone. If the marker tried to follow Keane, Calvert-Lewin would probably block the defender. The presence of Keane in the gap has led to a goal for Everton.
Everton’s first goal of the season was a comprehensive example that contains all elements in the offensive free-kicks. Calvert-Lewin would place himself in an offside position early, but when the ball was taken, he would be onside because of an early movement (from the player himself or his teammates).
In this example, Calvert-Lewin is initially offside while Keane is the deep runner.
However, Mina attacked depth very early and forced Tottenham’s Moussa Sissoko into a deeper position. Now, as a result, Calvert-Lewin is onside. Since there were two kickers, Everton dictated the timing of the pass.
Another player to make the forward run was Keane, who got Eric Dier’s attention.
As a result, Dier slightly inclined to Keane horizontally. Everton overloaded the centre-backs with a 3 v 2 with a big gap between Dier and Toby Alderweireld. Dier could not mark both players, hence, leaving Calvert-Lewin to leap and head the ball into the net.
Alternatively, if Dier had neglected the deep runner, Keane would be free to attack the ball. Given the numerical superiority when attacking the zonal gaps, the defensive side struggled to control all of Everton’s targets.
Everton are a lot better than they were in the previous campaign! Apart from improving their open play tactics and defensive organization, the team also boosted the performance in set-plays. In offensive corners, Keane and Calvert-Lewin are the main targets, but there are more routines and runs to trick the opponents.
Teams might change the pattern of set-plays as the season continues, however. The corner routines against Liverpool were different from those before the international break already. And this shows that Ancelotti and his coaching staff should have more to instill into the team as time goes on.