Everton cruised to a 3-0 win over Southampton at St. Mary's as a first half brace from Romelu Lukaku gave the Toffees a dream start before Ross Barkley put the game beyond doubt with a beautiful curling effort in the 84th minute. After a poor performance in their opening day draw with Watford, Everton looked a different side and produced a display of excellent defensive organization and counter attacking football. Lukaku and Barkley both endured difficult seasons in 2014-2015 but put in the type of performance that suggests the two could kick on and fill their tremendous potential this season. Their energy and direct running proved lethal on the counter and both took their chances with aplomb.
It was a frustrating afternoon for Ronald Koeman and Southampton. They enjoyed plenty of the ball but were short on creativity in the final third.
Here are a couple of key points from this one.
Excellent tactical performance from Everton
Everton gave up 19 points from winning positions last season, more than any Premier League side. That tendency to squander leads largely came down to needless mental errors and perhaps some tactical shortcomings- they often left themselves far too open defensively in chasing a goal that would kill the game off.
Their performance today however showed tremendous maturity and professionalism in playing with a lead. They were willing to cede possession to Southampton, drop off into a solid defensive shape inside their own half, then use the pace and power of Barkley, Lukaku and Arouna Kone on the break when they won the ball back.
Southampton set out in a 4-2-3-1 with Steven Davis and Victor Wanyama at the base of midfield and Saido Mane in a more advanced role off of striker Graziano Pelle. Everton stifled Southampton's ability to quickly advance the ball into the attacking third by man marking the three Saints central midfielders. Rather than defend in a zonal midfield bank of four, Gareth Barry sat just in front of the back four and tracked Mane. Higher up the pitch Barkley and James McCarthy man marked Davis and Wanyama. Barkley and McCarthy would sit off the two Southampton deep lying midfielders, allowing them to collect the ball from the center backs, but then would quickly close them down once they received possession.
This tactic successfully cut off the supply of penetrating balls into the attacking third for the home side. With Mane man marked by Barry and Wanyama and Davis not being given enough time on the ball to pick their heads up and spot a forward pass, Southampton were left hitting hopeful longer balls into Pelle. The screen shot below shows a good example of Everton's defensive shape. (To start the second half Southampton replaced Dusan Tadic with Oriol Romeu. Romeu slid in alongside Wanyama, Davis moved forward into the #10 role and Mane moved to the left channel where Tadic had played but the shape remained 4-2-3-1). Below Barry is tight to Davis (1), the attacking central midfielder, Barkley is stepping out to Wanyama (2) on the ball and McCarthy is playing off Romeu (3), ready to step out when Wanyama plays the square ball. As the screen grab shows, Everton were content to allow Wanyama and Romeu to play square passes among themselves- their focus was on denying the supply line into the attacking third. In the image the only ball on for Southampton is the square pass to Romeu.
When Everton won the ball back, Barkley constantly broke forward behind the Southampton holding midfielders to provide an outlet for the counter. His energy was used expertly by Martinez. He was the one player on the pitch that had the legs and pace to both contribute defensively in the middle of the park then sprint forward to spring attacks.
Southampton lacked creativity
Southampton didn't have the creativity to unlock Everton's man marking. With the center attacking midfielder being man marked by Barry, they needed the wide players to be more clever with their movement and tuck inside to the space either side of Barry. Instead Tadic tended to stay wide while Long tucked inside but took up positions close to Pelle to get on the end of knockdowns rather than coming short to provide a forward pass for Davis and Wanyama. That's not terribly surprising. Long is more of a striker being played out of position on the wing. His strengths are his pace, energy and physicality rather than clever tactical movement and defense-splitting passes.
Southampton's difficulties penetrating Everton through the middle of the pitch show up in the stats. Their only approach to channeling possession into the attacking third was either through the flanks or by knocking it long towards Pelle. As a result they attempted a startling 39 crosses. Southampton scored just 4 goals from headers all of last season. Although they did manage 2 headed goals on the opening day, sending loads and loads of crosses into the middle isn't the most effective approach for a side that doesn't tend to score a lot of headed goals. The graphic below showing the passes received by Pelle highlights Southampton's dependency on longer floated balls into the tall striker. For a side that played a swift attacking style last season, there were a surprising number of long passes knocked in towards Pelle. Again, Everton's excellent defensive shape was largely responsible for the home side's approach.
Martinez got his tactics spot on. Southampton are an attractive attacking side but are at their most effective when they have space to break into behind the opposition midfield and get at the back four. They simply didn't have that space today. Martinez forced them to build patiently and challenged them to come up with the creativity to unlock a deep, compact defense. Koeman's side didn't have an answer. Other sides will certainly take note of Everton's approach. Southampton won't be able to surprise teams in the manner they did last season. They will have to improve their approach against opposition that cedes possession and forces them to break down a crowded defense or a repeat of last season's 7th place finish seems unlikely.