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Just how bad is the Everton defense?

The capitulation at Millwall has supporters asking questions of the defensive personnel on the roster

Everton FC v AFC Bournemouth - Premier League Photo by Alex Livesey/Getty Images

The fallout from this weekend’s horror show at Millwall has largely manifested itself in conversations about Everton’s defense.

That’s fair — a team like Everton shouldn’t be conceding three goals to a second-division side. But I want to make sure that an important distinction is made in these conversations, because I think there’s some unfair criticism toward certain Everton defenders being thrown about.

Overall, Everton has conceded 33 goals in Premier League play, ninth-most in the league. In a 20-team league, that puts the Toffees just below average in terms of defensive output.

But, not all goals are created in the same way — and a lot of attention has been paid to how poor Everton’s set piece defense has been. That criticism in particular is fair, and frankly I’m not sure it gets enough attention.

The Toffees have conceded 10 goals on set pieces, joint-worst in the Premier League. That goals against tally is no fluke either — per Understat, Everton has conceded 12.41 expected goals (xG) on set piece opportunities. So, you could pretty easily make the case that Marco Silva’s side is lucky to have “only” conceded 10 set piece goals.

Now, set piece defense is a very particular business, and generally something that’s thought of as the manager’s responsibility, rather than down to the ability of the individual defenders. That’s not to say that individual players don’t shoulder some of the blame for set piece defense struggles, but because this facet of the game is so clearly about organization and communication, the manager has to be the primary target of criticism.

Subtract out the one penalty goal the Toffees have conceded, and you’re left with 22 goals conceded from open play (if you count both Everton own goals as open play). That total is slightly above league average, rather than slightly below it.

Still, you might think that the distinction between being slightly above and slightly below league average isn’t a noteworthy one — and that’s fair.

But there is another factor in the consideration of Everton’s defensive stats that I do not think is fair.

Without a doubt, the most important defensive player at Everton is Idrissa Gueye. He might not be the player in the defensive box blocking shots or making last-ditch tackles, but his ball-winning work in the midfield is what keeps Toffee defenders from facing constant pressure throughout the match.

I mention Gana because he was missing in Everton’s two worst defensive performances of the season — the 3-1 loss at Manchester City and the 6-2 drubbing at the hands of Tottenham Hotspur. In those two matches, Everton conceding a staggering eight goals from open play — more than one-third of their overall open play goals against.

Take out the three league matches Gana missed this season (he also was injured for the 1-1 draw against Huddersfield early in the season), and you’re left with a team that has conceded 14 open play goals in 20 Premier League matches — a rate of 0.7 open-play goals against per match.

That rate of open-play concession would make Everton the fifth-best open-play defensive team in the Premier League — behind only Chelsea, Tottenham, Liverpool, and Manchester City, all of whom possess the ball a great deal more than Everton.

Tweaking the numbers this way does fail to acknowledge that City and Spurs are both very good attacking teams, which likely would have had a fair deal of success against Everton even if Gana played. But still, even if you only assume that Gana’s presence helps to hold City to 2 open-play goals and Spurs to 2 or 3, that change in the rate of open-play goals still pushes Everton from slightly above average to among the best outside the top six.

That “best-of-the-rest” status is all that’s reasonable to ask of the Toffees given the gap in talent between themselves and the Premier League’s elite — and I think that when considering the numbers in this way, you can pretty easily make a case that Everton’s open-play defense is among the best outside that group.

The set piece defending remains utterly shambolic, and there’s really no sugar-coating that reality. But as I mentioned in the opening, those shortcomings fall much more on Marco Silva than the group of defenders that Marcel Brands has assembled.

The defense remains far from perfect, but the numbers suggest that, as long as Idrissa Gueye is playing, the majority of the work being done by players like Michael Keane, Kurt Zouma, Seamus Coleman, and Lucas Digne is good enough to get Everton where it wants to be.

They just need their manager to actually develop a plan for defending set pieces.