Rafa’s Everton: first impressions

A week prior to June 1st at Everton Football Club, the Toffees were picking themselves up from a final day drubbing, and yet going into the summer, there was a still a sense of confidence. Everton may have finished the season terribly – three wins from their last thirteen, two home wins since Christmas, only scoring more than once in a game on one occasion following the famous victory at Anfield (the bad statistics really do spiral…). Yet, there was a possibility that the club would at least be able to prepare itself for a relatively stress-free summer.

No major personnel changes, the chance to enhance a squad that finished only three points off the European places. Quickly, had that feeling faded. Carlo Ancelotti had departed.

Whilst there is an annoyance that we’ll never get to see what could have transpired, the blow of losing a name like Carlo Ancelotti, was stronger than the reality of the losing the manager himself. Everton had been fine during 2020/21, there were some really good times, and some really bad times, but never the consistency or excellence you’d expect from a team coached by a supposed world-class coach, on a £12m salary.

In fact, (not so) quietly, I personally saw this as an opportunity for the club. I wasn’t keen on the fit between with the Italian, and I think we saw signs of why throughout his tenure. Very little creativity from a tactical viewpoint, a reliance on individuals to drag us through games, and a lack of solutions against opposition happy to sit-back and let Everton break them down.

Ancelotti’s departure then, gave the club the possibility to build on the positives, but with a manager more suited to the current crop. One with the ability to get the group consistently over-performing, without a reliance on spending majorly each summer, with a stronger emphasis on youth and developing those already at the club – something Ancelotti seemed to disregard.


Unsurprisingly, there was a sense of inconsistency throughout the subsequent managerial search. Whilst the previous man didn’t seem like the perfect fit, names such as David Moyes, Nuno Espirito Santo or Roberto Martinez were hardly inspiring. The timing of the Italian’s departure had also meant that the possible top candidates from Germany for instance, had already been taken.

Enter: Rafael Benitez.

An appointment charged by Farhad Moshiri, what followed as a consequence from Evertonians was a mix of uproar, disbelief and concern, and finally (from some), acceptance. The Everton owner had his man, and there’s not much we could do about it. In an interview with talkSPORT, he recognised the mood amongst Blues, but chose to ignore it, seemingly in a way that implied he was finally doing things his own way.

The following then, will dissect the following weeks: a summary of pre-season, an analysis of the opening month of the new Premier League campaign, plus the trends and conclusions we can take from it to predict what might become of Rafa’s Everton.

PRE-SEASON:

Throughout the frenzy and exasperation that was Benitez’s appointment, there was one obvious narrative that dominated the minds of the media and fans. A boring, but unsurprising focus on the Spaniard’s past, in particular his connection with one specific club, and one specific quote.

Whilst such narratives were understandably driven, the attention of analysis and inquiry from those given the opportunity to speak with Benitez – as seen in his first press conference – was distracted from questions based around the future of the club. Questions that would have helped lead to potentially more intriguing – or at least useful – insight in terms of what we could expect from a Rafael Benitez Everton team.

And yet, when given the opportunity to shed some light on his plans and expectations in regard to objectives, performances, style of play, and even his judgements on the dwindling form under Carlo Ancelotti in 2021, some interesting sounds bites did follow.

In a similar fashion to what Ancelotti’s Everton turned out to be, Benitez seemed to emphasise the importance of flexibility when queried on his tactical approaches. The ability to differentiate the approaches – especially offensively – with his methods game-to-game largely “depending on the team that you have, depending on the opponent”. Whilst simultaneously striking the necessity of balance and intensity – less so on the Ancelotti-similarity-o-meter.

During his early interviews with the club, and as earmarked by The Athletic, Benitez seemed keen to implement a strategy that relied on speed, intensity and quick, direct football. He quickly noted his recognition of the significance of Richarlison and Dominic Calvert-Lewin in particular, the subsequent desire to increase and improve the use of the wide-areas (which saw the club complete deals for Demarai Gray and Andros Townsend – more on them later) as a way of refining the supply-line to the front two that had slowly dissipated in the latter stages of the season. The season ended with the Toffees ranked within a cluster that included Newcastle and Burnley for shots p90 (10.39).

Pre-season training meanwhile, saw work on creating the before-mentioned balance and intensity that Benitez is craving, but also on passing drills that further emphasised the push for quick football in-possession. The Athletic suggesting how drills had “often been one or two-touch as the manager seeks to get his own team playing through the thirds quicker”.


“Modern football is about pace” was a specific quote from the manager that stuck with me during pre-season. 1) because he’s right and 2) because it’s such a contrast to the beliefs of previous managers that have seen the club sign three number 10s in one window, lethargic centre-forwards, or in the most recent case, blatantly ignoring the desperate need for some form of direct threat in-behind Dominic Calvert-Lewin.

The opening pre-season fixtures vs Millonarios and Pumas in Florida helped support such an insight too. Most notably without James Rodriguez, Everton at times demonstrated a sense of pace and urgency that has been void at the club for what feels like years.

Whilst the fixtures also signified the compact nature out-of-possession and mid-press that’ll see the attacking players pick their moments in regard to engaging with the opposition, there was still a new-found threat from the Toffees, especially in transition following the success of the mid-press. Decision-making was predictably lacking, and yes it was only two friendlies against lesser opposition, but it still represented a sense that Benitez has already realised key issues and made a start on strengthening a key area.

SOUTHAMPTON (H):

The debut. For the first time, Rafael Benitez stepped out at Goodison Park as the manager of Everton Football Club. The first game of another new era, under another new manager, only five full Goodison Park’s since the last time this happened.

After a 4-0 drubbing in the final pre-season game vs Man United, trailing to Southampton at half-time was the last thing Benitez needed. There may not have been many boos on Benitez’s introduction after Z-Cars, but they definitely greeted Andy Madley’s half-time whistle. Everton turned it around though, a second-half triumph that saw Benitez succeed where the previous four managers had failed – for the first time since September 2015 (West Brom away, 3-2) Everton had won a Premier League game when losing at half-time.

In fact, since December 2017, the Blues had conceded the first goal on 60 league occasions. Southampton (H) was only the third time they’ve won one of those fixtures.

Starting XI & Structures:

As per pre-season, Everton side up against Southampton in a 4-4-2 (mainly out-of-possession) that would often shift between that, 4-4-1-1 and 4-2-3-1 during the game. Debuts were given to Andros Townsend and Demarai Gray, with the pair joining Calvert-Lewin and Richarlison in attack.

Everton started with Gray supporting Calvert-Lewin centrally with Richarlison picked to be the wide-player in this instance. Although the side had shown glimpses of flexibility positionally during their pre-season games, the decision to not place Richarlison in the front two and closer to Dom was a surprising one and ultimately transpired to be one of the side’s main problems, or at least collateral from other failings.

Evidently, the formation has switched from Ancelotti’s usual 4-3-3, just has the way we now build-up from the back.

Very quickly under the Italian, Everton implemented a build-up approach that saw an obvious emphasis on the centre-backs having to progress the ball into attacking areas, albeit without much success. Such a focus (without both a lack of quality, and seemingly, lack of quality coaching) saw build-up patterns mostly involving passes between the defensive-pair and ‘keeper, before having to launch the ball up to the top man due to the lack of solutions and movement ahead.

Such a process, in 2020/21, would heavily involve the use of Allan to drop between the centre-backs, as you’d expect from the #6 at the base of a 4-3-3. Whether that largely suits Allan’s skillset, or at least gets the best out of the Brazilian, I remain dubious.

There was, however, an obvious switch during the first home match vs Southampton.

The images prove the above, build-up at the back involves solely the centre-backs and Jordan Pickford, most likely with the intention to lure Southampton’s front two, before pushing the ball forwards and exploiting the space left behind

Albeit they’re only still images, the gaping space realises the complete lack of interest from the midfield pairing of Doucoure and Allan – with their roles in the system used seemingly only to sweep up second-balls – whilst a risk in regard to the spacing within the build-up, it’s safe to say it is currently getting the best out of the midfield pair.

And again, in this instance, with the ball at the feet of Mason Holgate – someone clearly very capable of playing out from the back – the positioning of the midfield two is obvious in relation to their role within the build-up. This example specifically, is where last season you’d see the drop of Allan between the centre-backs, but here it is clear there is no intention from the midfielder to be involved.

The removal of such build-up patterns is something to note, with it interesting to see how such methods are developed through the season – especially against opposition that prefer against pressing the centre-backs.

Last season, as an opposition manager, you had an easy task when setting-up against us. In fact, the biggest challenge was which out of two set-ups you’d use, rather than debating whether you would be able to pull of a victory or not. Both involved exploiting Everton’s inabilities in-possession, or more so, their lack of ideas with it.

You could either 1) press high; force errors out of the centre-backs and take advantage of Everton’s weakened mentality, as we saw particularly vs Burnley. Or 2) sit back; put the onus on Everton to break us down, allow the centre-backs as much time on the ball as possible, mark key attacking players out of the game, as we saw on numerous occasions, especially after the opposition team had scored first.

In consequence, such a shift suggests Rafa Benitez’s understanding in the failings of Everton’s build-up abilities under the previous manager, and that 1) he’s decided against implementing it at all, 2) he doesn’t believe in the current crop to execute such ideas or 3) shifting approach simply because of opposition. In Southampton, Leeds United and Brighton & Hove Albion, you have three attacking-minded managers in which their systems are very much keen on turning the ball over in the final third. Why would he play into that?

First-Half:

The first-half epitomised the home struggles of last season under the previous manager; slow, passive football with few signs of urgency or clear tactical patterns that demonstrated a sense that Everton knew how they were going to break down the opposition. Such passivity leads to doubt and angst in the stands, which was predictably followed by a defensive error to see the Blues go behind.

Initially though, Everton had started brightly and quickly demonstrated the type of attacking intent that we’ve seen often already over the first three Premier League games this season.

The above clip is hopefully what we’ll see more of under Benitez, and theoretically, is what every Everton team should be based around. Good pressure leading to a turnover. Urgency with the ball. Purpose to get it into attacking areas as efficiently as possible. Getting men into the box to receive a cross.

Evidently, in this example, the final ball isn’t good enough, but by the time Calvert-Lewin attempted his cross, you had three players (one of them not being our main striker) in the box, and three others also entering the final 3rd, before Allan finishes the sequence with attempt from outside the box.


The beforementioned build-up switch – to a predominant focus on pushing the ball forwards quickly up to Calvert-Lewin and into wide areas, and therefore neglecting central areas – subsequently played a part in the lead up to Southampton’s goal.

As seen with the goal, and again in the below image, the spacing of the players surrounding Keane is abysmal, and is largely linked with the decision not to utilise the midfield for key parts of possession.

There’s no doubt the blame lies at Keane here, and it’s also very easy to say that there was a very simple pass behind him to ‘keeper Pickford if he hadn’t stalled on the ball. But ultimately, no centre-back should be given the option of just one passing option, especially considering his positioning and the state of play pre-clip.

The above image, as is projected by the ‘passmap’, really emphasises the lack of balance behind Everton’s positional-play. The graphic represents the lack of interaction on the ball between the centre-back and midfield pairings, adjoined with the image that simplistically portrays the lack of options given to Keane at the time.

Many will see this as justification for Benitez’s decision to discard the midfield in build-up, and to ultimately, attempt to take as much of possession away from the centre-backs that can often show signs of naivety with the ball. In upcoming fixtures, however, more will be needed from the likes of Doucoure and Allan, and with the possible return of James Rodriguez too, the Toffees will need to strengthen their ability to play through the thirds.

Tactically, Southampton had two clear instructions off-the-ball against the Blues, 1) press high in the opposition half and 2) if that fails, then drop compactly and deep into their own half, with the aim to frustrate Everton.

As such, Everton’s attacking set-up was subsequently counter-productive; reducing the strengths of key players and unable to show the creativity or movement on the ball to break Southampton down.

This still essentially proved the problems that the side had fallen into. Even prior to the goal, the majority share of possession was on Everton, and with structures like above, it’s obvious as to why the side ran into problems, and why the addition of Alex Iwobi (my boy) was so beneficial in the second half.

Although Richarlison is out of picture here; with Keane in-possession, the attackers of Townsend, Gray, Calvert-Lewin and the Brazilian are spaced literally in a straight line. And it’s hideous. There is a gaping hole in the left half-space, a lack of creative outlet to drop inside and pick the ball up (at this point all I’m thinking is please bring back James asap), meanwhile Doucoure and Allan have decided to position themselves woefully.

Offensively, there’s clearly an issue here. Gray with his back to goal doesn’t seem to fit. Townsend, supposedly signed for his crossing, seems far too narrow to be able to exploit such attributes, and Southampton have DCL exactly where they want him. Defensively is also a concern here too. Imagine you’re Keane or Holgate and you lose the ball in this setting (mistakes happen after all), who exactly are you meant to cover the counter-attack?

Anyway, so that happened. Southampton scored. Everton reverted back to last season’s ways. I was sat in the Top Balcony wondering what managers were available already. And we booed them off at HT.

Second-Half:

We didn’t know it at the time, but what followed would be miraculous, swashbuckling, never-before-seen (albeit not since 2015) football at Goodison Park.

Everton’s second-half performance, was in fairness, quite good.

As per the cumulative xG timeline, Everton stepped it up massively in the second-half. It was quick, direct, aggressive, playing to the tune of a full Gwladys Street for the first time since March 2020. Quite notably, form at Goodison Park last season was terrible, and whilst the results suggest that themselves, the underlying numbers recognise how it wasn’t down to just dumb luck – Everton were just bad. Second halves especially.

How bad?

In just raw numbers, Everton netted just three goals in the second halves of their last 16 home games last season, and looking deeper it’s not at all surprising as to why. We averaged just 5.63 shots p90 in the second half at Goodison, only on six occasions did they managed more than 5 shots, and in 13 of those games, they were unable to create a higher xG tally than 0.5.

That bad.


The early goal and positional changes (swapping Richy and Gray) aided Everton’s attacking side in the second-half, with the difference in intent fairly obvious. How much that was down to the switch in positioning, or solely the early goal, we don’t know.

The early goal definitely did help though, and with Richarlison closer to the goal, and Gray out-wide, Everton posed more of a threat particularly on the break. Southampton no longer wanted to sit-back and frustrate the Toffees, leaving space in behind for us to exploit. As seen below.

The clip signifies just how annoying it was that Gray was so central in the first-half. Whilst Southampton’s tactics prevented Everton from being able to pose much threat in transition anyway, it indicates the type of out-ball Gray can be.

AUGUST TRENDS:

The first four games this season under Rafa Benitez have painted a very vivid picture of what this current side is, what they’ve attempted to create during their opening two months in charge, and what potential outcomes and issues might appear in the near future.

Both data-wise, and through the eye test, Everton have a very distinct way of playing, and dare I say it, have an identity.

There is the big caveat here, that we’re only a handful of games into the new era, and that the four opponents so far are fairly similar in terms of their own style of play, which will automatically impact the way in which we set-up. But signs are good.

Direct Shift:

It doesn’t take long to recognise focus of direct play from Everton since Benitez’s appointment. As was mentioned earlier on, the Spaniard was very quick to state his desire to implement quick football, centred around the strengths of Calvert-Lewin and Richarlison.

A quick overview of the simplistic metrics displays that the side are definitely fulfilling such objectives so far. After three league games, only Burnley are averaging lower in the possession table (19th, 37.5% per game), they’re also only 19th for pass completion, and only completing 243.3 passes per game, again ranking 19th in the league.

Delving deeper with the metrics, and utilising Opta’s data-page, we can see just how direct they’ve become in Benitez’s opening fixtures.

Opta’s data visual evidently suggests the stylistic shift from the Toffees, especially in comparison to their stylistic representation from last season (below). The graphic, deriving from the use of ‘passes per sequence’ and ‘direct speed’ envisages how swiftly Everton have adapted to the methods of their new manager, with us averaging just 2.33 passes per sequence and the third highest direct speed in the league with 1.81 m/s (which would have been a league high last season).

The data ultimately proves the previous mentioned disregard of the midfield when in-possession. It’s obvious that with the ball, there is a distinct prerogative to play with an urgency to move the ball into attacking areas.

Similarly, Everton’s actual use also suggests a sense of neglect to general build-up play or ball retention. Predictably, aligning with the side’s speed in-possession, Everton rank 19th (3) for 10+ pass sequences in open-play (Burnley again the team below), succeeding in that metric only 9 times – a huge contrast compared to this season’s supposed competitors. Elsewhere, they rank joint third lowest for their amount of ‘build-up attacks’ but third highest for ‘direct attacks’.

There has been a glaringly obvious shift in regard to Everton’s current use of the ball this season. Last year, even though we were very rarely a possession-dominant giant under Carlo Ancelotti, such metrics dwarf this season’s current data. Again, there is the caveat of our opposition so far, so the upcoming Burnley game after the international break should demonstrate how we’ll approach games when opposition team’s set-up with no intention to use the ball, especially considering Burnley are the only team who appear less interested in dominating possession.

Such metrics, however, would make it easy to populate certain narratives around Everton’s opening games and how they’ve quickly transformed into a defensively-focused side with the only intention of hitting the big man when in-possession. Jordan Pickford and his goal kicks.

Quick point that the above graphic only provides information from the opening two fixtures – but it indicates where the focus is when restarting from the back. The Brighton game, albeit not included above, was the same, with 9 of Pickford’s goal kicks 10 going long towards Everton’s attack rather than attempting to play through Brighton’s press.

Such insight doesn’t help the rejection of us setting-out to be a lump-it to the big-man type of side, but such a notion would also have to suggest that Everton’s attacking-play is centred around Calvert-Lewin and him only – it isn’t. Quick, direct football doesn’t necessarily means just lumping it forward and hoping something works out, whilst previous managers have been guilty of relying on such methods when initial tactics fail, Rafa’s Everton currently don’t.

In both away games vs Leeds and Brighton, whilst they have happily conceded possession to two possession-happy teams, Everton have more than matched them with the effectiveness of their play in the attacking third – both with efficiency, but also with general good combination-play that has seen both sides carved open quite effortlessly.

As per the half-space plot vs Brighton below, whilst the share of possession may have been dramatically lower, their use of the ball in dangerous areas more than matches up, and does offer some sort-of hope that we won’t crumble when faced with dominating possession in future games. It also offers another stark contrast to previous plots under previous managers, when despite having larger shares of possession, we have failed to channel the ball into such areas at a consistent rate, often (especially under Marco Silva) relying on the crossing ability of Lucas Digne as a get-out for the poor structuring in the attacking third.

The same was demonstrated vs Leeds United. In a fixture when Everton managed just 30% possession, failing to complete over 100 passes in either half, yet they still managed to maintain the same level of ball-usage in key areas as the opposition.

Again, similar to Brighton, Everton’s newly implemented urgency on the ball is proving effective, and are doing so without hitting the big man at every given chance – goal kicks aside. At both Elland Road, and especially at the Amex Stadium, the effectiveness and efficiency on the ball was displayed appropriately through their counter-attacking game. With Brighton deploying their wing-back system, but without the availability of Tariq Lamptey or Solly March, it was obvious that there would be space to exploit for the likes of Gray and Iwobi. Not only did such space to exploit lead to the opening goal, but throughout the second half, Everton were able to consistently thread balls through (mainly down Brighton’s right-side with Webster vulnerable due to the lack of protection from Gross) as we maintained a real threat in the second half, even at 2-0 up.

The clip leading to Doucoure’s chance indicates such a threat as well. Within thirteen seconds and three passes, Everton had won the ball and created a decent shot opportunity.

Even clearer here: quick, intricate, one-touch combination-play, exploiting a stretched & weakened Brighton structure. No desire to dwell or simply retain possession, even when comfortably in front. Both clips easily indicating the link between Everton’s low sequence time across the three games.

Attacking Improvements:

A shift in approach to more direct football for Everton, has also coincided with the increasing improvement of the side’s attack too. I wouldn’t go as far as saying we’ve been excellent, but ultimately, even ignoring the two penalties we’ve scored already, we’re shaping up fairly well compared to other teams in the division.

As per Fbref, Everton’s non-penalty xG is bettered by only three other teams in the league – the previous two league champions, and Moyes’ West Ham – whilst they’re current matched at 4.6 only by the current European Champions too. The accumulation of 4.6 xG so far has them sat at 1.53 p90 so far, massively dwarfing the 1.14 from last season.

Even from purely open-play. Everton’s 37 shots are ranked 5th in the league, better than the likes of Chelsea (31), Man United (27), Spurs and Leicester (21 each). Our open-play shots p90 last season reached only 7.23, only five teams were worse off. Two of them got relegated, and the others were Burnley, Newcastle and Crystal Palace. Our 12.33 p90 from our first three games this season, is a considerable improvement from three difficult fixtures on paper.

It’s also significant to note this has been achieved so far without the use of James Rodriguez. Adding him to the side over the next few weeks will most likely be a challenge for Benitez considering the adjustment in style, but these numbers – even after GW3 – are not to be sniffed at.

Pressing Success:

This piece so far has made a heavy attempt of detailing the change in style in comparison to Carlo Ancelotti last season, and our approach out-of-possession and the difference in intensity when pressuring in the opposition’s defensive third.

Last season, Everton were one of the more passive side’s off the ball. It didn’t take a genius to see that anyway, but the metrics indicate how rare we seemed to press altogether. As the season went on last year, Ancelotti’s system shifted to a more defensive-side, very little determination to dominate possession, but to instead frustrate opponents and be clinical where it matters. Such methods led to major drop-offs in our attacking numbers, Calvert-Lewin’s and Richarlison’s out-put seemingly fell off a cliff, and our urgency to press high died too.

Eventually, we finished as one of the least active side’s in the final third, both with and without the ball. Pressing-wise, Everton were surrounded by the usual low-block suspects – 16th in the league for pressures in the final 3rd (28.3 p90), only Newcastle, Palace, West Ham and Wolves plucked up lower numbers. Similarly, we completed only 6.42 high turnovers (15th), only 27 of them across the season resulted into shots, and only twice did we managed to press high, turn the ball over, and find the back of the next all in one sequence – third lowest.

This season, however, there has been a noteworthy change in the aggression in the final third – something we saw clearly at Brighton. Our PPDA (passes per defensive action) remains regular (down from 14.8 to 14) but we’ve now gone from one of the least active sides in attacking third, to one of the highest. Only Liverpool, Southampton and Burnley have completed more turnovers across the three games (27), and we’re now joint second for high turnovers leading to shots (5).

The two clips signifying such a change in approach, and how it has adjusted Everton’s off-ball structure too. Last season’s defensive-shape conceded ground quite regularly, and after a poor defensive spell at the beginning of the season, Ancelotti’s swashbuckling, chaotic Blues withdrew. Assumingly, the judgement that saw a defensive structure containing Michael Keane could not hold a high-line that would enable a successful press.

Brighton (A) proved that it is possible.

In the second clip especially, with Holgate pushing up to nip the ball, Everton’s aggression can be demonstrated, visible is our high-positioning.  When Holgate engages with Maupay, it leaves only Keane & Digne on the cover, both ahead of the centre circle, penning Brighton in.

Tactical Fouling:

Such aggression and confidence in the defensive-structure, is a large part of this newly-found attribute of our game too. The dark arts. All the top teams do it. Embrace it.

Despite the inclusion of Allan last season, the Toffees remained a fairly passive team through 20/21, ranking only 16th for fouls, often unable to prevent opposition threats in transition.

Such a high-press does leave the defence vulnerable, something Benitez’s predecessor didn’t fancy – which I suppose does make a mockery of the two narratives surrounding both manager’s and what type of football they stand for.

At both Leeds and Brighton, Everton didn’t shrug off the need to push their opponents high, knowing the risk & reward that comes with attempting to force out mistakes. But whilst so far, it’s been successful, it’s undeniable that such aggression has opened Everton up, and with only a midfield pivot of Doucoure & Allan, susceptible to looking weak in transition. And exactly why they’re currently third for fouls per game (11.7), reaching 13 each in both their opening games.

Benitez’s Newcastle were very similar, and therefore, this is most likely a trend that’s here to stay.

Allan and Doucoure have both received high-high-number of plaudits so far this season, and rightfully so, both have improved considerably compared to last season already, but their ability to maintain such intensity, and more importantly, the capacity to continue to cover such ground (especially with the potential return of James too) remains to unanswered.

TRANSFERS:

Demarai Gray

£1.7m. I won’t go as far as saying ‘bargain of the summer’ yet, as it seems far too early to make such conclusions, but Demarai Gray has undoubtedly kicked-off his Everton career in magnificent form. Brought in supposedly to replace the squad position of Bernard, Gray is already nearly half-way to reaching the same amount of goals that the Brazilian managed across three season. And isn’t on over £120k p/w.

Prior to the start of the season, it was difficult to judge the possibilities that such a deal could lead to. The former Leicester man hasn’t managed more than 2,000 minutes in a campaign since his breakout with Birmingham City in 2014/15, with his 23 starts in 18/19 the highest he’s plucked up since.

18/19 then, is where I looked in an attempt to gauge some conclusions from Gray long-term, and whilst he definitely doesn’t appear superbly, his numbers aren’t horrific. In that season, Gray managed an xG90 of 0.19 (decent) and an XA of 0.05 (less so) – outside of Everton’s striker cohort, only Theo Walcott has managed 0.19 or higher since 2016/17.

Over the season, I’m not sure Gray will be someone you’ll be able to rely on as a consistent player for goal contributions, but his use as an out-ball can’t be understated. We saw it throughout the Brighton game, exploiting unmarked space, and with the natural ability to beat most defenders. He definitely offers attributes Everton have been lacking. His progressive carries across 2017/18 and 2018/19 for Leicester indicate that too (6.88 & 6.97 p90) and so far 6.30 for Everton – only Alex Iwobi managed anyway near those type of numbers for progressive carries last season (8.65).

Ultimately, Gray has scored twice from two relatively low-quality shots, and other than those attempts, hasn’t been a major threat in front of goal. His xG of 0.4 seems fairly unsustainable at this time, but there’s hope that over the course of the season he’ll be able to impose himself a tad more within the box.

When Gray (and Townsend) signed earlier this summer, they were completed seemingly with the promise that another winger was on the way. That did not materialise. But Gray’s offerings so far offer some hope that we might have saved ourselves a lot of money this season.

Salomón Rondon:

I’m led to believe that Benitez wanted/expected Rondon to arrive earlier in the window, but for certain difficulties out of Everton or Rondon’s control, both parties had to wait until Deadline Day to get what they both wanted.

Rondon is definitely Rafa’s man, and despite some disgruntlement, I see this being a fairly decent transfer. Most importantly, Everton needed back-up to Calvert-Lewin, for practically nearly two years now the striker has played non-stop for Everton, and is now doing so through injury.

There is disappointment that Moise Kean hasn’t worked out with us, but unlike Kean, Rondon at least offers similarities to Calvert-Lewin. Kean didn’t seem to adapt well over here, but when given the opportunity to play, it seemed like very little was done to adjust attacking approaches to incorporate Kean’s strengths. Rondon’s addition at least means that very little stylistic adjustments are needed when one displaces the other.

There is of course the numbers side of thing too. I won’t take too much notice of his record in either China or Russia, but his scoring record and threat in the penalty box has remained relatively consistent since departing the North East. Rondon has managed 22 goals and 5 assists in 40 games since leaving Newcastle, and last season with CSKA Moscow attainted a strong 3.38 shots p90 and an xG90 of 0.71.

Such numbers were at a pretty good level with Newcastle too. In 2018/19, Rondon managed 3.08 shots p90 and an xG of 0.38 p90 too – no Everton players has managed to reach 3+ shots and 0.35+ xG since the departure of Romelu Lukaku.

Evidently, Rondon has a fairly consistent out-put in the box, and a strong one at that. Last season, as previously pinpointed, Everton often stumbled at trying to get back into games, looking fairly weak in attack in the second-half of games at Goodison – having an option of the bench such as Rondon will almost certainly help in addressing such problems.

Andros Townsend:

Townsend has quickly manoeuvred himself into being one of the Everton-fan favourites already. The bloke certainly comes across brilliantly in interviews. Someone who seems very proud to be at the football club. Add this to his work-rate, and professionalism, then in many cases, he seems like the perfect Everton player.

Shame about everything else.

That was a joke. Sorry, Andros.

A quick overview of Townsend’s scout report courtesy of Fbref, gives a very brief but clear description of the type of player you’re going to get. His out-put in the final third isn’t brilliant, and you can’t rely on him to make much of a difference in adding more goals compared to last season, but he will graft. And Benitez loves graft.

Creativity-wise, he might offer another supply-line for DCL, Richarlison or Rondon, but I wouldn’t expect there to be hugely influential contributions. His Expected Assists have remained consistent across the last few seasons (0.20, 0.14, 0.16 & 0.15 p90, 2017-2021) – albeit his creativity in open-play is around the same level of a previous creative player that shall not be named.

Townsend is the type of player that comes in, and automatically you hope does well. I envisage he’ll mainly play his part in difficult away fixtures, or generally in games where the expectation is that we won’t have the ball much, and that’s most likely what he expects too.


We’ve also seen the incomings of Asmir Begovic and Andy Lonergan, but I have very little to say about either. I don’t see them getting ahead of Pickford at any point in time, but both the competition and numbers that will hopefully push Pickford enough in training.

CURRENT ISSUES:

Generally speaking, this piece has been fairly positive (which is not a common theme when I write about Everton). Benitez has largely impressed me, but through what he says and believes, and through how we’ve performed across the opening fixtures. It’s been that good were I struggled really to think of glaringly obvious issues.

James Rodriguez:

I’ll start with the man we probably all thought was a guarantee on the list of transfers out this summer. But here we are.

James isn’t necessarily an issue, but trying to reinstate him into this new set-up could be problematic.

A lot of my praise for Rafa’s Everton within this piece has centred around the new-found urgency with the ball, and pace on the break. A level of intensity that simply just was not there last season. The opening three games has also seen the emergence of an Abdoulaye Doucoure no longer shackled by Ancelotti as the player who had to cover all the space James was either unwilling to, or just told not to.

As the summer went on, I finally arrived on the time-to-get-rid-hill with James. His wages are ridiculous, his fitness remains an issue, and his compatibility with the set-up just isn’t there. And given the chance to let him go, the club definitely would have. A shame that the potential swap for Luis Diaz didn’t come off.

But Everton can’t afford to have Rodriguez doing nothing until January. Not just because of his astronomical wages. As has been touched on, Everton will have very different challenges in terms of their opposition across the season. Not every week will be able to hit teams on the break and concede possession. The problem being, is how well will we adapt when such games arrive?

Very quickly, Everton’s creative options are looking short. Whilst Gray and Townsend seem decent enough options so far, you’re more than likely looking at Alex Iwobi and Lucas Digne as the only real creative players left without James. The data matches with that too.

xT graphic courtesy of The Athletic

The use of Expected Threat (XT) helps us measure how well players get the ball up the field and into dangerous areas. Other than Dominic Calvert-Lewin, James was evidently one of our most influential players, despite another season troubled with fitness issues.

Equally, James dwarfed his teammates in terms of other creative metrics too. For players hitting 1,500+ minutes, no one got close to his number of progressive passes p90 (6.73 – 9th in the league). The same can be said for completed passes into the final third and into the penalty box (5.31 & 2.09 – 21st & 10th in the league), whilst his shot-creating actions of 3.67 p90 was much better than our next best in Iwobi (2.68).

It’s clear that James’ creativity is still at a very high-level, and without any suitable replacement, I’m not sure Everton can cope in not utilising him during games this season – or at least until January. I wouldn’t do what Ancelotti did, and shape my team around him, but it can’t be understated how much of an impact he could still have with us.

Set-Pieces:

Of all the things I thought Ancelotti got wrong in his tenure, Everton’s use of set-pieces was a huge positive. Both defensively and attacking-wise, Everton dealt with most teams superbly, and had always had a threat in games due to their ability from corners and free-kicks.

Last year, only four teams created a higher xG from set-pieces than the Blues, and only West Ham and Southampton managed more goals. Often, in games when Everton seemed rather lacklustre, they had their ‘get out of jail free card’ thanks to the work of Davide Ancelotti.

Defensively, and very infamously, Everton stood strong too. Thanks to their very unique zonal system, dropping as deep as you could think, even to the amazement of every commentator each week. Everton coped as well as I’ve seen them – a huge contrast to the days of Roberto Martinez or Marco Silva.

The metrics add-up here as well (sort-of). We still conceded a relatively decent amount of attempts from set-pieces, but the general quality of them was fairly average, and only three teams finished the season with fewer goals conceded.

This season, with another change in approach, removing themselves from that deep zonal system. Everton have often looked a bit weak, especially in defensive scenarios. This time around, they’ve conceded the 4th highest amount of shots after three league games, but have however only conceded an xG of 0.8 – the 4th lowest.

Offensively from set-pieces is where Everton’s worries lie the most. After three games, we’ve only accumulated six attempts (3rd lowest) and an XG of just 0.6. The numbers are generally fairly weak in comparison to last season, and despite having obvious threats in the air, Everton haven’t been able to take advantage, with goalkeeper coach Alan Kelly now in charge of our set-piece work – or at least is on matchday.

OVERVIEW:

Benitez may not be the preferred candidate for most Evertonians, and understandably so, but the reality is (especially considering the circumstances) it is so far so good. Everton were gifted with what is a relatively decent start to the season, facing just three of last season’s top 10 in their opening ten fixtures. If anything, the hard part of Everton’s opening games is already out of the way until October at least.

It’s a shame Everton don’t do straightforward.

So far, xG-wise, things are promising. Three fixtures in, against side who usually appear fairly well in this metric, dealt with.

xG table courtesy of OPTA

Nonetheless, Rafa needed a good start, and in fairness, a solid transfer window too. With a war chest of just £1.7m, the buys generally seem fine. No world beaters, no major improvements on last season’s squad, but a group of players still capable of pushing for European football, and with a manager that I believe will be able to create solutions to problems with the same tools that the previous man could not.

Squad Overview:

Everton’s squad seems, dare I say it, balanced? There’s a few age concerns, and still appears bloated in the midfield area with Tyler Onyango hopefully given the chance to break through at some stage this season. But despite having only spent £1.7m in transfer fees this summer, the squad seems fine. It appears capable. Good enough for a European charge.

Certain players definitely need improving upon, but the squad, and the financial-side especially, means Everton can only do so if offers come in and there’s room for players to be replaced.

In an ideal world, Michael Keane and Mason Holgate will be moved on next summer – replaced by one dominant, ever-present defender, leaving room for the likes of Branthwaite and Reece Welch. The same can be said for midfield, but with uncertainty still around Gbamin, and with Delph, Gomes and Davies still present, you can’t do much.

Elsewhere, there’s definitely a need for another winger, but attacking-wise, Everton look strong.

Season Predictions:

If you had asked me where Everton will finish about 6 weeks ago and I would have snatched at anything top half, or close to the 59 points that we managed last season. Three league games in, and quietly, I’m starting to get a little confident.

Offensively, as pinpointed throughout this piece, Everton are looking decent, and that’s without James Rodriguez, but defensively, it’s pretty good there too. In Southampton, Leeds and Brighton you have three sides that will cause problems to most sides each week, all dangerous teams, and yet Everton were rarely troubled. Conceding only 6 shots to Southampton, only 5 shots inside the box from Brighton, whilst Leeds only managed one shot with a higher xG quality than 0.2.

If, over the next few weeks, with Burnley, Aston Villa and Norwich upcoming, Everton can continue to pluck up the same solid and balanced performances, whilst improving their level of creativity and proving their ability to create high-quality chances against defensively-inclined sides, then I see very little reason as to why Everton can’t grind out a good campaign.

The current Premier League seems split into very distinct sections at this current time, with the Toffees amongst the six or seven sides that could finish anywhere between 6th and 12th. Prior to the season, I settled with 9th as my prediction, but I do see them as capable of more.

Points finish will arguably the better way to predict the following season, however. In a usual, not-just-spend-£1.7m-type-summer, I personally set 60 points as the bar for Everton to reach at the beginning of every campaign, if they could manage that, well then fair play Rafa. Marco Silva managed 54 points in his debut season, Ancelotti 59 last year – this time around, anywhere between those tallies would be good enough.


Everton now need time with the new set-up. Not one that will come and go within 18 months again. For many, Rafa still isn’t the man to be leading their football club, but four games in, he’s so far shown signs that he deserves that time.

We have a decent squad, with some really good individuals, coached by a seemingly capable manager. Time to be hopeful? Maybe.

One thought on “Rafa’s Everton: first impressions

  1. Excellent analysis and very thorough with the detail.
    Good read all round and hard to be critical of all you’ve written.
    I must add I agree with off loading the players you mentioned (Keane/ Holgate) next season.

    Like

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