Everton’s top-six race is dead.
Part of that isn’t really the fault of anyone at Everton — who could have suspected that Jose Mourinho was holding back a Manchester United team with some of the world’s greatest attacking talent? (Me. You. Your cat. Any sentient being, really.)
So yes, it was always a long shot that Everton was going to catch Manchester United once they inevitably parted ways with everyone’s least favorite Portuguese dead weight. And I’d love to just be able to shrug my shoulders and say “Paul Pogba is really good” and leave my analysis of Everton’s race up the table at that.
But if you’re reading this, chances are you also suffered through Everton’s final two matches of the decidedly un-festive festive period, and you’ve seen the rut that the Toffees currently find themselves in.
It’s a frustrating rut, not only because it has coincided with United’s resurgence, but also because it’s seen an Everton team that is pretty clearly the seventh-most talented in the league fall down to 10th place — and potentially even lower by the time the day is over.
The struggles, contrary to what some may suggest, aren’t really about a failure to convert chances or bad luck — Everton’s expected goals (xG) and expected goals against (xGA) are pretty much right in line with what has really happened on the pitch.
Per Understat.com, the Toffees have an xG of 29.67, with 31 goals scored this season — so the finishing is actually slightly above expected values. Everton’s xGA is 31.44, with 31 goals conceded so far — again, right in line with expectation.
So, this is a team with around average luck, finishing at about an average rate, that has more talent than any team outside the top six, and currently sits in 10th place (or worse).
That really only leaves one place to look — the manager, Marco Silva.
I’m not calling for Everton to sack Marco Silva — so if you think I’m about to engage in some reactionary, nonsensical screaming, worry not. Aggravated, but reasonable screaming though? Yes, there will probably be some of that.
Marco Silva has opted for basically a two-faceted tactical approach since joining Everton. In defence, his team usually adopts a relatively high press. Only Manchester City, Chelsea, and Liverpool spend more of the match in their opponent’s defending third — and each of those teams spends significantly more time in possession than the Toffees do.
In attack, the plan is to get the ball wide as much as humanly possible, and let the wingers and full-backs serve as the primary creators. No team crosses the ball more frequently than Everton — the Toffees average 23 crosses per match (WhoScored.com)
Neither plan is working at this stage, and Silva’s inability or unwillingness to adapt is deeply troubling. At no time this season have those struggles been more evident than during Everton’s last two matches — away to Brighton and Hove Albion, then home to Leicester City.
To start, let’s consider the defensive issues. Take a look at where Everton’s defensive actions took place in the Brighton (left) and Leicester (right) matches.
This...is not what a successful pressing team looks like.
The Brighton match contained basically zero successful pressing, while the Leicester match is better, but still not great either.
A high-pressing team is primarily looking to create turnovers in its attacking and central third, winning the ball in places that are immediately dangerous for an opponent spread out in possession.
So, even those balls won in the middle third against Leicester were not particularly meaningful, given how wide the Toffees were when they won the ball.
Compare those two maps to this one — Everton’s 3-1 win against Brighton earlier in the season.
There are a few more middle third possession-wins here — including a few in the attacking third. Even this isn’t outstanding, but it’s certainly enough to grant Silva that his general approach created some semblance of success on the pitch.
Silva’s defensive approach, perhaps somewhat surprisingly, hasn’t too often left Everton exposed to long balls over the top — a common threat when employing high pressure. Having fleet-of-foot defenders like Lucas Digne, Seamus Coleman, Kurt Zouma, and Yerry Mina certainly helps in that department.
Everton’s 19 open-play goals against are around the league average — and when you consider that three of those came in the match against Tottenham Hotspur, without Idrissa Gueye, and already down two goals, that’s pretty tolerable.
However, it doesn’t make a damn bit of difference because watching Everton defend a set piece is like watching my cat try to catch a laser pointer.
Under Marco Silva, Everton have conceded an astounding 10 set piece / corner kick goals, and concede an even more staggering 0.19 xG per shot on such plays. No team in the league has conceded more set piece goals or a higher xGA rate on set plays.
In short, Everton’s defensive setup is designed to help generate easy offense while limiting the amount of time the opponent can spend in Everton’s defensive third. As it stands, Silva’s system isn’t doing much of the former, but it’s actually doing a pretty good job of the latter.
All of which gets absolutely thrown away by his team’s utterly abominable set piece defending. On a team with mountainous defenders like Michael Keane, Kurt Zouma, and Yerry Mina, it’s hard to come to any conclusion other than a coaching deficiency to explain that problem.
If you watched all 180 scoreless minutes of Everton’s last two matches, you don’t need me to tell you that the Toffees’ attack is currently a significantly bigger problem than their defense.
As I noted above, Silva’s general attacking principle is “get the ball wide and let the wide players do stuff.” In Lucas Digne, Seamus Coleman, Bernard, and Ademola Lookman, Everton does have pretty good creators in the wide areas.
However, there’s a point of diminishing returns on that kind of style, and it’s been...well...diminishing for well on a month now.
Consider this — Everton spends 22% of its time in the attacking third in the central channel. Only Huddersfield (the lowest-scoring team in the league), Brighton (the lowest-scoring team outside of the relegation battle), and Wolves (the lowest-scoring team currently above Everton in the table) spend less time in the central channel. Sensing a theme?
The most frustrating part is that Everton has something that Huddersfield, Brighton, and Wolves don’t have — Gylfi friggin’ Sigurdsson. Everton’s best playmaker resides in the center of the pitch, and he simply isn’t being used properly.
Allow me to illustrate this with a simple stat — take a look at Gylfi Sigurdsson’s touches per 90 over the last four seasons.
- 2015-16: 56 touches per 90
- 2016-17: 51.5 touches per 90
- 2017-18: 48.2 touches per 90
- 2018-19: 48.6 touches per 90
That’s right — a Swansea team that had significantly less possession on average than 2018-19 Everton still did a better job of feeding Sigurdsson than Silva’s team does. Hell, Ronald Koeman and Sam Allardyce basically got Gylfi on the ball as much as Silva does — and Koeman used him on the left wing and Allardyce’s team barely ever had the ball.
When you isolate your best playmaker as a standard tactical choice, you wind up with matches as ugly as the last two have been, for which the passmaps aren’t any more pleasant viewing than the match was in real-time. The passmap for BHA is on the left and LCFC on the right.
It’s the same problem Silva and Everton have had all season — there’s just no activity in the central channel once the ball gets 15 yards into the attacking half. Even when creative wingers like Lookman and Bernard are in the game, that’s a tough model to sustain long-term.
When the wingers are goal-scorers first like Richarlison and Theo Walcott, then forget it — you’ve got no hope.
Marco Silva did a good job of helping to identify and attract solid players to Everton this summer — though the extent to which he was involved as opposed to Marcel Brands, we’ll likely never know.
By all accounts, Silva seems to be a very well-liked man-manager. He turned the budding Ademola Lookman crisis on its head, has Andre Gomes playing his best football since his ill-fated move to Barcelona, and immediately turned Richarlison back into a scoring machine.
So, there are plenty of reasons to be happy with Marco Silva to this point — and he still represents a clear improvement over the likes of Ronald Koeman, David Unsworth, and Sam Allardyce.
But late-season swoons have characterized Marco’s last two appointments in England, and it’s become increasingly clear that his tactics have grown stale as the season has gone on. He’s nowhere near sacking territory yet, and deserves at least a full season before we make long-term judgments about his project.
But without a doubt, this season has quickly turned from one of high-potential to a rebuilding year — all in the course of about a month. The growing problems with his on-field plans aren’t going to improve until he active makes changes to improve them.
And the time for that must begin now.