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18 months in, it still feels like Marco Silva is making it up as he goes along

Tactics? Personnel? You can never quite tell what anything will look like at Everton

Everton FC v Norwich City - Premier League Photo by Alex Livesey/Getty Images

There really isn’t anything more Everton than giving the impression of legitimate forward progress for six weeks, just to blow it in a listless home match against the worst team in the league.

And let’s be clear — the past six weeks did feel like genuine progress. Everton beat West Ham United 2-0 on October 19, had a victory stolen by VAR against Brighton & Hove Albion, took out Watford FC in the Carabao Cup Round of 16, overcame injury to Andre Gomes to earn a point against Tottenham Hotspur, and defeated Southampton away from Goodison Park.

This isn’t exactly the stuff of champions, but it was a run of good results (and one result that should have been good) after an underwhelming start to the season. And then, in just 90 minutes on Saturday, the whole thing came crashing right back down.

And it all feels so familiar after last season, when the latest supposed savior of Everton Football Club came in to improve upon Sam Allardyce’s eighth-placed finish the previous season by *checks notes* finishing eighth.

2018-19 was defined by waves of inconsistency. You can really break last season down into five discrete parts.

  1. Everton opens the season with just six points in its opening six matches, including draws against Bournemouth and Huddersfield Town, as well as a home loss against West Ham.
  2. The Toffees bounce back by winning three in a row and five of the next nine — 16 points from the next seven games in all.
  3. Silva and Everton lose late against Liverpool on December 2, and slump to their worst stretch of the season. The Toffees play 14 matches between December 2 and February 15, but earn just three wins. They take 11 points from those 14 matches.
  4. Everton wins four of its next six, including against Chelsea, at West Ham, and against Arsenal. The Toffees also draw 0-0 against Liverpool. They take 13 points of a possible 18 in this six-game stretch.
  5. On the verge of pushing back into the European qualification discussion, Everton loses 2-0 at historically bad Fulham on April 13. They also draw 0-0 at Crystal Palace to make it eight points from their final five matches.

If you’ve read this far, you’re surely a big enough Everton supporter to remember most of how last season went, so why re-hash the past? Well, I think last season is very instructive when we try to make sense of what is happening this season.

This season is already composed of three discrete bits of its own.

  1. Everton takes seven points from its first four matches, with wins over Watford and Wolves.
  2. Everton drops four in a row against Bournemouth, Sheffield United, Manchester City, and Burnley.
  3. Everton again takes seven points from four matches (and probably deserved at least eight).

And that brings us to this weekend, when Silva once again trotted out his most recently successful lineup — just about the only thing you can rely on the manager to do consistently. And it is therein that the ultimate failing of Marco Silva lies.

At one point in time or another, maybe Marco Silva had a plan for what he wanted his Everton team to look like — but I’m convinced those days are behind us. Now, Silva’s entire tactical philosophy can be described in three simple steps.

  1. Keep trying random shit until something clicks.
  2. Once one unit of random shit is successful, continuing using the same unit of random regardless of opponent, schedule, venue, etc.
  3. Once the aforementioned unit of random shit stops working, proceed back to (1) and repeat.

The Norwich match was a perfect example.

Now, I was complimentary of Silva’s lineup and tactics last week after the Southampton win, and have no problem admitting that. Cenk Tosun remains the right striker choice against teams that play a deep line, because his ability to drop deep into the midfield and facilitate alongside the No. 10 is a necessary wrinkle given the state of Everton’s personnel options in the center of midfield and out wide.

The thing about Norwich City, though, is that it isn’t Southampton.

Norwich has largely played a more expansive, attack-minded style of football — often to their own demise defensively — and presents different challenges than the defensive-minded Saints did. I don’t feel like I should have to explain to a Premier League manager that different teams have different tactics, but here we are.

But Silva — whose single intelligible tactical identity is the high press — trotted out Cenk Tosun at striker against a team begging to be pressed high up the field. And I like Cenk! He’s a good player! But he isn’t the pressing striker — that’s Dominic Calvert-Lewin and we all know it.

So we watched a first half in which the Toffees were somewhat caught in two minds. Cenk and Gylfi Sigurdsson did their best to press high up the pitch, but Cenk’s lack of pace made that relatively ineffective. In possession, Cenk looked to drop deep as he normally does, but there wasn’t a ton of room for him to find the ball in the midfield, given that the Canaries pressed relatively high up the pitch themselves.

Despite an opening 10 minutes of the second half that was the best the Toffees had displayed on the afternoon, Norwich found the opening goal in the 54th minute — at which point the previously successful unit of random shit stopped being successful, so Silva immediately altered course into a new unit of random shit.

In this instance, it was bringing on Alex Iwobi for Morgan Schneiderlin, dropping Gyfli Sigurdsson deeper into midfield alongside Tom Davies. I’ll gladly admit that this was a pretty sensible move — broken clocks, blind squirrels and all that.

The setup got 10 whole minutes before Silva overhauled the whole thing again — on came Dominic Calvert-Lewin for Theo Walcott, shifting the system from a 4-2-3-1 to a 4-4-2 with Dom and Cenk up top, Iwobi and Richarlison out wide, and Sigurdsson and Davies in the middle.

Which I guess? Walcott was in the midst of another strong performance and wouldn’t have been my first choice to come off, but even more generally than that, the 4-4-2 with that personnel just never really felt like something that would gel creatively.

He also brought on Seamus Coleman for Djibril Sidibe, which is up there with the most useless substitutions I’ve ever seen in my life. It’s not even like the Frenchman was injured or anything.

Unsurprisingly, the new group failed to generate any genuinely meaningful scoring chances, Norwich got a late goal (just like Sheffield United did) while Everton was pressing for an equalizer, and the match ended 2-0.

When you extrapolate out that style of tactical and personnel management, you get what Everton has been for the last 18 months — a club that occasionally gets hot behind the performance of a lineup of skilled players that’s in the right place at the right time.

But once that hot streak ends, there’s no firm plan for how to get back on the right path. Silva erratically tries out new players and ideas, but with no real sense of how they might all fit together or match up against an opponent. Eventually, he hits on something that works against one or two opponents, and that becomes his new bible until everything falls apart again.

So how many more iterations of the cycle does he have left before he finally gets the sack?