With seven points and three clean sheets in their last four games, it would appear that Everton are finally starting to take shape under Marco Silva.
Sure, they pulled off the mother of all collapses to throw away a 2-0 lead at Newcastle United, but that result was sandwiched between three clean sheets, two of which came during impressive home results against Liverpool and Chelsea.
This recent upturn in form has put an end to a torrid run of six defeats in eight games – including that Millwall debacle – but more importantly, there are signs that this Everton side are starting to respond to Silva’s methods, with their fans raising the bar as a result.
So, read on to find out five ways Marco Silva is changing to save his Everton job.
1. Refined Everton’s zonal marking
Ah, zonal marking. So hapless has been Everton’s execution of the most effective way to defending set pieces, it has become something of a buzz term applied to fan frustration towards Silva at many points this season.
However, as former Liverpool defender Jamie Carragher stated during the 2005/06 and 2006/07 seasons under Rafa Benitez: “Overall, I believe we conceded fewer [from set pieces] since Rafa introduced zonal marking. It may seem like more only because if you lose a goal with zonal marking, the system always gets the blame – if you do it with man-to-man, an individual gets the blame.”
That Liverpool side had the best defensive record from set pieces in the Premier League during that time, conceding just six goals per season. Hell, even George Graham’s Arsenal, or Everton’s very own golden era under Howard Kendall used zonal marking. It’s not a foreign concept at all.
The problem at Everton was Silva’s failure to identify which areas were actually causing the issues. At the start of the season, the Toffees’ defending of their front post at corners had as much substance as a load-bearing Ryvita. So, to compensate, they flooded that area. The result; teams now fired in deep crosses to the far post, giving them an easy chance to head back across goal. Therein lay Silva’s next issue: unreactive defenders.
When that cross was headed back across goal, Everton’s defenders seemed happy to stand and admire the onrushing opponent, watching the ball go into the back of the net rather than going out to meet it.
Silva’s big saviour was the fixture schedule, which allowed him a break of 17 days between Everton’s 1-0 defeat to Watford and their 3-0 win over Cardiff in which to refine his zonal marking system, and what an effect that has had. During their last four games, Everton have faced a total of 22 corners and conceded from just one – Newcastle’s winning goal during that 3-2 collapse and even then, the Toffees cleared the initial ball while the officials failed to miss a blatant offside for Salomon Rondon’s assist.
Silva’s defenders are now attacking the ball aggressively and spotting danger proactively, lending a huge hand to their recent spurt of clean sheets.
2. Developed a low block…
Another reason behind Everton’s resurgent defence is Silva’s development of a low block.
Sure, Everton have been effective in a deep line at times this season, namely during their 0-0 draw at Stamford Bridge back in November, but there never appeared to be a consistent plan for grinding out results when the chips were down, or maintaining a disciplined shape when they faced sides who dominated the ball more than they did.
Again, though, that 17-day break came to Silva’s rescue. During the three-game clean sheet streak maintained since they returned to action, Silva has deployed a narrow 4-4-2 without possession, using Gylfi Sigurdsson as a blocker to the opposition’s main playmaker (e.g., stopping the pass from Chelsea’s centre-backs to Jorginho). This has largely stopped sides being able to dominate possession on the edge of Everton’s own box, while the narrow shape has stopped the likes of Eden Hazard and Mohamed Salah operating in those nightmare spaces between the lines.
Admittedly, it all went a little wrong against Newcastle but once the dust settles, a 25-minute blip can be forgiven when the long-term progress is yielding clean sheets against two of the best sides in the Premier League.
To say Silva is suddenly deploying Simeone-esque defensive tactics would be a little sensational, but the Portuguese has turned Everton from soft touch to hard knocks at a time when he was under immense pressure.
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3. …but has combined it with a ruthless press
Playing with a low block and forcing your opponent to pass from side to side is all well and good, for a time. However, the Goodison Park crowd simply will not allow its team to passively stand by and simply contain an opponent, showcased by the growing sense of frustration in the stands during the first half against Chelsea on Sunday.
However, Silva heard this and seemingly had a plan for it, too. Whatever he said, fed, or did to the Everton players at half time had a marked effect as, right from the first whistle after the break, his players got right into Chelsea’s face, snapping into tackles, bullying them off the ball and pressing high to force those dangerous transitions. Before they knew it, Chelsea found themselves firmly on the back foot, conceding chances and ultimately, a goal in the 49th minute via Richarlison’s rebound. Putting it bluntly, Chelsea’s possession football couldn’t pass the strict test it was put under on Sunday.
Richarlison's game by numbers vs. Chelsea:
15 passes completed
4 tackles won
1 aerial duel won
A fine performance to add to his fine season. pic.twitter.com/9YSZYxkKW5
— Squawka Football (@Squawka) March 17, 2019
This high press continued throughout the second half and at the end of the game, Everton’s top tacklers were Richarlison (4), Dominic Calvert-Lewin (3) and Gylfi Sigurdsson (2). Silva had heard the fans, spotted a chink in Maurizio Sarri’s armour and gone straight for the jugular with spectacular effect to deliver Everton’s first win against a ‘big six’ side since their surprise 4-0 demolition of Manchester City back in January 2017.
4. Consistency up front
Dominic Calvert-Lewin, Cenk Tosun or Richarlison? The striker conundrum has been one to plague Everton throughout this season – and the past two seasons if you include their inability to replace Romelu Lukaku.
Such has been Everton’s inconsistency up front, Silva has started Calvert-Lewin and Richarlison 11 times in that position this season, while Tosun has led the line on another 10 occasions. Each has their own unique skill-set to apply there, and the question as to which one is actually the best option will rage on.
However, in the past four games, Silva has opted for consistency, fielding Calvert-Lewin from the off in each fixture and returning Richarlison to his favoured wide role. His reward for the faith shown in the 22-year-old has been two goals and four centre-forward performances of the highest order. Against Chelsea especially, the England U21 international was an outright bully, adding to his aforementioned tackles with seven aerial duels won – more than Chelsea’s centre-backs, Antonio Rudiger and David Luiz, combined.
Calvert-Lewin’s pace in behind has had Cardiff, Liverpool, Newcastle and Chelsea all cautious about playing a high line, while the run of games seems to be refining his touch and building his confidence.
“I’d like to think my last few performances have shown that I can lead the line and I’m capable of taking that responsibility and lead the lads from the front,” Calvert-Lewin told reporters.
Maybe, just maybe, Everton have finally stumbled upon their long-term striker solution.
5. Embraced Goodison Park
As of Everton’s 1-0 defeat to Watford in February, the Toffees were ninth in the Premier League, on a horrendous run and five points behind seventh-placed Wolves. Evertonians were not happy, with Silva finding himself on the end of a chorus of boos on the final whistle of a number of games.
During his time at the club, majority shareholder Farhad Moshiri has not been shy when hiring and firing, with Roberto Martinez, Ronald Koeman and Sam Allardyce all biting the bullet during his tenure so far. Silva was under pressure.
The 41-year-old has now bought himself some breathing space, though, with the recent impressive results, while the games against Liverpool and Chelsea show that Goodison Park might just be turning back into that horrible bear pit it once was.
That noise ? pic.twitter.com/dwQH4P1haw
— Toffee TV (@ToffeeTVEFC) March 17, 2019
Against Liverpool, the atmosphere was raw, with fans showing a primordial need to put Jurgen Klopp’s men off their stride – which they certainly succeeded in doing. Although it wasn’t quite as hostile on Sunday – unless you were Ross Barkley – Everton’s second-half performance had Goodison rocking once more, with the fans feeding off the energy of the players and creating a little void from which nothing in the Chelsea yellow could escape.
Throughout his tough period, Silva has continued to refer to Everton and their fans as “us” and “we”. Now, that togetherness is truly being felt and when that happens, Goodison Park is one of the worst places in the Premier League for opposition sides to visit.
The defeat to Newcastle may mean Everton lost a little ground on the teams around them, but the three results either side of it show they are now geared up for a big run-in.