The Season So Far
In some ways, it still feels like Everton are still in pre-season. A hugely encouraging summer transfer window, overseen by new Director of Football Marcel Brands, meant new manager Marco Silva suddenly had a supremely talented squad at his disposal. Established stars like Theo Walcott, Gylfi Sigurdsson and Jordan Pickford arrived last season, of course, and were joined by Richarlison, André Gomes, Bernard, Lucas Digne, Yerry Mina and Kurt Zouma. With so much genuine quality in the squad, and with a young, progressive manager in the dugout, hopes were high for a new era of sumptuous football and renewed success at Goodison Park. It hasn’t quite worked out like that - yet.
The first six games of the season yielded only one win and it wasn’t until the end of September that the Toffees kept their first clean sheet. Striker Cenk Tosun, last season’s big January signing, has been unexpectedly dropped. Richarlison, despite scoring lots of goals, has struggled to play as a number nine and the rest of the attackers have looked confused by the absence of a genuine target-man.
These are all teething problems rather than major crises, and they will all be resolved in due course. The problem is most other Premier League sides ironed out these kinds of creases in July and August, and Everton still look like a work in progress. Too much of the Toffees’ transfer business was done too late in the window and the squad is still gelling. Silva has just about worked out his best eleven and results have improved markedly, with five of the last six games won, but with Yerry Mina only just returning to fitness, we can expect another change of system to accommodate him and yet another period of acclimatisation for the Blues.
The Season Ahead
With so much work still to do on the training ground and with so little familiarity on the pitch, results will surely be indifferent until at least the new year. By the time Everton hit their stride, it will be too late to mount a Champions League push. Nonetheless, qualification for the Europa League is attainable and they look a good outside bet to win the FA Cup.
Realistically and most achievably, the aim should be to get ready for a proper push for fourth place in 2019-20. If this squad can be kept to together, and if they can become sufficiently familiar with each other, then the only transfer business that should be needed next summer will be making the loans of André Gomes and Kurt Zouma permanent signings. The squad has the requisite talent to play at the top level, they just need time to connect and to flourish together.
Some Everton fans may not appreciate the idea that they’re going to have to wait a year to see this team reach its potential, but if that truth seems unpalatable they should put things in context and remember that it could be much worse – it could be Sam Allardyce in the home dugout again.
Everton have played with a very orthodox 4-2-3-1 or 4-4-1-1 shape in every Premier League game this season, although they’ve shown admirable flexibility within that framework – the kind of flexibility that got Marco Silva such good results in so many other jobs. They’ve played to dominate, to contain and to counter, and while they haven’t looked anything other than a work in progress for most of the time, it’s clear that they’re at least well-organised and the players are familiar with their individual roles, whatever the overall team’s aims are.
Like all good 4-2-3-1s, this one is based on partnerships all over the pitch. The two centre-backs work in tandem, obviously, and the two central midfielders are always aware of the other’s positioning so they can adjust their own accordingly, while the full-backs are usually in very close proximity to the wide-forwards on both sides. Up front, Richarlison and Sigurdsson have interchanged almost at will, sometimes taking it in turns to come deep for the ball while the other pins the defence in place higher up the pitch.
This is a simple but effective way of making Everton compact, enabling quick attacks based on short-passing combinations, while minimising the amount of space the opposition have to counter-attack into. Almost all of Everton’s success this season has been based on this solid foundation.
Their organisation with and without the ball makes them effective at both ends of the pitch.
Only five Premier League teams have scored more goals, taken more shots and taken more shots from within the penalty area this season, while only six have had more shots on target and completed more dribbles than Everton.
More strikingly, they’re dominant from dead-balls: no team has created more chances from crosses, corners or free-kicks or had more headed efforts on goal. With aerial force of nature Yerry Mina – 15 goals in his last 50 starts for club and country – still to come into the side, this alone could drive Everton up the table.
Without the ball, the lack of space for opponents is backed up by a co-ordinated collective press: only three Premier League teams have made more tackles and only seven have blocked more passes, meaning Everton keep their opponents a long way from their goal: only three teams have played less football in their own final third. The same three are the only teams to have conceded fewer shots on their goal and fewer goals from open play this season. Chelsea won’t find it that easy to break them down.
Everton’s most obvious issue is their lack of cohesion. This is largely due to how late they did their most important business in the transfer window, but the knock-on effect has been noticeable. This is simply not a team which has gelled or which is playing to its full potential, and while this lasts, they won’t get the results their talent merits.
In open play, their football is stuttered and prone to breaking down - no team has lost the ball more often with unsuccessful touches, while only four have been dispossessed more times - while at the back they’re vulnerable to the most basic of attacks: no team has conceded more goals from set-pieces (6) this season.
While the raw data says they’re giving up very few shots on their goal – the fourth lowest number in the division, remember – they’re still conceding a lot of goals (15 and counting), and their Expected Goals Against (xGA) tally very nearly matches their real goals against figure, so it’s not down to bad luck. Simply put, it’s very little use defending well for 89 minutes and restricting your opposition to two or three chances per game if those two or three chances are almost certain goals.
Last weekend’s game was a case in point: Brighton did almost nothing to merit a goal in that game, but a single short corner routine and one simple cross into the box led to an easy close-range finish for an unmarked attacker. As long as that scenario is repeated, Everton will find it hard to get the wins they need against teams of a similar calibre.
A special mention for Theo Walcott in this section, who is just rubbish and undermines his team’s efforts on a staggeringly regular basis. How is he still playing at this level and being paid so handsomely to do so?
With Kurt Zouma unable to play against Chelsea, Yerry Mina will start his first game for the Toffees. Whether he’s too rusty to handle Eden Hazard remains to be seen. Top scorer Richarlison hasn't trained this week after sustaining a knock last weekend and may miss out. Otherwise, Everton should be as we’d expect.
Maurizio Sarri gave Jorginho and Ross Barkley 90 minutes against BATE on Thursday night, while both Eden Hazard and Pedro started too. We shouldn’t be surprised if at least some of those players are rested on Sunday.
Thankfully for Chelsea, Everton aren’t yet the team they will be in April or May. 2-1 to the home side.