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Everton 2018-19 Season Review: Marco Silva’s top-six tactics

Blues’ late season success against some of the Premier League’s top clubs was among the best we’ve seen in recent years

Everton FC v Arsenal FC - Premier League
Whatever this argument was about, Silva got the last laugh on Emery.
Photo by Clive Brunskill/Getty Images

Over the last few days, we’ve taken a look at the tactics Marco Silva’s Everton employ both in attack and in defense. In those analyses, I’ve been largely complimentary of Silva’s ways, particularly of those that truly blossomed in the final quarter of the season.

Perhaps the most surprising part of that development was the group of teams that Everton dismantled as Silva’s vision finally came to fruition. This wasn’t Cardiff City or Huddersfield Town — Everton deservedly picked up nine points against Chelsea, Arsenal, and Manchester United, at a time when all three clubs were desperately in need of points.

So it’s that development I want to look at today — why were Everton’s tactics so successful against top six teams late in the season, and what can we learn from that going forward?

As a friendly reminder, we’re terming Silva’s tactical system as a high press, which I’m defining as the following:

A tactical high press is the active pressuring of the opponent’s goalkeeper, defenders and midfielders on the ball, in hopes that the ball can be won in the opponent’s defensive or middle third.

If the goal of the high press is to win the ball in the dangerous, forward areas, then it makes sense that the press is most effective against teams that are comfortable spending time on the ball in those areas.

It follows pretty naturally then, that the press was at its most effective against teams like Chelsea, Arsenal, and Manchester United — because those teams look to pass out of the back with regularity.

Consider the match against Chelsea, which was a classic tale of two halves. The Toffees sat incredibly deep in the first half, inviting pressure from Eden Hazard and co. They were lucky to escape the first half unscathed.

In the second half though, Everton came out immediately with higher pressure, particularly focusing on a midfield press that limited the time and space in which Jorginho, N’Golo Kante, and Ross Barkley (lol) could work.

In doing so, they forced turnovers, which allowed quick-strike, direct attacking play into dangerous areas. But perhaps just as importantly, they limited Hazard’s impact on the game by making it difficult for him to get on the ball at all. There is always a danger, of course, of a player of his quality sneaking in behind a high backline, but on the whole, the Toffees managed him quite well.

What I found particularly interesting about Silva’s late-season success against the top six is that it came with various varieties of high pressing. In that Chelsea match, Everton focused on putting opposing midfielders under pressure, because the Chelsea defensive corps of David Luiz, Antonio Rudiger, Marcos Alonso, and Cesar Azpilicueta is pretty comfortable passing out of the back (well, 3/4s of it anyway).

Against Arsenal the following week though, Silva turned the height of the pressure way up. The Gunners rolled out a back three of Sokratis, Nacho Monreal, and Shkodran Mustafi — a group significantly less comfortable passing out of the back.

So Silva kept Dominic Calvert-Lewin and Gylfi Sigurdsson right in their faces for basically the entire match — and the result was that the Arsenal attack couldn’t ever get out of first gear, because they could hardly move the ball forward into the middle third.

The final of the three top-six victories came against Manchester United, where Everton again was happy to target specific players with their pressure. The United midfield of Fred and Nemanja Matic, as well as “full-back” Victor Lindelof were completely overrun.

Against Liverpool — in the Merseyside derby that cost Liverpool the title — Silva picked his spots to press the Reds, but also had his team absorb pressure for certain spells as well. The ultimate result was that the Toffees were able to prevent Liverpool from having possession in the final third for most of the match, while still getting numbers behind the ball in deep areas when required.

It was an encouraging sign that the manager is aggressive, but not utterly mental.

Everton FC v Chelsea FC - Premier League Photo by Catherine Ivill/Getty Images

As I’ve pointed out in the last few days, I think the most heartening thing to come out of this season is that Marco Silva has settled on a system that will allow Everton to go toe-to-toe with many of the Premier League’s big boys, even if his squad has less overall talent than a club like Arsenal or Manchester United.

The ability to frustrate those clubs is something that we haven’t seen since the departure of David Moyes. And while Silva obviously directs a very different style than Moyes did, there’s every reason to think his system is sustainable — so long as Idrissa Gueye sticks around anyway.

I remain a little skeptical of how Silva and Everton plan to regularly break down deep-lying opponents, which they’ll continue to see more and more of if the high press remains effective. But the ability to now go into any match and see a feasible path to an Everton victory is a new and exciting one.