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Solving the Everton winger problem

How can Silva get the best from an underperforming position?

Everton FC v Brighton & Hove Albion - Premier League Photo by Clive Brunskill/Getty Images

Everton has, on paper, four very good options at winger.

At his best, Theo Walcott is the highest-scoring winger in the Premier League since Cristiano Ronaldo. Bernard was a regular for a club that went to the Champions League round of 16 last season. Ademola Lookman was a revelation on loan at RB Leipzig in 2018. And Richarlison has six goals this season.

And yet, Everton hasn’t gotten a goal or assist from a player in one of the two wide positions since Lookman came off the bench and provided the service that broke the deadlock against Crystal Palace on October 21.

Yes, Richarlison scored twice against Brighton in that period, but he started that game as an out-and-out striker. If you want to go back to the last time a player who started at wing contributed to a goal, you’d have to go all the way back to September 29 against Fulham, a match in which both Bernard and Walcott picked up assists.

Thus far, Everton hasn’t been particularly harmed by the lack of wide production, in large part because Gylfi Sigurdsson is some weird Icelandic god come to save us all from our lives of misery and woe — but the Toffees cannot depend on Sigurdsson to shoulder this much of the creative and goal-scoring burden for the rest of the season.

So, what can Marco Silva do to get more production from his wingers? The answer to that question lies in understand two key points.

The Richarlison Experiment

For six straight league matches, Marco Silva has trotted out arguably his best winger in a central striking role. Obviously, taking one of Everton’s most dangerous attackers from a wide position is going to overall decrease the level of production from the wingers, but the issue is even more nuanced than that.

I talked about it at length in the tactical analysis from the Cardiff match, which I encourage you to take a look at for a complete explanation of the issue. But, in the simplest terms, the issue is this — Richarlison only marginally plays striker as if he is a striker.

In some situations, having a striker who tends to drift wide and isn’t all that involved in the build-up play is totally fine. But given how much Everton looks to build through the wide areas, not to mention that the club needs its striker to provide possession-challenged central midfielders an outlet, Richarlison in the center just isn’t a viable option.

The result of Richarlison’s tendency to drift wide is the disappearance of space in which the wingers can operate. Richarlison drags a central defender with him into those wide areas, then isn’t a good enough passer to work his way out of trouble when the ball finds him there.

Consider this — since Silva moved Richarlison to striker (six matches), Lookman, Walcott, and Bernard have combined for zero goals and one assist. In the seven games prior (in which Lookman played a grand total of 42 minutes), that trio combined for two goals and three assists.

Add in the three goals Richarlison scored from the left wing in that span and the difference becomes even more stark. Without a doubt, Richarlison brings certain things to the striker position that Cenk Tosun and Dominic Calvert-Lewin cannot. But, that duo, Tosun in particular, provide a necessary threat in the box and outlet with back to goal that Richarlison does not.

For the sake of the other wingers in the squad, Tosun or DCL have to be back in the starting XI.

Understanding Player Types

Perhaps one of the biggest reasons Silva moved Richarlison to striker in the first place was to get he, Bernard, and Theo Walcott on the pitch at the same time. Ultimately having this number of wingers competing for a starting spot is a good thing, even if one or more of them is out of form.

But for now, I’m going to assume that sooner rather than later Silva sees things the way I do and moves Richarlison back to the wing, giving him four players for two positions.

What should he do at that point, then?

It’s important to consider the type of winger that each of these players is before making that decision. Take a look at each player’s stats so far this season. (Note: Only Richarlison starts at left wing are included, not striker.)

Everton Winger Production

Player Minutes Goals Assists xG/90 xA/90 SH/90 KP/90 Dribbles/90
Player Minutes Goals Assists xG/90 xA/90 SH/90 KP/90 Dribbles/90
Richarlison 923 5 1 0.42 0.12 3.02 0.68 1.4
Theo Walcott 1765 3 2 0.25 0.13 1.43 0.92 1.5
Ademola Lookman 502 0 2 0.13 0.29 1.43 1.79 3.8
Bernard 1263 0 3 0.06 0.18 0.86 2.07 1.9

What should immediately jump out is that Everton has two very different types of wingers here. Richarlison and Theo Walcott are primarily goal-scoring wingers. The pair shoot more than Lookman or Bernard, have more goals, and both have higher xG/90 than Bernard.

Bernard and Lookman, on the other hand, are primarily creative wingers. Lookman’s stats from just this season are a little peculiar — he’s only taken two shots, and one was the late chance against Cardiff that generated 0.40 xG — but you’d suspect that over a larger sample size his xG would level out.

Even if that’s not the case, both Bernard and Lookman have substantially better creative numbers than Richarlison and Walcott. Lookman has done well to create chances in limited opportunities — and that 0.56 xA is more or less in line with his creative numbers at RB Leipzig last season.

Bernard’s key passes per 90 blow everyone else’s out of the water, which shouldn’t really come as a surprise to anyone who’s seen him play this season.

So we’ve determined that Richarlison needs to move back to wing and that the four wingers fall into one of two distinct categories. The takeaway?

Silva should keep Richarlison primarily out wide, and look to include one creative winger and one goal-scoring winger in each lineup. Keeping a combination of shooting threat and creative threat on the pitch gives Everton the most diversified attack possible — giving the striker a secondary scoring threat in a player like Richarlison, and Sigurdsson a secondary creative threat in a player like Lookman.

The upcoming match against Liverpool is a bit of a strange one to pick an ideal starting lineup for, simply because Liverpool is very good and derby matches are generally a different beast entirely.

Looking past that to Newcastle United on Wednesday, I’d hope to see Silva start Tosun up top with Richarlison on the left and the in-form Lookman on the right. With both Walcott and Bernard on the bench, each winger has a tailor-made replacement ready to go when fatigue sets in.