Story of a Match: Everton

Posted by on December 17, 2011 in Match Analysis | 2 comments

There is a well worn phrase in football; it was a game of two halves. This was not one of them. What it was, however, was a game of three thirds, and in the end Norwich left Merseyside with a 1-1 draw for the second time this season. So, how did it come about? Sit down, relax, and let me take you on a journey more groundbreaking than The Crystal Maze.

Wings. Or lack of wings.

Norwich started the game with the same team that played so well vs Newcastle last week. While Lambert has been a bit of a tinkerman this season, adapting his approach based on the opponent, he opted to keep a winning team and go for some consistency, but for the first 27 minutes of the match it didn’t quite work out. The diamond, which controlled the game last week, was being bypassed here. Everton were playing predominantly down the flanks, especially the left hand side through Baines, and Norwich were wasteful in possession, opting to hit the ball long and bypass the midfield altogether.

Above you can see Everton’s successful passes and all of ours for the opening period of the match. While Everton clustered high up the pitch and on the flanks, Norwich resorted frequently to long hopeful balls that didn’t really get anywhere. While playing long ball football is not something we are unused to this season, as we’ve done it a few times back when Morison played up front on his own, it seemed an odd tactic when we were playing a midfield that was designed to pass it. This makes me think it wasn’t the plan at all, but just poor and rushed decision making by members of the defence. Throughout the opening period we would hit balls long and if Morison/Holt were unable to reach them, the ball would just come back again. This placed the defence under a lot of pressure, and resulted in Everton dominating the opening exchanges.

Here you can see Zak and Tierney were notably poor in their passing in the opening third of the game. Whitbread managed to complete just two passes before we got the goal. Credit has to be given to the Everton midfield who pressed high enough up the pitch to rush these players into these passes, but with a midfield featuring Surman, Fox and Hoolahan, the option to bypass them was a poor one. Baines became a threat over and over again down the left hand side, putting in cross after cross for the Norwich defence to sweep up. Everton also threatened through set pieces, of which they had tons, and we had sod all. It is a credit to the Norwich defence that they coped well with this pressure, never being forced into a the sort of mistake that has been so quick to happen this season.

This all changed when Holt scored on 28 minutes. The goal was superb, a far cry from the battering ram that uneducated people think he is. At this point, Norwich seemed to gain confidence. They passed the ball better, and Fox and Surman were able to get involved a little bit more. Wes was his typical forward thinking self when on the ball, but had one of his poorer games. He wasn’t as effective in pressing, and some of his passes missed their mark. Whether this comes down to a bad day at the office or tight Everton marking is up for debate, but it was no surprise to see him subbed in the second half.

For me, the brightest spark in the Norwich midfield is the oft-maligned Surman. It was his fourth consecutive start after a run on the bench and one that came after a bit of criticism last week (unfair, in my book). Surman has the look of a player who doesn’t get involved as much, because he isn’t as obviously aggressive as Crofts, nor influential as Wes. But the work he does get through, especially today, was crucial. He linked play, closed down players and provided cover for Tierney at left back.

In fact, for three key stats (shots blocked, interceptions and tackles), Surman led the midfield with 3, 2 and 4. This compares to Fox (0,1,1), Crofts (0,0,1), and Wes (1,1,0). While this comparison is a bit blunt, it illustrates the point that appearances can be deceptive. A lot of the watercarrying work that a midfielder does is celebrated in those who do it obviously, but ignored in others. Surman was key in establishing a foothold for Norwich and will be confident of keeping his place in the side because of it.

During this second third of the game, it was more or less even. Norwich had a couple of good chances to extend their lead, while Everton continued to press forward. However, as time wore on, it was clear that Everton were going to dominate the latter stages. With only 1 goal to get at home, they made a couple of changes which swung the game back in their favour. The first was the introduction of Stracqualursi for Cahill, which gave them more of a focal point up front, and the second was Drenthe. Drenthe swung the game with his pace and unpredictability, running at defenders and forcing Ruddy into making saves.

For the last 20 minutes, Norwich’s passing and general play was erratic and inconsistent. In other words, how you’d expect a team clinging on for dear life would be. We misplaced almost as many passes as we did hit, and so many of those were just hopeful hoofs or clearances designed to relieve pressure, if only for 10 seconds. Morison, suffering from a nasty dose of man flu, was removed for Wilbraham and all of our efforts were up to him and Holt. When the Everton goal did come, and it was completely deserved, it came through the energy of Drenthe. Cutting out from wide left inside Bradley Johnson, he fired a shot that was Ruddy’s all the way until the tiniest of touches from Osman poked it past.

In the long run it was nothing that Everton didn’t deserve as they had dominated two thirds of the match. Yet it naturally strings to again concede and again throw away a winning position. It is a mark of how far the team has come that a draw away at Everton can disappoint some, and a lot of heart has to be taken from the performance. Despite being under pressure throughout the match, the team defended admirably. Whitbread and Martin were huge at the back and forever read the game, stepping out to stop attacks and protect Ruddy. In turn, Ruddy had his best game since we were last up there, at Anfield, making a couple of smart saves and smothering dangerous throughballs. While some might question the tactical setup that saw Norwich approach the game without wingers against a team that play so much down them, it is worth remembering that the team played well and earned its point. There was no luck involved, no flukey decisions or cock ups. The team earned a point at a tough place to play and should be buoyant going into the Wolves game on Tuesday.

As ever, thanks to the Guardian for their stats and chalkboards.


  1. I said before the game that I’d take a boring 0-0 draw. We got a boring 1-1 draw. It was a good result. But unlike the triumphant comeback in the other half of merseyside, it was a slightly frustrating failure to hold on to a lead. The point is worth the same though, and we were probably lucky to hold on ourselves as Everton dominated us in the closing stages.

    Your analysis of the midfield is right on point. I can’t second guess Lambert’s decision to go with the same team that played so well at Newcastle. I was pleased to hear there would be no changes, and some aspects of the performance notwithstanding, it was vindicated by a good result. But in hindsight it is apparent that despite playing our three most accomplished ball-players, we were dominated in the midfield.

    Fox’s passing maps from the games against Newcastle and Everton show contrasting stories: against Newcastle he completed twice as many passes, completely bossing the middle of the pitch. Yesterday, he was ineffective (though still more successful than any other Norwich player). Part of this was down to Everton’s gameplan.

    Comparing the tackling from our last two games, it’s clear that Everton were instructed to press high up the pitch. They attempted twice as many tackles in Norwich’s own half than Newcastle managed. This, as you say, restricted the time we had on the ball and led to poor decisions. Maybe, an extra bodu in midfield here would have relieved some of this pressure and given an extra option. Or maybe the use of someone who is more comfortable receiving the ball than Crofts, who I don’t think had his best game.

    In the Newcastle game, a lot of their play was focused through the central midfield. Cabaye in particular, was the main attacking threat, but we did a good job of containing him. Contrastingly, both of Everton’s central midfielders, Neville and Fellaini are defensive minded, and their nominal second striker Cahill, is also really a midfielder. So whereas Cabaye would leave space in behind for the Norwich midfield to play, Everton overran us in the central areas, and laid the ball out to the wings to attack. Baines, as you rightly explain, was their main playmaker, and while we were really hanging on at times, we were hanging on. The defense was resolute, and Ruddy was excellent.

    In the end, it came down to the substitutions. Drenthe, as you say, was the difference. He provided a spark that neither team had really had thus far. And this is one thing I think our current squad may lack. Morison was clearly tiring, and Lambert’s decision to bring on Wilbraham in his place was understandable, to bring on a big man and to try hold up play. But it really didn’t work. I don’t think anyone sees Wilbraham doing anything at this level. I know they are totally different players, but Drenthe’s impact as a substitute compared to Wilbrahimovic was ridiculous.

    This is my point – when we do start with Holt, Hoolahan, Fox, we are left with no-one on the bench who looks likely to come on and make a real impact. All three of these players have been able to come off the bench and change games for us this season. But when they start, there are very few options for making game-changing substitutions. I’m not suggesting we shouldn’t start these players because of this, but just that while we have a pretty good squad of interchangeable players, there are less ‘wild cards’ than previous seasons. Players like Lansbury, McNamee, or Oli Johnson, whose all-round game might not be as strong as the starting eleven, but has the ability to maybe pull off something special and change a game. It’s easier said than done I know, but I wonder if this is kind of player we should look to take a gamble on in January?

    A quick word on Holty, whose goal was sublime – it was amusing to see him trending on twitter during MoTD last night – if you look at the Premier League top scorers, the leading players of English nationality are Rooney (11 goals), Sturridge (8) and our very own Grant Holt (7). You may laugh, but I genuinely think that would be be a hell of a front 3 for England at the Euros.

  2. Oh, and regarding Surman, I think you are right to observe that he often gets singled out slightly unfairly. I’ve commented before that sometimes players, i.e. Crofts, who just have a general style that appears to be energetic and hard-working get more praise than others who can appear to look ‘lazier’, i.e. Surman (and also Morison, who despite clearly being one of our most hard-working players has been criticised for “not trying” by some). I think this is just the way it goes in England where we have a certain perception of what makes a ‘good’ player – i.e. skillful players aren’t just allowed to be praised for being exceptionally skillful, but because they “also work really hard tracking back and get stuck in” etc. As you point out, Surman usually does as much of this as anyone else, just maybe with less song and dance. But part of the reason Surman is criticised I think, is that while he does do a lot of ‘watercarying’ as you say, less noticeably than some, it is often in the most noticeable of situations that he does make mistakes. Quite often it seems that on the occasion where it happens to be Surman not closing his man down that the opposition get a chance on goal. Or his inability to pick out a key pass in a promising move that halts our progress. He’s not necessarily misplacing any more passes or losing any more tackles than anyone else, just that they tend to be in more noticeable situations.

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