Despite the ever-changing landscape of the Premier League, a formation consisting of three centre-backs has never really been an all too popular choice in the English game. Fads come and go, but this is one that has never really caught on.
So it was certainly a surprise when Everton took to the field against Stoke City lining up in a 3-4-3 system. David Moyes has never set up Everton up in this way before, but after Saturday's showing, is this a viable tactical option for The Toffees in the season run-in?
Wigan are the only side with a preferred formation consisting of three centre-backs and two wing-backs. Roberto Mancini and Paul Lambert have flirted with the system throughout the campaign at their respective clubs, experiencing varying degrees of success. But none have really managed to use the formation well on a consistent basis.
If Everton and Moyes do consider this as an option, then it will certainly take some getting used to.
Firstly, lets have a look at how Everton set up:
John Heitinga, Phil Jagielka and Sylvain Distin took their place as the three centre-backs, with Seamus Coleman and Leighton Baines given license to bomb on as genuine wing-backs. Everton were obviously looking to utilize their energy and willingness to get forward.
In midfield, Darron Gibson and Leon Osman sat deep, whilst up-front, the eventual match winner, Kevin Mirallas, played just off Victor Anichebe and Nikica Jelavic.
The advantages of this system were pretty evident from the start.
With an extra man across the back, it was clear Everton were looking to play their way out of defense and into midfield. They outnumbered Stoke’s front two of Peter Crouch and Cameron Jerome.
This was accommodated further by a deep-sitting Stoke midfield, which allowed Osman and Gibson to shuffle across the pitch, pick up short passes into feet, turn and start attacks.
Defensively, the extra centre-back also provided a bit more solidity. Everton have had a lot of trouble playing against Stoke in the past couple of seasons, failing to win against The Potters in any of their last four encounters. Everton’s inabilities to deal with a direct, physical style have played no small part in this.
Moyes surely had this in mind when choosing his team for the game. With Fellaini out of the side, the Everton chief was clearly wary of the aerial bombardment his team were due to face.
The result was that in the main, The Toffees coped pretty well with everything Stoke threw at them. The Potters created their usual openings from set pieces. They always do. But in the main, Everton looked comfortable with their opposition’s approach. Something you couldn’t really say for them in previous encounters.
So, defensively it all looked pretty steady. But unfortunately for Everton, the increased defensive solidarity was coupled by a minimized attacking threat.
Baines and Coleman did take up more advanced positions, but with two sitting central-midfielders and a narrow front three, they often found themselves isolated on the flanks.
This meant that the two wing-backs only really ever had sideways and backward passes on. The second and third most common passing combinations in the match were Baines to Osman (on the left side of the double-pivot) and Coleman to Gibson (on the right side) respectively.
Coleman and Baines looked a bit lost without wide-midfielders in front of them creating space. The full-backs are both excellent attacking options, but they are at their best when their accompanying wide midfielder drifts inside, takes a player with him and opens up gaps for their marauding runs.
The chemistry between these players has arguably been Everton’s biggest attacking asset this campaign, and without it they were bereft of ideas in and unable to get into dangerous positions.
Obviously, it is difficult to gauge how successful a system can potentially be after just a solitary outing. You would be hard pushed to say Everton’s trial run was a resounding success, but it is clearly something that David Moyes might look to use again somewhere down the line.
Phil Jagielka, who played at the centre of the three man defence certainly enjoyed it:
“The manager has had a big decision to make with the players who are fit and are available. We’ve talked about doing it for many months with me, Johnny [Heitinga] and Sylvain [Distin] being fit for the majority of the season.
The manager decided to do it today and I think it worked quite well, mainly because of the two wing-backs who played left and right. They have such great energy, as shown in the last few minutes when Seamus [Coleman] ran the ball out of play.
As much as we enjoyed it as a back three, you have got to take your hat off to the two boys on the wing for doing all the donkey work.” – from evertonfc.com
If Everton were to use this system again, with all of their players available, Moyes would have to find space in the team for Marouane Fellaini and Steven Pienaar.
Fellaini, would be able to take up one of the holding central midfield berths, whereas Pienaar could slot into the front-three.
Against Stoke, Kevin Mirallas was given pretty much a free-role, buzzing around in behind the two strikers and popping up in wide areas. This meant that in the main, the trio of Mirallas, Anichebe and Jelavic were narrow and occasionally lopsided.
The one way in which this formation could work for Everton from an attacking point of view is if Mirallas and Pienaar offered width on either side of the central striker. Be it Jelavic or Anichebe. This way, the two wing-backs would have more options available in advanced areas, as opposed to the sideways and backward passing that was on show against Stoke.
Wigan actually did this to great effect against Everton in the 3-0 FA Cup Quarterfinal win. Shaun Maloney and Callum McManaman played almost with chalk on their boots in the front three, meaning that with the support from their accompanying wing-backs, they were able to overload Everton in the wide positions.
If you can stop Everton in the wide areas, you take away almost all of their creative impetus. This is what happened against Stoke, and if Moyes is to use this system again, this is something he must address.
In central midfield, Fellaini, Osman and Gibson are all good players in their own right, but none can carve out openings with a defence-splitting pass. From deep areas, Everton are always looking to work the ball wide into either Coleman or Baines.
This new system could well be pretty adventurous and is in some ways, in keeping with the extra attacking freedom Moyes has given the side this season. But for a man who is very much in the “safety first” category of manager, it is difficult to see Moyes persisting with a system that is so far out of the comfort zone of himself and the players.
Moyes is a very reactive manager. The change in system for the game against Stoke demonstrates that. But this was a one-off. In the past, his tactical tweaks to counter the opposition have always been evident, but they have been made in keeping with a solid, reliable and dependable system. It’s a bit like redecorating the odd room in a house that you’ve lived in for years.
Expect Everton to get back to basics in the coming weeks as they face key games against Tottenham and Arsenal.
What are your thoughts? Let me know in the comments section or on Twitter: @MattJFootball