I’ve said a lot of not very nice things about Marco Silva in recent weeks — and in case you can’t tell by the title, I’m about to say more not very nice things.
So, let me get my compliments for the Everton manager out of the way early. I think Silva’s general tactical plan in the first half — pack the center of midfield with ball-winners and try to use raw pace to beat City over the top — was more or less a sensible one.
And for almost the entire first half, the plan worked. Per Understat, Everton conceded just 0.17 xGA from open play in the half, effectively stifling the best attack in the Premier League. Of course, the Toffees conceded 0.67 xGA from set pieces in the first half, and Aymeric Laporte put Manchester City ahead off a corner kick with basically the last touch of the first half.
From there, things predictably fell apart. Forced to chase the game, Everton’s defense was exposed, and though City only doubled the lead late in second-half stoppage time, Pep Guardiola’s side could easily have put the match to bed on earlier chances.
I don’t want to talk about set piece defending any more than you do (or any more than Marco Silva appears to in training — HEYOOOOOO), and there isn’t a ton that’s tactically interesting about “win the ball and kick it far,” even if it was the right gameplan to start with.
Instead, I want to talk about Everton’s wingers — or more precisely, Marco Silva’s usage of them. In November, I took a look at what the club’s four wingers, Richarlison, Theo Walcott, Bernard, and Ademola Lookman each bring to the table, and how Silva might be best served using them.
It was a little tough to do then, simply because Lookman had played so few minutes at that point, and we were still right in the middle of the Richarlison-as-a-striker experiment. Thankfully, we’ve seen more of Lookman since the calendar turned to 2019, and Richarlison has been restored to a more sensible place on the left wing.
So, let’s look at the numbers for each of these players (I’ve included only Richarlison’s numbers from when he played at wing, not at striker):
Everton Winger Production
Silva has two relatively distinct types of wingers at his disposal. The first type is a goal-scoring winger — this group encompasses Richarlison and Walcott.
Richarlison’s xG/90 blows everyone else’s out of the water, but even Walcott’s is nearly double Lookman’s and well above Bernard’s. Richarlison’s finishing of his chances — five goals from the winger position — is better than Walcott’s as well.
Theo has definitely had issues with conversion this year. His xG says he should have around five goals, but he currently sits at three. Historically, he’s been a pretty reliable finisher, so there’s reason to hope that his actual goals total will increase if he continues to generate this level of scoring opportunities.
Even with that consideration in mind though, Walcott is basically just a less good Richarlison. Neither have significant creative output, either in terms of passes or dribbles, and Richarlison is the greater goal-scoring threat.
The other type of player available to Silva is the creative winger — Bernard and Ademola Lookman.
Bernard has one more assist than Lookman, but in more than twice the number of minutes played, and Lookman’s xA/90 is well above the Brazilian’s. Bernard does complete more key passes than Lookman, which means that Bernard’s passes are leading to more shots, but not necessarily better shots.
Neither player has a huge goal-scoring output — either in terms of xG or actual goals scored (both players did get a goal in FA Cup play, but these stats are only Premier League).
The biggest separator is in successful dribbles per 90, where Lookman has double Bernard’s output. The Englishman’s ability to beat players on the dribble is an enormous asset to a team that at times struggles to progress the ball from defense to attack. Bernard has been a little more dangerous on the dribble than Richarlison and Walcott, but Lookman’s numbers blow everybody else away.
The conclusion I came to in November — and one that I will reiterate here — is that at any given time, Marco ought to have one winger of each type on the pitch.
The numbers seem to indicate (as does the eye test) that his best pairing is Richarlison and Lookman. I’m not quite sure why Silva has benched Lookman over the past few weeks, when he is very clearly Everton’s best progressor of the ball in wide areas, and probably it’s best wide playmaker as well.
Lookman should irrefutably be a first XI player at this point. The point of this whole discussion isn’t precisely that point, but it’s so evident that it warrants explicit stating here.
That said, the Bernard / Walcott pairing Silva utilized against Manchester City is defensible based on the criteria I’ve outlined above, even if I have a few questions about using the least-skilled pairing against one of the best clubs in the world. Walcott serves as the scoring winger, with Bernard as the creative one.
Now, I don’t feel like I should have to say this, but the majority of the play should run through the creative winger, with the scoring winger operating in the off-side space and looking to pop up in front of goal. Walcott and Richarlison are both experts at finding the crucial half-yard of space behind the full-back or between the full-back and the center-back.
So, when I see that 51.6% of Everton’s attacking third possession came down the right channel — Walcott’s side — against Manchester City, I have a few questions.
The simple response to this observation is that Aymeric Laporte, a center-back by trade, was pressed into duty at left-back for City on Wednesday, so it made sense to target him in the attack.
There is definitely some wisdom in that, but the City match isn’t the only instance of this trend. In fact, each time Silva has used one scoring winger and one creative winger in his lineup since the start of the new year, the majority of Everton’s play has come down the scoring winger’s side.
The other three league matches since January 1? Two featured Bernard and Lookman, the third Richarlison and Walcott.
In that run of matches, the Toffees have just five goals in six games, with wins against Bournemouth and Huddersfield Town, and losses against Leicester City, Southampton, Wolves, and Manchester City.
The biggest thing that Marco Silva needs to fix is Everton’s set piece defending — and I don’t think anyone will argue that after it ruined a tremendous half against the defending champions on Wednesday.
But the next lesson the manager must learn is how to best utilize his wingers — yes, in terms of starting his best players, but also in terms of matching those players correctly and assigning them proper roles in the overall gameplan.