After Marco Silva and Everton pretty aggressively went after Arsenal and Manchester United away from the friendly confines of Goodison Park earlier this season, you’d be forgiven if you thought they might do the same at Stamford Bridge against Chelsea this weekend.
Yes, there were moments in the opening half hour or so during which Everton occasionally made a promising foray forward or held the ball for an extended period — all positive signs as the Toffees work toward narrowing the performance gap between themselves and the top teams in England.
But make no mistake, this match was largely a masterclass in parking the bus against a superior side. Nearly a full 12 months after Sam Allardyce’s appointment as manager of Everton Football Club, it seems weird to be accepting of that fact — much less encouraged by it.
But there are three reasons why Silva’s decision to sit deep made sense, and even serve as a positive sign moving forward.
First, as I said in the opening, this is the first time Silva has done this all season. Silva took Everton to London to face Arsenal at the start of the season and implemented a press so high that it bordered on suicidal.
Against Manchester United at Old Trafford, possession was split 54/46 and Everton put five shots on target — plus Gylfi Sigurdsson’s penalty. Both Arsenal and United were substantially more beatable than Chelsea, so those choices made sense in that context.
Second, and somewhat conversely, Silva’s tactical decisions underlie a clear understanding of what his team currently is and is not capable of. Imagine all football managers on a spectrum from Sam Allardyce to Roberto Martinez. Sure, you don’t want to have Sam Allardyce, who believes the only way he can get his team to win is through excessively negative football.
But by the same token, you don’t want an excessively positive manager who believes that no matter the opponent, his team can attack its way to victory — at least if that team has Everton’s talent. Hopefully, some day soon it will be the case that Everton has the ability to go toe-to-toe with a team like Chelsea. But that day isn’t here yet, and Silva wisely recognized it.
Finally — and most importantly — it worked. Allardyce apologists (a group that may consist of only Allardyce himself) will point out that Big Sam was lambasted for his negative style last season. That would be a fair criticism, if Sam actually did well when his team bunkered away to big-six teams.
Under Allardyce, Everton’s two big trips to London saw the Toffees lost 4-0 against Tottenham Hotspur and 5-1 against Arsenal. Style and results both matter — but Allardyce had neither, and for at least one week, Silva had the latter.
Two other quick things that caught my eye this week.
One — I’ve been waiting for weeks for a good reason to talk about one interesting component of Everton’s defensive shape. With Sunday’s match consisting almost exclusively of defense for Everton, this seems the right time.
Silva has always spoken of his team as playing in a 4-3-3, and in attack, that’s true. The wingers fly high (and usually a little narrow) and create space for the full-backs to join, while two of the midfield three are generally not involved in attack.
In defense though — particularly in long periods of defense — that 4-3-3 morphs into a very straightforward 4-4-2. Gylfi Sigurdsson slides forward alongside the striker, while the wingers drop back alongside the central midfielders to bring an extra element of defensive stability.
This serves two opposite functions, depending on the opponent. Against better teams, it gives Sigurdsson enhanced defensive freedom (insofar as that’s not an oxymoron).
With two compact blocks of four behind him and the main striker serving as an outlet up top, Sigurdsson is able to apply pressure, win the ball, or assist in defense pretty much anywhere in the midfield he deems fit. It isn’t a responsibility that most No. 10s would be trusted with, but the Icelandic star isn’t most No. 10s.
Now let’s just hope Jorginho didn’t just break him, eh?
Finally, let’s take a brief moment to consider the central midfielders just in behind Sigurdsson — Andre Gomes and Idrissa Gueye.
This match was easily the club’s biggest test since Andre Gomes made his way into the starting lineup, and that Everton earned a point is a positive sign going forward.
That said, both central midfielders made me nervous on more than one occasion on Sunday.
In a match like this one, I’m not particularly bothered by the failed long balls — those come with the territory of adopting such a deep defensive position.
Failed passes in the defensive and middle thirds, however, are the quickest way to get yourself into trouble in a match like this. Each player was only responsible for a couple of misses in this area, but when you’re facing players like Eden Hazard, one mistake is might all it take to burn you.
Without a doubt, this pairing handled the match better than a Gana / Tom Davies pairing would have, but it serves as a reminder that the Toffees still have some way to go before they can regularly compete with the Premier League’s elite.
That’s all the more reason, then, to be pleased with the point Silva and the lads came away with this weekend.