If you had offered me four points and two clean sheets from Everton’s opening two matches — especially given injuries to Andre Gomes and Lucas Digne, and a suspension to Morgan Schneiderlin therein — I’d have gladly taken it before the season started.
Given the number of new, important pieces still integrating into the side, I’m not really all that bothered by what the performances look like in the five matches before the first international break of the season — just the results. I just hope that in those times, we do start to see what an Everton more fully crafted to Marco Silva’s likeness looks like, so that when the fixture list starts getting a little more difficult in October and November, the Toffees are ready.
I think for stretches in the first half of Saturday’s match against Watford FC, we got a glimpse of what Silva and Everton might be working toward, and I’d like to focus on that this week.
My theory since it became clear that Everton were going to allow Idrissa Gueye to leave this summer has been that Silva is looking to craft a more possession-oriented side, rather than the press-and-counter team that came together at the end of last season. This might be a preference of Silva’s, but you also can’t expect to play the press anywhere near as well with Gana now departed.
Instead, I think he’s looking to build a team capable of pinging the ball around the middle third in order to create openings for his creative players in the attacking third — a typical possession-based attack.
Now more than ever, such a style really has to start with the center-backs, who have to be capable of controlling the tempo of the game with their passing out of the back. Yerry Mina spent time at Barcelona — and if the Catalan giants think a guy can pass, I tend to agree with them, while Michael Keane made huge strides in his distribution last season.
Against Watford, both got off to a good start moving the ball in the first half.
That’s primarily comfortable passing — between themselves, back to Pickford, or sometimes pinging it out wide to the full-back.
And the result was a pretty strong first half for Everton. The Toffees largely controlled possession in the middle third, pulling Watford players out of position in the midfield in order to find creative players like Gylfi Sigurdsson and Bernard in the space between the Watford midfield and defense.
Take a look at the combined first-half passmaps of the players I consider to be the creative thrust of Everton — Lucas Digne, Mina, Keane, Jean-Philippe Gbamin, Andre Gomes, Bernard, and Sigurdsson.
It wasn’t overwhelming, but there was plenty of positive midfield possession that found the occasional hole between Watford’s two blocks of four, where Sigurdsson, Bernard, Digne, and even Gomes could operate.
It’s important to note here that controlled build-up such as this isn’t what got Everton on the board in the first half. Instead, the Toffees won a 50/50 ball in the midfield following a Watford clearance, Digne hit a quick long pass to Bernard down the left, and the Brazilian did the rest.
I don’t ever expect the quick-strike tactics we saw last season to ever completely go away, especially with explosive players like Bernard and Richarlison — and now Moise Kean and Alex Iwobi — available in the attack as well. But even though that’s what created the goal, it was far from the majority of the Everton attack in the first half.
If you watched the match on Saturday, you surely noticed that Watford kept things much more even in the second half, at times even looking the better of the two teams. The explanation for this is pretty simple — Watford pressed higher up the pitch and made it harder for Everton to move the ball from back to front.
Again, this starts with the center-backs. Look at their passmaps for the second half.
Fewer passes, longer passes, and more failed passes — all due to the pressure being put on by the Watford attackers. The result had the trickle-down effect to the rest of the team that you would expect.
You’ll notice a distinct lack of passes coming from the area around the top of the attacking 18-yard box — an outcome I like to refer to as the semicircle of sadness.
Now as I said at the start, I’m not all that worried about the performances right now, provided that results are coming and there looks to be some sort of plan in place. The plan looked pretty evident on Saturday in the first half, and at times, it was downright fun to watch.
In the second half, the Toffees struggled to respond to the Watford high press, and I’d expect that to be something Marco Silva works with his team on in the coming weeks. If teams do press Everton high, what will the response be? Try to pass through the press? Play long over the top to try to get into the wingers behind? Use Calvert-Lewin’s head as a target for out-balls?
All are options, with none a priori better than the others — but there just needs to be an understanding of which option the team will look to and when.
But at this stage of the season, the team’s progress into a new system is more than acceptable, and I look forward to seeing Silva and the players refine things further as the season progresses.