I’m running out of ways to say the same things every week, so for you, dear reader, a haiku to lead things off.
Top six? Oh Marco,
Things will go well. But, Burnley?
Don’t get your hopes up.
I know that Everton lost to Manchester City this weekend, but after watching the team toil against Sheffield United and AFC Bournemouth in the last two weeks, just seeing a Toffees side that created chances was a positive. That it came against the defending champions made it all the better — a rare case where a loss feels at least a little bit like a win.
And I think that the strength of Everton’s performance, result notwithstanding, surprised a lot of supporters. In fact, five of our 13 writers had Everton losing this match by three goals or more. Eight of 13 predicted that the Toffees wouldn’t even score a goal.
But Saturday’s performance shouldn’t come as a surprise in any way at all — and I’ve got the numbers to prove it. At the risk of picking arbitrary endpoints, consider the following — think back to Everton’s 3-0 victory over Cardiff City. That match sparked Everton’s strong finish over its final 11 Premier League games — the period that I think convinced a lot of Everton supporters (myself included) that Marco Silva knew what he was doing and had turned a corner at Everton.
The Toffees have now played seven Premier League matches this season, so that’s 18 total matches, including the Cardiff win, in that period. In that time, Everton has:
- 6 matches against traditional top-six opponents (one each against City, Manchester United, Arsenal, Tottenham Hotspur, Liverpool, and Chelsea), with 11 points in those matches, good for 1.83 points per match.
- 12 matches against the rest of the league, with 17 points in those matches, equaling 1.42 points per match.
Let’s just repeat that: over the last half-season’s worth of matches, Everton is 0.4 points per match better against top six sides than the rest of the Premier League.
So Saturday’s loss to Manchester City, if anything, should come as a surprise! Okay, obviously that’s not entirely true either, but no one should be shocked that the Toffees stood toe-to-toe with one of England’s elite for 90 minutes — they’ve been doing it consistently since February.
Silva’s plan against these sides is pretty simple. He applies either an all-out high press or a moderate midfield press, depending on where he thinks the opponent is weakest. Against City, he opted for the higher press, identifying Fernandinho and Nicolas Otamendi as the weak spots in terms of distribution for Pep Guardiola’s side.
If the Toffees win the ball on the press, great — then it’s direct as possible toward the opponent’s goal. If not, it’s a quick retreat to the defensive third, where the team takes its pressing 4-4-2 and turns it into a deep block 4-4-2 until the ball is won.
Once in possession, Everton again looks to strike quickly — generally taking advantage of advanced full-backs or central midfielders that top-level teams generally utilize in their attack. If they can generate a chance on the counter, great — if not, it’s back to pressing in the identified area until the press is bypassed, then back to the deep block.
Lather. Rinse. Repeat.
Against City, it was ultimately a pretty effective tactic. The Toffees gave up some decent chances, but there’s really no way to avoid that against a team with City’s attacking quality. But they generated chances too — 2.36 xG worth according to Understat.
If Riyad Mahrez doesn’t score an absolute gem of a free kick goal (partly thanks to Jordan Pickford) in the 70th minute, who knows how this game ends? At the very least, Everton was still very much in the match up to and even after that point.
So that’s the good news — Everton can and will compete with top-level opponents pretty much every time out. The bad news? That miserable 1.42 points per match against the rest of the league since February.
Consider what I wrote about Everton’s form against less-talented opposition after their 4-0 obliteration of Manchester United in April, which was followed by a match against Crystal Palace.
Next week, the Toffees take on Crystal Palace — a side that just scored three goals on Arsenal while having only 27% possession. When the Toffees played Roy Hodgson’s side earlier this season, it took goals in the 87th and 89th minutes to earn a 2-0 victory at Goodison Park.
I suspect that Palace will play as defensively as ever next weekend, and that’ll present an interesting challenge for Everton. Can Silva’s squad find ways to get Gylfi Sigurdsson on the ball in what will likely be a possession heavy match? Can Bernard and Lucas Digne find space to create chances from down the left against a deep block?
We’ve now seen very clearly what the Toffees are capable of when an opponent allows them to press and play direct. When an opponent takes that option away though, can Marco Silva’s tactics adjust?
The answer to that question so far this season has been a resounding no. It was a no in that Palace match as well — the Toffees toiled to a 0-0 draw at Selhurst Park.
Is there any reason to think next weekend at Burnley won’t be any different? It’s hard to see why it would be. Silva has established what he is at Everton so far — a man who can take it to the league’s best sides, but can’t break down deep-lying lesser ones.
So as encouraging as this performance may have seemed, it changes nothing for Everton and Silva. This remains a club with a very specific problem, and one that doesn’t seem any closer to being solved.