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Are Everton better without the ball than with it?

Monday’s win over Southampton was another earned with a smaller share of possession. The Blues’ best bet appears to be trusting their instincts and not over-thinking their next move

Everton v Southampton - Premier League
Everton won 1-0 at home to Southampton on Monday
Photo by Clive Brunskill/Getty Images

If Everton’s New Year’s Day home defeat to West Ham United felt emblematic of their recent Goodison Park form, Carlo Ancelotti’s comments after the 1-0 loss similarly epitomised one of his side’s greatest flaws.

Everton had the lion’s share of possession against David Moyes’ men that day (60 per cent, in fact), yet achieved just two shots on target and drew the first of three home blanks so far in 2021.

Ancelotti admitted afterwards that Everton tend to falter when greater onus is placed on their shoulders to take a stranglehold on proceedings and impose themselves on the opposition, saying:

“We are more comfortable defending and using the counter-attack. When we have the ball we have more difficulties, and we have to adjust this.”

Monday’s 1-0 home win over Southampton ended the two-and-a-half-month-long wait for Everton’s next league victory at Goodison, and while their performance was largely much-improved on recent debacles to Newcastle and Fulham (admittedly a low bar), there was still a tetchiness at times about Ancelotti’s side.

It again begged the question, are Everton simply better out of possession than in it?


In a way, Everton almost reverted to type against Southampton - this was the tenth of their 13 league wins this term where they have had less of the ball (47 per cent, on this occasion) than their opponents.

In fact, there’s a notable drop-off in possession between Everton victories and defeats - of the 13 they’ve won, they’ve averaged just 45.5 per cent, whereas of the eight they’ve lost, they’ve averaged 50.8 per cent:

Everton - 20-21 Premier League Possession Stats

Wins % Draws % Losses %
Wins % Draws % Losses %
Spurs A 1-0 48 Liverpool H 2-2 42 Southampton A 0-2 46
WBA H 5-2 71 Burnley A 1-1 59 Newcastle A 1-2 62
Palace A 2-1 58 Leicester H 1-1 35 Man Utd H 1-3 55
Brighton H 4-2 43 Man Utd A 3-3 38 Leeds H 0-1 42
Fulham A 3-2 46 Average 43.5 West Ham H 0-1 60
Chelsea H 1-0 28 Newcastle H 0-2 61
Leicester A 2-0 39 Fulham H 0-2 50
Arsenal H 2-1 42 Man City H 1-3 30
Sheff Utd A 1-0 56 Average 50.8
Wolves A 2-1 47
Leeds A 2-1 37
Liverpool A 2-0 29
Southampton H 1-0 47
Average 45.5

This also means Everton’s average ball possession in their 25 league games is 46.8 per cent. Of the 19 other Premier League clubs, only six average lower - West Ham in fourth, who basically beat Everton at their own game on New Year’s Day, while the other five sit in between 13th and 20th (Sheffield United, Crystal Palace, Burnley, Newcastle, West Brom).

There are two obvious outliers - September’s 71 per cent share in 5-2 triumph over West Bromwich Albion, the league’s most charitable defence and second-worst side, and their 30 per cent portion in February’s 3-1 defeat to Manchester City, a juggernaut in the midst of a 20-game winning streak.

Other than that, there’s a fairly consistent pattern - Everton have more of the ball when they lose, and less of it when they win; notice how the only two games where they’ve had less than 30 per cent possession have both been wins, at home to Chelsea and at Liverpool.

Conversely, the West Brom game aside, Everton have only managed at least 60 per cent possession in three other games - all defeats - to Newcastle twice, and to West Ham.

Why? Probably because, away from home or against the so-called ‘better’ sides, there is more justification in Everton choosing to batten down the hatches, camp within their own defensive third and choose their moments to break wisely.

By contrast, their most galling defeats have been games where there has been a greater need for Everton to press, which they are not particularly good at yet - per FBref, they have the joint-tenth-best successful pressure percentage in the league this season with 29.3 per cent.

They are certainly not good at it, anyway, without Allan, who missed the recent home losses to West Ham, Newcastle and Fulham through injury. Only two players in the league, in fact, have registered more tackles per game than Allan’s 3.4 this term, and even then, it’s marginal (Leicester’s Wilfred Ndidi has 3.7, Crystal Palace’s Tyrick Mitchell 3.6).

His first start since December in Monday’s win over Southampton was a timely reminder of his worth - the industrious Brazilian made 13 ball recoveries against the Saints, more than any other player in the pitch, as he played a vital role in steering Everton to a crucial if edgy victory.

Ball Touches

It’s clear from Everton’s ball touch stats that, as the rigours of a compressed schedule have taken an increasing toll and Ancelotti’s injury list has grown, their more effervescent style of the opening weeks has had to make way for a more resolute, stoic approach.

Everton managed 700 touches or more in each of their first three league games, which they won all of, against Tottenham, West Brom and Crystal Palace. But since then, they have reached this feat just twice in victory - both away wins to sides in the bottom three, Fulham and Sheffield United.

Notice how nine of Everton’s 13 league wins have come in games where they’ve had fewer touches of the ball than the opposition, as well as how they’ve averaged 33.9 fewer touches in matches they’ve won than in those they’ve lost:

Everton - 20-21 Premier League Ball Touch Stats (per WhoScored)

Wins Everton Touches Opposition Touches Draws Everton Touches Opposition Touches Losses Everton Touches Opposition Touches
Wins Everton Touches Opposition Touches Draws Everton Touches Opposition Touches Losses Everton Touches Opposition Touches
Spurs A 1-0 736 731 Liverpool H 2-2 555 716 Southampton A 0-2 687 805
WBA H 5-2 983 492 Burnley A 1-1 767 601 Newcastle A 1-2 804 557
Palace A 2-1 744 580 Leicester H 1-1 502 769 Man Utd H 1-3 736 641
Brighton H 4-2 670 801 Man Utd A 3-3 573 821 Leeds H 0-1 606 751
Fulham A 3-2 703 840 Average 599.3 726.8 West Ham H 0-1 764 579
Chelsea H 1-0 479 862 Newcastle H 0-2 680 499
Leicester A 2-0 526 730 Fulham H 0-2 700 722
Arsenal H 2-1 553 718 Man City H 1-3 469 923
Sheff Utd A 1-0 741 612 Average 680.8 684.6
Wolves A 2-1 663 729
Leeds A 2-1 543 767
Liverpool A 2-0 452 898
Southampton H 1-0 617 676
Average 646.9 725.8

Newcastle was another glaring example of this. After that rather freakish West Brom win, never have Everton had more touches in a single game than when Steve Bruce’s side beat them in November, while that West Ham loss and December’s draw at low-blocking Burnley run it close. Yet Ancelotti’s men mustered a combined total of just 11 shots on target and one goal in these three games.

Where abouts Everton are having these touches is also particularly telling - only Leeds and Chelsea have had more in their own defensive third this term than Everton’s 5,868, while just Burnley, Newcastle and West Brom have enjoyed fewer in the attacking third than their 3,313 (per FBref).

Look also at the games with Everton’s four fewest touches; City, Chelsea and Leicester at home, and Liverpool away. Only against City, an extraordinary team operating in a different stratosphere to rest of the league, were they comprehensively outplayed, and the stats reflect that.

On the other hand, Everton’s wins against Chelsea and Liverpool primarily came by virtue of honing some of their greatest strengths - sitting deep and compact, biding their time, hitting them on the break (with the help of a penalty in each).

It was a testament to how manfully Everton defended in each that, in truth, you never felt they were close to being prised open, let alone conceding - for all their endeavours, for instance, Chelsea reached only three shots on target in their December Goodison defeat.

Meanwhile, for as much as Leicester swarmed Everton in January’s 1-1 draw at Goodison, it’s worth remembering that it was only a Jordan Pickford error which cost them a 1-0 victory against another of the league’s fiercer outfits.

One-Touch Goals

If Monday’s Southampton win was anomalous for anything, perhaps it was only for the fact that Everton earned three points courtesy of a goal that wasn’t a one-touch finish.

Though, it was still the quick, incisive play which characterises Everton at their best as an attacking force: Dominic Calvert-Lewin won an aerial battle to find Gylfi Sigurdsson, who took a couple of touches before feeding Richarlison, who coasted round Fraser Forster before tapping into an empty net with his second touch.

As a general rule, though, Everton look their most threatening when acting on instinct, and the fact that 28 of their 37 league goals (discounting Rob Holding’s own goal in December’s win over Arsenal) have come from one-touch finishes rather bears that out:

Everton - 20-21 Premier League One-Touch Goal Stats

Wins One-Touch Goals Two or More Draws One-Touch Goals Two or More Losses One-Touch Goals Two or More
Wins One-Touch Goals Two or More Draws One-Touch Goals Two or More Losses One-Touch Goals Two or More
Spurs A 1-0 1 0 Liverpool H 2-2 2 0 Southampton A 0-2 0 0
WBA H 5-2 4 1 Burnley A 1-1 1 0 Newcastle A 1-2 1 0
Palace A 2-1 2 0 Leicester H 1-1 0 1 Man Utd H 1-3 0 1
Brighton H 4-2 4 0 Man Utd A 3-3 1 2 Leeds H 0-1 0 0
Fulham A 3-2 3 0 Total 4 3 West Ham H 0-1 0 0
Chelsea H 1-0 1 0 Newcastle H 0-2 0 0
Leicester A 2-0 1 1 Fulham H 0-2 0 0
Arsenal H 2-1* 1 0 Man City H 1-3 1 0
Sheff Utd A 1-0 0 1 Total 2 1
Wolves A 2-1 2 0
Leeds A 2-1 2 0
Liverpool A 2-0 1 1
Southampton H 1-0 0 1
Total 22 5
*NOTE: Arsenal win does not include Rob Holding’s own goal

From this perspective at least, perhaps Calvert-Lewin is the polar opposite of his attacking colleagues. Under Ancelotti, Everton’s number nine has 21 Premier League goals, 19 of which were netted with his first touch.

Indeed, only Richarlison and James Rodriguez, more technically gifted footballers than Calvert-Lewin if not as prolific, have scored more than once in the league for Everton this term with multiple touches.

What does this all mean? Probably that Everton are still some way off being a consistently free-flowing joy to watch. Not that that is the be-all-and-end-all, and they certainly don’t play bad football by any means - those euphoric early weeks of the season proved as much.

But their first port of call is usually to rely on instinct and play first-time football. Essentially, they’re nowhere near good enough, or far enough into their development under Ancelotti yet, to play like Guardiola’s City, for example, but they’re patently on the right track.

Whether it’s a Lucas Digne cross carving open a defence to serve up a goal on a platter for Calvert-Lewin, Sigurdsson picking the lock with a through-ball as he did against Southampton, or a bullet header from Michael Keane or Yerry Mina, it’s often felt this season that Everton are more efficient the less time they have to ponder their next move. That is also complemented by the individual brilliance of Richarlison and Rodriguez, of course.

Aside from their winning goal not being taken first-time, the Southampton win felt particularly on-brand from Everton this season - no shortage of quality on display, but three points earned through dogged resilience and excelling at the dirty work.

And, once again, with a smaller share of possession than their visitors. After all, it’s not how much you have of the ball, it’s what you do with it, as Everton have learnt to their benefit and their detriment this term.