“Imagine what Everton would be like with money.” The constant calls around the concourses, throughout the David Moyes era. A rampant team across Goodison’s four walls, built with zero net spend.
Though Moyes’s team was far from perfection, Everton had players who connected with supporters, a style which appeased to its fans and a club which seemed to establish important steppingstones, for future projects.
Fast forward to 2020 and Everton are a shell of their former selves. Such connection is non-existent, a lack of tactical identity and abysmal recruitment which has heavily affected the club’s reputation. The Toffees began the campaign looking to clear the mess of previous managers, who had been tasked to clear the mess from their predecessor.
Marco Silva was given such task, despite a shaky first campaign which relied on big results on Merseyside to see him through. From early doors, his days seemed numbered, lumbered with the “you must win” tag, at home, against West Ham in mid-October. He lasted until December, Everton in the relegation zone and on the back of an absolute pasting at Anfield.
Big Dunc brought back energy and crucial time in December, for Napoli to part ways with Carlo Ancelotti, and Fahrad Moshiri bringing in the man he had wanted for a couple of years. The Italian makeover began positively, as Ancelotti’s adjustments to the 4-4-2 formation repaired components going forward.
Rare circumstances threw the 2019/20 Premier League campaign into disarray, and Everton’s performance on the field, perhaps, took the biggest hit. Post-lockdown, The Toffees had returned to their lacklustre selves, outclassed in a number of games and the in-game management of our new manager guiding them through the rough period.
Everton finished the season in twelfth position, relief to the average supporter that such a forgettable season could finally reach its conclusion. Tactically, The Toffees had gone from a stubborn approach that led them nowhere, to being managed by one of the greatest managers in history, well-renowned for his versatility and adaptation, but what has become of the team, built by four different managers?
Stale Silva still lacked in flavour
After a full season under his helm, Marco Silva’s tactical framework had glaring issues that needed to be addressed. A broken passing structure, obsession with the 4-2-3-1 formation, defending set-pieces – surely a summer with the squad would be enough for Silva to fix some of these glaring issues. But instead, we witnessed an aggravation of such issues.
Such problems were made clear in the very first game of the season, a trip to Crystal Palace. Hodgson’s team set up in a 4-4-2 low block, which handled Everton’s passing structure with ease and self-inflicting problems became visible.
Firstly, the double pivot, in this case André Gomes and Morgan Schneiderlin, take up peculiar positions when the centre-backs have the ball. Whilst one drops in between them, the other moves towards the flank, positioning themselves in the space behind the fullback. This is ok if Everton had the rotation and interchanges on the wings, but such transitions did not take place.
This produced a very top-heavy passing network, the ball being passed around the defensive line and double pivot of the 4-2-3-1 system, but the ball not progressing much up the field. The static positioning of the offensive three did not help, Gylfi Sigurdsson makes no attempt to drop back or offers the movement to create passing lanes for his teammates. His second-striker role had a grave affect to those around him, not being involved in development of sequences, nor taking up good shooting positions in the penalty area, to accommodate such flaws.
Everton’s passing network would look a lot like this, throughout Silva’s tenure. The strange positioning of the central-midfield stops progression, Sigurdsson operating further ahead and zero involvement in the buildup, whilst Dominic Calvert-Lewin was heavily relied upon. Long balls towards him was their only route towards the final third, worryingly similar to the season before.
The Toffees’ start to the season ended goalless, 0.93 Expected Goals created from open play. Everton’s xG performance, from open play, indicated warning signs from early on: 0.67 created against Watford, 1.01 away to Aston Villa, 1.66 against Wolves (better), but defeats against Bournemouth (1.13) and Sheffield United (0.39) revealed that Everton couldn’t rely from inconsistent shot performance.
The Silva high block couldn’t last long either, a dreadful lack of co-ordination and compactness, as well well no Idrissa Gueye to sweep some of the mess, left the team massively exposed. Aston Villa exploited this with great efficiency, quick free kicks to catch the team out of shape, whilst leaving space between the lines to exploit.
When we played Bournemouth, Eddie Howe’s team were comfortable building against our press. In this situation, Lewis Cook drops between the centre-backs, whilst the full-backs and Philip Billing remain close to the defensive line. Not only do you have a numerical superiority, you also encourage the opposition to press forward. Everton do so, without the organisation to plug the gaps. Bournemouth access the final third because of it.
With these problems not addressed, The Toffees deteriorated and sunk down the table. Silva stated that it was time to find solutions yet fielded the same eleven and formation on a weekly basis. His only change of shape came in his final hours, a 5-4-1 formation, away to Leicester City and Liverpool. Everton held the high-flying Leicester for a bulk of the game but were fortunate to concede only twice at the King Power Stadium.
Away at Anfield, a shaky high line with no pressure on the ball, always spells danger. Everton were killed because of it, as well as being constantly exploited on the counterattack and in transitions, something that Klopp’s Liverpool have been renowned for over the past few seasons. Silva’s fate was sealed, a terrible tenure concluded at the devil’s lair itself.
Back to Basics from Big Dunc
Silva’s attempts of getting blood out of stone was conclusively proven wrong, when even a slight change to the formation produced better results. Duncan Ferguson may have managed the first team for just three matches, but to go unbeaten against Chelsea, Manchester United and Arsenal is a respectable achievement.
Watching Big Dunc stroll out, through the Goodison tunnel, in a suit seemed uncanny, but the reassurance of the blue wristband gave us a good indication of what we were going to see. A strict 4-4-2 shape, disciplined off the ball and getting stuck in. Thirty-seven tackles were completed against Chelsea, the most any Everton team had made this decade.
Chelsea’s 4-2-3-1/4-3-3 formation dominated the ball, but they lacked the progression to consistently threaten The Toffees, due to the defensive and midfield lines being so compact. On the ball, Everton relied on fast transitions forward, the Sidibé cross and Richarlison header combination opening the scoring. Two goals from Dominic Calvert-Lewin secured a pivotal win for Everton, more importantly, buying the board crucial time to find a suitable successor.
Unfortunately, Ferguson’s next two games would be less memorable. Everton lead at Old Trafford for most of the game but recorded a measly 0.23 xG throughout the ninety. Due to injuries within the squad, Mason Holgate was deployed as a makeshift midfielder, whilst looking more comfortable than those he was covering. Ferguson also made the strange decision to sub on Moise Kean, before taking him off shortly after – a decision which split the opinions of the Goodison faithful.
The match against Arsenal, a few days before Christmas, would go down as one of the least memorable presents that BT sport will ever deliver. Much of the attention would be drawn to both teams’ managerial replacements who observed the tasteless action from the director’s box – Carlo Ancelotti and Mikel Arteta.
Stylistically, Ferguson did not alter much – more disciplined the team back into shape. He would make one key transition to this team, starting both Dominic Calvert-Lewin and Richarlison upfront. Two hardworking strikers, who both accommodate each other’s game very well. It was up to Ancelotti to sort out the rest of the mess.
Ancelotti’s fresh dose of versatility
Ancelotti’s pedigree is well-documented, and it didn’t take long for him to stamp his own style, into this Everton team. The 4-4-2 formation remained in defensive transition, but a fresh dose of flexibility enabled The Toffees to take up different shapes, within the buildup.
They formed a 3-4-3/3-4-2-1 in the construction phase, which would often see Seamus Coleman remain in the defensive line, whilst Lucas Digne and Djibril Sidibé were utilised as wingbacks. This change of shape improved Everton’s passing structure, giving the centre-backs more passing lanes to progress and a much better balance within this shape.
Victories over Burnley and Newcastle, in Ancelotti’s first two games, showcased their vast improvement. The pass map from the game against Burnley reveal a much cleaner system being installed. Both wingbacks were involved in plenty of combinations, given a natural four players that can work down one channel.
Though this would be Everton’s main buildup shape during Ancelotti’s first few games, they were also capable of dropping one of the double pivot in the defensive line. To accommodate coverage in central areas, the two wingers would drop into this area, to create a 3-1-4-2 shape when Everton were in possession.
Everton’s passing structure thoroughly improved when building from deep, but they still faced issues within the final third. Between Ancelotti’s first game and pre-lockdown, The Toffees completed the fourth lowest number of passes within 20 yards of goal.
In terms of shot numbers, Everton’s improvement was evident. Their expected goals difference shot up, from 0.19 under Marco Silva, to 0.74 before the break, whilst in the same time period, only Liverpool recorded a higher xG than Everton had in Ancelotti’s first eleven games. The partnership between Calvert-Lewin and Richarlison can be credited for the huge improvement, DCL started to score the goals he had been teasing for a while, whilst Richarlison’s driven runs and support massively benefited The Toffees.
Defensively, Everton began to phase out the ridiculous high block and into a 4-4-2 medium block. Moving out of the unbalanced pressing scheme Silva had deployed stopped The Toffees being played through so easily, but the transition to a medium block, in the 4-4-2, wasn’t a direct fix. Prior to the Burnley game, the average PSxG (the statistic to judge shot location) sat a 1.35 per 90, this slightly increased to 1.37 per 90, in the eleven games before lockdown.
Everton’s non-penalty xG failed to improve either, so teams were still getting the same quality of attempts at goal between Marco Silva and Carlo Ancelotti.
Observations of some of the goals revealed some major issues. When the ball was in the middle third, the two centre-midfielders would face pressing dilemmas, not sure whether to press the ball carrier or drop off and allow him to play. Opposition teams would find progressing down the left channel very comfortable, the inverted positioning of Everton’s right-winger (whether that would be Iwobi or Bernard) played a huge factor.
After a honeymoon resurgence, the Ancelotti era took a tremendous plunge when Everton returned to the field. It’s worth pointing out how unique the scenario was; clubs trained for a very limited time in unusual circumstances, whilst there was great uncertainty whether the fixture list would even be completed. Lockdown had a major effect on some clubs, and Everton were no exception.
From the first match back, it was clear how reliant the squad would become on Carlo Ancelotti’s game-management. Everton spent ninety minutes barricading Liverpool, whilst almost snatching the points towards the end. After a lax forty-five minutes, building in the 3-4-2-1 formation at Norwich, The Italian brought Alex Iwobi into the game, changing into a 4-4-2 shape in the buildup, and deploying the Nigerian further forward.
At home to Leicester City, Everton switched to a 5-4-1 defensive block, with a diamond being formed amongst the midfielders. After the opening three matches, the results started to take a worrying decline. The trip to Tottenham was seen as a potential last charge towards a European spot, but Everton’s 4-3-1-2 formation in possession, failed to breakdown Tottenham’s 4-1-4-1 medium block.
Though Iwobi dropping deep disabled the switch, that Spurs so often perform, it did give Lucas Moura the space down that channel, to become a real threat. Southampton would also cause Everton major problems, most notably Tom Davies and Andre Gomes, who were constantly dragged out of position and gave Southampton the space down the middle to create chances.
Appearances from Jarrad Branthwaite and Anthony Gordon encouraged the fans to watch, but the collective performance was beyond poor. Everton were battered by Wolverhampton Wanderers, lucky to survive against Aston Villa and pasted by Bournemouth on the final day. A win away to Sheffield United done very little to win over the fans.
Circumstances were the same for all parties, but it was a shame for Everton’s comeback to be so dreadful. Their xG difference cannoned back down to -0.37 per game, whilst the partnership of Dominic Calvert-Lewin and Richarlison contributed to very little of the xG that Everton had created in this time period.
The 2019/20 season gave supporters a huge wakeup call, on how long a transition actually takes. Everton are gravely suffering from decisions the club made five/six years ago, putting average players on huge, long term contracts, without a coherent plan or tactical framework to accommodate one another.
The club is a mess, but Carlo Ancelotti brings some glimmer of hope in troubling times. Versatility is something that the past number of managers have failed to bring, and with that, Everton could develop into an efficient ball-playing teams.
The work in recruitment, within these next few summers, will be the club’s make or break. Marcel Brands has to find a way to get rid of those on exuberant contracts, whilst appeasing to younger talents, with higher ceilings. Richarlison is the “get out of jail free card”, but Everton is no easy task, for even the greatest miracle man.