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Cracks in Silvaball starting to show

Everton’s manager guided the club into the top-six race, but can he stay there?

Everton FC v Watford FC - Premier League Photo by Stu Forster/Getty Images

Two weeks ago, everything was going swimmingly in the Everton world.

The club, led by Marco Silva, had won three straight at home, stolen a point away to Chelsea, and had more hope heading into an away match against Liverpool than had existed in recent memory. Everton sat in the top six of the Premier League.

Two weeks, three matches, and two points later, the Toffees have hit the low point of their season. A bizarre late goal cost Everton a point in the Merseyside derby, followed by two disappointing home draws against beatable Newcastle United and Watford FC sides.

Despite that, Silva’s team still sits just two points back of Manchester United for sixth place — a gap hardly worth sweating about with still more than half the season to play. But the Toffees play five times in 18 days starting with Saturday’s trip to Manchester City — a stretch after which the top-six picture will be much clearer.

What’s gone wrong for Everton and Marco Silva to this point, then, and what can he do to fix things?

Before we can answer that question, let’s mention briefly what isn’t the problem.

I’m not particularly worried about Everton’s team defense, or any of the regular contributors in defense.

Lucas Digne is an absolute star in both attack and defense, and Everton entirely lucked out that he was looking for a move as Leighton Baines’ career began winding to a close. Seamus Coleman still hasn’t quite returned to pre-leg-break form, but he’s still likely the best right-back outside the top six this side of Aaron Wan-Bissaka.

Things at center-back are also largely positive. Michael Keane looks fit and every bit the player Everton paid big money for last summer, and Kurt Zouma has hardly made any mistakes when called upon. Yerry Mina had his share of struggles against Newcastle and Watford, but the potential in the big Colombian is clear to see.

Derby incident aside, Jordan Pickford remains one of the absolute best keepers in the Premier League.

The Toffees have conceded just eight goals from open play this season — only Liverpool and Manchester City have conceded fewer. So yes, I’m not worried about the defense, at least from a personnel perspective.

What does worry me is Silva’s overall attacking plan — and the impact that it has on his team as a whole.

The short version of the story is this: Marco Silva has set up his team to play almost exclusively through the wide areas, and in Everton’s last two matches, it simply hasn’t worked.

Consider this:

  • Everton attempts 24 crosses per match, the most in the Premier League
  • 22% of Everton possession in the attacking third comes in the central channel — only Wolves, Huddersfield, and Brighton and Hove Albion spend less of their attacking time in the center of the pitch.

There’s nothing a priori wrong with being a team that relies heavily on wide play and crosses — especially with attack-minded full-backs like Digne and Coleman. But issues start to rise to the surface if the plan ultimately handcuffs the team.

The primary issue should be an obvious one, and one that you’ve likely grumbled to yourself about during recent matches. To put it simply, the Toffees don’t have a striker who’s particularly good at getting on the end of crosses.

Richarlison is sneaky good in the air for a player who is five-foot-ten going up against center-backs in the air, but he’s still only won 33 of 94 aerial duels in Premier League play this season.

Dominic Calvert-Lewin and Cenk Tosun are marginally better — 18 of 43 and 17 of 26, respectively — but neither is exactly an aerial force either.

To be fair to Silva and his attack, a well-played cross doesn’t have to rely on the recipient’s aerial prowess — look no further than Andre Gomes cross to Richarlison on Everton’s first goal against Watford as an example. But those type of calculated pull-backs have been few and far between when compared with the simple “knock it in the box and hope for the best” approach.

Still, I think Silvaball’s biggest issues lie a little bit deeper.

Who is Everton’s most important attacking player?

There’s only two possible answers to the question — Richarlison and Gylfi Sigurdsson. I remain uncertain about Richarlison’s best usages, but Gylfi’s are pretty clear.

Let the Icelander get on the ball in the center of the park, and let him go to work.

And yet, take a look at his passmap and heatmap from the Watford match.

This isn’t a new phenomenon either — even in Everton wins, Sigurdsson’s post-match graphics are usually somewhere between confounding and infuriating.

Now let’s be clear, I don’t really put that on Gylfi himself. Everton’s progression method is almost exclusively through the wide areas, so by the time the Toffees have the ball in the attacking third, Sigurdsson has to wander out of where he’s most effective just to have a chance to get a few touches in.

And the issue isn’t just that he’s not getting touches where you’d like to see him on the ball — he’s barely getting any touches, period.

Sigurdsson leads all Everton outfield players in Premier League minutes with 1,345, yet he’s only fifth on the team in touches with 739. Idrissa Gueye, Lucas Digne, Seamus Coleman, and Michael Keane all have more touches than the Everton No. 10.

When you look at touches per 90, his influence is even smaller. Sigurdsson averages 49.6 touches per 90 — Richarlison, Bernard, Andre Gomes, Kurt Zouma, and Yerry Mina all have more touches per 90 that Sigurdsson.

Basically, any regular starter not named Theo Walcott sees more of the ball in an average match than Sigurdsson.

The upshot? Team passmaps that look like this (from the Watford match):

Or this (from the Newcastle match):

Look at the complete lack of success in the area around the top of the box (the semi-circle of sadness, as I like to call it). Opponents are basically daring Everton to continue to focus their attack out wide, trusting that their center-backs will hold up against Everton’s undersized strike-force — and knowing it’ll keep the ball out of Gylfi Sigurdsson’s feet.

I understand that simply saying “we should build attacks through the middle more frequently” doesn’t make doing so a simple proposition. But, after the way Everton has been absolutely stifled for long stretches by relatively mediocre defenses in the last two matches, Silva must see the writing on the wall here.

Silva and Marcel Brands brought in Andre Gomes to be the player who can serve as the connector between defense and attack, and he’s done a good job of working the ball forward to his wide players since being introduced into the lineup. But, the next step must be developing a connection between Gomes and Sigurdsson, thereby getting the Icelander more touches and diversifying the Everton attack.

In reality, Silva won’t have much of a chance to implement any kind of major attacking change over the next two weeks, with a trip to Manchester City and a visit from Tottenham Hotspur on the way. But the following week, the Toffees play Burnley, Brighton, and Leicester City in a seven-day span.

If Silva wants to return to his former form against bottom-half opposition in those matches, he’s going to have to tweak his tactics.