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Defence continues to hold Everton back

A quick look into what ails the Toffees, and a preview of how they match up with Leicester's attack

Tony Marshall/Getty Images

Another matchday, another draw, another decent performance stifled by a defensive lapse. As Everton continue to stagnate in the table, perhaps their most notable failure at the moment is lack of consistency in defence.

Last week in my discussion of Everton's attack, I alluded to the fact that their defense had been somewhat mediocre this year. Currently in the league they rank 12th in goals against, 11th in expected goals against (using Michael Caley's model), 14th in shots against, and a dismal 18th in shots on target against. Perhaps "mediocre" may have been a bit kind--in short, these aren't the sort of numbers you want to see out of a team ostensibly competing for European places.

A question worth asking

Numbers aside, I think most of us watching the matches would agree that there's a certain porousness about Everton's defense. Many a theory has been bandied about--plenty have spoken of poor set piece defending, Tim Howard has been heavily criticized, Funes Mori's credentials have been questioned, injuries have played their part, mentality has been shaky at best--the list goes on. Each argument has its own merits, and each probably contributes to the overall problem. In truth the performances have been so inconsistent game-to-game (and half-to-half), that it's hard to pinpoint anything concrete besides "they're letting the opposition shoot too much" without some film study that I just don't have under my belt at the moment.

From a narrative perspective, the set piece angle is currently perhaps the most compelling. In each of Everton's last three games, they have conceded a goal following a set piece. Especially frustrating is that these concessions are directly costing them points amidst otherwise decent defensive performances--Crystal Palace's one big chance (as defined by Opta) was Conor Wickham's header after a corner which Everton failed to clear, and Scott Dann's go-ahead goal was of course directly from a corner. Aside from that, they created very little. Similarly, Norwich created just one big chance (Cameron Jerome's shocking miss) in addition to Wes Hoolahan's equalizer following a corner.

Leon Osman's comments about Martinez's training sessions (via Reddit user Himanimahomina) are not very comforting during such times:

At this point it's fair to say that this is a stick the manager can be beaten with.

With that being said, both Palace and Norwich (and Bournemouth for that matter) have all been relatively effective this season at set pieces (3rd, 5th, and 7th respectively in goals). While that doesn't at all exonerate Martinez or his players, perhaps it can at least put things into a bit of context. Everton's next opponents, on the other hand, are almost as bad as the Toffees are at scoring from dead ball scenarios, so it will be interesting to see if such situations play a part on Saturday.

Looking ahead

Speaking of Leicester--while they may not be set piece specialists, here are two nuggets to ponder heading into the match (courtesy again of Caley):
  • Everton league ranking, shots allowed from counter-attacking moves: 17th
  • Leicester league ranking, shots taken from counter-attacking moves: 2nd

Defensively, this should probably be Martinez's main focus on Saturday. Much has been discussed already regarding the Foxes' remarkably quick and direct play--I highly recommend Statsbomb's take on the topic from last month. In addition to their counter attacking success, I took a look at two other metrics that generally imply quickness and directness: shots per pass (sometimes called shot tempo) and possession adjusted shots for. This is simply the amount of shots a team takes, weighted for the possession that they have. Leicester are posting a comically low 43.4% possession share this season, but are still shooting quite a bit:

The idea here is that Leicester do not rely on possession to control the game, but rather seek to get a shot off quickly once they take control of the ball. Further underlining their disdain for possession football, they are also dead last in the league in passing accuracy (though it's worth noting for Saturday that Everton's defense struggle in this regard--they are 18th in passing accuracy against). Unconventional as they may be, one would be hard-pressed to say that Leicester's tactics aren't working--they are 3rd in the league in open play goals and 4th in xG (and, of course, top of the table!).

All of this should make for an interesting matchup with Everton. It's not hard to imagine another scenario in which after 90 minutes we are looking at a possession statistic skewed heavily towards the Blues but a scoreline in the opposite direction. This, in a nutshell, is what Leicester can do to you. Martinez would do well to keep his men as organized as possible and to guard against the counter--not exactly his strong suits thus far, evidenced by both the numbers and what we've seen on the field.

Romelu Lukaku and co. can only do so much, and against Norwich he showed that even he is human. If Everton are to turn draws into wins, defensive solidity will be of paramount importance. Needless to say, Saturday is a big test.