Everton’s season so far has not gone to plan. A summer of hefty spending fuelled in part by the sale of Romelu Lukaku to Manchester United gave credence to the notion that an exciting new era was underway; Ronald Koeman had steered them to a respectable seventh place in his maiden campaign, next stop Champions League.
However, after 12 Premier League games, they are closer to the relegation zone than the top six, sitting just three points above 18th-placed West Ham United. Koeman was dismissed weeks ago and his replacement has not yet been identified, while the Europa League push came crashing to a halt after three defeats from their opening four outings.
Everton’s hopes of continental progress may be done for 2017/18, but they still have two fixtures left to complete, one of which comes on Thursday night against Atalanta at Goodison Park.
The Italian side won the previous clash 3-0 in the Stadio Atleti Azzurri d’Italia and painful memories of that match undoubtedly still linger in the mind of Toffees fans.
Koeman looked beleaguered that night as his players were out-fought and out-thought by a relentless side whose organisation and intensity was simply too much. The Dutchman’s temporary successor, caretaker manager David Unsworth, will have to construct a watertight game plan if a similar outcome is to be avoided this time around.
Here, Football Whispers considers the tactics, formation and personnel Everton will need in order to overcome Atalanta and salvage pride from their short-lived Europa League campaign.
During the two teams’ first meeting back in September, Atalanta blew Everton away within a first half of ceaseless running and constant attacking. The pace of their game in all phases was simply too much for the Premier League side to handle, with goals from Andrea Masiello, Alejandro Gómez and Bryan Cristante securing a 3-0 half-time lead that wasn’t to be overturned.
It was the sort of performance regular viewers of Serie A will have become used to from a Gian Piero Gasperini team, though few expected the Italian side to continue their 2016/17 league form into European competition.
The tactical traits that allowed the Bergamo club to cause a major upset and finish fourth in Italy’s top flight last term have been on show this season, albeit their domestic results have taken a slight hit due to the distraction of midweek continental affairs. They remain hard to play through due to their intensive man-marking defensive style, while their high-tempo passing game and fluidity also mean they are difficult to defend against.
Serie A statistics paint an accurate picture of Atalanta’s primary qualities. They have the fifth-highest average possession in the league but they also appear at second and third respectively in the tackles and interceptions per game tables, where those at the top tend to be teams in or around the relegation zone, who don’t control – and subsequently don’t win – the majority of their games.
This strange combination of stats makes sense, however. In true Gasperini style, their ability to dominate possession actually comes more from their aggressive defensive stance than the quality of their passing or technical ability of their players.
They mark man-to-man, albeit in a modern, flexible manner, virtually all over the pitch, which makes them highly difficult to attack effectively. This is perhaps also why only three teams – Napoli, Juventus and AC Milan – have seen fewer action in their own third this term.
HOW EVERTON CAN COUNTER ATALANTA’S TACTICS
Unsworth appears to prefer the back four, which he has re-established since taking temporary charge. With this in mind, it’s highly unlikely to see any changes to the four-man defensive line of Jonjoe Kenny, Michael Keane, Phil Jagielka and Leighton Baines in front of Jordan Pickford for this match. That shouldn’t be an issue, as in-form alternatives are scarce.
The major decision the Everton boss will have to make is how to line up his midfield, and in this respect he can learn from Koeman’s mistakes. The 4-2-3-1 left them too open away from home, so a midfield three should be brought in not only to try and ensure greater control in the centre and make it tougher for Atalanta to progress possession into the final third, but to give the Toffees an extra option when building from the back themselves.
With Morgan Schneiderlin suspended, Unsworth should opt for Tom Davies and one of Davy Klaassen or Gylfi Sigurdsson alongside the energetic Idrissa Gueye in the middle. This would provide Everton with technical assuredness against an astute and combative defensive opposition who often apply constant pressure on ball-receivers in the middle third through their man-marking.
Further forward, the focus must be placed on out-balls for when Jagielka and Keane come under pressure and pace out wide for diagonal switches of play.
Two out of Ademola Lookman, Aaron Lennon and Nikola Vlašić should start in the wide roles, while the line should be led – in the absence of Oumar Niasse, who is not registered for Europa League action – by Dominic Calvert-Lewin, whose aerial prowess, work ethic and dynamism can help to disrupt the structure of the man-marking Atalanta defence.
One notable absentee were Unsworth to opt for this system and selection would be Wayne Rooney, but the forward does not have the mobility or stamina to suit this sort of match. And, given the match is more about pride than points, the Englishman should accept being rested for Premier League action.
There are ways to exit competitions. Everton may have left the Europa League, but they can regain some confidence with a good display against Atalanta. To do that, they must focus on controlling the centre and destabilising the Italian outfit’s defence through constant movement and pace in the final third.