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Tactical Review: Offensive Edition

A look at some statistics that say a lot about how Everton approached offense over the last couple of seasons

Scott Heavey

It feels a little strange to be writing a season review with so much still in the air. For the last decade the continuity provided by David Moyes has meant that a huge part of looking back involved projecting forward, analyzing what Moyes could improve, what areas needed upgrading, and who the man had simply lost faith in. That’s all gone now. The future is completely unknown. Until the team picks a new hire to guide the helm, trying to project seems pretty pointless. Thankfully though, Moyes left us with a whole heck of a lot to talk about in what was a fairly atypical season for Everton. So, as we cast our eyes back over this year, I’m going to focus on what exactly it was that changed for the club. Breaking down this season comes down to two fundamental questions really. The first is, why were they better offensively? And the second is, what the hell happened to the defense? I’ll focus on the offensive side of the ball today and hit the defensive one in a later post.

The offensive answer is simple. Not much happened. It just got better because playing Fellaini as a nontraditional number 10 was exactly what a Moyes' system needed (although a bunch of credit should also go to the development of Seamus Coleman whose development on the right side basically mirrored the typical Baines contribution on the left). Having Fellaini as a target allowed Everton to better retain possession of the ball, and maintain it deeper in their opponent's half. It also allowed both Coleman and Baines to get forward and join the attack more frequently. There’s nothing revolutionary about this from Everton. It at most represented a simple evolution as Fellaini’s success early in the year led to more of the offense running through him than the usual wing overlaps that Moyes has relied on in the past. If, in years past, initiating down the flanks was option one and hitting to a target man was option 2, then this year Fellaini became option 1 to the flanks 1a.

Let’s look at some numbers. It might surprise that when it was all said and done, Everton only scored five more goals this year than last, 55 v. 50. Although if we take penalties out of the equation its 53 v 45. An 8 goal increase works out to around 18%, a solid if not spectacular number. Still, I imagine the lack of difference will surprise some fans, and my guess is because it was masked somewhat by greater increases in both possession and shots taken. Everton went from being a squad that kept the ball 47% to one that held it 52%. It seems like a small change, but combine that with an incredibly high shot rate and you get the mental image we’re all used to. Even last year Everton were pretty good at using the ball to get shots. They shot it once every 3.10 minutes that they had the ball in 2011/2012, which was slightly above average. This year though, Everton were downright lethal in that category, only taking an average of 2.83 to shoot the ball when they had it. That was the third fastest clip in the league. More of the ball, and more efficient use of it meant Everton took 633 shots this season, up 113 from a year ago.

So, where was the problem? Well, despite shooting a lot and a marked improvement in possession, Everton’s underlying stats still indicate that they don’t have the correct make-up or approach to breakdown a defense. And they needed to break down defenses, because despite shooting 113 more times, they only increased their shot after a counter-attack number from 13 to 14. Unsurprisingly over a third of those (5) were thanks to Kevin Mirallas. Basically, they don’t pass the ball quickly enough to create good chances if a defense is settled in front of them. When it comes to moving the ball at speed, Everton were one of the worst clubs in the Premier League this year. They made the fifth fewest passes per minute when they had the ball. That’s a reflection of the two main tenants of their attack, long balls held up by Fellaini, and running with the ball in space by Baines and Coleman. But, it’s also an indictment of their creativity, especially when you consider that their passing numbers actually got slower than they had been the year before. Everton’s numbers put them in the company of Stoke, and West Ham, on a per minute basis. Everton’s attack was fine as far as stage one was concerned, but they seemed to lack the ability to up the passing tempo and either play around teams in a defensive shell or draw those teams out. That resulted in a lot more touches in the opponents' final third and penalty area, but not a lot more goals. Both the total touches and the rate of touches in those two areas increased this year, while passing speed decreased. That’s a symptom of a team trying and failing to find space. It’s also probably a good indicator of what happened to poor Nikica Jelavic. A team taking more touches in a more crowded area is not a good recipe for a player who broke into the team with the motto "with his second touch he celebrates."

Now, to be fair to Everton’s players, this isn’t exactly a squad constructed to play pretty, one touch football. They don’t have a creative playmaker, they don’t really have a deep lying playmaker (Gibson is a nice and important player for Everton, and his range of passing is positively epic compared to those around him, but Paul Scholes he is not), and they really only have one attacker with any ability to beat somebody off the dribble, Kevin Mirallas. None of this is an accident by the way. Those positions are expensive, and Everton have no money. Instead, Moyes constructed a team that plays a somewhat inefficient brand of football, but executes it extremely well. Physicality and hold up play, combined with overlaps on the wings and crosses (Everton crossed the ball once every 1.81 minutes they had it, well more than any other team in the top seven, Man United were closest at once every 2.01). It raises an interesting question, and one which a new manager might test. On a limited budget is it better to try to stylistically separate yourself from elite teams in the hopes you can find cheaper talent that way? Or does the fact that elite teams play in a certain manner mean that Everton should try and ape them, and hope to find talent that bigger clubs have missed. There’s no clear answer. Even if they do choose to adopt a different approach, there’s no reason to believe that one built on modifying traditional hold-up play to incorporate more possession is necessarily the way to go.

So, that’s the car that belongs to the keys manager Moyes is turning over. She may not look like much, but she more or less got us where we needed to go.