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

Everton scored the second-most goals among clubs outside the top six. How did Silva help them get there?

Fulham FC v Everton FC - Premier League Photo by Clive Rose/Getty Images

I don’t know about you, but I like to pretend that the Sam Allardyce reign at Everton never really happened.

It was dull, embarrassing, and incredibly frustrating. Under Allardyce (and Ronald Koeman and David Unsworth earlier in the season), Everton scored just 44 goals in 38 Premier League matches. Crystal Palace didn’t score a Premier League goal until its eighth match of the season and finished with 45!

It’s easy to forget though, that on the whole, Everton’s form under Allardyce was...mostly fine? The Toffees averaged 1.416 points per match under Big Sam, which when extrapolated out over a full 38-match season would come to 54 points.

54 points should sound familiar to you — it’s the same number of points Marco Silva earned with Everton in the 2018-19 season.

The difference between the perception of Silva and Allardyce, pundits will assure you, is that Silva played a more aesthetically pleasing brand of football, but that Everton supporters should still overall be happy with the job Big Sam did from a raw results perspective.

I don’t disagree with the notion that watching Silva’s team play is exponentially more fun than Allardyce’s was, but focusing just on optics misses a valuable point. Marco Silva’s tactics enable upward mobility in the Premier League — Sam Allardyce’s did not.

So today and tomorrow, I’ll be taking a look at what we’ve learned about Silva’s tactical preferences, how they were utilized last season, and what they might mean for 2019-20. Today, we start by looking at the Everton attack.

In the simplest terms, Everton’s overall tactical plan under Marco Silva can be described as a high press. The term is used so frequently these days that it’s nearly devoid of meaning, so allow me to define it 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.

The goal of the high press in the attack is to win the ball in dangerous attacking areas, particularly while the opponent’s defenders and midfielders are spread out trying to facilitate possession. Once the ball is won, the general goal is to strike quickly, getting into shooting area with as few passes or dribbles as possible, as to prevent the opponent from re-gaining its defensive shape.

It may seem counter-intuitive to begin a discussion of attacking tactics by looking at defensive shape, but because the nature of how and where the ball is won in defense ultimately sets up the attack, let’s start there.

We generally think of Everton as playing a 4-3-3, and in possession that’s definitely true. In defense though, Silva’s side often operates as more of a 4-4-2. This allows the players to more evenly and consistently apply pressure.

So, let’s imagine that the ball is being held by the opponent down the Everton right.

The striker — usually Dominic Calvert-Lewin — would apply pressure to the ball carrier, while Richarlison and Andre Gomes also step forward to complicate any potential passes out to opposing midfielders.

If the pass goes directly forward, Richarlison and Gomes can strike. If it goes across the backline to the left side, Sigurdsson is ready to provide the same level of pressure on his side.

If the press works, one of two things can happen.

In one scenario, Everton could win the ball in the center of the midfield, after the high pressure forced the opposition to attempt a difficult pass into a congested area — one where elite ball-winner Idrissa Gueye happens to reside.

If this happens, Gana, Gomes, or whomever else looks to quickly spring the ball wide to Richarlison, Bernard, or one of the full-backs. Usually, this is where the most forward space is available — in behind the opposing full-backs, who moved higher up the pitch to create better passing angles out of the back.

In the other scenario, Everton wins the ball out wide via the pressure from wingers and strikers. In this case, the ball winner — either the full-back or winger — usually looks to advance the ball himself via the dribble.

It’s at this point that the 4-4-2 transitions into a 4-3-3. In this case, let’s assume that the ball has been won and made it’s way forward to Bernard.

As the winger moves forward, Gylfi Sigurdsson drops into a deeper, more traditional No. 10 role, while Calvert-Lewin roams forward. Gueye and Gomes sit deeper behind him, usually with the slightly more attack-minded Gomes in front.

Once possession is secure, the full-backs bomb forward as well, looking to create 2-v-1 opportunities out wide, especially while the opponent is still regaining its defensive position.

From here, a few different things can happen. Bernard can cut to the endline, looking to either whip a ball into Calvert-Lewin or create a lane for a cut-back to Sigurdsson.

He can also try to set up interplay with Lucas Digne — a partnership we really saw blossom in the second half of the season.

Of course, the full field switch is also an option, usually via knocking the ball back to one of the central midfielders, who then moves the ball to Richarlison or Seamus Coleman.

Again, the key component here is the speed of the attack. The fewer passes required to get in on goal the better, as the whole system relies on catching the opponent out of its preferred defensive shape following a turnover. The faster the final ball, cross, or shot can come in, the better.

When it’s working, as it was against Chelsea, Arsenal, and Manchester United toward the end of the season, it’s exciting, entertaining, and most importantly, effective. Like any tactical system though, it has its flaws and shortcomings.

Some of them are more centered around its defensive frailties, which we’ll talk about tomorrow. In terms of attack though, there are two main concerns.

  1. Everton’s left side — Bernard and Digne — is much better in terms of chance creation than its right side — Richarlison and Coleman. An opponent with a defensively-sound right-back who doesn’t venture too far up the pitch limits the Toffees’ ability to spring counters down the left. This is exactly what we saw in the late-season draw at Crystal Palace. Aaron Wan-Bissaka and his conservative positioning prevented Digne and Bernard from creating any real danger. That left the primary creative duties in the feet of Richarlison, who just isn’t a player capable of creating chances for others.
  2. More generally, if an opponent resorts to sitting deep, launching the ball long, and never getting beat on the counter, then Everton must find a different, more methodical way through its opponent. We’ve seen Everton be able to do that — matches against Burnley and Cardiff City toward the end of the season come to mind. But we’ve also seen them struggle mightily against deep-lying opponents — the abysmal disaster at Craven Cottage against already-relegated Fulham fits the bill here.

I said multiple times toward the end of the season that the thing that encouraged me most about the final weeks of the campaign is that it is now clear that Everton Football Club under Marco Silva has a true identity. After a season run by Ronald Koeman, David Unsworth (great person, great motivator, miserable tactician), and Sam Allardyce, that’s a monumental step forward.

Is it a perfect system? Of course not — nothing is.

But it is definitely an intelligible system — and most importantly, it’s a scalable system. Everton can, with the right personnel, make a legitimate top-six, or even top-four run playing the way that Marco Silva wants his players to. It’ll take time for the system to operate at peak efficiency, and to identify and recruit players who fit into that system.

But for now, Evertonians should be pleased that not only does their club play exciting, attacking football — but that there’s also has a real plan to make a run at the Premier League’s big boys.