Often in matches that could be described as “a tale of two halves”, the winning manager makes a significant tactical change at the break that turns things around for his side in the final 45 minutes.
Everton’s 3-0 victory over Fulham on Saturday can most definitely be described as a tale of two halves, but manager Marco Silva didn’t demonstrably change anything at halftime. Instead, for the first time in 225 minutes of football since the international break ended, his players executed the manager’s plan, and the goals finally started to come.
Silva’s plan, it must be said, was a pretty simple one.
Marco elected to keep the same starting XI that he utilized Arsenal, which I was a little surprised by.
This group played well last week while stifling the Gunners with a high press, but couldn’t find the key pass or shot to get out in front against Unai Emery’s side.
Ultimately, I expected Morgan Schneiderlin to make his way back into the side for Tom Davies, as I didn’t think Silva would look for his team to play that suicide press against the Cottagers.
That much, it turned out, was true. The Toffees definitely applied selective pressure to the Fulham backline in moments where a turnover seemed most likely, but it was far from the advanced and constant pressure we saw against Arsenal (and to a lesser extent, West Ham United).
Instead, Everton played a medium-height line and was pretty happy to let Fulham try to work its way through the midfield steel of Tom Davies and Idrissa Gueye. Combined with a group of defenders that looked downright competent, the back six managed to limit Fulham to very few chances outside of those created on quick counter attacks.
The issue that I expected with this group — and the one that the Toffees faced when they played together against Arsenal — was an inability to successfully pass the ball forward once winning it back. Gana is an average-at-best passer and Tom should pray for the day he could even be described in those terms, but both were actually pretty reliable in distribution on Saturday. (Graphic courtesy EvertonFC.com)
Credit to them for doing well, but Silva’s gameplan pretty clearly was designed to minimize the number of high-risk, high-difficulty passes the pair had to make. Instead of looking to work the ball forward to Gylfi Sigurdsson at the No. 10 or Dominic Calvert-Lewin up top, the central midfielders almost exclusively quickly played the ball out wide to the wingers or full-backs, putting the burden of transition on them.
Take a look at just how pronounced that tactic was by looking at the entire team’s passmap for the match.
It isn’t just the semi-circle of sadness at the top of the box that we’ve grown accustomed to seeing here, there’s even a sizable passing hole right around the center circle. So while attacking third possession in the central channel was again minimal (only 18.5% of Everton’s final-third possession was in the center), it was equally limited even in the middle third as well.
Again, this factor was a constant for the full 90 minutes — Silva’s gameplan never really changed. What did then, you ask?
The wingers and full-backs did a better job in the second half of actually working the ball into dangerous areas in the final third.
What I mean by that is not that they did a better job of serving balls into the box or making passes that led to shots. It’s the step even before that — they did a better job of making the passes or runs that got the ball into the attacking third consistently, particularly down the right wing.
Compare Everton’s first and second-half heatmaps to get a better idea of what the difference looks like in practice.
In the second half, Everton more frequently got on the ball down the right wing in the attacking third, putting a suspect Fulham defense on the back foot with some regularity. From this point, Everton’s final-third quality finally had a chance to shine — through Sigurdsson’s cultured finish for Everton’s first, Walcott’s sublime cross for Everton’s second, and Bernard’s speed and craftiness down the left for Everton’s third.
Credit to the full-backs and wingers, Lucas Digne, Jonjoe Kenny, Theo Walcott, Richarlison, and Bernard for making the important plays from the central to attacking third to turn the match in Everton’s favor in the second half.
There is, admittedly, one more factor we’ve yet to discuss from this match — the wonderful and handsome Gylfi Sigurdsson.
The Icelander had been good creatively when he had the ball leading up to this match (2.2 key passes per match before Saturday), but he simply wasn’t getting on the ball enough.
He had often been isolated by Silva’s usually width-focused tactics, and found himself aimlessly wandering the central channel until the ball, on rare occasion, actually made its way there.
Again, he remained as good on the ball as ever when he actually had it, but that just wasn’t happening enough.
For whatever reason, be it personal decision or managerial guidance, Gylfi turned that on its head against Fulham. As I’ve said, the buildup happened almost exclusively in the wide areas, but instead of waiting in the central channel, Sigurdsson adopted a much freer role in the attack. Take a look at a map of his touches from WhoScored.com.
“No central possession, you say? No problem, I’ll just go to where the ball is.” — Gylfi Sigurdsson (probably).
Personally, I’d still like to see Sigurdsson get a chance in a more traditional playmaking role, but the reality is that the Everton central midfield, regardless of its members, has struggled to advance the ball to Gylfi in central attacking positions. Maybe the return of Beni Baningime or debut of Andre Gomes can turn that around — but that’s probably a question that has to wait until after the next international break.
For now though, it looks like Silva has a plan he likes to work around the issues his central midfielders generally have progressing the ball. Work the ball out wide to the wingers and full-backs, let them take care of progressing the ball into the final third, and let Sigurdsson find space to operate, wherever it is on the field.
It took a little while for all of those pieces to execute simultaneously against Fulham, but once things got rolling in the second half, it was clear Silva may just be on to something.