When you hire or support a tactical dinosaur of a manager like Sam Allardyce or Tony Pulis, you’re willingly making a compromise. You’re fully aware that you’re going to suppress a substantial chunk of your attacking potential in order to solidify your defense.
Now, this compromise is a necessary evil at times for a fair number of clubs. Look at Stoke City, for example. Pulis solidified their place as a mid-table club by playing defensive, physical, and even boring football — his team didn’t do much in attack, but you knew damn well that they’d be tough to score on.
Five years on from Pulis’ departure, Stoke are trying to play expansive, attacking football. They’ve conceded a staggering 54 goals in 29 matches and sit in 19th place. So, there’s clearly a benefit in some instances to playing for a tactical dinosaur.
In the case of Big Sam at Everton, this defensive compromise has occurred in a number of different ways. In order to solidify things at the back, Big Sam has crippled the Everton attack by:
- Refusing to play Ademola Lookman, who he presumably views as a defensive liability. He loaned Lookman to Red Bull Leipzig, where he’s got a goal and an assist in 158 minutes over four appearances (in five potential matches).
- Refusing to play Nikola Vlasic, who he presumably views as a defensive liability as well. The Croatian last appeared on January 20th and hasn’t even made the bench since.
- Limiting the role of Yannick Bolasie, likely for the same reason Lookman and Vlasic have been out of the picture.
- Forcing Gylfi Sigurdsson, and more recently Dominic Calvert-Lewin, into a wide left role because he views them as more defensively sound than the true winger options on that side.
- Most pressingly, he’s obliterated any impetus to build attacks out of the back. His Everton team almost exclusively just launches the ball forward out of the back in hopes that a Toffee will get on the end of it, rather than attempting the radical plan of actually passing the ball to the midfielders.
The most maddening thing is that we got a brief look at what an Everton team that actually tries to attack might look like in Saturday’s match against Burnley. The Toffees’ goal came on an excellent combination play between Sigurdsson (finally in the middle), Theo Walcott, a now-healthy Seamus Coleman, and Cenk Tosun (he’s alive!).
It was four quality attacking players, well, attacking. And it came off beautifully.
And then Everton proceeded to actively avoid keeping possession of the ball. In the first half against Burnley, arguably the most defensive-minded club in the Premier League, Everton conceded 63 percent possession.
To Burnley. Burnley. A team whose major attacking threat was Aaron Lennon, a player deemed surplus to requirements at Everton by Sam Allardyce.
And you know what? That all would have been perfectly fine if the Toffees managed to close up shop, keep the remaining 70 minutes of the match as boring as possible, and walk out of Turf Moor with a 1-0 victory.
But, well, they didn’t do that.
xG map for Burnley - West Ham. You can take your tactical questions and your squad-building critiques somewhere else. I believe firmly that this match was a thoughtful, personal gift from Big Sam to football fans everywhere. pic.twitter.com/UamvzvJRQV— Caley Graphics (@Caley_graphics) March 3, 2018
Jordan Pickford was 100 percent at fault for the first Burnley goal, so I in no way lay that at Big Sam’s feet. But, even with that goal aside, Everton conceded a ton of chances. Per Michael Caley’s xG model, the Toffees expected goals against was 2.4 — against a club which had 22 goals in 28 Premier League matches coming into Saturday.
That type of defensive performance is far from an outlier in 2018. The Toffees have yet to keep a clean sheet in the new year, including conceding four to Tottenham Hotspur and five to Arsenal (which given the Gunners’ recent form looks pretty damn bad in retrospect). These performances haven’t been unlucky from a defensive perspective either — they’ve just been downright bad.
Consider the expected goals conceded (per understat.com) in some of Everton’s matches since 2018 began.
- 4-0 loss to Tottenham — 4.21 xGA
- 1-1 draw against West Bromwich Albion — 1.35 xGA
- 2-1 victory against Leicester — 2.65 xGA
- 3-1 victory against Crystal Palace — 1.66 xGA
- 2-1 loss to Burnley — 2.34 xGA
That’s five matches out of eight in which you could argue the Toffees were lucky to only give up the number of goals they did — and doesn’t include the 5-1 Arsenal thrashing in which the team had 3.20 xGA.
Big Sam stifles Everton’s attack in order to provide defensive solidity to the side — an attack that we’ve seen can create reasonable chances if allowed to operate more freely. Except, Everton’s defending has been utter garbage.
So, what exactly is Big Sam good for then?