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Even in victory, Marco Silva’s primary weakness shows

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Some good things happened in Everton’s victory over Huddersfield, but the manager is still struggling to get out of his own way

Huddersfield Town v Everton FC - Premier League Photo by Gareth Copley/Getty Images

After this weekend’s loss to Millwall in the FA Cup, there was a ton of focus on Everton’s inability to defend set pieces — and rightfully so.

The Toffees conceded three times to the second-division side on set pieces, and it brought significant attention to Marco Silva and the fact that he’s still failed to correct this basic shortcoming.

It is a huge deal, mind you — I wrote a little about its role in the club’s overall defensive struggles here — but that isn’t what I want to focus on today. Instead, the Huddersfield Town match on Tuesday brought to the forefront an issue that’s been bubbling up in the background for most of the season — and it needs to be discussed.

I’m here to tell you that set piece frailty isn’t Marco Silva’s biggest weakness.

Marco Silva’s biggest weakness is his utterly asinine dependence on Richarlison.

Now that’s not a slight directed at Richarlison, who is a very talented (albeit often frustrating) player. The Brazilian rightly leads the team in goals, and has proven to be worth every penny Farhad Moshiri spent on him over the summer.

But Silva’s tactical choices continue to revolve around keeping him as the focal point of everything Everton does, and usually in ways that simply don’t make sense based on his skillset.

Allow me to take a step back and present the big picture from the match, before we can dig into this specific issue. Let’s start by taking a look at the starting lineup.

The big news here was the absence of Idrissa Gueye, which didn’t exactly quiet the rumors that the Senegalese midfielder is on his way to PSG. I’ve taken a look at what his sale might mean to Everton already this month, and there will be plenty of time to analyze such a sale in the coming months, if it comes to pass before the end of the week.

The fact that neither Morgan Schneiderlin or Beni Baningime made the bench in this one was infuriating to me, but I’m committed to focusing on only one of Marco’s cardinal sins this week, so the launch of the #freeBeni movement will have to wait at least a few more days.

Silva made an interesting tweak to his typical 4-3-3 not only in personnel, but also in construction. Historically, Gana has dropped deep next to Andre Gomes, forming a base pair that plays behind Gylfi Sigurdsson at the 10.

Tom Davies, however, played much further up the pitch, inverting the midfield triangle. Against Huddersfield, Davies played alongside Sigurdsson, rather than behind him, giving Everton increased attacking numbers. Take a look at the Everton average position map (courtesy of EvertonFC.com) to see how extensive the change was.

(We’re going to talk about Gylfi’s position in a moment — allow me to set the rest of the stage first.)

Bernard’s introduction ahead of Ademola Lookman wasn’t particularly interesting from a tactical perspective — I prefer Lookman to Bernard at this point, but they’re relatively similar in terms of play style, so I don’t have a ton to say about that.

The other major change came up top, where Cenk Tosun got his first league start since December 5. The Turkish striker has the fewest goals of Everton’s three center-forward options, but his play is about so much more than goals.

Tosun’s hold-up play is the best of any striker at Everton — and it’s not remotely close. His ability to drop deep, call for the ball into his feet, and hold off defenders while the Toffees work their way forward is an absolute game changer when he’s in the lineup.

Consider the following — take a look at the passes made and received by Tosun against Huddersfield, compared to Richarlison’s passes made and received against Southampton, when he served as the team’s central striking option.

The disparity is striking.

Tosun gives Everton — a club which has struggled to work its way through the midfield quite frequently this season — a genuine outlet through which they can facilitate transition . His combination of size, strength, and quality first touch make him a weapon that no one else on the roster can replicate.

He’s not perfect, and none of his quick one-twos with Sigurdsson or the wingers quite came off to generate a quality scoring chance in this match, but the potential is clearly there if he’s used properly.

Now, I know I led with a thesis that I haven’t quite come back to that, namely that Marco Silva’s biggest weakness is his utterly asinine dependence on Richarlison.

To illustrate the ridiculousness of this dependence though, we first needed to see what the players around Richarlison are capable of.

With that now said, how would you react if I told you that (before Lucas Digne’s red card) a staggering 58% of Everton’s attacking-third possession came in the left channel, and the team had a heatmap that looked like the following?

With the team’s best hold-up striker in the center and a creative winger down the right, Marco Silva’s preferred attacking plan was “give the ball to Richarlison on the left wing as soon as possible, and then see what happens.”

As I said at the top, I don’t mean any of this as a slight to Richarlison. The lad knows how to score goals — and I shudder to think where this team would be without his goal contribution this season.

But the Huddersfield match’s only goal illustrates quite clearly where Richarlison is at his best. The goal came after Bernard (an actual creative winger) and Tom Davies combined on the right, with the latter whipping the ball into the box. Richarlison was there to do what he does best — sneak in behind a defender and put the ball in the back of the net.

That is what he’s best at.

I’ve said it a million times, but Richarlison cannot pass to save his life, and his decision making is frequently questionable. He isn’t a build-up or ball-progression winger. He’s an off-ball winger, who should be on the end of attacking plays, not the one creating them.

The result of a gameplan run through Richarlison is the complete waste of Gylfi Sigurdsson’s talents. With the ball trapped in Richarlison’s less-than-capable feet on the left touchline, Sigurdsson is forced to slide over to help the Brazilian out, which winds up creating heatmaps like this.

That’s from before Digne was sent off and Sigurdsson slotted into a left-side role. This isn’t the space that you want to see the Icelander occupy — especially when the prospect of him benefiting from Cenk’s superior hold-up play in the central channel is so tantalizing.

Speaking of the Digne red card and Tosun’s hold-up play, Silva’s decision to remove Tosun and move Richarlison up top while bringing in Jonjoe Kenny was utterly insane.

Kenny obviously needed to come in, with the Toffees needing to fill out the backline following the Frenchman’s dismissal. But knowing that 25 minutes of pressure was ahead for Everton, the obvious choice to play striker for the remainder of the match should have been the man who could help his team keep the ball and relieve that pressure.

Instead, we were forced to sit through 20 minutes of Richarlison’s aimless wandering and chasing of the ball at striker, as the Toffees faced wave after wave of pressure. It didn’t end up costing Everton the three points, but it very easily could have.

In all, Richarlison remains an integral part of Everton going forward — warts and all. But he’s not a player you can work 60% of your possession through, and he’s not a striker who can facilitate the attack through hold-up play in any significant way.

Marco Silva’s bias toward the Brazilian attacker doesn’t serve himself, Richarlison, or the club well — and he needs to take a long look in the mirror and assess some of even his most basic decisions.