Normally, when I sit down each week to put together my post-match thoughts on Everton, Marco Silva, and his tactical approach, I like to draw attention to things RBM readers might have missed at first glance or add a new perspective to some of the match’s most notable moments.
This week, that’s almost impossible to do, as there was really only one factor of major impact in Everton’s eventual win over Chelsea — and it was plain to see when comparing the first half and second half.
Silva came out with a lineup similar to what we’ve seen for most of the season against top-six clubs — that is, a lineup unchanged from how he approaches matches against equal or inferior opposition.
Yerry Mina was forced into action due to Kurt Zouma’s ineligibility against his former club, but outside of that change, the lineup was pretty much standard Silvian fare.
Which is why it was so peculiar when from the opening whistle, Everton sat very deep in its own half, inviting pressure from Chelsea. The Toffees have played Liverpool twice, Manchester City twice, Tottenham Hotspur once, Arsenal once, and Manchester United once — and never in any of those matches, did Marco Silva resort to an outright Allardycian tactical approach.
Now, there’s nothing necessarily wrong with adopting such defensive tactics in a match where you feel you may be overrun on talent by the opponent, but it was incredibly bizarre to see Everton play this way from the start of a match — especially a home match against a Chelsea team that’s far from perfect.
If you’ve been watching Everton with any regularity this season, you know such tactics would be strange. And if you watched Everton this weekend, you know that it indeed looked uncomfortable for the Toffees straight from the opening whistle.
Consider the defensive actions map for the Toffees in the first half of this match.
There were a few ball recoveries a decent way up the pitch, but the majority of the team’s defensive action took place less than 40 yards from its own goal.
The only time Everton really strayed from a deep block was when Chelsea had the ball 15-20 yards from its own end-line. When Maurizio Sarri’s team had the ball very deep in its own half, Dominic Calvert-Lewin — and to a less extent, Gylfi Sigurdsson and the wingers — would apply moderate pressure.
But once Chelsea worked the ball into the middle third, the pressure almost immediately ceased. The wingers dropped deep to help the full-backs handle the wide areas, and Sigurdsson stepped up alongside Calvert-Lewin, forming a pretty basic, deep-lying 4-4-2.
The result was that David Luiz and Antonio Rudiger had hours of time and acres of space from which to begin building the Chelsea attack. Consider the ease with which the pair facilitated the Chelsea attack in the first half.
It was too easy for Chelsea to get into dangerous areas, and if not for Eden Hazard hitting the post and Gonzalo Higuain failing to convert in the opening six minutes of the match, Everton’s day could have been over well before it started.
After the two early Chelsea chances, the Everton defense solidified substantially, and Chelsea didn’t create a ton of real danger for the rest of the half — credit in particular is due to Michael Keane and Yerry Mina, who for the first time this season combined to look like the center-back pairing of Everton’s future.
But still, even after winning the ball before Chelsea managed to create dangerous chances, the Toffees still started most of their possessions deep in their own defensive third. Everton was unable to pass through the Chelsea press, resulting in a ton of hopeful long balls.
Chelsea would pick up the aimless long ball, Everton would retreat, Luiz and Rudiger would distribute out of the back with ease, and the process would repeat itself.
Thus went the majority of the first half — 45 minutes of football about which the best we could say is that Everton didn’t concede during it.
Within 30 seconds of the start of the second half, you could easily see that Everton made a major change.
They weren’t throwing a suicide high-press at Chelsea, but there was moderate pressure applied by the front four in the middle third of the pitch — which was enough to unsettle Chelsea and force some turnovers and loose passes.
It didn’t even take five minutes for Everton to force a corner from that pressure, ultimately ending with Richarlison doing what Richarlison does best — being in the right place and the right time and putting the ball in the back of the net with authority.
It was the same story when the Brazilian drew a penalty 25 minutes into the second half. The Toffees weren’t doing anything exotic, just applying enough pressure to Chelsea to win the ball higher up the pitch, then quickly playing toward goal.
Having the opportunity to break toward goal quickly with a shortened field put Chelsea defense under pressure, and Everton has attacking players good enough to make opponents pay for such mistakes. Sigurdsson missed his penalty, but slotted home the rebound — doubling Everton’s advantage in a match that looked doomed for failure throughout the opening 45 minutes.
Allow me to elucidate the change in pressure and its effects on the match. First, let’s compare the Everton defensive map for the first half and second half.
Everton did nick the ball off Chelsea in the attacking third once or twice in the first half, but in the second half, the Toffees brought much more consistent middle-third pressure. Whereas in the first half, Luiz and Rudiger had all day to pick out targets, in the second half, they found themselves having to work much quicker — reducing the danger of their passes and forcing some mistakes.
Note the higher ratio of incomplete passes — but more importantly the direction and length of the completed ones. Everton significantly limited the center-backs’ ability to play forward in the central channel to Jorginho and Ross Barkley, keeping Chelsea primarily to the outside.
That meant less ground between the Toffees and Chelsea’s goal upon winning the ball, and more space to operate as Sarri’s men spread themselves to try to maintain possession and forward momentum.
This had a significant impact on Everton’s ability to create in the second half compared to the first.
The Toffees were quite direct in both halves — and Silva is probably right to have had no real interest in passing through Chelsea pressure. But by adopting a higher defensive starting position, Everton was able to connect a few key passes that put the forwards in attacking position.
In one instance, it led to a corner that opened the scoring. In another, Richarlison’s dangerous run into the box drew the penalty that ultimately sealed the match.
If you’re like me, you might be wondering why there was such a stark dichotomy between Everton’s approach in the first half and the second half. Unfortunately, I’m just as stumped as everyone else.
Post-match, Silva said that he told his players during halftime that they needed to change everything they were doing, and that the way the players performed in the second half was the way they had practiced all week.
I don’t know the extent to which I believe all that, but either way I must give Silva credit for pushing the right buttons at halftime, regardless of whatever transpired to create the first-half performance.
With matches against Arsenal, Manchester United, and Tottenham still to come, this match could provide a blueprint for how the Toffees could steal a few more points against the top six.