When Marco Silva came to Everton, we weren’t exactly sure what kind of plan he’d bring to the club.
Yes, he said upfront that he’d play a 4-3-3 — but formation is only one part of the overall tactical picture. The other components — things like his approach to possession, advancing the ball, and chance creation — remained a little unclear through the opening weeks of the season simply because he couldn’t keep his preferred guys in the lineup.
Richarlison got suspended, Ademola Lookman soiled his diaper, Bernard faced injury setbacks, Cenk Tosun forgot where the goal was, there was a minor/major crisis at center-back — the list goes on and on.
But now, all those issues have started to subside, and Marco Silva is getting a chance to really get what he wants out of his players. And for the second week in a row, it’s earned him and his club an impressive Premier League victory.
Of course, the big news pre-match against Leicester City was the change up top for Everton.
Silva benched both Cenk Tosun and Dominic Calvert-Lewin in favor of Richarlison at the top of the formation. Perhaps even more importantly though, that opened up a spot for Bernard on the left wing.
In the early-going, Everton looked to play almost exclusively through Bernard and Lucas Digne down the left wing — 54.8% of the club’s first-half attacking-third possession came in the left channel.
Building attacks exclusively in the wide areas has become the hallmark of Silva’s Everton, but it’s only in the last couple of weeks that we’re really seeing it start to develop to maturity.
Its success, both this week and last week against Fulham, comes from a few factors.
First and foremost, Silva got his wingers back. Last week Richarlison wreaked havoc on the left wing with Walcott on the right; this week, Bernard was equally dangerous and disruptive after Richarlison was moved into the middle.
But just as important has been Everton’s ability to force turnovers in the middle and attacking thirds, and the quickly get the ball where Silva wants it.
Consider the moments before Everton’s opening goal.
Kasper Schmeichel takes a long goal kick that pings around the midfield briefly, before finally settling at the feet of Harry Maguire. With the ball in a dangerous area at the feet of a technically-challenged center-back the Toffees pick this moment to press the ball.
Silva seems to have abandoned the suicidal press we saw against Arsenal and West Ham United, instead opting for a more selective press — one that picks the most potentially fruitful moments to step high while limiting the potential danger to the Everton back line.
And this isn’t a one-off incident — take a look at the defensive actions map of the front six from this match.
In this instance, we see Gylfi Sigurdsson stepping to the ball to pressure Maguire, but the real success of the press lies in its complete team effort. Notice how the Toffees have given Maguire nowhere to go with the ball once he has it. Richarlison is marking Wes Morgan, Theo Walcott is on Ben Chilwell, and Tom Davies and Idrissa Gueye are stepping to Wilfred Ndidi.
It’s been Silva’s decision to stick with Davies and Gueye in the midfield that’s helped the press succeed — Morgan Schneiderlin remains a good player, but he’s not got the speed to effectively step up in these moments.
Ultimately, Maguire tries to force the ball to Mendy, but Sigurdsson is all over it. The ball bounces around for a moment, and finally ends up in the feet of Gana with space in front of him.
Gana could try to force a ball into the center to play Richarlison or Sigurdsson directly through on goal, but instead he picks the easier pass out wide, allowing Bernard to do the hard work.
This has been another piece in Silva’s tactical plan. Gana and Davies aren’t particularly good passers — they’ve got plenty of positive traits, but playing line-breaking passes down the center is not one of them.
Instead, almost every forward pass the pair plays is a simpler one that goes out wide, where Everton’s true strength is given the club’s current personnel. Take a look at their passmap from this match (EFC).
In the middle third, these two just don’t play the ball forward through the central channel. Silva has decided the risk is too high with these players, and that the best bet is to just knock the ball wide and let his wingers and full-backs do the work.
It was a few moments before Bernard finally shook free ahead of the opening goal, but it’s this play that got the ball into a dangerous area for Everton.
There are two other quick things I want to touch on regarding Silva’s tactics — one good and one potentially troubling.
The good concerns Gylfi Sigurdsson.
Once again this week, he looked confident and capable, with one major change from his performance earlier in the season. To put it simply, when off the ball, Gylfi now simply goes where he wants.
Take a look at where his touches came in this map (WhoScored.com):
Part of the spread here has to do with Sigurdsson dropping deeper into the midfield in the final 20 minutes of the match — but this is a tendency we’ve seen over the last several weeks.
With so little forward passing happening in the central channel, Sigurdsson has largely forgone looking for the ball from his central midfielders, instead drifting to wherever he can find space to work with his wingers.
This change has turned Sigurdsson’s impact on this side from impressive to otherworldly, and I’d expect to see him continue operating in a very free role.
I do have one concern regarding the tactics from this match — Richarlison at striker. Now, before you get mad, let me explain.
Richarlison showed what he can do well as a central striker — primarily find open space and put the ball in the back of the net when he gets chances. But, playing as a striker means more than just scoring goals.
In the absence of deep-lying playmakers, Everton is likely going to have to ask its strikers to play a bit of a distributive role to take some of the burden off the wingers and Sigurdsson — and well...
Richarlison is an incredible gifted dribbler and confident in front of goal, but he’s just not a good passer.
His passing percentage last season was an anemic 63.9% for Watford — that’s up to a slightly more respectable 70.5% this season, but it still compares unfavorably to that of Walcott (76.3%) and Bernard (74.7%).
He averaged just 0.83 key passes per 90 last season, and that’s actually down to 0.74 per 90 so far at Everton. Cenk Tosun has him easily beat in all of those categories, and Dominic Calvert-Lewin is slightly better in his striker appearances.
I’m not saying that this should disqualify him from playing at striker, but it is definitely something Silva needs to keep in mind. In matches where the central striker will need to possess the ball and create chances for his teammates, Richarlison simply shouldn’t be in the discussion.
But of course, the plan worked perfectly this weekend — and it feels like Silva might just be on to something.