With no FA Cup match to play, Everton players and staff spent the recent break in Dubai training, bonding, and possibly drinking. They return to league play this weekend against a manager who knows Goodison Park as well as anyone, David Moyes. Unfortunately for the Scot, his team is crap.
Sunderland aren’t just 20th in the league table, they are dead last in shot difference (shots taken minus shots conceded), shot on target difference, and last or second-to-last in expected goal difference, depending on whose model you use. According to Michael Caley’s model, they’ve out-xG’ed an opponent by a margin of 0.5 or more in just one match this season. In short, they are almost always second best at both ends of the pitch, and even on their best days they aren’t really dominating anyone. The end result is that yet again, Sunderland are staring down the barrel of relegation:
Getting slightly more in depth into the numbers, the Black Cats pretty much look the part all around: they barely hold the ball, they have poor pass accuracy, they sit very deep, they don’t put much defensive pressure on their opponents, and their “luck” factor has been negligible over the course of the season. Cripplingly, they’ve spent more time losing and less time winning than any other team in the league this season. It’s really really hard to not get relegated when you do that.
Moyes, bless his heart, has thrown every resource he has at not getting relegated, including complaining about not having those resources, switching to a 3-man defense, and even going so far as to sign Everton cast-offs Bryan Oviedo and Darron Gibson, who started at central midfield against Southampton in their last match. Darron Gibson! Geez.
At its core this is a team with a simple plan: park the bus, pack as many players as you can between the ball and the goal, and hope for the best. One statistical silver lining I could find with this team is that they in the league’s better half in terms of opponent’s shot quality (as measured by xG per shot conceded). Notably, this worked in last month’s draw against Tottenham, a team that relies on shot volume and not necessarily quality to score goals. Spurs were goaded into long shots and bad chances, only had two shots from inside the box that weren’t blocked, and Sunderland escaped with a 0-0 draw. Everton should take that as a lesson.
The one-man plan
The other silver lining with Sunderland is Jermain Defoe. The dude is 34 and still playing his socks off with no help around him. Moyes may not be a tactical genius but he’s smart enough to know that their best strategy going forward is feeding Defoe. The five Premier League players to have taken more shots than him from inside the box this season are Alexis Sánchez, Diego Costa, Roberto Firmino, Sergio Agüero, Zlatan Ibrahimović—not bad company when you consider his service.
Speaking of which, Paul Riley’s expected passing metric aims to quantify the difficulty of passes a player tends to attempt, and how often he is successful doing so. I like it quite a bit so expect to see me reference it frequently in this space, and please go read the whole article. One cool application of this is looking at a particular team’s players on one chart, seeing who tends to do the heavy lifting, who tends to play it safe, and who just shouldn’t be trusted with the ball. Here is Sunderland this year:
Yikes. Papy Djilobodji and Lamine Koné are central defenders, so right back Billy Jones is really the only “attacking” player on this team that ever attempts a risky pass. Didier Ndong seems to be the only midfielder who’s any good at passing in general. Sunderland’s forwards, and Defoe in particular, have to work extra hard to get themselves not only in good positions, but in good positions where they can receive an easy pass, because it’s unlikely a teammate will play a clever or difficult through ball to release them.
My point here is that Defoe is kind of a beast given the circumstances. His presence gives Sunderland a chance to score from any long ball or counter-attack, and his hot streaks are partly how you get weird oddities like Sunderland beating West Brom 4-0 despite being mostly outplayed. The highlights from that match are a masterclass in how bad teams can still get good results:
We’ve got set pieces, we’ve got physical play, we’ve got a wonder strike from a midfielder, we’ve got a counter-attack from a long ball, and finally we’ve got clinical finishing from a hot striker. Even Sunderland can do these things from time to time, and Everton ought to be wary.
Of course none of those things tend to be very sustainable, and Sunderland were promptly thrashed by Southampton the following week. Those highlights have the same commentary as the above, but in the opposite direction: silly mistakes, poor marking, susceptibility to long balls and crosses.
Southampton are a pretty cross-heavy team in general so take the amount of crosses in that game with a tiny grain of salt, but they did find notable success from wide areas. Moyes’s 3-5-2 is certainly vulnerable to this game plan if Oviedo and Jones get caught upfield.
As usual, Everton will need to remain patient and avoid the temptation to start launching shots from range. If they get the ball in the box, good things should happen. Meanwhile, they need to make sure that Idrissa Gueye or Morgan Schneiderlin protects the center backs, because I have little to no faith in Ashley Williams or Ramiro Funes Mori in a one-on-one battle with Defoe. Barring an absolute dud of a performance from the Toffees, a smash-and-grab is the only way I can see Sunderland winning this, and I think that’s exactly what Moyes will go for.