Everton: A Tactical Season Review

Do you like rollercoasters? They’re high speed, quite risky if you’re like me and full of ups, downs, sideways turns, flips… all before a steady, reassuring stretch to the finish. In many ways, this has epitomised Everton’s 2018/19 campaign, the first under Marco Silva.

The course of the season has certainly been a strange one, a moderate start turned sour after Anfield, and it wasn’t until the neighbours came to Goodison that our season really felt like it started. What followed was Everton’s best stretch of matches against the big clubs since I can remember. Chelsea, Arsenal and Manchester United all came to Goodison, all were left empty handed and without scoring a goal. But in classic Everton-style, a shambolic away defeat to Fulham was in-between. 

This season certainly leaves with mixed emotions – should we be unhappy after an embarrassing cup exit at Millwall, as well as various defeats to lower clubs? Or should we be made up having stayed in the top half and wins against the big clubs under our belts? Whatever your view is, the Koeman-Allardyce era seems a distant memory; something we can all be happy with.

Marco Silva’s System

Everton experimented on the odd occasion, but Silva has stuck with the 4-2-4 formation, which has its pros and cons. It has proven incredibly tough when at home against ball-orientated teams. When Everton switched it long, both Manchester City and Arsenal found it difficult to match with Dominic Calvert-Lewin’s aerial ability. This formation enables Everton to form an aggressive pressing game, switching to a 4-4-2 shape and setting up a highline. The Toffees recorded remarkable pressing numbers, according to PPDA (passes allowed per defensive action in opposition half), Everton averaged 9.81, which only the top London clubs and Manchester City could beat.

Everton’s structure on the ball this season.

Having formed such a high press, Everton built chances from high turnovers and catching the opposition out of shape. This improved our shot count to incredible levels, going from just 16 shots on target against the top 6 last season, to 56 shots on target this season. It’s also worth pointing out the 23 shots we had at home to Arsenal, a game which we somehow won just 1-0.

On the flip side, against teams that don’t tend to keep the ball, this system struggled. When the game was much slower and we had to buildup from the back, Everton were often out of balance and our ball orientation was slow, not really threatening the opposition. The team’s positions on the pitch didn’t help, Gyfli Sigurdsson is often working off the striker, so being so close to the forward line often limits both his number of touches and passes off the ball. Idrissa Gueye and Andre Gomes aren’t progressive passers, both men were often relied to pass the ball out towards the flanks, and when pressed or coming up against a compact midfield three, we would give the ball away in great positions for them to work on.

The Expected Numbers

There is a consistent pattern with Everton and xG, both numbers are usually quite similar on all sets of data and we aren’t really an extravagant attacking or defensive team. Between the actual amount of goals scored and Expected goals, Everton had the closest gap with a -0.13 difference. This gap was also replicated in virtually all of our players, no forward was really clinical or bottling a load of chances, the biggest difference was in Cenk Tosun, having scored 3 goals all season and having 4.99 xG. Our numbers indicate that Everton’s position in the table and total points tally is just about right and we deserved the 8th placed finish.

Our total numbers in a lot of categories radically improved, we went from conceding 13.79 shots per game to 9.55, that is incredible progress. We also conceded 6.19 less expected goals than we did in comparison to last campaign, a testament to the additions of Kurt Zouma and Lucas Digne, as well as much improvement from Michael Keane and Silva’s 4-4-2 mid-block in certain matches.

Forward-Passing and Creative Central-Midfielders in the Premier League this season (500+ minutes, Gameweek’s 1 to 32)

Idrissa Gueye, Andre Gomes and Tom Davies all fail to contribute to directly creating chances. Gylfi Sigurdsson records better stats, but has played a lot of the season as a second-striker and is much further up the pitch.

Feel free to look round on more players.

However, Everton still fell short when creating efficient and effective opportunities direct at goal. As I’ve mentioned, Gomes and Gueye don’t really pass forward a lot, but neither of them directly contribute to chances being created. When looking into Expected Assists, both our midfielders recorded a combined 0.05 per 90, far from the league average for central-midfielders (0.13). Everton’s two most effective creators where Ademola Lookman (0.25) and Lucas Digne (0.23), but both of them ranked 33rd and 37th in the total numbers in the league.

The indication for a new striker has been made very clear but Everton supporters, but unless a world class striker comes in, nobody is going to have an incredible return of goals without a consistent creator behind them.

Four Forgettable Months

After a fairly moderate opening to the season, going into December winning 5 games out of 7 and positive away matches at Arsenal and Chelsea; Everton embarked in a dreadful run of form… winning just four times from the start of December to the end of February. Even in these victories, we didn’t really play very well; Burnley were the worst team we’ve played all season, yet we levelled on xG (1.89 – 1.89) despite winning the game 5-1. Bournemouth had great opportunities at Goodison during the later stages of the match, even away to Huddersfield we conceded opportunities.

Everton’s xG and XGA timelines from the start of the season to February, indicating that the poor run of form was expected to happen and Silva should’ve thought of more ways of breaking teams down months in advance.

What was concerning about this stretch of matches was our very limited rotation of formation. A lot of the teams we were facing weren’t bothered about ball retention and building from the back, often fielding 3-man midfields and targeting Gueye and Gomes when we had possession.

Although the 4-2-4 system has proved some value in the later parts of the season, Marco Silva’s refusal to experiment different structures, find more ways to break teams down or put on another midfielder to help us in passing sequences was very worrying and such form can be very easily replicated.

We also had an awful spell of defending set pieces. Not only were the quality of shots conceded very high (0.17 xGA per Shot in February) but we also conceded 15 goals because of them, just in the league – not even mentioning the diabolical way we went out in the FA Cup – here is a cracking article from Stop Bunching about Everton’s terrible corner form. This was eventually stamped out as time continued, although Eric Dier would score from a corner on the final day.

A Strong Finish

Everton’s best run of the season was undoubtedly the run to the finish line. This is where we saw a defensive core and shape be built as well as some well-co-ordinated and aggressive pressing performances. Up to this point, the many times we saw the 4-4-2 defensive shape was more focused on keeping the structure and forcing opposition players to pass out on the flanks before we can overload that side. Against Liverpool, we set a highline and stopped them building transitions as quickly as possible.

From this point, Everton started to build momentum at Goodison Park. Despite conceding a flurry of early chances, Everton held against Sarri’s Chelsea, before they fell apart at the start of the second half (like we’ve seen with Chelsea many times this season). Results against Chelsea, West Ham, Arsenal and Manchester United were thoroughly deserved and is backed by our xG scores. Everton had conceded just 1.84 expected goals in these four games! 1.84! That is crazy considering some of the names on that list.

In the attack, Everton built chances from high turnovers and catching the opposition out of their defensive structure. There were a number of times in the 2-0 away win at West Ham that Everton broke on the counter-attack with plenty of overloads on the defence and dragging West Ham players out wide to isolate the opposite flank.

From the exception of the meltdown at Newcastle and woeful Fulham performance, Everton finished the season incredibly strong, winning 5 of their last 8 matches in the league.

A Conclusion on the 2018/19 Season

A season of mixed emotions, but undeniably much more positive. Everton were so much fun to watch throughout the season, whether you’re an Everton fan or a fan of the opposition at times. It’s nice to talk about Everton in a positive way but there is a lot to build from for next season. Marco Silva needs to find more than one of breaking down teams, we can’t play an aggressive pressing system against teams that don’t pass round the back choosing to play balls in behind instead.

Next season has the potential to be marvellous, Manchester United have written themselves a death note with Solskjær and we’ve already proven we can perform against Arsenal and Chelsea. However, form to the mid-table clubs are a concern, losing to Leicester, West Ham, Watford, Newcastle and Wolves (who definitely deserved to finish above us) makes the victories over the clubs above us pointless.

The activity in the summer is going to be very interesting, despite the weird way Everton appointed Marcel Brands after Marco Silva, which makes me wonder who is in charge of the transfer proceedings at Goodison Park. A midfielder who can progress the ball forward will be ideal in start.

Stats via Understat.

Up the Toffees!

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