The great Charlie Chaplin once said: “Despair is a narcotic. It lulls the mind into indifference.”
This wonderful quote sums Everton’s season up perfectly. The Toffees are not a bad group of players, but their low confidence has poisoned their minds to believe that the level they are currently playing at is perpetual.
Since David Moyes’ departure back in 2013, the Merseyside club has gone through some disastrous spells of form. However, it was never permanent. After a managerial change, the team always rose from the ashes like a blue phoenix to set up a comfortable mid-table finish.
Everton’s board were certainly hoping history would repeat itself when they announced the dismissal of Rafael Benítez and the appointment of Frank Lampard back in January. History definitely has not repeated itself.
The club is battered in bleakness at the minute as the ship stares down into the void of England’s second-tier. A new stadium is on the way, shrouding the club into severe impending debt, so the stakes could not be higher right now, yet the team are sinking lower and lower.
The Toffees’ defensive record has been nothing short of abysmal this season and their form desperately needs to see an upturn, or the hierarchy may need to prepare for the worst.
This article will be a tactical analysis of Everton as a team scout report. It will be an analysis, focusing on their defensive tactics which have put them in serious danger right now.
Formation and defensive style
For the first half of the season, Benítez was adamant with his use of the 4-2-3-1 as well as the 4-4-2. For the first few matches, the Spaniard’s conservative approach worked as the Toffees were situated in the top four.
Regardless, things rapidly unfolded. Towards the end of his reign, the ex-Liverpool manager swapped his beloved 4-2-3-1/4-4-2 hybrid for more of a 3-4-3. It was too late though. The damage had been done, and Benítez lost his job.
Since Lampard’s arrival, guessing the formation that the team will deploy has almost become a fun game fans like to play. The ex-Chelsea head coach still doesn’t quite know his best XI nor the formation that the side is more tactically suited to.
Altogether, the relegation-battlers have sifted through almost every formation known to man in the hope of hitting some sort of jackpot with one of them.
Formations are merely a structure though, quantifying where a player stands on a football pitch in correlation with his teammates. What matters most is the tactical principles within a structure.
Going off the data available, Everton’s defensive approach has been one of restrictiveness. The statistics show that the Toffees tend not to press high and are not very intense when applying pressure to the opposition.
To measure this, Total Football Analysis observed the team’s Passes allowed Per Defensive Action as well as their challenge intensity metrics, comparing them to the rest of the Premier League clubs. The former measures how many passes a team allows the opposition to have before making a defensive action while the latter calculates how many defensive actions a team makes per minute of opposition possession.
Regarding PPDA, Everton are allowing their opponents to make 13.8 passes on average before engaging — one of the highest in the league. The higher the PPDA, the less a team presses.
Their challenge intensity stands at 5.8 which is one of the lowest, meaning they make very few defensive actions while the opponent is in possession.
This doesn’t necessarily mean that a pragmatic approach is incorrect. A passive approach works for some teams. There is no right or wrong way to play football. Look at West Ham United on the graph. They are excelling this season once again under Moyes yet are on the extreme ends of both metrics.
However, unlike the Hammers, Everton are not excelling. The Toffees have conceded 52 goals in the league and are extremely passive out of possession. That being said, Everton have been slightly more proactive in the defensive phases under Lampard than his predecessor.
Lampard’s team are pressing much higher. Since he arrived at Goodison Park, the Toffees are averaging 43.88 pressures in the final third across his eight league games in charge compared to 33.74 under Benítez.
Duncan Ferguson’s interim reign was a brief one, so the sample size is far too small, but the team were averaging 38.5 pressures in the final third under the club legend’s guidance. This was a nice bridge between Lampard and Benítez’s contrasting styles.
Unfortunately for Lampard, though, while Everton are pressing much higher since he took over at the helm, they’re not good at it and boast a pressures success rate of just 28.4% compared to Benítez’s 31.14%. Perhaps this was why the former Real Madrid and Internazionale head coach was reluctant to push the team’s defensive block further up the pitch.
There is a reason why Everton’s pressing is lacklustre under Lampard. For a team to employ a successful high block, the players need to execute the press in unison, cutting off passing lanes, applying angled pressure, man-marking options near the ball, and finally ensuring that the lines are compact.
This image of Chelsea’s high press against Liverpool from earlier in the season is a wonderful example of all of these ingredients being mixed into one beautiful cocktail.
Every ingredient is needed to complement the other for the press to work, otherwise, teams can find themselves being easily carved open and bypassed which exposes the backline.
Remaining compact is one of the most important elements of a high press. Pressing cannot be sustained without the distance between the forwards, midfield and defence being close to one another. This is something that Everton seriously lack in their defensive play.
Here is an example of Everton’s high block from their recent 3-2 defeat at Turf Moor against their relegation rivals Burnley. The Toffees were deploying a 4-3-3 overall but their shape shifted to more of a 4-2-1-3 during this phase.
Observing this sample, the distance between the players is astronomical, particularly between the centre-forward, Dominic Calvert-Lewin, and Alex Iwobi, who was marking Burnley’s deepest midfielder during the man-oriented press. If the ball is played into the space behind the striker, the player would have been able to turn out easily and play forward after breaking the press.
Utilising a high block seems rather counterproductive if the team won’t execute it in coordination. In this same example, Burnley did as Burnley do and went direct out to the left-back. Anthony Gordon, Everton’s right-winger, was tucked inside to mark the Clarets’ left central defender. When Burnley played the ball out, Everton’s right-back should have stepped up to apply pressure instantly. He didn’t, and Gordon had to break his neck tracking back.
Here again, Everton’s press is completely malleable. They have committed more men in the press, although this is mainly due to Tottenham Hotspur utilising a back five with a double-pivot.
However, as can be seen from the image, it is far too easy for the Spurs midfielder to receive the ball from the wide areas, turn, and then drive forward unscathed.
The Toffees went with a 4-3-3 once more in this game. Allan roamed as the single pivot. With both Donny van de Beek and Abdoulaye Doucouré forward in the press here, Allan should have been up supporting once the first line of pressure was broken to jump on the Spurs midfielder.
Once the play developed, Spurs were able to run at Everton’s unprotected backline with ease, using their quality to create a wonderful opportunity.
One can admire Lampard’s attempt to get the side pressing higher and trying to force errors closer to the opponent’s goal. However, perhaps it would be wiser to take a more pragmatic approach until the end of the season. Everton are not efficient in their pressing and often, their poor structure leaves the backline far too exposed when the pressure is broken.
A lack of positional players
What is a positional player? This is a terminology that is almost never really used in English football’s vernacular.
In Brazil, positional players are essentially defensive midfield players that are extremely astute at protecting the space in front of the backline much like Liverpool’s Fabinho or Manchester City’s Rodri.
For the purpose of this article, the term was taken from Brazil manager Tite’s video with The Coaches’ Voice. Interestingly, in his analysis of the FIFA Club World Cup Final in 2013 between his Corinthians against Chelsea, the Brazilian labelled Chelsea’s double-pivot of Lampard and Ramires as the Blues’ key weakness because neither of them were ‘positional players’.
Funnily, positional players are the biggest thing that this Everton side is lacking under a head coach who couldn’t play positionally as a player.
Lampard has been forced to use several combinations of midfield trios and duos. In a game against Southampton a few weeks back, the English coach utilised Van de Beek and Allan in a double-pivot which was disastrous, to say the least.
This picture speaks a thousand words. The ball has been moved past Van de Beek, so Allan jumps to press the ball carrier, leaving an obscene vacuum of space behind the midfield line.
The backline’s choice to drop off deeper instead of stepping up to quash the space certainly didn’t help either but once Everton’s second line of their 4-4-2 block was broken, Southampton had a free run at the defence.
None of Everton’s midfielders are good at plugging gaps in the halfspaces either which leads to breakdowns in the team’s defensive structure.
For instance, in this scenario, Everton’s right-back Séamus Coleman was dragged wide to track Newcastle United’s winger, creating a gap between himself and the centre-back on his side.
Usually, in these situations, the ball-near pivot player would drop into the gap, forming a temporary back five in order to prevent the possibility of the opposition making an underlapping pass in the halfspace, breaking down the defensive block.
However, Doucouré, as he is not a positional player, much like the rest of the midfield department at Goodison Park, did not track the run of Joelinton, Newcastle’s central midfielder. The Magpies were able to get themselves into a great position to create an opportunity. Everton’s centre-back was forced to come across rapidly and make a last-ditch block in the end to avert the danger.
There is some hope though. As of writing, Everton’s most recent outing was in the league against Manchester United, a game that saw them take all three points.
The defensive performance was much more solid, albeit helped by some insouciant play by Ralf Rangnick’s side. Regardless, the relegation-threatened team kept their second clean sheet since Lampard’s debut against Leeds United.
One of the key factors in this was the return of Fabian Delph who was out for four months prior. Setting Everton up in a 4-1-4-1, Delph sat as the single pivot. The ex-Manchester City man is certainly a positional player and did a wonderful job protecting the backline from any players that dropped into his zone.
Delph’s return was undoubtedly welcomed by the coaching staff and fanbase; perhaps it will have a major impact on their quest for survival as the season winds down to the last few matches.
Football is a constantly flowing game. It is senseless to analyse a team’s defensive structure without looking at how they defend transitions.
These transitions occur from states of play where Everton had possession of the ball and it was turned over to enemy hands. Teams like Liverpool and Manchester City are experts at counterpressing and dealing with these situations, converting them into goalscoring opportunities.
However, Everton tend to struggle in this department quite a bit. One of the reasons for this is Lampard’s attacking set-up. The 43-year-old deploys somewhat of a brave tactical set-up, often leaving just one midfielder back sitting in front of the defensive line.
Due to the profile of players in the squad, many of Everton’s midfielders excel when taking up positions in the final third. Doucouré is a box-to-box player while Van de Beek plays his best football by ghosting into the box in a similar way to Dele Alli.
Unfortunately, though, trying to accommodate these players’ strengths by pushing them further forward in the offensive phases has made them weaker during defensive transitions, mainly because non-positional players are the being tasked with protecting the defence.
In this example, Doucouré was pushed forward while the Toffees poured into the final third. Newcastle won the ball and fed Allan Saint-Maximin who was leading the counterattack with purpose, pace and precision.
Allan had to step up to make a challenge but poorly mistimed his tackle and picked up a red card for his troubles. Everton won in the end, but the impact of the sending off could have been far more severe for the team and their relegation battle.
Allan is not good defensively but is probably the best of a bunch of players who cannot protect a backline sufficiently. Maybe Delph’s return can ease the pressure on Allan’s shoulders. The Brazilian had a fine game against Manchester United in a number ‘8’ role just in front of Delph.
There was a common theme in this analysis: the midfield. It’s far too simplistic to pin the entire blame on having a poor defensive record merely on the backline. Often, it is the lack of coverage from the midfield that causes the damage.
For Everton, irrespective of who will be in charge in the summer, signing a ‘positional player’, as Tite calls it, is of paramount importance if the team wants to bolster their defensive play next season.