Let’s get something out of the way right off the top here — Everton played pretty well against a bottom-table Cardiff City side, and was an absolutely deserving winner. Any tactical complaints from this match are relatively minor, because the Toffees were pretty clearly the better side from start to finish.
And for the most part, I’m pretty happy with the system that Marco Silva has implemented. His team, in most situations, adopts somewhere between a moderately high and suicidal high press, looking to use the pace of its attackers and work rate of Gylfi Sigurdsson to force turnovers high up the pitch.
The midfielders primarily funnel the ball out wide to allow the wingers and full-backs to do the majority of the progressing work. Once the ball is into the final third, the wingers and full-backs rely on interplay among themselves and a free role from Sigurdsson to work the ball into scoring areas.
All this pretty much makes sense, and capitalizes on the strengths of the squad at Silva’s disposal while minimizing its weaknesses. The major question mark comes at the top of the formation — who is Everton’s best striker?
Since the October 6 victory against Leicester City, Silva has utilized Richarlison as his starting striker — and the results have been good in that stretch of games. But does that make the Richarlison-at-striker experiment a success? I continue to have my doubts.
Don’t get me wrong, Richarlison is capable of outstanding things anywhere he plays, including as a central striker. His double against Brighton and Hove Albion proves that he’s certainly an option at the position.
But is he the best option? I still don’t think so.
Let’s take a look at the impact his play at striker had on the rest of the team during the Cardiff City match.
To start, let’s take a look at Richarlison’s heatmap.
As a central striker, Richarlison tends to drift about the attacking third pretty freely. Whether this is a directive from the manager or just the Brazilian’s play style, I’m not quite sure.
Though you can see that he drifts both left and right, he’s seen a little more frequently on the left — Bernard and Lucas Digne’s wing in this match. That makes sense in some ways — Richarlison’s “natural” position is at left wing.
This isn’t a new development, mind you. Richarlison is always drifting about when he plays striker.
And in a vacuum, that’s not necessarily a bad thing. If a team is built to attack in a truly free-flowing way, with its attackers working in a somewhat positionless manner, then you’d look for the striker to behave this way.
However, Everton’s wingers don’t really appear to be looking for that style of play. Take a look at heatmaps for Theo Walcott, then Bernard.
Both guys will certainly get toward the middle to an extent, but we’re not seeing any of the truly liberal understandings of wide-man positioning — at least not at the levels we see of Richarlison at striker.
Ultimately, Richarlison’s tendency to drift left created a new wrinkle to the Everton attack that I don’t think had popped up before this season — or at least not in as pronounced a fashion.
Sigurdsson, intentionally or otherwise, served as a foil to the left-drifting Richarlison by drift into the right-central space along with Theo Walcott and Seamus Coleman.
Take a look at the Icelander’s heatmap.
Sigurdsson was substantially shaded to the right throughout the match, presumably trying to operate in the space usually not occupied by Richarlison. That positioning hampered Gylfi’s ability to serve as a playmaker against the very deep Cardiff defensive line.
Take a look at the combined passmaps for Sigurdsson and Walcott, with whom he was most frequently found on the right.
(Note: Both Sigurdsson’s key passes came from set pieces.)
This is pretty underwhelming stuff, even when you keep in mind that Walcott is more of a goal-scoring winger than a creative one.
With Sigurdsson somewhat marginalized by the configuration of the front four, many of Everton’s first-half chances to break down a stout Cardiff defense came on opportunities in which the final pass had to come from Idrissa Gueye or Andre Gomes.
Gana is obviously a top box-to-box midfielder, and Gomes was the clear Everton man of the match here, but neither is really the guy you want trying to seek out the killer pass that leads to a shot. Take a look at their combined passmaps.
Given what is generally asked of these players, this is pretty good! There was a little more ball progression in the central channel than we’ve often seen this season, and the pair did a good job of working the ball quickly and accurately out wide in transition.
But they simply aren’t going to regularly find the key pass, and this map reflects that deficiency.
I find it funny that Everton’s only goal of this match came on a play in which Richarlison dropped deep to help progress the ball — in a right-central area nonetheless. He didn’t really know much about the bounce that sent Theo Walcott away on goal, and it was practically the only major deep build-up play he got involved in all match.
Both in the box and in the build-up, Richarlison just hasn’t consistently put himself in the right positions to help his team find goals. If he gets the ball in open space, he’s absolutely lethal on the dribble and a quality finisher, but those two qualities alone aren’t always going to be enough to break down deep-lying teams.
It was telling, perhaps, that Everton’s best two open play chances outside of the goal came after Cenk Tosun entered the match and Richarlison was shuffled back to a position on the left wing.
Ademola Lookman skinned two defenders in some open space on the right side and probably should have scored in the 81st minute, and then Lookman found an open Tosun near the top of the box in the 89th. The Turkish striker rushed his shot, but he did well to find the right space in which to operate.
Before closing out here, it’s worth noting that I haven’t even mentioned Richarlison’s (lack of) passing ability, which is particularly problematic in matches where Everton face a deep-lying opponent. Tosun’s ability to quickly work the ball to an open man when faced with deep blocks of defenders is infinitely better than Richarlison’s, and it’s a key factor in matches like the one we just witnessed against Cardiff.
Richarlison is an immensely talented player, and few in the squad currently are more important to Everton’s success. He’s proven to be able to play at striker in certain situations when called upon, but with Cenk Tosun and Dominic Calvert-Lewin on the roster, Silva needs to re-think his options.