With plenty of attacking thrills in the shape of Romelu Lukaku, Ross Barkley and Gerard Deulofeu, it is easy to see why people have warmed to Everton this season. However, this bed of attacking roses has found its beauty tempered by a proliferation of defensive brambles. For every sublime Deulofeu cross bouncing invitingly onto the fringe of the six yard box, we find John Stones mysteriously alongside Barkley somewhere in central midfield with the team out of possession. We see Lukaku arriving a yard from goal with the trajectory and velocity expected from a turnbuckle dismount while Gareth Barry attempts to direct the chaos around him from the age-enforced position of a sentry. Aaron Lennon continues to look “not bovvered” by anything and Tim Howard rues the double crossed deal he made with the footballing Gods during the last World Cup. But by heck is he trying.
There have also been media story lines this year that decided, predominantly driven by starry-eyed viewers drinking down the good stuff, that Everton have been “unlucky”. With nearly half the team’s shots derived from the boots and foreheads of Barkley and Lukaku (135/282) we have evidence of clear strategy but statistical categories offer diverging insights. So we have a bit of a puzzle. Is this Everton side actually any good? Or are they a Ramiro Funes Mori away from completing another season of pretty but ultimately futile football? All the while comfortable in the knowledge that they are far too good to get sucked into the nether regions of the table; a bit like Newcastle, or at least a bit like Newcastle used to be before they forgot their whole strategy was to get enough points to survive by Christmas.
In basic terms, Everton have won six games from twenty-two, which isn’t good and is the same as struggling outfits such as Chelsea or Norwich. On the flip side we have a mere five defeats: the same as Manchesters City and United. If we trudge over to the public expected goals number of Paul Riley, we find them 13th and overachieving by ten goals yet Michael Caley has recently had them around 7th or 8th but only slightly overachieving their goal difference by about three. Seventh seems to reflect a good side, thirteenth less so but there’s been enough teeth gnashing around to feel that not everyone is content with the efforts of the nicest guy in football, Roberto Martinez. Pointedly, these numbers seem to suggest they’ve been fortunate; the opposite of the media view.
The thing is they are currently 11th; which when held up against these numbers tells me very little. To project around mid table and be around mid table doesn’t suggest a whole lot of luck at either end, so what is going on?
Part of what made me ponder Everton was noting their very high shot conversion rates. Both they and Leicester have been converting all their shots at over 13% and their shots on target at over 38% (Everton actually hit 40% this week). No other team is above 12% or 35% respectively giving both teams a steady advantage on the front end. Partly this is why Leicester remain in an unlikely title contending position where more repeatable shooting numbers suggest they are at best European contenders.
In fact, season long figures for Everton and Leicester look remarkably similar:
Leicester have an edge here but how does it account for fifteen points and ten places in the table? Well, this is variance in action. In the majority of multiverses in which this league is being played we find these teams among the fringes of European challengers, hoping to kick on but coveting safe passage more than tangible glory.
This reality is better described in margins. In close games this season (those that finished with a goal or less between the two teams) Leicester are 10-7-1, a fantastic and unlikely to maintain record. Everton, draw specialists, have managed a far less points-lucrative 2-11-3. Yet when Everton have won they have done so with some aplomb:
A 1-0 victory against Newcastle is the single dull victory they have managed, so when they’ve been winning it’s been attention grabbing stuff. Everyone remembers a couple of crushing Everton wins, right? They must be a good side! So how come they are in mid-table? They must be unlucky… And so the narrative builds.
Then we go back through the analytical lens and we find the opposite: these sporadic demolitions have had a powerful effect on their measured shooting and conversion numbers. The positive extremes created that seem to indicate good luck are derived from a very small bunch of fixtures, we’ve seen six wins by an average of 2.5 goals yet five defeats by smaller margins: an average of 1.6 goals per game. The Everton front end has scored 20 goals in six wins and 19 in eleven draws and five defeats. In fact Everton lead the league in “average margin of victory”, something I totted up to see if the theory held:
This is why there is seemingly nowhere to go for Everton, pull a couple of big results out of the analysis and the rest of their games reflect quite a flat season, neither particularly lucky or unlucky, sometimes strong in attack, other times weak in defence, par numbers, mid table numbers. The kind of team that can go to the Etihad and pull off a 0-0 on a good day or lose 4-3 at home to Stoke when full of Christmas pudding. In a nutshell, an average Premier League side.
Given long term fan concerns regarding investment and ownership, maintaining a position in the league in such a financially vital season is probably a fair and dispassionate target: it is what is good for the club, but when memories of Moyes and European slots are still fresh and trophies and glory still sit close to the hearts of older fans, to bounce inconsistently along doesn’t quite sate desire. The £40 million for Stones, if ever on the table, could have gone a long way. It remains to be seen if it arrives again.
I’ve been kindly reminded by Paul Riley of Paul Riley’s Everton season preview here on StatsBomb.
Seems he wasn’t too far off the mark with a 10th to 11th prediction and defensive warnings: there’s truth in the numbers.
Thanks for reading!
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