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Was Everton’s late win over Crystal Palace a blueprint for long term success?

Three points are always welcome — but was this performance good enough?

Everton FC v Crystal Palace - Premier League Photo by Michael Regan/Getty Images

Everton would have found a way to lose this match last season. It just feels like that’s been the Everton way for the last couple of seasons, and it’s a welcome change to see some late-match success.

It has started to feel like there’s a different aura surrounding this team — a different mentality and attitude that suggests the players can get a result despite not playing their best. Without a doubt, this was the case when Everton defeated Crystal Palace on Sunday.

The late determination, Silva’s willingness to go for all three points, and his well-timed and well-reasoned substitutions are all reasons to feel good after the win at Goodison.

That the Toffees needed a huge penalty save by Jordan Pickford and some late-match directness to beat a side whose strike partnership consists of Wilfried Zaha (good, but not a striker) and Andros Townsend (not good and not a striker), however, is not good.

So with all credit to Silva, Ademola Lookman, Dominic Calvert-Lewin, and Cenk Tosun, I’m not going to really focus on the final 20 minutes of the match when things started to turn around. A change in the atmosphere at Goodison and an added level of directness can easily explain why things went right at the end of the match.

But the Toffees cannot always rely on the home crowd to rally them or a sea of crosses to save them. Marco Silva needs to prevent performances like we saw in the opening 70 minutes for Everton — but his path to doing so is less than clear.

Let’s start by evaluating what went wrong for stretches of this match.

In the front four, Silva went back to what worked against Leicester City before the break, which included Richarlison as the striker.

Seamus Coleman’s return at right-back was certainly a welcome one, though it didn’t affect Everton’s playstyle — just its effectiveness.

The big surprise was the inclusion of Andre Gomes, who slotted directly into the starting lineup. That Silva was anxious to give the Portuguese midfielder a go was expected — but that he could start a match and play 82 minutes after being out for six months was most certainly not.

I remain very hopeful at least about the idea of Andre Gomes, who represents something of the best of both worlds in the center of midfield. Morgan Schneiderlin might be a marginally better passer, but he cannot move anywhere near as well as Gomes. Tom Davies is definitely more athletic and energetic than Gomes, but he cannot come close to matching his ability to move the ball quickly and accurately.

So Gomes is a natural fit — quick and strong enough to continue applying the medium-to-high pressure that has characterized Silva’s system this season, while being able to (hopefully) advance the ball through the central channel.

It’s that second part that’s most interesting, because Silva has relied almost exclusively on the wide players to progress the ball so far this season — likely because Idrissa Gueye and Tom Davies aren’t very good passers, and instructing them to pass forward through the center of the pitch is asking for turnovers and counterattacks.

Can Gomes be the guy who bucks that trend and manages to link the midfield to Gylfi Sigurdsson and the strikers through the central channel? Results so far are unclear.

There are some encouraging signs here — a few successful forward passes through the central channel, though definitely still plenty of shuffling the ball out wide for the wingers and full-backs to do the heavy work.

I found it interesting that Gomes presence in the midfield seemed to affect Gana’s passing as well. Take a look at their combined passmaps.

Gana continued to do his fair share of shuttling the ball out wide, but even he completed some significant forward passes into the central channel, a definite improvement from what we’ve seen when he plays with Davies.

Whether there’s any legitimate causation between Gomes’ presence and Gana’s passing is still obviously unclear, but it’s at the least a good start for what might be the preferred midfield pairing going forward.

That pairing could be increasingly important going forward, because Silva has stumbled into a bit of a roadblock with his front three. There are clearly talented players among his group of strikers and wingers, I’m just not entirely sure how they all fit together.

Let’s start by taking a look at what went wrong in the attack for large stretches of this match.

I know Bernard and Theo Walcott caught a fair share of criticism for their performances in this one, but I’m not particularly convinced either of them did a whole lot wrong in this match. Rather, the issues stemmed primarily from their central striker.

Richarlison is an outstanding player. He’s dangerous in front of goal and lethal with the ball in his feet in 1-v-1 situations. When playing for Brazil, this is enough to be a solid striker.

When playing for Everton, it’s not quite enough.

Against Leicester City, Richarlison’s pace and guile was enough to outdo Wes Morgan because Wes Morgan is now old and bad. Mamadou Sakho is neither of those things, so the Brazilian attacker couldn’t simply rely on winning 1-v-1 speed battles in behind the defense.

He doesn’t have the strength or distributive ability to play with his back to goal either, so the performance Everton ultimately got from him Sunday was one characterized by aimless wandering. Take a look at his heatmap from before he was moved to the left wing position.

Again, this is before the substitution that moved him from center forward to left wing. He popped up everywhere in the central and middle thirds, and that simply is more harmful than helpful in Everton’s system.

Gylfi Sigurdsson’s entire play style for Everton at the moment is predicated on the Icelander having the freedom to roam the final third...basically in the exact same way Richarlison did on Sunday.

One free roamer is sensible and makes your attack hard to track. Two free roamers too often means players wandering into the same area at the same time, making it incredibly easy for defenders to do their jobs.

This is most pronounced in the wide areas, which the Toffees rely on so heavily for ball progression and creativity. Too often, especially on the left wing, the winger and full-back would manage to progress the ball into the final third, only for Richarlison to wander into that area, creating an even more congested landscape by the corner flag.

The result was an inability to actually do anything with the ball once it found its way into the attacking third.

On Sunday, the solution was to throw on Cenk Tosun (and later Dominic Calvert-Lewin), putting Richarlison back into his natural left wing position. Long-term, though, I’m still not exactly sure how this group fits.

Richarlison, for all his guile and finishing ability, remains a miserable distributor of the ball. He’s an underwhelming crosser and poor decision-maker when it comes to passing, and it was even more evident while he was asked to play striker.

To put his creative shortcomings in perspective, consider that Richarlison has generated 0.31 xA in his 578 Premier League minutes this season. Ademola Lookman’s cross to Dominic Calvert-Lewin for Sunday’s opening match generated 0.46 xA (all per Understat).

Take a look at his passmap from Sunday as well.

That is a big part of what has made Bernard such an attractive option on the left. He leads the team in key passes per 90 with a staggering 4.04 (in a sample size admittedly smaller than most of his counterparts), even if his play in front of goal isn’t quite as impressive as Richarlison’s.

On its own, Richarlison’s passing woes aren’t necessarily an issue — plenty of goal-scoring, shoot-first wingers have found success in the highest levels of the sport. But, Everton has so far relied on its wingers to progress the ball into the final third and start the creative process there.

Having a winger who can’t pass complicates that process a lot.

The alternative, presumably, would be to work down the right through Theo Walcott — but Walcott is a much better off-ball winger than an on-ball one. He is a more comfortable playmaker than Richarlison, but relying on him to have the ball in his feet all match isn’t an optimal solution either.

With all that in mind, Silva has 5 options.

  1. Continue to use Bernard out left and Richarlison up top.
  2. Move Richarlison to wide left and put Tosun or Calvert-Lewin up top.
  3. Use Bernard out left with a true striker up top, relegating Richarlison to the bench.
  4. Play through Theo Walcott on the right, rather than through Richarlison on the left.
  5. Look to play more through the central channel.

I opened with a discussion of what Andre Gomes brings and could bring to Everton, knowing that in the end, we’d always be coming back to No. 5 above.

The ability to transition through the midfield in the central channel would take a ton of pressure off of Everton’s wingers and strikers, and give Silva much more flexibility in which personnel he wants to use up top.

But to have that freedom, there needs to be a solid connection between the two holding midfielders and Sigurdsson, with the primary responsibility on Andre Gomes. Everton’s plans for the rest of the season may depend on his ability to integrate into the side and bring an element that so far this season, the Toffees have lacked.

No pressure, Andre.