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

Marco Silva came to Everton with an underwhelming defensive record in the Premier League, but finished with one of the league’s best defensive totals this season. What went right?

Everton FC v Burnley FC - Premier League Photo by Alex Livesey/Getty Images

I started my review of Marco Silva and Everton’s attacking tactics yesterday by considering just how dire things had looked under Sam Allardyce in 2017-18. At the risk of beating a dead horse, I think that’s a good place to start a review of Everton’s defensive tactics as well.

Sam Allardyce took over at Everton largely based on his reputation as a manager who could browbeat his teams into competent defensive performances — primarily by sitting 10 players behind the ball for large chunks of the match. After the way the 2017-18 season started, it was hard to argue against the need for such a change.

Under Ronald Koeman and David Unsworth, the Toffees conceded 28 goals in the opening 13 matches of the season — a wretched average of 2.15 goals conceded per match.

Despite the utter insult to modern footballing aesthetics that Big Sam brought with him, there’s no denying that he greatly improved the team’s defensive form. In the 25 Premier League matches he was in charge, Everton conceded 30 goals — an average of 1.2 goals conceded per match.

In all then, that’s almost a full goal’s worth of improvement per match.

That point of comparison is important, primarily because it’s the same goals-per-match defensive record the Toffees had under Marco Silva this season. In 38 Premier League matches, Everton conceded 46 goals — a 1.2 goals conceded per match average. Not a bad outcome for a manager who averaged 1.9 goals conceded in parts of two seasons at Hull City and Watford FC.

How did Silva maintain that above average defensive record while providing a substantial boost to the team’s attacking output? Well, if we’re to be fair, there needs to be a mention of personnel before digging specifically into the tactics.

It’s easy to forget — mostly because we’d prefer to forget — exactly how dire the personnel situation was on defense last season. A hobbled Michael Keane, aging Phil Jagielka, slightly less aging Leighton Baines, literal statue Ashley Williams, and winner of the “oh right, him” memorial trophy, Cuco Martina, all played 20 or more Premier League matches last season.

Throw in another 19 appearances for Jonjoe Kenny and 15 for Mason Holgate, and you’re talking about a defensive group that was very, very bad.

The addition of Lucas Digne and Kurt Zouma, as well as the health of Michael Keane, gave Silva a much better starting point than Big Sam had — and that’s the last I’ll say of Allardyce, hopefully ever again.

So Silva had better defensive personnel than any of last year’s managers — but obviously, there’s a fair bit more to the team’s overall defensive improvement than that. I want to talk primarily about Everton’s open-play defense, both because it is the most interesting and because it was by just about any metric, quite good.

But first, I do have to address what was the elephant in the room for much of the season — set piece defending. No team in the Premier League — not Cardiff, not Huddersfield, not Fulham — conceded more set piece goals than Everton did in 2018-19.

In all, the Toffees conceded 16 set piece goals — two from direct freekicks, five from indirect freekicks, and a staggering nine from corners. The direct freekicks I’m less inclined to fret about, but if you tally up the indirect freekick and corner goals, they account for 30% of Everton’s conceded goals this season.

Silva weirdly insisted on using a zonal marking system on set pieces throughout the first half of the season, even when it was quite clear it was not working. There are plenty of people with better-informed opinions on what might be good or bad about zonal marking compared to man-to-man, so I don’t want to dig too deep into that.

The fact of the matter is that in the second half of the season, Silva quietly moved to a man-to-man marking system on set pieces, and suddenly the problem abated. In Everton’s strong finish to the season — the final 11 matches starting with the 3-0 win away to Cardiff — the Toffees conceded two goals on set pieces.

Extrapolate that out over 38 matches and you’re looking at around seven set piece goals against — half the rate that the Toffees actually conceded this season. In short, I’m not worried about set piece defense going forward.

With all that said, let’s get into the nuts and bolts of what made Everton the fifth-best defensive team in open play this season.

As I said in the attacking review yesterday, 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 press is often thought of for its attacking qualities — generally, winning the ball in advanced areas to create quick scoring chances. While that’s true, in a lot of ways, it’s a system that’s defined by its defensive implications.

In essence, the high press is all about choosing your area of first contact with the opponent when they are in possession. Recall that when not in possession, Everton generally operates in a 4-4-2.

Using a two-man front extends the width with which Everton can press the opponent, putting the opponent at ease across the entire pitch at the first line of contact.

I covered yesterday what happens when the Toffees manage to win the ball where they want to — quick strike attacks, usually generated from the wide areas. That’s obviously the ideal scenario — and one that ultimately can be thought of as a defensive tactic as much as an offensive one.

What I’d like to consider more closely though, is what happens when Everton doesn’t win the ball in the areas it’s trying to do so in. There are three basic ways that an opponent can break down the press.

  1. Pass through it: This option isn’t for the faint of heart — just ask Chelsea, Arsenal, and Manchester United how successful they were in doing so against Everton in the final 10 matches of the season. When Idrissa Gueye is healthy, he’s maybe the best pure ball-winner in the world, so unless you’ve got an absolutely elite passing midfield, this strategy is anywhere from a little dangerous to outside suicidal — especially if Andre Gomes returns to Everton next season.
  2. Launch over it: Got speed? Then this is the option for you. As the forward and midfield lines press forward to win the ball, the back four naturally must do so as well — sometimes even in beyond the midfield stripe. That can leave the defense susceptible to a well-timed run and long ball over the top to a speedy striker. The presence of speedy defenders — Kurt Zouma and Yerry Mina in the middle, Seamus Coleman and Lucas Digne on the outside — is vital for shutting down this line of approach. Speed isn’t enough though (just ask Mason Holgate) as a reading of runs in behind, as well as when to step up or drop deep, is just as important as raw speed.
  3. Launch into it: We could probably call this the “Salomon Rondon” approach. If a team isn’t good enough to pass through the press and doesn’t have a striker than can sprint in behind it, a final option is just to ping the ball long toward the head of a large center forward, trusting that he’ll win enough knockdowns to relieve the pressure and let his teammates get up the pitch. To counter this, you need big, strong center-backs who can compete with Rondon-esque strikers. Michael Keane earned every cent of his paycheck winning balls like these this season, and Zouma and Mina are no aerial slouches themselves.

It’s easy to see the appeal of this system given the strengths of Everton’s personnel.

Hardworking forwards who will run for days in effort to force errors from the opponent? Gylfi Sigurdsson and Dominic Calvert-Lewin check the box.

Ball-winning midfielders to prevent buildup play through the central channel? Gana is among the best in the world at it, and Andre Gomes is a decent enough ball-winner to keep the system moving forward.

Smart, physically gifted defenders who can read the play quickly while possessing the physical attributes to put off opposing forwards? Keane and Zouma definitely have the smarts, Zouma and Mina the speed, and all three the size.

You’ll notice that Andre Gomes and Kurt Zouma’s names appeared quite a lot over the last few paragraphs, and if you’ve made it this far, you surely are a big enough Everton supporter to know that there’s no guarantee both players will be back next season.

I suspect Gomes will return in the end, while Chelsea will keep Zouma for depth. That will put a significant burden on Yerry Mina’s oft-injured shoulders. If Zouma truly does not return, Mina will both need to stay healthy enough to remain on the pitch, as well as to prove that he’s as smart a reader of the game as the Frenchman.

That’s not to say that I do or don’t think Mina has a good grasp on the mental side of these tactics — we just simply haven’t seen him play enough to get a real picture of that part of his game.

I close with this thought yesterday, and it’s worth repeating — there’s legitimate reason to be excited about Everton, Marco Silva, and his plans for the club, because all the tactical components of his plan are both sustainable and scalable when playing against the big clubs.

If Zouma or Gomes go, there will have to be work completed to find another player with the requisite skillset to play this style. But thankfully, last year’s recruitment was an overall success, because of which Silva could implement a tactical system that shows the true potential of the club.

Both on its own merits and as a recruiting tool, that’s an exciting prospect.