Under Marco Silva, Everton’s play has been largely characterized by two distinct styles, and the further we get into Silva’s first season at the club, the more obvious these two styles are becoming.
In defense, you can pretty regularly count on the Toffees to play a relatively high press, looking to put opposing backlines under pressure. The precise urgency and height of the press varies from opponent to opponent, but you can almost guarantee that Silva will not look to invite opponents into his own half without at least some resistance.
In attack, it’s essentially guaranteed that Everton will look to play through the wide areas, using wingers and full-backs to not only advance the ball from defense to attack, but also to generate quality chances.
Both of these characteristics have their drawbacks, which we saw Saturday against Brighton & Hove Albion, much like we’ve seen for most of the season. But this week, Everton managed to overcome the challenges associated with Silva’s style — enjoying the benefits of the Portuguese manager’s tactics without overly suffering from their flaws.
To continue to take full points from winnable matches, and keep top-six hopes alive, the Toffees need to continue to do what they did against Brighton.
So, let’s take a look at exactly what went down at Goodison Park.
I was surprised, and perhaps a little disappointed, when lineups were released before the match kicked off. Silva went back to the same lineup for a third straight week, despite the fact that the Richarlison-as-a-striker system generated very little against Crystal Palace and lost to Manchester United.
Using Richarlison up top is a boon to the high-pressing system, but can be a problem when it comes to the wide-area-heavy attacking plan. Let’s first focus on the high press though, because its effects are easiest to see.
Everton was very happy to apply pressure to the BHA backline on Saturday — in particular looking to pressure center-backs Shane Duffy and Lewis Dunk. Having Richarlison at the top of the formation, as opposed to the slower Cenk Tosun, means quicker pressure on the opposing defenders — and hopefully more mistakes to follow.
Of course, Richarlison doesn’t do it alone. The high press is a team effort, with notable contributions from Gylfi Sigurdsson, who has the most absurd defensive work rate I’ve ever seen in a No. 10, and Bernard and Theo Walcott, who also have the pace to close things down quickly.
The result was a fair number of defensive actions high up the field.
Blue triangles are interceptions, yellow ball recoveries, green successful tackles, red unsuccessful tackles, and purple clearances.
The Toffees won the ball in the attacking third with some regularity — often through Idrissa Gueye, who pounced on loose passes or touches caused by the initial line of pressure from the forwards.
Of course, the most notable instance of successful high pressure came on Richarlison’s second goal. The Brazilian pounced on a loose pass across the Brighton backline, skinned a defender, and glided past Mat Ryan for the match-sealing goal.
The impact of the press isn’t always as sexy, though. A successful press often forces the opponent to simply play long balls, rather than try to work its way through the midfield in the face of pressure.
Against teams with pace, this can become an issue — a well-placed long ball to a speedy striker can give center-backs nightmares, especially one like Michael Keane, whose movement has been called glacial on more than one occasion.
However, Brighton doesn’t have a pacey striker. Brighton has Glenn Murray.
No disrespect to Murray, who is an excellent finisher — but he simply isn’t a guy who can help break a press with his speed or strength. The result was a ton of Brighton long balls that frequently turned possession back over to the Toffees.
There’s basically no danger in this passmap, and it doesn’t even mention the 30 clearances Brighton hoofed aimlessly out of its own box. So, it shouldn’t come as a surprise that Brighton’s only halfway decent chance (and goal) came on a set piece.
In short, the Everton press did its job of disrupting Brighton possession and winning the ball back either via a central third turnover or forcing a hopeful long ball that Michael Keane and Kurt Zouma could deal with relatively easily.
But, outside of the late Richarlison goal, the press didn’t generate any outstanding scoring chances — which brings us to the other half of the Silva tactical plan.
In attack, Silva most frequently wants to see the ball out wide with his skilled wingers or attack-minded full-backs.
Against many teams, the responsibilities of the wide players are twofold. Yes, they are asked to help generate chances, but also often serve as the Toffees’ progressive vessel, bringing the ball forward from defense to attack.
I’m not necessarily convinced that Silva wants the progressive burden to fall on his wingers, and matches like Saturday’s from Andre Gomes give me hope that a central channel of progression will be increasingly available going forward.
At any rate, Brighton sat so deep for most of the match that ball progression was essentially an afterthought — the Gulls allowed Everton relatively simple access to the final third, instead hedging their bets that they could bunker their way out of trouble.
Against Everton this season, that has more often than not been a half-decent wager.
Because Silva wants to play through the wide areas, the Toffees often find themselves on the ball there, but with few options. This is especially true when Richarlison plays as the central striker.
Sure, the wide player can whip a hopeful cross into the box, but Richarlison simply isn’t going to win a ton of headers against center-backs like Duffy and Dunk — and to be fair, we saw a bit of those struggles throughout the match.
But, there was a big difference between how Everton approached getting the ball into the box from wide areas today and how they’ve done so for most of the season. Take a look at the balls played into the box by the wide players (Seamus Coleman, Lucas Digne, Theo Walcott, and Bernard) against BHA on Saturday.
The entire team, but especially Coleman, did an exponentially better job of working better angles and positions to cross from than they have for most of the season. Rather than zipping a ball in aimlessly as soon as the option presented itself, the wide players relied on solid interplay to work more and better spaces to cross from.
This was most evident in the opening 25 minutes, when Gylfi Sigurdsson got on the end of three different balls into the box from wide areas — all of which were expertly aimed directly at the Icelander in an open position, rather than simply launched into the box hopefully.
Per Understat, those three early chances for Gylfi summed to about 0.54 xG.
Similarly, Theo Walcott missed an excellent chance at the start of the second half, when a Bernard cross following a Gana shot off the post found him, but he failed to convert from close range.
The xG on that miss was 0.61.
My point is this — the Toffees created better and more consistent chances from the wide areas than at almost any other point this season. Getting late runners into the box made a huge difference in these crossing situations, and give me hope that Everton could continue to create reasonable chances from those areas.
And that’s important, because despite how delightful Richarlison’s counter-attacking goal was, Everton cannot rely on consistently getting those chances against bunkering teams. The same can be said for Coleman’s winner, which came off a bit of a broken play at the top of the box.
It’s exciting to see the number of Everton players who have the quality to make something out of nothing as Richarlison/Sigurdsson and Coleman did on those goals — but it isn’t something Silva will want to rely on long-term.
Instead, the biggest takeaway from this match perhaps should be that the two staples of his philosophy — the high press and creating chances from wide areas — created enough chances on their own to win this game, had Everton’s finishing been just slightly better.
If that continues, the Toffees should be capable of continuing to comfortably win games against mid-to-lower table competition — the first step in securing a move up the table.