I’ve been critical of Marco Silva a lot this season.
That’s important context for what I want to say today, and what happened Sunday at Goodison Park when Everton hosted Arsenal. To outline the details of each thing he’s done that I’ve found problematic this season would take all week — but I think there’s a good way to sum it all up.
For most of this season, I didn’t know what Marco Silva wanted Everton to be.
His squad selection, tactical adjustments, reported transfer targets, and public comments never really added up to a coherent plan. Did we know he wanted to play 4-3-3? Sure. Did we think he wanted to play a high press? More or less. Did he want to play through the wide areas? That’s what the performances often led us to believe.
But all those components appeared in fits and starts, and never really combined to create a coherent, reliable plan that composed what Everton Football Club aspired to be under Marco Silva. A tepid, passive first half against Chelsea three weeks ago brought the issues to a head, with the Goodison Park faithful ready to explode.
And then — as if by magic — the next five halves of Everton football have been a complete turnaround, and this week against Arsenal solidified it. Everton knows what it is under Marco Silva — and based on the last three matches, it’s a damn good team.
So, let’s take a look at what happened against Arsenal — and the couple of consistent choices Silva has made in recent weeks to get Everton to the place it wants to be.
Unsurprisingly, Silva rolled out the same lineup that obliterated West Ham United a week ago.
⚠ TEAM NEWS IS IN ⚠— Everton (@Everton) April 7, 2019
And Marco has gone with the same starting XI that picked up three points last weekend!
COYB! #EFCMatchday pic.twitter.com/3NjBJd1JnI
Phil Jagielka was a late addition to the starting XI after Michael Keane dropped out due to illness, but that was very much a like-for-like swap that didn’t change the overall game plan in any significant way.
Arsenal, on the other hand, started in a similar setup to what Everton saw from West Ham last week.
TEAM NEWS!— Arsenal FC (@Arsenal) April 7, 2019
◼️ Elneny, Mkhitaryan come in
◼️ Iwobi, Ramsey move to bench
◼️ Xhaka, Koscielny out with injury
The configuration of Unai Emery’s wide attackers was slightly different than that of Manuel Pellegrini, but the crux of the setup was the same — a relatively slow back three, wing-backs, and a two-man central midfield that isn’t exactly comfortable on the ball.
On paper, the match-up started by looking like this.
(Ignore the player numbers — there are very few tools that allow me to show both team’s tactics at once, and this one was the best available.)
The interesting points start when Arsenal has the ball at the back. In recent weeks, Marco Silva has fully committed to applying pressure to opposing defenders and midfielders on the ball.
Against West Ham, that pressure came more in the midfield, once the Hammers entered the middle third. Against Arsenal though, the initial line of confrontation was often even higher than that.
Dominic Calvert-Lewin starts by pressing the man on the ball. His work rate and pace are absolutely integral to the whole system working properly. He forces the man on the ball to make a quick decision — one that the defender isn’t particularly comfortable making at speed.
The defender here has a few options. He can swing it wide to one of his other center-backs, he can try to play ahead to the advanced wing-backs, or he can try to work the ball into one of the two central midfielders.
If he tries to play it along the back to one of the other center-backs, Everton is fine with that. Arsenal isn’t creating any danger from 30 yards away from its own keeper. If the Toffees are in the lead — as they were after the opening 10 minutes on Sunday — they’re even more content to let the opponent pass harmless along the backline.
Indeed, that’s what Sokratis and Shkordran Mustafi did a whole lot of. Take a look at the completed passmaps for the Arsenal center-backs from the match (all action maps courtesy of EvertonFC.com).
Recall that Monreal moved to left-back in a back four in the second half when looking at this. By and large, the center-backs moved the ball along the back line pretty passively.
Eventually though, they (or Bernd Leno in goal) had to move the ball forward. If the ball moved forward to one of the central midfielders, you’d see something like the following.
Gylfi Sigurdsson leads the next line of pressure, with Calvert-Lewin either pressuring ball or cutting a passing lane. The wingers — Richarlison and Bernard — stay high, making it tough to work the ball to the wing-backs.
Everton’s holding midfielders — Idrissa Gueye and Andre Gomes — prevent easy passes into the front three, with the Everton center-back playing right on the back of the Arsenal striker.
The other alternative for Arsenal is to play into the wing-backs directly from the back, which winds up looking something like the following.
The winger presses out to the wing-back, using the sideline as an extra defender that limits the opponent’s options. The Everton holding midfielder tracks over with the Arsenal attacker, Sigurdsson limits the availability of the Arsenal holding midfielder, and Calvert-Lewin limits the availability of the backpass.
Now, I want to show how this ultimately springs Everton into the attack, but first, we do have to acknowledge a few potential flaws in Silva’s pressure.
First, playing a high line like this can expose you to long balls over the top, especially those that come over the head of a slower defender like Phil Jagielka or Michael Keane. Kurt Zouma and Yerry Mina are key contributors in a setup like this, because their athleticism gives them a much better chance of catching up to a pacey striker if the ball gets in behind.
Second, as the full-backs look to cut off passing lanes to the wingers, they too can potentially get hit over the top with a long-ball — especially against wing-backs comfortable on the ball. Lucas Digne and Seamus Coleman have decent pace, limiting this concern. But, against wide players with outstanding speed, it can become problematic.
Last, good holding midfielders — especially those who have good relationships with their strikers — may at times be able to hit a quick, key pass that breaks the pressure in the center of the pitch. When this happens, a back line can quickly find itself completely out of sorts.
If the center-back has pressed up to the back of the striker and a ball gets through, wingers can get a clear run down the center behind the defenders — if the right passing combination can be struck.
In this particular match though, the danger associated with those concerns was greatly limited by Unai Emery’s personnel choices. Consider:
- Long balls over the top to the striker? Alexandre Lacazette isn’t slow, but he’s not Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang either.
- Long balls to the wingers? The “wingers” were Mesut Ozil and Henrikh Mkhitaryan — not exactly speed demons.
- Passing combination through the midfield to catch the center-backs out of position? Arsenal’s Mohamed Elneny and Matteo Guendouzi aren’t exactly passing savants.
The result was a ton of congested play through the midfield, frequently leading to one-on-one battles in dangerous areas — and Everton regularly won them. Take a look at the Toffees’ defensive actions map.
(Orange is ball recoveries, green = tackles won, red = tackles lost, blue = interceptions, purple = clearances.)
I can’t emphasize enough how high up the pitch Everton won the ball in this game. Compare that to the defensive actions map from the West Ham match, in which Everton utilized a slightly deeper midfield press.
The takeaway here? Sunday’s match was an absolute slaughter in the midfield, with Everton’s wingers and midfielders relentlessly hounding Arsenal.
From there, creating chances is pretty easy.
As soon as the ball is won, Everton’s attackers break forward, with the wingers looking to immediately get in behind the advanced opposing wing-back. That forces either the wide center-back or holding midfielder to chase into the wide area while the wing-back tries to get back in defense.
It’s a very direct approach that seeks to take advantage of how wide Arsenal spread itself trying to maintain possession while moving from back to front.
How direct? Take a look at the Everton passmap from this one.
It’s almost entirely quick-hit passes from where the ball was won down the sideline to a winger or full-back. From there, players like Bernard, Lucas Digne, and Seamus Coleman had space and time to operate.
When given the option, Everton elected to play down the left, rather than the right. This was a sensible tactic (and one that we haven’t seen enough of this season), given that Bernard and Digne are a much more creative duo than Richarlison and Coleman.
The first half of this game was exceedingly encouraging because all of the above looked coordinated, coherent, and most importantly, successful.
But I was pleased with the second half in a lot of ways too. Arsenal moved to a pretty standard 4-2-3-1 after halftime, which changes the calculus of the press to an extent. Everton wasn’t quite as aggressive or quite as successful at winning the ball in dangerous areas, but they still did an excellent job of prevent the Gunners from creating any sustained attacking-third possession.
To see the Toffees, who were so frequently out-coached for much of the season, not only come out and dominate when an opponent’s tactics favored theirs, but also to retain pretty outright control of the match following a tactical switch at half time, is a huge step in the right direction.
To see them do it in consecutive weeks, and this week against a top-six side, represents what would be a gargantuan improvement.
The next two weeks will tell us a lot about how sustainable the improvement of the last three matches is. Can Everton find a way to generate chances against Fulham, a team less likely to be committed to playing out of the back like Arsenal and Chelsea were? And can they then replicate Sunday’s performance against Manchester United, another top-six team?
If the answer is yes, Marco Silva will have put the rest of the Premier League on notice for next season.