What Made Everton the Early Surprise of the Premier League Season and How Did It Go Wrong So Quickly

Through five games of the Premier League season, no team had surprised more than Everton. Coming off of a 12th-place finish, the Toffees won their first four matches and then managed a draw against Liverpool. It sparked some lofty dreams of the title flipping to the other side of the Merseyside derby, along with legitimate talk of contending for a Champions League spot. It was enough for me to project them in fourth.

All of that changed quickly - Everton’s attack disappeared and two consecutive losses dropped them out of the top of the table. Some of the aggressive predictions now seem unrealistic, but it’s certainly still worth investigating how they managed the improved results early in the season and what it means going forward.

What Went Right Early On?

1. The arrival of James Rodriguez

Maybe more than any other factor, James’ performance early on was an enormous difference maker for the Toffees. Offensively in 2019-20, Everton was completely lacking creativity in the attack. Lucas Digne was by far their most effective creator - his seven assists and 2.1 key passes per game were easily the best marks on the team. Overall, this left Everton in the middle of the table for almost every passing and shot creation category.

James has immediately stepped in as a key to improving those stats. He is an elite playmaker as seen in his vision and touch below.

He has contributed an 86% pass success rate, three goals, three assists, and 2.8 key passes per game. Even that can’t account the play driving seen in the clip above that doesn’t go down as an assist. The increased creativity in the attack that Rodriguez brings makes this a far more dangerous attack - their percentage of shots hitting the target has increased, and they’ve improved their ranking in the key areas below. It also brings more diversity to the attack - the Toffees are far less dependent on crosses to create their offense this season.

Importantly, Rodriguez is also a great counterpart to Richarlison and Digne on the other wing. While he provides creativity and passing on the right-side, James isn’t known as someone who is going to get back and defend; Richarlison is almost the opposite, able to use his energy at both ends to put pressure on the opponent. That effort helps allow the team to cover for James not getting back, and provides another option on the attack.

Meanwhile, Digne continues to be an effective passer and crosser of the ball on the left. That is vital for Everton in attack; not only does it give Everton multiple players who can create chances, but them being on opposite wings forces the opposition to account for that instead of focusing on one side of the pitch. While the addition of James’ skill is one reason for better passing success, forcing the opposition to spread out and account for threats on both wings opens up channels that lead to that success as well.

You can see that in the below screenshot from the match against Brighton - Richarlison’s effort forces a scramble, and while this doesn’t lead to a chance because Brighton gets their positioning right, they have to do so by covering the entire field and leaving space.

If a team fails to cover in that way, they’re setting themselves up for immediate failure. Again using the Brighton game as an example, failure to spread out and cover James will eventually lead to an easy goal for him.

The best teams don’t have one method of attack; they have a preferred style of play, but can make teams pay in multiple ways. Everton has moved in that direction this year, with their increased talent leading to getting more of their shots from threatening areas and more goals. That was key to the apparent turnaround early on.

2. Central Midfield

While James has understandably gotten the attention, the additions of Allan and Abdoulaye Doucouré have been incredibly important. Their defensive strength has solidified the middle of the field - Allan is averaging over four tackles and an interception per game, while Doucouré has 1.6 interceptions per game. They’ve also both been solid on the ball, with pass success rates of nearly 90%.

The center of the field was a clear weakness last season, arguably Everton’s biggest issue at both ends of the field. These two additions have solidified the middle defensively, allowing the team’s offense to thrive on the wings and giving their counterparts in a midfield trio the chance to focus on providing additional offense as well. Even if other parts of the team regress towards last season’s levels, these two can keep the team far more competitive.

3. Set Pieces

Everton was lethal on set pieces in their hot start; of their 15 goals so far this season, six have come from set pieces. Obviously this is a good thing in one sense - Everton was taking advantage of the opportunities they gained to convert those set pieces. The crossing ability present on the team, combined with Calvert-Lewin’s ability to find space and get to the ball can be impossible to defend.

However, it’s also likely unsustainable - Liverpool and Manchester City led the Premier League in set piece goals last year with 17 each. Everton can’t expect to continue having almost a set piece goal per game; they need to create more from their chances in open play.

What’s Gone Wrong

The falloff was swift for Everton, and a clear key to that has been injuries and suspensions. James, Richarlison, Seamus Coleman, and Lucas Digne have all missed time over the past few matches. Unfortunately for Everton, that’s exposed a clear lack of depth within the squad.

Richarlison’s pressure has been missed, and missing his defensive responsibility has put more pressure on a central defense that is Everton’s biggest weakness right now. It has also forced Calvert-Lewin away from his strengths - against Southampton he had only two touches in the opposing half, while against Newcastle he had far too many touches after being forced to try to get involved in the buildup and create for his team.

The lack of the top choices on both wings and both fullback spots left Everton completely abandoning the wings against Newcastle as well. Everton doesn’t have the creativity down the middle for that to work, and it showed - they were consistently forced into forcing the ball back outside for ineffective crosses. Very few teams could survive losing four top choice players in the area they look to control, and clearly Everton is not at the level yet (nor should anyone expect them to be).

What Does It Mean Going Forward?

For this season, Everton is dependent upon avoiding similar suspension and injury issues. Every team is going to have them, especially in this odd season, but they can’t be in the same positions all at once. At full strength I still believe this team can compete with anyone in the league; however, they are in much worse position to deal with any problems compared to other contenders.

Looking long-term, the ideal scenario can clearly be seen in their own city. Early on for Liverpool under Jurgen Klopp, the club lacked depth and a strong central defense. Obviously Virgil Van Dijk has been the biggest addition to fix the second issue, but Liverpool’s strength has also come from the quality of players they’re able to bring off of the bench without sacrificing their style of play.

Everton has to be even better in the transfer market than Liverpool - they don’t have quite as much financial strength to overcome any mistakes. This year’s moves have been an extremely solid start; following the Liverpool model to build off of them with depth that enhances your strategy on the field is the key to becoming a consistent top-four threat. There’s no reason Everton can’t do that if they continue to make strong evaluations with a consistent strategy.

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