A great myth of the game is the need for symmetry, as it often can lead to predictability. What is far more important, however, is balance.
One of the great strengths of Everton this season and, indeed, last season is the fact that they are not symmetrical. That their way of playing is not bound by a sense they have to set up as a formation may seem to dictate they should.
The basic shape is 4-2-3-1.
Romelu Lukaku has the physical strength up front to allow them to go long if they need to. They average 65 long passes per game (per WhoScored), the sixth-highest figure in the Premier League, although that’s a lower proportion of all passes played than any of the teams ahead of them in that list.
Taking the starting lineup at Arsenal as an example of the midfield, Gareth Barry sits just in front of the back four, with James McCarthy just in front of him, surging forwards as and when he feels the need, a dynamic, energetic figure adept at breaking up the play.
But what’s really interesting is the three between the two holding players and the central striker.
On the right, Kevin Mirallas started wide. He did come inside at times to allow Seamus Coleman to overlap from full-back, but essentially he was there to provide width, to prevent Everton from becoming bogged down in the centre.
In the centre, Ross Barkley had freedom, dropping deep, pulling wide and often going into a three-quarter position in the space created by Mirallas staying out by the touchline. Part of the key to that role is finding gaps, and they often occur just on the borders of defenders’ zones, where it isn’t quite clear whether, for instance, the centre-back or the full-back should be picking up.
From the left, Steve Pienaar naturally drifts infield and plays slightly deeper than Mirallas on the right. That has two effects: It adds an extra man centrally if Everton need to defend, allowing them to block up central areas and effectively gives them three-and-a-half men in central midfield, which also relieves some of the defensive burden on Barkley, who is the main creator.
But it is also beneficial from an attacking point of view, offering Barkley both a decoy and short-passing option, and it creates space on the flank for an overlapping left-back.
According to stats from WhoScored, Leighton Baines delivered an average of 3.1 key passes per game from that position last season, more than anybody else in the Premier League apart from David Silva. His figure hasn’t been quite that high this season, and his fractured toe has restricted him. But his replacement Bryan Oviedo has proved a fine attacking presence in his absence, scoring twice in the past fortnight.
Of course, a full-back who overlaps that aggressively can be a risk if the opponent counter-attacks quickly, although it helps in providing cover that the more defensive of the holding midfielders do not. Barry is naturally left-sided, but there is a huge benefit to attacking from full-back.
For one thing, by coming from deep and at a time that’s hard to predict, he’s extremely difficult to pick up: the full-back is naturally looking at Pienaar. And, for another, by the time Baines or Oviedo arrives at the point of attack, he is already moving at pace. By virtue, a simple sideways pass can create some extreme penetration as a static or sideways-moving defender tries to recover.
There’s nothing particularly new to that, of course: Nottingham Forest, using John Robertson wide on the left, with Martin O’Neill tucked in on the right and Viv Anderson overlapping from right-back, did something much the same in the late 1970s.
But what Everton show is the wisdom in old virtues and the enormous advantage of attacking from a variety of depths.