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Tactical tweak to Everton’s attacking midfield powered victory over Wolves

Marco Silva got the most out of Richarlison, Gylfi Sigurdsson, and Alex Iwobi

Everton FC v Wolverhampton Wanderers - Premier League Photo by Jan Kruger/Getty Images

I’ve had various complaints about Marco Silva’s tactics since he arrived at Everton, and although those complaints have certainly decreased in number in recent months, there’s still been one pretty common issue up until this week.

Silva hadn’t managed to get Gylfi Sigurdsson involved in the play enough.

The precise root of the issue hasn’t always been the same — often it’s that Silva’s tactics just don’t give him a chance to shine, but sometimes the personnel around him isn’t right, and just last week I ranted about Silva’s decision to actually remove the Icelander from the pitch with 30 minutes to play and his team in need of a goal.

But this week, Sigurdsson had his best match in recent memory, with Silva putting him front and center alongside Richarlison and new signing Alex Iwobi. It was this tactical tweak that helped Everton to create so many chances, and led directly to the team’s second goal of the match. But before I dive too deep into exactly what Silva and the Toffees did, it’s important to consider the lineup that Nuno Espirito Santo rolled out for Wolverhampton Wanderers.

As they have all season, Wolves came out in a 3-5-2 setup. After playing a full squad in their midweek Europa League match, NES elected to rotate his personnel a little bit, but their system remained very much the same as it’s been all season.

Just like any other formation, the 3-5-2 comes with advantages and disadvantages. The use of three center-backs and three central midfielders makes it extremely difficult for the opponent to build through the center of the attacking third, especially when the midfielders drop deep — as Santo has them do for most of the match.

The one area of concern when using this formation is the area either in front of or behind the wide midfielders / wing-backs. Essentially, in a 3-5-2, you can make one of two choices. You can either:

  1. Push the wide player high in hopes of pressuring the opposing winger off the ball or forcing him back in fear he’ll be beaten on the counter.
  2. Sit deep to keep everything in front of you, in hopes of managing the attacker that way.

Adama Traore on the right opted for the former, and had a fair bit of success. He got in behind Lucas Digne multiple times, and created Wolves’ first goal on such a play.

Ruben Vinagre, who played opposite Traore, doesn’t really have the attacking threat that Adama brings, and found himself pushed quite deep in his own defensive third in an effort to deal with Richarlison and Seamus Coleman down the Everton right.

That brings us back to the man I opened discussions with — Gylfi Sigurdsson. With Richarlison and Coleman pinning Vinagre deep, he drifted into the right channel with regularity, finding the space between the Wolves’ central midfielders and left wing-back. Take a look at his passmap from the match.

Almost all of his actions came from the right wing — including his assist on Alex Iwobi’s goal! So despite the fact that Everton once again hardly played through the central channel in the final third (23.1%), the Toffees managed to get their playmaker-in-chief involved throughout the match.

It shouldn’t be considered a coincidence that Richarlison’s best match of the season came with Sigurdsson shouldering the creative weight on the right wing either. The Icelander’s drifting into the right channel freed the Brazilian to drift into the center from the right — and that’s when he’s at his best (see Everton’s third goal for a prime example).

Brief sidebar — Richarlison is at his best when he’s coming off the wing, not as a central striker, for the precise reason that caused that third goal. His sense of when to sneak into the central channel from his wide position is sublime, and he’s got some weird Jedi mind trick powers that cause central defenders to completely forget he’s there.

Everton FC v Wolverhampton Wanderers - Premier League Photo by Robbie Jay Barratt - AMA/Getty Images

That’s the only way he’s ever outjumping six-foot-five Willy Boly for a header — and it doesn’t happen if he’s playing as a center forward.

Richarlison was weirdly active in defense as well — take a look at his defensive actions map.

That’s four successful tackles and 13 ball recoveries from a guy who isn’t generally all that interested in playing defence — including four recoveries in his own penalty area!

I wouldn’t really suggest that the attacking tactical shift directly allowed him to play more defense, but I wouldn’t be surprised if the mental relief of knowing “okay I don’t need to be a playmaker this game” did put a little more spring in his step across all aspects of the match.

After a rough start to the season, Richarlison absolutely showcased just how much of a world-class player he can be.

Let’s not forget the third part of the attacking midfield trio though, Alex Iwobi.

Creatively, Iwobi was decent but far from his best — take a look at his passes from this one.

One key pass and a few other centers into dangerous areas are nothing to scoff at, but he’s certainly capable of creating more when given the chance. Because so much of the attack was directed through Sigurdsson down the right, any lack of creative output on Iwobi’s part had more to do with the system than his own shortcomings.

More generally though, the Nigerian’s general presence and skillset made the entire attacking gameplan possible in a way that Bernard simply cannot.

I’ve long lobbied that if Silva wants to play down the wings, it needs to come down the left more than the right. One of the primary reasons for that is that Richarlison is a miserable creator — but shuffling Sigurdsson out to the right mitigates that.

One of the subtler reasons historically has been that by not playing through Bernard on the left wing, you’re essentially taking him out of the game entirely. Bernard is really only a useful component in the attack when the ball is at his feet or he’s linking up with Lucas Digne.

He’s not a guy who is going to pop up in central areas from his spot on the left to give center-backs something to think about, and generally is a non-factor when he’s not on the ball. Iwobi, on the other hand, has both the size and nous to get into dangerous areas when he’s on the off wing, and...I don’t know...sneak into the box to convert a header and put his team up 2-1 in the first half?

Everton FC v Wolverhampton Wanderers - Premier League Photo by Chloe Knott - Danehouse/Getty Images

On the whole, I don’t anticipate this tactical setup working against teams who play a back four — but it most certainly got the attack moving in the match against Wolves this week, and I give Marco Silva a lot of credit for figuring out a way to get the best out of his very talented attacking midfield three.