If Liverpool misses out on the title by a point — their current deficit behind Manchester City — you better believe I’m going to remember Sunday’s result for a very long time.
It’s another year without an Everton victory over the Reds, and that definitely still stings. But given the gap in talent and in form between the two clubs, a 0-0 draw is a positive result — and I don’t think there’s any shame in admitting that.
It isn’t the first such result that Everton supporters have celebrated this season either. The Toffees’ away draw against Chelsea — at a time during which Maurizio Sarri wasn’t benching goalkeepers for insubordination — was met with similar cheers from Everton supporters.
Sunday’s performance was really a continuation of a trend we’ve seen for most of this season. Everton has actually played pretty well in most of its matches against top-six clubs.
The Toffees would have taken a point from Liverpool at Anfield had Jordan Pickford managed to not fumble a ball off his own crossbar. Everton’s 2-0 loss at home against Manchester City was tight the whole way, with City only notching a second goal as the Toffees pushed for an equalizer in added time. A solid performance at Old Trafford nearly earned Everton a point against Manchester United as well.
So yes, it’s largely a story of “almost” and “maybe”, but you wouldn’t expect a team that has lost to Leicester City, Southampton, Millwall, Wolverhampton, and Watford FC since January 1 to even consistently attain “almost” status.
Then, what’s the difference? What can Everton do against opponents like Liverpool that it struggles to do against clubs like Leicester?
To put it simply, Marco Silva only knows one way to play — and it’s a way that works against top clubs, but significantly less so against most of the league.
Silva-ball, more or less, consists of winning the ball in midfield through anywhere from mild midfield pressure to a suicide high press, then funneling it out wide to allow the wingers and full-backs to do the creative work of getting the ball into shooting areas.
That’s not to say that there aren’t portions of matches against top-six opponents that consist of deep-lying defensive lines — it isn’t realistic to expect Everton to maintain even moderate midfield pressure for 90 minutes against the Manchester City and Liverpools of the world. But Silva sure isn’t playing Allardyce-ball either.
Take a look at the possession breakdown, courtesy of EvertonFC.com, from Sunday’s match as an example.
Liverpool easily had the better of possession, basically at 58-42. But more of the match was spent in Liverpool’s defensive third than Everton’s, a pretty clear indication that Silva instructed his players to do more than simply set up shop in front of Jordan Pickford and hope for the best.
The team’s defensive actions map backs up this conclusion.
There are obviously plenty of defensive plays made in the defensive third, but there are also quite a few ball recoveries (orange) in the central third as well.
Once the ball is won, the holding midfielders — Idrissa Gueye and Morgan Schneiderlin on Sunday — ping the ball out wide to rely on the wide players to progress the ball up the field. Take a look at Gana and Schneiderlin’s combined passmaps from Sunday.
It’s primarily backpasses and balls out to the wingers or full-backs. Everything is low risk — and against a team that can break you on the counter like Liverpool, that’s the right play.
Not only is it the safe play from a defensive perspective — it’s also a pretty standard way to attack teams that flying at you with attacking numbers. As the full-backs (in Liverpool’s case, Andrew Robertson and Trent Alexander-Arnold) stride forward to join the attack, a quick through ball into the wide areas after winning the ball back can create a numerical advantage going forward.
It almost went against the Blues in the first half when Schneiderlin was dispossessed and with Digne too far up Salah got a clear run at goal. It didn’t lead to a goal on Sunday (more on that later), but it helped to manage the overall flow of the match and keep Liverpool honest in attack.
That has more or less been the strategy against top-six clubs, who tend to look to exert their attacking influence on the match. So, what happens against the rest of the Premier League, which tends to sit a little bit deeper against the Toffees?
Well, Marco pretty much tries to do the exact same thing — or at least he has for most of the season.
Generally speaking, Silva has continued to build almost exclusively through the wide areas, also relying on wide players to carry the creative burden in the final third. Generally speaking, that’s made the Toffees predictable going forward, allowing teams with anything resembling defensive stability to predict and react to Everton’s attack.
Without the ability to pick on advanced opposing full-backs, the plan usually falls on its face.
This isn’t a new issue for the Blues — even as far back as Roberto Martinez’s first season, Everton struggled to break down deep-lying opposition. The problem carried over well into Ronald Koeman’s tenure, and of course into the short reign of Sam Allardyce (though with him, the issue was primarily that Everton never had the license to go forward anyway).
Of course, I’m in no way suggesting that this is a problem that Silva should just be able to snap his fingers and fix. The inability to break down defensive-minded opponents is a common struggle even for teams with more attacking talent than the Toffees.
In fact, you don’t even need to look farther than across Stanley Park for such a club. But the difference between Liverpool and Everton in this discussion (other than the obvious gap in talent) is that Jurgen Klopp has at least tried to correct his team’s issues against a low block.
After his team dropped points at home against Burnley, Everton, West Bromwich Albion, and Stoke City last season, Klopp entered this season with a new tactical wrinkle. In several matches, he dropped Roberto Firmino into an advanced midfield role, slid Mohamed Salah into the striker position, and put another attacking player (usually Xherdan Shaqiri) in at right wing.
The result? His team only dropped six points from a possible 60 in the 2018 portion of this season. The wheels have started to come off a bit for Liverpool in 2019 (which has caused no small celebration at RBM), and he may need to make a change — but Klopp at least recognized that something had to change after last season if Liverpool was to reach the end of the grind of the Premier League season on top.
Under Silva, we’ve seen no such adjustments.
A good place for the manager to start is out wide, where his personnel selection has often been questionable. He should be playing Ademola Lookman much more frequently than he is, but the best starting point is even simpler than that.
I’ve discussed it before, but Silva must set up his side with one goalscoring winger (Richarlison or Theo Walcott) and one playmaking winger (Bernard or Lookman). He did it against Liverpool Sunday — and lo and behold, his team managed to pull out a draw and largely keep itself out of dangerous defensive situations.
All of Everton’s best matches against the top six came with similar configurations — at Anfield and Stamford Bridge, Silva also started Bernard and Walcott, with his team earning what should have been a draw in each match.
Against less talented opponents, Silva needs to find ways to use the central channel as well, but tweaking his winger usage is a good first step toward determining how to make Everton’s performance against mid-table and lower clubs as encouraging as those we’ve seen against the Premier League’s best.