Many suggestions were made as to how David Moyes would cope without Marouane Fellaini and Steven Pienaar against Stoke City, but deploying a 3-4-3 formation for possibly the first time in his long Everton tenure was probably not among them.
And it just about worked. The win was earned from a moment of brilliance by Kevin Mirallas that could have happened whatever formation system Moyes plumped for, and for the first 20 minutes of the match Everton struggled to get to grips with exactly where they were all supposed to be standing and running, but it clicked partway through the first-half.
What made the difference from the way Everton started was an increase in tempo, the ball moving from back to front quickly but still along the ground, and Everton, particularly Leighton Baines, winning the ball further up the pitch. When Everton pressed Stoke and were able to overload the attackers against the defenders, the home side looked lively and could and should have had more goals.
That said, Stoke could well have taken the lead and there were a few nervy moments as they pumped balls into the box in the second-half. By and large, though, Everton withstood the bombardment well. Phil Jagielka particularly impressed and made some commanding aerial challenges, but Sylvain Distin and John Heitinga deserve credit too for forming a solid three-man unit.
Communication is vital in a three-man defence, arguably more than in a two-man centre-back partnership because of the extra bodies present liable to play someone onside or similar, and it has not been Everton’s strong point this season. But with Jagielka standing tall in probably his most impressive performance all season, there were no disasters, no moments when the defence broke down.
Moyes has been criticised by some sections of the supporters for his tactics, and the fact that he could never get two centre-forwards to gel together counted as a negative against him in the tactical department. The decision to switch to 3-4-3 though paid dividends with the side looking aggressive and balanced, and showed that the Scot does have some variation in his locker.
That in itself is another stick often used to beat the manager – that he sticks to the same formation regardless. Those who cried out during the New Year rough spell for some new thinking should be pleased, as Moyes has now shown he is capable of trying new approaches – vital for a club that has to make the most out of every penny and has the smallest squad in the league.
Whether Moyes changed things simply to cope with Stoke – getting an extra centre-back to add height – or he was accounting for the absence of Pienaar and Fellaini and would have stuck with 4-4-1-1 if they were available isn’t clear. He suggested it was a little of both after the match.
We may never see 3-4-3 again at Everton, although Fellaini would suit one of the midfield roles and Pienaar the wide forward berth, but it’s a useful weapon to have and one Moyes should consider turning to again before the season is out.
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