Written by Anaamaya Mishra
With less than a week to go for the reintroduction of the Premier League, fans and pundits alike have started dishing out their pre-season predictions. With 98 and 97 points in the league respectively for Manchester City and Liverpool last season, choosing between either of the two would be a punter’s nightmare. Sheffield United have 4/6 odds in favour of relegation in their first appearance in the top-flight after more than a decade, whereas Wolves and Leicester City are believed to be giving their all for a push towards the illustrious top six. It just might not prove to be true, owing to Manchester United and Arsenal’s strategy in the transfer market where they strengthened their weaknesses exhibited in the previous campaign. (Arsenal still have a few days to fix that defense and United are still in the market for a midfielder.)
The thing that somewhat irks me about this discussion is that Everton isn’t mentioned anymore in the run-in for the esteemed sixth-place spot. It’s true, Everton has been flirting with the chance of a Europa League spot for so long now that it’s old news. Especially when we have been treated to Nuno Espirito Santo and Brendan Rodgers’ brilliant teams who play a particularly eye-catching brand of football. It could be argued that Everton’s exclusion from the discussion could be a result of their own doing, many think of them as perpetual top-half fodder within the Premier League without contributing anything substantial to the game.
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But if the latter half of last season is anything to go by, we need to talk more about Everton.
The Toffees had been having a mediocre couple of seasons, ever since Ronald Koeman’s loss, the club has been all over the place. And now, with some determined competition from the Foxes and Wolves, the Merseysiders would have to watch over their shoulders as that competition could easily bite them off and nudge them towards complete irrelevance, like much of the staple mid-table clubs in the league.
It was inarguable that Sam Allardyce’s brand of football was anything but entertaining. Especially to fans of the blue side in Merseyside who had been treated to entertaining and attacking football in the yesteryears under Koeman and Martinez, to name a few.
Big Sam’s defensive approach, although unwelcome to the larger section of the fanbase, was a necessity. Everton had been leaking goals willy-nilly with Ronald Koeman and David Unsworth in charge – a whopping average of 2.15 goals per match as opposed to Allardyce’s average of 1.2 goals conceded per match. They got the defensive surgery they desperately needed and parted ways with Allardyce at the end of the 2017/18 season.
Everton conceded 46 goals in 2018/19 under new management. An average of 1.2 goals conceded per match. A decent outcome for Marco Silva who averaged 1.9 goals conceded in parts of two seasons at Hull City and Watford.
The club hierarchy owes considerable gratitude towards their recruitment structure. The appointment of former Watford boss Marco Silva wasn’t without its sceptics. He had been instrumental in Hull City’s rejuvenation but just fell short of their target – which was to retain their spot in the league. It could easily have been a rerun of Everton’s defensive horror-show, but for smart signings in the summer transfer window.
Barcelona outcasts Lucas Digne and Andre Gomes had been instrumental in their running for Europa League football; with the former cementing his status as one of the best performers at left-back in the league and the latter looking like an elegant conductor of play in midfield. Former Watford man Richarlison also proved to be a star turn for the Evertonians, having contributed 14 goals in the Premier League, showing a lot of promise in the process.
Defence and set-pieces always were Silva’s crutch as a manager, and they weren’t rectified that easily either. The club conceded a total of 16 set-piece goals throughout the season. 2 from direct freekicks, 5 from indirect freekicks, and a mind-boggling tally of 9 from corners. To put that into perspective, Everton conceded 34% of all their goals from set-pieces.
The Toffees endured a tough spell in the middle of the season where they suffered 8 losses in 10 games which put Marco Silva’s job hanging in the balance. Fearing for his job security, Silva made some drastic changes and turned it around in spectacular fashion.
Reiterating what I said before – If the final third (and most recent) run of the campaign is anything to go by, Everton could easily give all the top teams a run for their money in the coming season.
The Merseysiders had a glorious last three months in the Premier League but their successful venture was left unexplored, owing to City and Liverpool’s title race which captured the attention of the entire Premier League fanbase and the broadcasters.
For our convenience, (since there cannot be three perfect halves of the season) we shall divide their season into 13+13+12.
During the intermediate stage of the season, the Portuguese manager endured his worst run in the English top-flight, losing 8 games and drawing 2 out of the possible 13, conceding 23 goals and acquiring a measly 11 points off a possible 39.
As seen with countless sackings and replacements, there always seems to be a honeymoon period with a new manager in which things go to plan and the cohesion within the squad is significantly improved. Silva had a good start to his season, but come January, it was falling apart.
Something I found quite appealing was how the club bounced back in grand fashion. In the final third of the season, Everton conceded nearly ⅓rd of the goals they let-in in the previous period, i.e 8 goals in total as opposed to 23 in the previous upsetting period. Winning against heavyweights like Chelsea, Arsenal and the demolition of Manchester United where they beat the Red Devils by four goals to zero was a testament to their defensive improvement and attacking threat.
Goodison Park was a fortress – one would have to go back all the way to 7th February when they so much as conceded a goal at their home ground. (A 0-2 loss to eventual champions Manchester City.) Since then, the Toffees are yet to concede a goal in the 39572 seated Goodison Park. It was here where they played Liverpool, Chelsea, Arsenal and Manchester United and conceded an astonishing total of 0 goals in the back end of last season.
In fact, 5 of the 8 goals they conceded as a whole in the last third were to lowly Fulham and Newcastle United, epitomising their truly horrid nature of succumbing to complacency against lesser sides. The same can be said of Wolves who accounted for Huddersfield Town’s 66.66% of wins in the last season.
So how did the drastic improvement in defence come about? In the latter stages of the season, Silva quietly moved to a man-to-man marking system on set-pieces instead of the troublesome zonal marking which cost him countless points in his managerial career. In Everton’s strong finish to the season – the final 12 matches starting with the 0-1 loss to Watford, the Toffees conceded only two goals from set-pieces.
Also, an emphasis on players’ positional play proved to be a catalyst in their employment of the high pressing tactic. With an energetic front two of Gylfi Sigurdsson (who did play as a 10 while in possession) and Dominic Calvert-Lewin ripe for hunting down and pressuring defences to falter or open up, it began at the front and continued at the back where the pacy, strong and defensively sound duo of Kurt Zouma and Michael Keane deputised expertly.
Silva’s masterstroke also meant that Sigurdsson could expertly hone his talents as a central attacking midfielder, as opposed to a false-nine, or a winger – a position where he played for the majority of the season and failed to mark any significant contribution for the club.
A projection of stats in the hypothetical ‘latter stage’ of the season would show just how brilliant and tactically astute Everton had grown into, as opposed to different teams in the league. Only Liverpool (7) and Manchester City (3) conceded fewer goals than Everton who conceded 8 goals in this period. The same can be said about goals scored as well, three teams in Liverpool (30), Manchester City (27) and Crystal Palace (22) outscored The Toffees, who had a tally of 21 goals.
Defensively adept Idrissa Gueye’s loss seems to be a substantial blow for the Evertonians. The Senegalese remains to be the only player in the league who has made more tackles since 2016 than N’Golo Kante. Immediately replacing him with Jean-Phillipe Gbamin looks to be the work of a recruitment team with a definite and calculated mindset, with the principle of nurturing the side towards any sort of development within the league and hopefully in Europe. They have also bolstered their squad with the addition of precocious Italian teenager Moise Kean. The Italian wonderkid comes with a huge reputation to a club devoid of any first-team strikers with any real threat. The Toffees had to make do with Richarlison and Sigurdsson as strikers to compensate for Cenk Tosun’s incompetence in the Premier League. The 18-year-old talent comes with a reasonable price tag along with 7 goals and 1 assist to his name last season.
Whether they do go on to do it, is a whole different matter. Theory and practice are often different, but one thing is for certain, Everton finally have the right tools for their potential surge into the top-six. It does seem a bit premature, seeing as their improvement came too little, too late to cause substantial damage to top clubs. But for a team that finished just 3 points shy of Europa League-destined Wolves, l hope that they prove all their doubters and the runaway Leicesters and Wolves of the league wrong.
El Arte Del Futbol is now an official content creator for One Football. Find more original features, Player Profiles and tactical analysis on www.elartedf.com. If you are reading this on our website, we’d like to thank you for your continuous support!