After another disappointing game in which Everton gained a lead and then failed to keep it, talk has turned again to the team's ability to manage games. Leighton Baines came out and said that Everton need to be better at it; Roberto Martinez told us not to question it.
In the most general sense, "game management" refers to a team's ability to adjust their tactics and performance according to the specific situation at hand. Can a stubbornly defensive team go out and get an equalizer when they are down 1-0 late? Can a free-flowing attacking side pull it back and hold onto a lead in the dying moments of a key match?
With Everton, the reason anyone is talking about game management is mostly due to three specific results. In case you have a poor memory, the Toffees took a 95th minute lead against Bournemouth but drew 3-3. Against Stoke, they conceded 2 goals in the final 10+ minutes to turn a 3-2 win into a 4-3 loss. Finally, against Chelsea they took a 90th minute lead but drew 3-3 after a late late John Terry goal.
So when we talk about Everton's game management, we're talking about their failure to hold onto leads, especially late in games. It's true that Everton can't be trusted when leading matches. But is that because they are bad at managing games, or just bad at defending in general?
|Defensive category||Everton||League rank|
|Shots against per game||14.05||15th|
|Goals against per game||1.45||14th|
|Expected goals against per game||1.16||12th|
(courtesy of Michael Caley)
Everton give up a ton of shots and a ton of goals. This is not new. Should we be surprised, then, that they have trouble protecting leads? Obviously it's extremely frustrating when the team you support concedes a late goal, but perhaps that's only because it was wishful thinking from the start to imagine that they could suddenly defend well for the final 10 minutes of a key match.
The feeling persists, though, that Everton are a poorer team when they have the lead. By looking into how a team performs along certain metrics at different game states, we can sometimes gain a better insight into such a question. Luckily for us, we have the wonderful Objective Football, which compiles shot and goal data during various game states.
Total shots ratio (TSR) is generally a decent indicator of a team's performance over time. Here is Everton's TSR at a few different game states this season:
(courtesy of Objective Football; "Close" refers to within 1 goal)
What we see is that overall, Everton are a pretty average team this season--James Yorke just posted a very good article on this topic this week over at StatsBomb--but when losing, they have seen a significant jump in shot dominance. In fact, only Leicester have seen their performance jump in such a degree when losing versus their average:
A similar trend appears when looking at goals: Everton are tied with Spurs for the best goal differential in the league when losing. I should probably note that Everton haven't spent all that much time behind this season (15th in the league), so perhaps the sample size is a bit small.
If we were to run a similar analysis and compare Everton's average numbers to when they are winning, we see that there is a small drop-off when winning, but of much less significance than the boost when winning. In other words, it's not that Everton are a good team that is bad when they are winning, it's that Everton are only a good team when they are losing, and pretty average all the rest of the time.
I'll add that from what I'm aware of, research in football analytics has suggested that we can expect teams to have better shooting at numbers at losing game states (especially at -1) and that we can expect teams with a lead to have slightly worse shooting numbers than average, whether due to loss aversion or some other factor.
Back to Everton, this means that essentially they are an okay team doing things we would expect an okay team to do.
So yes, it would be nice if the referee blew the whistle at 97 minutes on Saturday, or if the linesman raised his flag on Terry's equalizer, but the truth is that all talk of game management and bad luck is obscuring the fact that Everton just aren't a very good defensive team right now. Sometimes such a side can park the bus, "manage the game", and ride out a rough patch, as the Toffees did against Manchester City. For every such performance though, we must also expect its continually frustrating counterpart, wherein the team reverts to type and concedes a late goal instead of holding onto the result.