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Is Richarlison the answer out wide for Everton?

Silva got his man — but is he the right one?

Watford v Newcastle United - Premier League Photo by Catherine Ivill/Getty Images

Everton has finally made its first senior signing of the summer, adding Richarlison from Watford.

The move should come as no surprise. The Brazilian’s imminent arrival has been discussed for days, and without a doubt, the Toffees need more help on the wing.

Depending on the futures of Ademola Lookman and Yannick Bolasie, Everton might still need more help out wide before the season starts, but for now let’s just focus on the newest Toffee, Richarlison.

The 21-year-old spent three seasons playing senior club minutes in Brazil, including 15 goals in 36 matches in his final season at Fluminense, before Marco Silva brought him to Watford ahead of the 2017-18 season.

From there, you probably know the story. Richarlison — and Watford overall — got off to a roaring start to the Premier League season under Silva. The Hornets sat in 4th place after eight weeks of the season.

Things fell off pretty precipitously from there. The team hit a rough patch, Silva was fired, and Richarlison stopped producing.

In all, the Brazilian notched 5 goals and 4 assists for Watford in calendar year 2017. In calendar year 2018, he failed to register a single goal or assist.

That brings us to the question most Evertonians have about Richarlison, especially given his hefty price tag — which Richarlison is the real Richarlison? Is it the one who put up 5 goals and 4 assists in three and a half months? Or the one who didn’t contribute to any goals the final four and a half months of the season?

A deep dive into his stats helps to provide some answers to that question — but only some.

Let’s start by looking at his goal scoring. Even very good attackers occasionally go through spells where the finishing gods abandon them, despite the fact they are generating good chances (look no further than Cristiano Ronaldo’s first half of the season with Real Madrid last year).

The numbers don’t seem to indicate that only a run of unlucky finishing held Richarlison up in the second half of the season though.

In calendar year 2017 for Watford, Richarlison generated 0.41 xG per 90 minutes (per Understat). If he maintained that rate through the rest of the season, he would have finished 21st in xG per 90 among players with at least 1,000 minutes — quite impressive for a winger at a middling club.

In calendar year 2018 though, that rate dropped sharply to 0.21 xG per 90 — barely half of what he put up in the first half of the season. Other players with similar rates last season included Salomon Rondon, Manolo Gabbiadini, Ilkay Gundogan, and Christian Atsu.

Huddersfield Town v Watford - Premier League Photo by Tony Marshall/Getty Images

So there was an appreciable drop in Richarlison’s quality chances in the second half of the season. I’ll talk a little bit more about potential causes later on, but the main point here is that his lack of goals in 2018 didn’t come down solely to unlucky finishing.

Even beyond whatever happened in the second half of last season, we also need to talk generally about Richarlison’s finishing rate. Even at his best, Richarlison was a below average finisher last season.

If you’re good at math, you may have already seen this coming — the Brazilian’s overall xG last season was 10.66, 5 goals better than his actual goals tally.

8.25 of his xG came in 2017, when he and his team were actually playing well, so this isn’t an issue only confined to individual or team poor play.

So to what extent is Richarlison’s poor finishing something to be concerned about? Let’s take a look at his shot chart from last season, from Understat.

On this map, green shots are goals, purple are blocked, blue are saved, yellow are posts, and red are off target. The bigger the circle is, the higher the shot’s xG — basically bigger circles are better scoring chances.

Two things should immediately jump out here — Richarlison shoots a lot and his finishing in tight was pretty questionable last year.

Richarlison’s 95 shots were the fourth-most by a single player in the Premier League in 2017-18. That’s a little misleading because he played more minutes than frequent shooters like Alexis Sanchez, Raheem Sterling, and Son Heung-Min. Still, his shots per 90 rate of 3.02 is pretty damn high.

Unlike a lot of frequent shooters though (like Everton Roma Barcelona target Malcom, for instance) Richarlison isn’t particularly guilty of letting loose long-range, hopeful-at-best shots. The vast majority of his shots are in the box, with many coming after cutting in from his left wing.

Given Watford’s overall lack of attacking talent, I’m not really that worried that in the long term, Richarlison’s shooting habits will continue to trend this way. I suspect his shooting rates from last season came as a result of being his team’s plans A, B, and C in the attacking third.

With help from players like Gylfi Sigurdsson, Theo Walcott, and Cenk Tosun, he’ll not need to shoot so frequently.

Arsenal v Watford - Premier League Photo by Michael Regan/Getty Images

His close-range finishing, on the other hand, is both more interesting and more troubling. I encourage you to take a look at the graphic yourself on Understat to see why.

A reasonable number of those misses from within 12 yards came on...headers? It’s an interesting outcome for a five-foot-ten Brazilian winger with whom you’d generally associate flair, rather than strength in the box.

And yet, nearly half those in-tight misses, and one of his goals, came from headers at goal. In fact, he generated 3.18 xG with headed shots last season, more than he generated with his weaker left foot.

The problem, obviously, is that his conversion rate on those headers was around the same as it was with his feet — which is not great either.

The takeaway here is that Richarlison’s finishing last season was suspect, even when he and his team were playing well. He’s a willing runner into the box and does a decent job of getting his head on crosses, but he’s got to be more accurate for that to be a legitimately dangerous part of his game.

I want to briefly talk about Richarlison’s work as a playmaker as well. He put up 4 assists last year, which isn’t particularly impressive — but there is a temptation to write that off as a function of his struggling strikers.

I’m not really convinced I believe that though.

His xA last season was 3.81, so he essentially got an actual assist rate equal to what his expected assist rate was. That comes out to a measly 0.12 xA per 90 — for comparison, Theo Walcott, Cenk Tosun, Gylfi Sigurdsson, Dominic Calvert-Lewin, Nikola Vlasic, and Oumar Niasse all topped that last season.

Everton v Brighton and Hove Albion - Premier League Photo by Jan Kruger/Getty Images

His key passes per 90 aren’t much better. He averaged 0.83 key passes per 90 minutes, where a key pass is a pass leading to a shot. Watford, minus Richarlison’s shots, averaged about 9 shots per 90 — and Richarlison passing directly contributed less than one on average.

Among players who played 1,000 or more minutes for Watford, Richarlison finished 10th in key passes per 90.

That leaves me concerned that Richarlison, for all his dribbling skills and ability to pop up in front of goal, simply isn’t a very good playmaker. Maybe Silva and the Toffees don’t need him to be — but it’s troubling for a winger with his pricetag.

I know I’ve presented a reasonable amount of troubling information about Everton’s big new signing here — troubling finishing and creating chances seems like a big issue for a winger, no?

But there are two enormous caveats that need to be mentioned in order to temper any pessimism.

The first is obvious — Richarlison was at his best under Marco Silva at the start of last season, and now he’s back with the Portugese manager. The pair clearly have a good understanding of each other, and Silva’s departure surely played a role in the Brazilian’s second-half struggles.

Something that’s been mentioned less frequently, but I think is more important, is his usage rate over the last year. From May 2017 to May 2018, when you combine his appearances for Fluminense and Watford, Richarlison played 4,619 minutes.

For the mathematically challenged among us, that is the equivalent of 51.3 full 90-minute matches in the course of a year. That’s right, Richarlison basically played one full match per week for a year-long span.

That rate of appearances would be enough to run N’Golo Kante into the ground!

It seems safe to say, then, that fatigue played an enormous role in Richarlison’s late-season struggles in 2017-18 as well.

With all of that in mind, I think the optimistic, but realistic hope for Richarlison is this: He is a player who clearly has talent and the ability to wreak havoc on the ball, and is coming back to play with a preferred manager after his first rest in a year. His distribution and finishing could use work, but he’s only 21 years old and still clearly has time to develop.

Is he a £40 million player? Probably not. Is he a player who can make a clear difference at a position of obvious need this season and beyond? Absolutely.

Coming off the debacle that was last season, that’s probably the best Evertonians can hope for right now.