Boxing Day was fun.
Three goals in the opening 25 minutes took all the pressure out of the match, allowing Everton supporters to sit back and enjoy an utterly ruthless and clinical performance from a team that has at times looked gun-shy in front of goal.
And the players deserve a lot of credit for their finishing prowess in this match. Yerry Mina took his early chance with ease, something we’ve seen Michael Keane and Kurt Zouma fail to do regularly this season. Lucas Digne’s free-kick goal was sublime, surpassed only perhaps by his open-play goal that well and truly put the match to bed.
Gylfi Sigurdsson managed to exorcise his penalty demons, at least for now, an encouraging sign for Everton going forward. And at the death, Richarlison reminded us that he’s been a consistently good finisher this season (as long as you choose to forget what happened at Manchester City).
So, credit to the goalscorers (and those who set them up), and thank God for what was the first entertaining match for Everton supporters in nearly two months.
With all that said, Everton didn’t play particularly well. Or, perhaps more accurately, Everton didn’t play particularly well in the defensive and middle thirds. Once the Toffees got the ball into the attacking third, they created relatively solid chances and took most of them with aplomb. And yet...
xG map for Burnley - Everton— Caley Graphics (@Caley_graphics) December 26, 2018
oh man it happened to burnley pic.twitter.com/oHT5VB4gdO
Conceding 1.4 xG to Burnley, a team whose season xG was an underwhelming 15.11 through its first 18 league matches, is decidedly not great.
We’ve already discussed what Everton did well — clinical finishing. So, what did Everton fail to do against a relatively talentless Burnley side?
To start, it didn’t have Idrissa Gueye (again), so Marco Silva elected to return to a back three.
| Here it is, Blues...— Everton (@Everton) December 26, 2018
You starting XI for today's #EFCawayday at @BurnleyOfficial! pic.twitter.com/gl0v1CNgCu
The decision to move to a 3-4-3, by itself, was pretty sensible. After Tom Davies got shredded in the midfield against Tottenham Hotspur, I had no real desire to relive the experience again.
Playing this way freed Bernard and Theo Walcott from most defensive responsibility, and both players had one of their best matches of the season — allowed to fluidly interchange up top with Dominic Calvert-Lewin. Take a look at the passmap for the front three.
It’s solid work in relatively limited touches, and Silva will be happy to have both wingers feeling good about themselves after some recent struggles.
But the number of touches they had was limited, and that brings us to the middle and defensive third troubles.
Let’s start with the basics — the wing-backs sat incredibly high up the pitch. When the lineups were announced, I anticipated the setup would have more of a back-five look, as it did against Manchester City. But, if you take a look at the average position map from the match, you can see very clearly that was a bad assumption.
In fact, Seamus Coleman and Lucas Digne’s average position was more advanced than Andre Gomes’ — creating a true 3-4-3 look.
Once the ball made its way upfield, Coleman and Digne got very involved in the attack — creating mismatches out wide that helped to contribute to scoring chances. But, with the full-backs sitting so high, progressing the ball through the midfield became an enormous chore.
The result was a pretty disastrous day for the center-backs in terms of distribution. Take a look at the combined passmaps of Yerry Mina, Kurt Zouma, and Michael Keane.
Most of these passes either went from center-back to center-back, or were launched forward (somewhat hopefully) toward the full-backs or wingers. For a group that’s been pretty consistent in distribution this season, this failure rate is a stark departure that speaks pretty clearly to the weaknesses of the system Silva played.
This is even more clearly displayed when you looked at the passes received by Everton’s central midfielders in this match — Gylfi Sigurdsson and Andre Gomes. Their passes received maps, courtesy of Statszone, are displayed here.
Without a third man in the midfield, Sigurdsson (left) and Gomes (right) just couldn’t open up passing lanes to receive the ball. Combined, the pair was the recipient of only 13% of Everton’s passes — a major contributor to the team’s overall inability to get from back to front with any regularity.
Overall, these factors combined to create one of the most unique heatmaps you’ll see from an Everton team this season.
Almost all of Everton’s possession came in the middle and defensive thirds. Yet, the possession that the Toffees did have in the attacking third came almost exclusively in dangerous areas — a weird outcome that feels like it should be contradictory.
The result was what we saw on Wednesday — corners won, a penalty drawn, and fouls suffered around the box — all of which led to goals during Everton’s relatively rare spells of possession in the attacking third.
I’m still not entirely sure if Silva felt that given his opposition, he’d be best served playing a style that looked to overwhelm Burnley defenders with raw attacking numbers, even if it left him defensive exposed, or if what broke out on Boxing Day was more like a series of happy coincidences and quality moments overshadowing an otherwise average performance against a poor team.
Either way, a team with more talent would likely be able to take better advantage of Everton’s middling transition game, not to mention perhaps finishing off one or two of the chances Burnley wasted during this match.
Wednesday’s win was a lot of fun, and a delightful way to end the run of poor results earned by Everton. But, don’t expect Silva to look to the 3-4-3 to solve lingering issues at Goodison Park — and don’t expect this setup to work again if Silva naively returns to it.