There have been multiple matches this season in which Everton failed to get the ball into dangerous areas against less talented, but well-drilled and deep-lying opponents.
I was worried coming into the Toffees’ match against Crystal Palace on Saturday that we would once again see that failure in no uncertain terms, especially against Roy Hodgson’s classic “let’s play four central midfielders in the same lineup and pretend it’s normal” tactic. Frankly, Palace already had 86 minutes of success against Everton with that plan earlier this season.
And yet, despite the disappointing draw that came out of yesterday’s match, Everton played reasonably well. For most of the match, Palace sat deep and was content to let Everton try to break it down via long spells of possession. For Marco Silva’s press and quick-strike side, that’s been an issue most of the season.
But take a look at the team’s heatmap from the match.
Compare that to some of Everton’s heatmaps in similar matches this season.
Two of these matches were Everton victories, yet featured less final-third possession than what Everton was able to achieve against Palace this weekend.
Idrissa Gueye and Morgan Schneiderlin did a decent job of moving the ball through the midfield, which has been an issue for the Toffees pretty regularly in matches like this one this season. Take a look at their passmaps from the match.
The duo managed to facilitate the transition from defense to attack about as well as we’ve seen against a Palace-like side this season, and it led to a reasonable amount of attacking third possession.
The issue, then? It generally wound up in the feet of the wrong players.
Through this good run of form for Everton, much of the creative thrust has come from down the Everton left — mainly through Bernard and Lucas Digne. On Saturday, though, they matched up with Palace right-back Aaron Wan-Bissaka, who has quickly joined the ranks of elite Premier League full-backs.
Bernard and Digne just couldn’t find level of influence they’ve become accustomed to, with Wan-Bissaka absolutely putting the entire wing on lock-down. Take a look at the passmap of the two left-sided players.
The result was that the final pass had to come from either Dominic Calvert-Lewin or Richarlison, rather than Digne or Bernard — and that’s just not the strength of either player.
Marco Silva brought on Cenk Tosun for Dominic Calvert-Lewin in the 73rd minute in an attempt to get another player with a creative flair onto the pitch, but I thought the change came far too late.
The Toffees found so much more space to operate down the right side that I’d hoped Silva would swap Bernard and Richarlison in the second half, or bring on Ademola Lookman in Richarlison’s place to get a creative presence down the right wing against the less defensively-sound Patrick van Aanholt.
Instead, Silva waited until the last five minutes of regular time to make any additional changes, and simply replaced Bernard with Lookman on the left, failing to change the point of attack in any meaningful way. His insertion of Theo Walcott for Gylfi Sigurdsson did little as well, with Richarlison moving up top and the equally non-creative winger Walcott taking his place on the right.
On another day, perhaps Cenk Tosun’s extraordinary back-heel late in the match comes off, Everton wins, and I’m here praising the ingenuity of the substitute and its role in keeping Everton in the Europa League chase.
But the reality is that despite a decent performance in midfield, Everton couldn’t find a way through Aaron Wan-Bissaka on the left, and Marco Silva didn’t make the necessary tweaks to make it more likely that the key final pass would come from the right wing.
The match serves as another reminder that while Silva’s system has clearly paid dividends against attack-minded opponents in recent weeks, he’s still searching for some answers in matches such as these.