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Silva’s tactical flexibility on display for Everton against Southampton

That was refreshing.

Wolverhampton Wanderers v Everton FC - Premier League Photo by David Rogers/Getty Images

In preparation to write these weekly tactical analyses, I usually take a little bit of time in the days before a match to think about how I expect things to play out. This little bit of foresight helps me to contextualize what happens during the 90 minutes played out on the pitch.

This week, my pre-match thoughts could be summed up in two parts.

  1. Southampton would come out with its three-man backline from the opening week of the season. Forced to respect the pace and ability of Theo Walcott and Richarlison, the Saints’ wing-backs would sit deep as well, making it more of a back five.
  2. Against this deep block of five, Morgan Schneiderlin would take on the important role of finding Gylfi Sigurdsson between the midfield and defensive lines, as well as pick moments to find the wingers in space.

Then Southampton came out in a back four and Morgan Schneiderlin departed with an injury after 25 minutes. So much for those theories!

In reality, the match wound up being broken into three pretty neatly divided parts — the first half before the Schneiderlin injury, the first half after the Schneiderlin injury, and the second half. Let’s take a look at each.

First Half Before Injury

Last week, I talked about some of the pros and cons of Marco Silva’s decision to play almost exclusively through the left against Wolves. I didn’t have a strong opinion one way or another on that tactic (I still don’t), but it raised some interesting questions — primarily about the usage of Leighton Baines and Seamus Coleman.

It was interesting — and encouraging — then, to see Silva come out looking to play primarily down the right. Take a look at how Everton’s attacking third possession was split during the first 25 minutes of the match.

Walcott and Coleman were more heavily relied on than Baines and Richarlison in the buildup during this period — after nearly everything went through the left-sided duo last week.

I suspect this was a simple matter of adapting to the matchup being presented to the Toffees. Walcott and Coleman were facing Southampton’s left side — composed of Nathan Redmond and Ryan Bertrand.

Redmond is really an out-and-out winger and doesn’t play enough defense to serve as a wide midfielder in the traditional 4-4-2 Mark Hughes utilized Saturday. Bertrand has carved out a solid Premier League career for himself, but he’s much more of an attacking full-back than a defending one. Couple his occasional defensive shortcomings with a wide midfielder who is a defensive liability, and it was a recipe for trouble for the Saints.

Meanwhile, Baines and Richarlison faced off against the Southampton right — Cedric and James Ward-Prowse. Cedric is more of a stay-at-home defender, and Ward-Prowse a box-to-box midfielder drafted into duty as a wide man. That side was always going to provide more resistance, and Silva seemed to pick up on that straight away.

The result was an opening 25 minutes that often featured an overload on the right side. Schneiderlin sat deep, shaded to the left, recycled possession, and looked to find the best path into the attacking third against a pretty deep-lying Southampton side.

That usually meant finding Walcott, Coleman, Idrissa Gueye (who shaded forward and to the right of Schneiderlin), or a drifting Cenk Tosun or Gylfi Sigurdsson toward the right. Take a look at the passmap from the opening 25, courtesy of

Look at Cenk Tosun’s heatmap for this period as well — notice that he spent more time on the right side than the left.

The Saints simply couldn’t handle the overload, and the result was frequently a hard foul 30-40 yards from goal. In one such instance, a set play from the training ground worked to perfection, with Baines, Schneiderlin, and Walcott combining for one of the best Everton team goals in recent memory.

Unfortunately, that was among Schneiderlin’s last actions of the match.

First Half After Injury

When Schneiderlin departed, Tom Davies came on in his place. Let me preface this entire section with an important caveat. Davies looked pretty good on Saturday — perhaps the best he’s looked since his masterclass against Manchester City.

But, he’s a very different type of player than Schneiderlin, and Silva had to adjust accordingly. Gana moved into the role of deep-lying midfielder — certainly not his preference or best position, but there was little other choice available.

In the long-term, Beni Baningime is likely the preferred backup to Schneiderlin, but he is returning from injury. Andre Gomes, I suspect, would probably be the emergency option at that position, but he’s hurt as well.

So it was Gueye into the deepest role, with Davies ahead of him. This forced two, related tactical changes.

First, Everton opted to be a little more direct and a little less focused on slow building through possession. This was simply a change of necessity — neither Davies nor Gana are quite as good passing the ball as Schneiderlin, so rather than try to force the issue with the wrong tools, Silva went for a change in approach.

Second, the upshot of that change was working more frequently through the left side. Another way to think of this is: “When you cannot pass through the midfield, give the ball to Richarlison and let him just carry it there.”

Take a look at how Everton’s attacking third possession was split for the rest of the match after Schneiderlin’s exit.

The Toffees certainly didn’t abandon patient buildup or the right side entirely — as Richarlison’s goal from a Walcott cross clearly displayed — but the change was visually evident. Take a look at the Everton team passmap from minutes 25-45.

That tweak carried the Toffees to the break with a 2-0 lead, but the second half presented new challenges.

Second Half

Even after the Schneiderlin injury, the Saints sat deep and tried to absorb pressure. Encouragingly, this Everton front four has the ability to break teams down, but it necessitated a change from Hughes at the half.

It became immediately evident when the second half began that Southampton’s plan was the press much higher up the pitch, putting pressure on two Everton center-backs not known for their distribution and two central midfielders who aren’t outstanding passers either.

Take a look at Gana and Tom’s passmaps for the match.

These aren’t awful, but they do indicate a general struggle to work from the middle third into the attacking third, or even from the defensive third into the middle third in some instances.

When you can’t get through the midfield, there’s usually only one move left — kick it long and hope for the best. Everton’s second half wasn’t quite that dire, but it was close.

The plan was primarily hoof it long or give it to Richarlison and see if he and Baines can find a way through.

With Tosun up top and Richarlison being a dribbling wizard, it’s far from the worst outcome, and better than Gana and Davies trying to pass through a crowded midfielder. But make no mistake, the Southampton pressure made it tough for Everton to hold on to win this match.

Taken individually, there weren’t too many incidents in this match that I think have long-term impacts. I don’t suspect the Toffees won’t face a wing composed of players like Nathan Redmond and Ryan Bertrand any time soon, and hopefully Schneiderlin or one of his backups will be healthy by the time the Bournemouth match rolls around.

Taken as a whole though, this match tells us that Marco Silva is tactically flexible. I imagine he was surprised by Hughes’ decision to implement a 4-4-2 system as well, and had to change what his original plan for the match was.

Everton v Southampton - Premier League Photo by Alex Livesey/Getty Images

His new plan worked until Schneiderlin got hurt, at which point he tweaked things again, despite the absence of a like-for-like replacement. His team managed to keep control of the match until halftime in large part because of the changes made.

The second half was a little more complicated, but if not for some poor set piece marking (which Silva has admitted needs work), the Toffees very realistically could have kept a clean sheet in this one — a remarkable achievement given the new defenders still weren’t ready and the team’s top deep-lying midfielder was out.

It’s early days and Everton has yet to face a top team, but there’s still lots to feel good about through two matches.