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Tactical Analysis: Everton high press, creative woes lead to disastrous result

Silva couldn’t find a way through one of the Premier League’s worst teams so far this season

Everton FC v West Ham United - Premier League Photo by Stu Forster/Getty Images

I have been known to make fun of West Ham United on occasion, often because the club makes itself such an easy target.

Well, the funny thing about that is when your team loses to them, now you look really bad. And I, like Everton did on Sunday, look really bad.

So let’s start by giving credit to West Ham — there was nothing fluky about this result. The Hammers were the better team on Sunday and deserved all three points.

So where did it go wrong for Everton?

For me, it ultimately breaks down into three separate issues.

  1. An ineffective high press
  2. An attacking plan consisting primarily of ¯\_(ツ)_/¯
  3. Avoidable individual errors

Ineffective high press

It was evident, basically from the opening whistle, that Marco Silva wanted his team to press high against West Ham at every opportunity.

When looking at the Toffees’ opposition, you can see where this strategy came from. Fabian Balbuena and Issa Diop don’t strike you as the type of center-backs capable of passing through a press, and the midfield trio of Declan Rice, Pedro Obiang, and Mark Noble isn’t exactly a distributive powerhouse either.

With Felipe Anderson, Andriy Yarmolenko, and Marko Arnautovic up top, West Ham lacked a player with true pace to whom the Hammers’ back seven could just knock balls over the top to.

So Silva correctly identified that his opponent might be susceptible to a high press — he just neglected one small issue.

He didn’t really have the personnel to play it.

Let me briefly state the main purpose of playing a high press, then we can talk about why the Everton XI wasn’t cut out for it. Essentially, high-pressing teams look to force defenders and midfielders to make mistakes on the ball in the defensive and middle thirds. If you can force a turnover while the opponent is looking to distribute through these areas, you’re likely to have huge holes to pass and run into once you have the ball.

But, the whole system relies on your attackers and midfielders being able to actually win the ball. Naturally, the ability to close opponents down quickly plays a pretty big role in this ability, but Silva’s two highest pressers — Cenk Tosun and Gylfi Sigurdsson — are not particularly renown for their speed.

They were incredibly willing runners, but just don’t have the pace to close opponents down fast enough to make them uncomfortable.

The same is true of Morgan Schneiderlin, who along with Idrissa Gueye, had the role of playing in the middle of the second line of the press. When West Ham defenders managed to work the ball into the midfield, it fell on Schneiderlin and Gana to apply the same sort of pressure on them that was expected of the forward players on the West Ham defenders.

Schneiderlin, for all of his good qualities, is not now, has never been, and will never be, fast — creating another weak point in the Everton press.

Finally, a certain amount of defensive risk comes with pressing your forwards and midfielders so high up the pitch. This style of play should limit the number of times that the opponent works the ball into its attackers, but when they do, it often leaves defenders on an island against attackers.

To be a successful defender in a high press system, you must have both the pace to cover a lot of ground in behind the back line, and also the decision-making skills to determine in a split second what must be done to prevent a dangerous counter attack from forming.

Mason Holgate... has one of those attributes, but not the other. His decision-making, combined with the lack of pace in the midfield, ultimately led to the first West Ham goal. Let’s take a look at exactly what went wrong.

The play starts innocuously enough, with Gana looking to pass into Cenk Tosun’s feet. The only three players behind Gana are Holgate, Schneiderlin, and Kurt Zouma.

As soon as the ball turns over, both Gana and Schneiderlin (circled) try to step to the West Ham player who is about to recover the ball. Gana isn’t close enough to realistically make a play, and Schneiderlin is too slow to come all the way up to challenge, given his deeper starting position.

Predictably, the ball gets pinged past Schneiderlin, and now Holgate has a decision to make — does he step up and try to challenge for the ball, or sit back and let the play develop in front of him, given that his full-backs are already sprinting back into the play?

It’s these split-second decisions that make or break defenders in a high press system. Here, Holgate takes the wrong option. He tries to get tight to Marko Arnautovic, but he’s too late to make a difference.

Now that Holgate is sucked in, Arnautovic has a pretty straightforward task — knock the ball to Pedro Obiang and run like hell past an out of position defender. Obiang plays a great ball past the now-too-high Holgate, and it’s a 2-on-1 for Arnautovic and Yarmolenko against Zouma.

Kurt does his best, but having backpedalled now allows an onside Arnautovic to ultimately plays the right pass at the right time, and Yarmolenko has only to put the ball in the net from six yards out.

An attacking plan consisting primarily of ¯\_(ツ)_/¯

Teams who build their identity around the high press often have difficulty creating chances when the press isn’t viable — think 2016-17 Liverpool against bottom-half opposition.

Well, Silva hasn’t built Everton’s identity around the high press, but it sure looked like he did against West Ham. After the opening West Ham goal, the wheels more or less fell off on the high pressing plan, meaning that Everton had to turn to more conventional means of creating chances.

Not for the first time this season, the Toffees seemed to have no real idea what to do with the ball when allowed to have possession. There were a couple of factors that played into the issue.

First, when Silva took off Schneiderlin for Bernard, he removed his best deep-lying passer. Bernard was solid, and I understand the rationale behind the move, but it left Idrissa Gueye in a position where he had to make a lot of passes — and that’s just not his game.

Take a look at his passmap from the match, from

There are more forward passes here than I might have expected, but almost every successful pass simply knocks the ball out wide. Most of his incomplete passes are those intended to land in the central channel, where the Toffees once again had a rough go of things.

Once again, Gylfi Sigurdsson never really got onto the ball enough to impact the game, which is becoming a disturbing trend — one that I think Sigurdsson himself, the players around him, and the manager all must shoulder the blame for.

Everton’s attack was primarily focused down the right wing, which in the first half made sense. With Dominic Calvert-Lewin filling in at left wing, playing through Theo Walcott made the most sense.

With the introduction of Bernard for Schneiderlin, Everton moved from its traditional 4-3-3 into more of a 4-4-2, with Calvert-Lewin joining Cenk Tosun up top, Bernard going to left midfield, and Walcott playing right midfield.

Yet in the second half, the trend of right-sided focus continued, despite the encouraging play of Bernard and the downright outstanding play of Lucas Digne.

Because DCL was his winger in the first half, Digne was asked to provide most of the attacking width in the opening 45 minutes, but his strong match really lasted the whole 90 minutes. Take a look at his passmap from this one.

This dude can cross a football.

But ultimately, even his strong play wasn’t enough to get the Toffees going. Take a look at the combined passmaps of the players who were part of Everton’s front four at some point during the match.

Tosun, Walcott, DCL, Bernard, and Sigurdsson combined for one completed pass in the box for the entire match.

Lucas Digne and Jonjoe Kenny each created chances via crosses into the box — including Kenny’s assist on Everton’s only goal — but the true attacking players generated nothing.

It’s a problem that has popped up off and on so far this season, but never clearer than in the West Ham match. These are talented players (some more than others, obviously) who just don’t seem to have any idea how they should be linking up.

It’s a problem — and on that largely falls on Silva at this point.

The absence of Richarlison obviously has to be mentioned, as he brings an entirely different dimension to the team’s attack. But, if the attacking strategy consists of:

  1. Give ball to Richarlison
  2. ???
  3. Profit!

then that is an issue.

Avoidable individual errors

I generally like to stick to tactics in this weekly post, but I’d be outright dishonest if I didn’t mention simple lack of execution as a huge part of why Everton lost at Goodison this weekend.

Everton’s second goal conceded came as a direct result of a dreadful pass by Jordan Pickford. The third goal was a simple lack of marking an obvious runner by Mason Holgate. Cenk Tosun headed a glorious chance from right in front of goal into the keeper’s hands, then made an absolute mess of Everton’s only real high-press-generated chance.

My first doubts in Silva are starting to creep up for all the reasons I’ve mentioned in this post, but the manager cannot force his striker to maintain possession with his back to goal or teach a center-back to mark an open man.

This was an atrocious match, and there’s more than enough blame to go around for players and manager alike.