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Searching for Optimism; Managing Expectations

Despite recent results, Everton are still not too far off track for a Europa League place

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Frustration has been the word on the tongue of nearly every Evertonian for almost a month now. At the start of November, the Toffees were languishing in 11th, but a tantalizing schedule beckoned. The brutal 10-game opening stretch had ended; now, surely, was the time for Everton to steamroll through lesser opposition and assume its rightful place in the upper quarter of the table.

2 wins, 4 draws, and 1 loss later, the Toffees have gained exactly 1 spot during the supposed softer part of the schedule. Their pace moved from 1.30 points per game to 1.43 points per game--an improvement, yes, but hardly what their supporters were hoping for.

Over the last 15 years, the average 4th-place finisher in the Premier League has accrued 69.3 points. Most prediction models, such as Michael Caley's, have that number slightly lower this season due to the surprisingly small amount of teams expressing a desire to make a sustained challenge for the top 4. If we take Caley's current number of 66.2 to be a benchmark, Everton will need about 43 points over their last 21 games to get there. That's a pace of 2.06 points per game, which is more or less what a top-3 challenger tends to average over the course of a season. In other words, that ship has sailed.

But we knew that already, didn't we? I mention the Champions League any more only because (a) Roberto's promise alternatively either hangs over us like a relentless storm cloud or is the stream of sunlight that wakes us up in the morning (depending on how one is feeling that day), and (b) I want to point out that it's just really really hard to finish 4th. It is a bit cruel, though, I think, to have that carrot dangling out there, and to be told that it can be achieved with just one more signing or a few tactical tweaks. Seeing Leicester on top of the table at Christmas only adds fuel to that fire, but ultimately this Everton team is a side that only the most hopelessly optimistic supporters can claim deserves to be in the world's premier club football competition.

So let's talk about the Europa League. Let us not forget that qualification is potentially just 3 matches away, as the Capital One Cup winner does indeed gain a spot in the preliminary rounds. Exciting as that is, let us also not forget that 2 of those matches are against Manchester City. In any case, I'm here more to discuss the more traditional route through the league table. 5th place guarantees a spot, and 6th and 7th can also do the trick depending on the winners of the two domestic cups. (I'm assuming that we actually want Everton to qualify for Europe, though I understand there is a heated debate to be had there. My larger point is more about Everton's ceiling this season and less about what that actually gets them, so we'll set aside the discussion for now).

If we quickly run a similar analysis as above for 7th place instead of 4th, we find that Everton will need to improve to about 1.5 points per game, which isn't far off their current mark of 1.35. While I noted the disappointment of picking up just 10 points from 21 since the start of November, in truth the performances themselves have actually improved since the opening stretch of matches. Breaking down this season into two parts and comparing to Martinez's first two full seasons in charge, it's apparent that while early on this year Everton looked more like last year, they've started showing signs of their 2013-14 selves recently (all numbers on a per game basis):

2013-14 1.61 1.03 0.58 1.89 14.74 12.92 0.533 5.1 4.0 0.560
2014-15 1.26 1.32 -0.05 1.24 12.74 13.18 0.491 4.4 3.4 0.565
2015-16 first 10 1.30 1.30 0.00 1.30 11.70 14.30 0.450 4.0 4.9 0.449
2015-16 last 7 2.57 1.57 1.00 1.43 14.57 13.57 0.518 5.6 5.6 0.500

(SF/A=shots for/against; STF/A=shots on target for/against; TSR=total shots ratio; SOTR=shots on target ratio)

Shots, shots on target, and goals have started flowing again, though admittedly they are masking some still-shaky defensive numbers.

Bringing in some slightly more advanced metrics, here is a closer look at the divide this season:

2015-16 first 10 1.04 1.35 -0.31 8.50 12.00 0.435 0.487 0.415
2015-16 last 7 1.59 0.93 0.66 10.86 10.43 0.631 0.596 0.510

(xGF/A=Caley expected goals for/against; KPF/A=Opta key passes for/against; xGR=expected goals ratio; TPR=total pass ratio; KPR=key pass ratio)

Against the easier opponents, Everton have created more chances, created better chances, conceded fewer chances, and have controlled games much more than during the opening 10 games. In short, they're doing what we would want and expect them to do. Unfortunately the results have not necessarily followed, for reasons that have been well covered on this blog. As I've discussed, the defense is probably the biggest factor holding this team back at the moment, and that weakness is more or less evident in the numbers above.

Is there a dangerously high scoring percentage hiding in the background here? Yes, yes there is--in fact only Leicester score more goals from fewer shots on target than the Toffees do. One wonders what happens if (when?) the finishing hot streak ends while the defense fails to improve. But I set out for optimism in this post and that's what I'll try to deliver. I leave you then with Everton's attacking and defending form this season:

It's not terribly conclusive, but things are trending in the right directions just ever so gingerly. As I said, though, they haven't been far off the 7th place pace to begin with. Furthermore, if you set aside individual mistakes, Everton actually looked kind of solid against Leicester. With Phil Jagielka on his way back from injury, and games in quick succession against a bad Newcastle side and a mediocre Stoke, it may not all be doom and gloom at Goodison come 2016. Although isn't that what we said 6 weeks ago?