Examining Everton and their sterile possession problem

Date published: Thursday 26th September 2019 8:18

Marco Silva’s Everton side have begun the season in unspectacular fashion. Many pre-season predictions had them among a handful of teams with the potential to break into the top six, which absolutely should be the aim for a club such as Everton, just as it is for Leicester, Wolves and West Ham. But the Toffees have not lived up to these expectations.

Statistics and data certainly don’t tell you everything in football – especially not at this early stage of the season where sample sizes are small – but they can indicate possible future trends or problems, and they suggest a number of problems for Silva.

Everton are second in the league…for average possession. Their average of 57%  possession per game puts them behind the ball-hogging 60% average of Manchester City, and just ahead of Tottenham and Liverpool.

If you have the ball then your opponent cannot score, but that’s not been the case for the Merseyside club so far this season. And crucially, what are they doing to make sure they actually win games?

Football’s basic currency is goals, and Silva’s side have only scored five this season in the Premier League. They are 16th in the league for goals scored, which immediately indicates they are not doing much with the possession they have.

Digging deeper, they are ninth in the league for total shots, 16th for shots on target and, most worryingly, bottom of the league for percentage of shots on target.

The concern is the number of their shots which are blocked. They are top of the league when it comes to the percentage of shots blocked by an opposition defender before they even reach the goal.

This suggests the quality of the chances they are creating is not very good, and this is backed up by an xG of 7.57, which puts them 14th in the league according to Understat.

Assessing this chance creation from another angle by looking at the total number of passes each team has made so far this season, then calculating how many of these are key passes (ie a pass which leads to a shot), a picture begins to be painted of a team’s style and effectiveness.

When looking at this calculation, which shows the average amount of passes made per key pass (PPKP, if you want a clever-sounding acronym) and the percentage of passes considered a key pass, you begin to see how often a team creates shooting opportunities.

Everton are 12th for this particular calculation, so despite their possession dominance, they aren’t doing much with it. This, coupled with xG and shooting statistics, shows that when they are creating chances, they are not of high quality.

Is it a surprise that Burnley come out on top of this PPKP table? Probably not. A snobbishness has crept into football which spreads the idea that there is one ‘right way’ to play the game, but Sean Dyche would like a word.

Dyche’s team are top of PPKP table because, even though they have made the fewest passes in the league, they have done the most with these passes. Some call it direct, some call it long ball, others look down on it as hoof-ball, but their smash-and-grab style is arguably much more entertaining than pointless possession football.

Norwich are another interesting side when it comes to this possession, shooting and chance quality data. They are outperforming their xG, which can sometimes suggest an element of luck, but they are second in the league for percentage of shots on target, and have the lowest number of blocked shots in the division.

Daniel Farke’s side also have the second fewest number of shots, but are ninth for shots on target. It’s an interesting mix, which has them seventh in the league for goals scored but bottom of the PPKP chart. It suggests Norwich are good at getting into open spaces to take their shots and catching the opposition off guard when they do so. Also smash and grab but in a different fashion to Burnley.

All of this makes for a varied and exciting Premier League. It’s early in the season so clubs such as Everton can identify problems and therefore solutions, at least in theory (ie changing to a 4-3-3 and/or using Alex Iwobi as a free eight/10).

Since Maurizio Sarri departed Chelsea, Man City are perhaps the only team for whom the priority is to dominate possession to win games, but even Pep Guardiola’s side have other methods of winning games and scoring goals.

Teams are realising that counter-attacking and counter-pressing can produce excellent chances on goal, and for that tactic to be effective, the other team needs to have the ball.

For every action there is an equal and opposite reaction. Possession for the sake of it became dull, while high-octane, high-speed, counter-football injected new life into the game. When combined with the pace, fitness and stamina of modern-day players, it can lead to some thrilling football.

Possession is still useful, and it’s important for teams to be able to control games if they possibly can, but if they are not doing anything with that possession, then it can be a burden and then an attacking weapon for the other team. This has been the case for Everton, who need to either join the counter-revolution, or work out how to create better chances in better areas with all that possession.

James Nalton – follow him on Twitter

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