The Derby came at the right time for Everton. Expectations have been slowly reduced through an underwhelming series of results allied to a longer term malaise that has set in around the derby. For Everton the game presented an opportunity where they had everything to gain and very little to lose. The contrast to our neighbours appeared pronounced in both the lead up to the game and the subsequent reaction to it afterwards. The level of anger and vitriol being directed towards Evertonian’s in the aftermath of the game is a reflection of this. While few of us would publically go that far to acknowledge it, to see Liverpool supporters approaching a derby game with such nerves and concern was a welcome and unusual sight. It is a feeling most Evertonians would greatly enjoy seeing with greater regularity. When put under pressure, like anybody else they crack. For Everton the job needs to be to produce a team that can more regularly put them under some of the scrutiny we have felt over the last 10-15 years.
Coming out of the game there are many positive take outs for Everton. The reintroduction of Schneiderlin has been nothing short of a revelation, Michael Keane looks the leader we’d hoped we had signed and the structure of the team looks much better. What it all eludes to is that manager Marco Silva produced a tactical display that trumped his opposite number Jurgen Klopp. He understood the dynamics of the game, where the pressure lay and ultimately how to exploit this for Everton’s advantage. While there was undoubtedly some luck along the way via crucial interventions from Pickford, Keane and Digne you will always require a degree of fortune to implement a game plan successfully against a side with the quality and assuredness of Liverpool. Few could reasonably begrudge Everton or Silva some good fortune, especially when you can see the positive work that has been put in off the pitch in building a cohesiveness that was missing beforehand. Likewise it is not wholly unrealistic to say Everton too were unfortunate in moments. The ball that is flung across the box of inches away from being turned in by Bernard, and the cross that was hastily sliced away by the imperious Van Dijk could have easily been sliced into his own goal. If one were to be pedantic about it, you could even argue that Everton’s moments were more unlucky than the Liverpool openings which were largely stopped by inspired defensive interventions rather than being inches away from being converted. However what cannot be disputed is given the relative resources at hand for both managers, for Silva to keep the game as close as he did is a major fillip for the Everton manager and one which we must hope he can build upon.
From the outside looking in it appears as if the Wolves game has provided a much needed epiphany for the coach. A mini revival with a win at Huddersfield followed by a good performance against Manchester City hinted at a corner being turned but the ease with which Wolves strolled past Everton put a marked halt to that. Just as the derby came at the right time the 17 day break has clearly helped Everton. He looks to have re-adjusted the approach, favouring a 2nd defensive midfielder in Morgan Schneiderlin to accompany Gueye and placed a real emphasis on restricting opportunity off set pieces where Schneiderlin’s height will come in handily.
Making big calls is important but the real key to a manager’s success is to see those calls having an impact. For what it’s worth I felt Schneiderlin was arguably Everton’s most important player on Sunday. He is a natural “number 6” who instinctively understands the nuances of protecting a back 4 in his positional play. By often standing in the correct places he acts as a deterrent to opponents to slip balls through to front players to attack our back 4 and when they try he is able to intercept a great number. While on the ball he can be limited and very ordinary at carrying it forward there is little doubt that when he is in the right frame of mind he’s an extremely effective footballer who helps to give this Everton team a structure to work from and a platform to build on. The last two performances he has put in are as well as he has played for Everton in 2 years and there has to be a hope it can mark the start of an unlikely revival (rather than a sporadic return to form).
While Schneiderlin’s return can and should get Silva plaudits what has arguably been more impressive is how the return of Schneiderlin has not hampered midfield partner Gueye. While I have seen both have good games individually before the last week it’s hard to remember them ever having good games alongside one another-even complimenting one another. The last 2 performances have seen Gana push further forward, use the ball more (and better) as well as getting through a reasonable amount of his own work. It will be open to question as to how long Gana will remain at the club for, but the coach again deserves some credit for the manner in which he has found a system where both players can demonstrate their attributes.
Since Wolves we have now only conceded 1 goal in 3 games. While it’s too short a sample to start to shout to the rooftops from it is the sort of defensive stability which will be important to maintain until the end of the season if Silva is to begin to re-establish his credibility at the club. After the derby we conceded 25 goals in just 12 games (2 of them against lower tier opposition). It did not give the team the chance to put a run together where confidence could be restored.
The positives for Marco Silva through this process are 2 fold. Firstly he has shown a tactical flexibility and creativity to solve problems that are presented to him. He had a team conceding too many goals (particularly from set plays) and has looked to adjust the system to reduce the number of goals we let in and thus far eliminate goals conceded of set plays. Secondly he has shown a proficiency to be able to improve players on the training pitch. While he out thought and out managed Klopp on Sunday, it would not have been possible without much work being implemented behind the scenes. The not unreasonable assertion that must flow from this is the question of what he might be able to achieve if he is given further time to work with the players, particularly a 2nd pre-season?
While at times the results have been underwhelming it’s hard to argue against some reasonable improvements in underlying indicators. The number of goals we score has increased substantially and the amount we concede has gone down (particularly from open play). There have also been significant improvements to a number of players, with Michael Keane, Gylfi Sigurdsson and Gana Gueye all rediscovering much better form. Of the younger players there have been improvements from Kenny, Davies and Calvert Lewin (though there is still a long way to go) and there are initial signs that Schneiderlin may be getting back to the form he displayed when he first joined us. Alongside that new signings such as Gomes, Digne, Bernard, Zouma and Richarlison have all been well accommodated into new pastures (especially impressive given the difficulties most had at their previous clubs).
What is perhaps more frustrating is that for all of these positives they haven’t massively translated into points on the table. There is only so long that a manager can hide behind the broader levels of good work that is being done in the background, though it’s not unreasonable to afford him a season to put the right practices in place before any serious analysis of on field performance is being undertaken. It’s also why innovations that translate so quickly to tangible results such as the recent tweak to the system is a big positive. It not only shows his competency for the job but the points return alleviates immediate pressure on him.
If we are to speculate why all the positives have as yet to produce tangible points improvements I would offer the suggestion that a mixture of naivety and lack of potency in important games has cost Everton. In home fixtures against sides around and below us we simply haven’t accumulated the return on points that would be commensurate with a side looking to finish 7th and above. Too many easy set piece goals have been conceded at one end and since the drop off in Richarlison’s form has occurred we don’t have enough of a threat at the other end. Going forward this will be Silva’s biggest headache going into the new season.
The solution to this problem lies partly at the feet of Marcel Brands. In honesty the club could do with 2 players, one to play as an attacking right winger and another to play down the middle. Whether the funds are in place to attract players with relevant qualifications will remain an open question. So too will the question as to whether it is realistic to expect 2 signings to come in and immediately rectify the difficulties we have. The experience of the last 3 years would indicate that signings alone will not solve Everton’s challenges and that players need time to settle in and a degree of continuity to flourish.
It’s within this context that the triumvirate Brands has previously mentioned of Lookman, Calvert Lewin & Richarlison have a crucial role to play. All of them are of an age where not only would you expect them to continue to improve but all are approaching an age where they should be becoming relied upon to deliver the goods on a regular basis in games where Everton would hope to win. While Richarlison and Calvert Lewin have kicked on this season, Lookman has thus far underwhelmed for Silva across the season, showing on mercurial flashes of brilliance rather than consistent game changing returns. His biggest challenge is to begin to utilize the above 3 players potential, ideally alongside a new recruit in the forward positions to help give Everton the sort of threat game to game that means credible 0-0 draws become carefully masterminded 2-0 wins.
Such questions are now very much for the summer. While it would be remiss to state that Silva will definitely be here then I can only say I greatly hope he will be. Beyond my instinctive belief to get behind managers and want them to do well there is a strong feeling in me that the continual change we have seen hasn’t helped the playing staff or results at Everton. On Sunday, the performance of Keane, Sigurdsson and Schneiderlin who have all at different times been maligned indicated to me that in general giving players time to settle into a team and system helps them reach their best. The best way of doing this is to have a stable management team above them.
However that logic alone will not be enough for Silva. The last 2 results have won him the opportunity to win many Evertonians back over the next 9 games. If we show the same intensity and desire of the next 9 games I fancy us to win 5 comfortably (Arsenal, Chelsea, Burnley, Fulham & Newcastle) While Manchester United, West Ham and Crystal Palace become winnable). 6 wins and a draw is not an unrealistic expectation and would mean we finished the season with 7 wins, 2 draws and 2 defeats. It would likely lead us to a 7th place finish and send the supporters into the close season with a sense of optimism that has been missing since the strong finishes that tended to typify David Moyes’s seasons. That now remains in Silva’s grasp and he can go some way to cementing himself as Everton manager, but the last 2 games have to be a real turning point we can build from.