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What we know — and don’t know — about Marco Silva’s 4-3-3

Using the new manager’s former tactics and recent comments to piece together his plan

Everton v Southampton - Premier League
Much of Everton’s impending 4-3-3 will depend on the future of this man, Morgan Schneiderlin.
Photo by Alex Livesey/Getty Images

When asked about his preferred setup at Everton earlier this month, new boss Marco Silva was surprisingly candid about his methods.

“4-3-3, I can tell you. Of course, it is the system I have played more. One second season I used 4-4-2 and sometimes last season three at the back in some moments. But, 4-3-3 is my system, depending on my No. 6.”

We at RBM were hoping that by now, we’d have seen some incoming players that would help us contextualize these comments — but with no immediate movement in sight, we’re left with just Silva’s comments, his past managerial decisions, and Everton’s current squad to try to figure out what Silva’s 4-3-3 might look like.

First, let’s take the quote I’ve outlined above and discuss the other two formations he mentions.

The 4-4-2 he speaks of is a throwback to his time at Hull City in the 2016-17 season. He didn’t use the 4-4-2 particularly frequently, and frankly the only reason he used it at all is likely that his central midfielders were Tom Huddlestone (now at Derby County), Ryan Mason (now retired due to injury), and Jake Livermore (now at recently-relegated West Bromwich Albion). Can’t say I blame him for not wanting to use all three of those players at the same time!

Everton has substantially better players in its midfield — more than enough to justify a three-man midfield. So, there’s no reason to expect Silva would play a 4-4-2 save for an instance of major injury.

The idea of a five-man backline is equally silly for Everton. The Toffees only marginally have two first-team quality center-backs (Phil Jagielka and Michael Keane) as it is. With Ramiro Funes Mori gone, Ashley Williams bad and likely soon-to-be gone, and Mason Holgate still Mason Holgate, I don’t anticipate Silva will be eager to trot out any formation with three center-backs.

So, that leaves us to take Silva at his word — meaning a 4-3-3 it is. But, not all 4-3-3s are created equal. There are two factors in any 4-3-3 that determine the brunt of its overall flow.

The first is how the formation’s wingers are utilized. We saw Ronald Koeman try to use a very narrow 4-3-3 at the start of last season, allowing the “wide” players to cut inside freely. We saw Sam Allardyce often adopt an unbalanced 4-3-3, in which Theo Walcott (a true winger) played on one wing, while Gylfi Sigurdsson (definitely not a winger) played on the other.

Both those tactics are workable with the right approach (neither manager had it) and the right personnel (Everton may have marginally had this at times), but I don’t suspect Silva will opt for either of those approaches.

In his time at Watford last season, Silva opted for Richarlison and Andre Carrillo as his wingers almost exclusively when both were available. Both players are very much true wingers.

At Hull City the season before, his approach was similar. He didn’t have a ton of talented wingers at his disposal, but he was adamant about using actual wide players in wide positions.

He played Sam Clucas (an actual winger) in 37 of 38 Premier League matches, and added true wingers Lazar Markovic and Kamil Grosicki in January after Robert Snodgrass left for West Ham United.

In short then, don’t expect Silva to try to get cute with his wide players — they’ll stay wide, take defenders on 1-v-1, and whip crosses into the box.

The second factor in a 4-3-3 is its midfield composition. There are a lot of ways that you can set up the middle three in a 4-3-3 — none inherently better than another.

Let’s go back to Silva’s comments about his 4-3-3 to get a better idea of where his head might be at.

“Depending the profile of my No. 6, I can play one and two or I can play two and one behind the striker depending on the profile of our No. 6. If we play Schneiderlin, he is a player who likes to play more alone which gives more freedom to the other two midfielders and this is the system I use more.”

Let’s parse that bit-by-bit.

First, when he talks about a No. 6, he is referring to a deep-lying central midfielder, generally responsible to be the last line of defense before the back four. More importantly though, he’s the player who picks the ball up deep in his own defense half and starts the team’s movement forward into the middle and final thirds.

Morgan Schneiderlin (regardless of what you think about his quality) is this kind of player, and in limited minutes it appears that Beni Baningime could project into that role as well. Naturally, oft-rumored William Carvalho also very clearly fits into this role.

It’s important to note here that Silva refers to his No. 6 as a singular person, rather than plural. So it seems safe to assume that he isn’t looking to play duel No. 6s.

And that makes sense, given the other midfielders Silva has at his disposal. Idrissa Gana Gueye and Gylfi Sigurdsson should pretty much be automatic inclusions in any Everton lineup at this point. Sigurdsson is very obviously a creative No. 10, and Gana isn’t a true No. 6 either — he’s much more of a box-to-box player.

I’m not going to speculate too much about who the No. 6 will end up being — whether it’s Schneiderlin, Carvalho, or some candidate yet unknown, the player will fill the same role as deep-lying distributor and last line of defense.

So I’m more interested in how the three players — the No. 6, Gana, and Gylfi — will interact. Silva raises two possibilities — I’ve laid out both below.

The left image is the one Silva has stated he’s preferred. As you can see, the major difference in the setups is where Gana lines up.

In Silva’s preferred setup, he plays much closer to Sigurdsson and ahead of the No. 6.

The pro? It gives Gana more freedom to wreak havoc in the middle and attacking thirds when the opponent has the ball. He can more freely try to force turnovers in dangerous areas.

The cons? It can leave the No. 6 isolated, and Gana’s closeness might limit the space Gylfi has to work in.

In a setup with two deeper midfielders, Sigurdsson has more space to operate and Gana provides more defensive stability — but the Toffees might have to allow opponents to have the ball more freely in the middle third, as Gana is more limited in his ball-winning opportunities.

I suspect in reality we’ll probably see some of both, even if Silva prefers the former. Gana’s quality gives Silva substantial leeway in how he wants to approach the midfield. But, Silva has admitted much depends on who his No. 6 winds up being, and that remains quite unclear.

Despite the fact that Sam Allardyce used a 4-3-3 for much of last season, all signs point to Silva’s 4-3-3 being a substantially different one. He’ll look to use true wingers up top and a more coherent, organized central midfield setup to impose his will on opponents, rather than waiting for opponents to come to him.

It’ll be a welcome change for Evertonians everywhere.