Football is a complex game, but sometimes the simplest explanations are the best.
Spurs and Everton both don't want the ball and are confused why the other team won't take it when they give it away, this game is really dumb, and awful to watch to boot— Michael Caley (@MC_of_A) November 3, 2019
Michael Caley is a Tottenham Hotspur supporter who writes for the Athletic (among other places) and is a former contributor with our good friends over at Cartilage Free Captain. And frankly, this sums up pretty much Everton’s entire match from Sunday, when you strip away all the VAR controversy and Andre Gomes’ catastrophic injury.
At the end of the day, Spurs and Everton are really quite similar. Both rely on their high press to do almost all of their creative work for them. Both have managers who would possibly be out of a job by now if not for a late-season good run of form last year (Spurs in the Champions League, Everton in the Premier League). Both spent a fair bit of cash over the summer.
And perhaps, most tellingly, both struggle to create good chances out of long spells of possession, despite the presence of seemingly talented attacking players like Gylfi Sigurdsson, Richarlison, Christian Eriksen, and Harry Kane.
The result was a pretty ugly game — one in which only 76.4 percent of passes were completed. As a point of comparison, Crystal Palace has completed 76.9% of its passes this season, sixth-worst in the Premier League. So basically imagine Crystal Palace playing against itself, with slightly less attacking verve.
It should come as no surprise then, that the match’s opening goal came purely as a result of a miserable mistake by an Everton player. Alex Iwobi passed the ball directly to an opposing player, and seconds later Dele Alli put the ball in the back of the net. It was the sort of match that was always going to take a mistake, rather than a moment of magic, to get going.
Everton did equalize through Cenk Tosun late, of course, but let’s talk a little bit more about what Everton did the rest of the match before we go there. The main talking point was really Marco Silva’s move from a 4-2-3-1 to a 4-3-3.
The club’s graphic doesn’t quite reflect what happened on the pitch either though. In reality, it was Fabian Delph in a true No. 6 role, with Tom Davies and Andre Gomes ahead of him in the midfield — Davies on the right, Gomes on the left.
I think Silva’s tweak of the midfield probably aimed to serve a couple of purposes, with mixed results.
First, it allowed Delph to concern himself primarily with protecting the back four and simply circulating possession, rather than advancing it. Given that the Toffees conceded only five shots, only two of which on target, despite getting slightly outpossessed, I think you’d have to call the former a success.
As for his distribution...well, it seems safe to say that Silva was right to try to limit how much he needed to progress the ball.
Sideways and backwards passing to keep the ball? Sure!
Forward passing the break the lines? Well, no. No, not really.
In front of him, Davies and Gomes served essentially as dual No. 8s — tasked with both pressing the opposition in behind the attackers and facilitating the transition of play from the middle to final thirds.
We know Davies and Gomes are solid in the high press, so it’s the distribution component I’m more interested in. I have to imagine that part of Silva’s goal, given that he’s not gotten great production out of his No. 10 (be it Gylfi Sigurdsson or Alex Iwobi) was to take the stress of central creativity and spread it between multiple players. Can Davies and Gomes be those guys? Well...
Davies (rightfully) earned a fair bit of praise for the second-half cross-field ball he played to Theo Walcott, but there wasn’t a ton else that the pair produced. They combined for just one key pass and four passes into the box (three of which came from Gomes).
The result was that Everton was even more reliant on wing-play than usual. Just 17.9% of Everton’s final third possession came in the central channel, well-below their normal average of 23% (which is fifth-lowest in the league).
Of course, I’m not here to spit upon a cross-heavy system if it works, but the Toffees have only 11 goals through 11 Premier League matches, while averaging the third-most cross attempts per match. Only Liverpool and Manchester City cross the ball more, primarily a function of their superior possession stats. Only Crystal Palace, Newcastle United, Southampton, and Watford FC have fewer goals.
With Bernard out injured, a width-focused attack becomes even more problematic, given that neither Theo Walcott nor Richarlison possess his creative ability (and I expect we’ll see the Brazilian back out wide next game, given his middling performance up front on Sunday). This isn’t a new problem, of course, but Bernard’s injury does add a new wrinkle to it.
That said, even if a move to the 4-3-3 had solved some of the issues that plagued Everton’s attack this season (it didn’t), the whole conversation might be a moot point anyway with Gomes set for a long spell on the sidelines. With Jean-Philippe Gbamin still injured as well, there just isn’t anyone who can really approximate what Gomes does alongside Davies.
Morgan Schneiderlin is better-equipped to play the deeper-lying role currently occupied by Delph — which is most certainly the Englishman’s best position as well. Sigurdsson or Iwobi could drop into that No. 8 role, but I’m not sure either player defends well enough for that to be a sensible move either.
I don’t envy Marco Silva the position he finds himself in — two starting central midfielders hurt, his most creative winger also sidelined, his new young striker still trying to find his footing in the Premier League, and his best overall attacker in Richarlison displaying inconsistent form.
But the reality is that a trip to lowly Southampton awaits him next weekend, and it’s a match Everton simply needs to find a way to win. A loss would likely put Everton in a tie for a relegation place, and could spell the end of the Marco Silva era.