Idrissa Gueye Powers Everton's Surprising Defense
Everton are just chugging right along.
A third of the way through the season the team sits in sixth place. On the one hand that’s not quite enough success to raise eyebrows. They still trail five of the traditional big six, and we all know about Manchester United’s tire fire of a season. At the same time, they aren’t wildly exceeding expectations the way some other top half sides like Watford or Bournemouth are. Everton are just a team that people thought might be pretty good, that are in fact pretty good. That doesn’t mean they aren’t interesting though.
Marco Silva arrived at Everton with a swashbuckling reputation. His sides at both Hull City and Watford pressed high and sacrificed defensive solidity for attacking opportunities. They weren’t necessarily better than their talent suggested they should be, but they were definitely more entertaining. After half a season with Sam Allardyce Everton fans certainly understand exactly how important trying to be fun while also trying to get results can be.
But while Marco Silva’s Everton are fun, it’s actually their defense that’s making them competitive. Their attack is fine. They average 1.14 expected goals per game, that’s 11th in the Premier League. They take 13.54 shots a game, that’s the sixth most. So they create a lot of below average shots and hope to eventually grind opponents down. It’s not the prettiest thing in the world, but they’ve hit on a combination of attackers with Richarlison up front, Theo Walcot, Gylfi Sigurdsson and Bernard in a band of three behind him and Seamus Coleman and Lucas Digne providing simultaneous width that more or less gets the job done.
But, what’s fascinating about Everton is that this acceptable attack is complemented by a strong defense. The Toffees are one of only six Premier League teams that allow opponents less than one expected goal per game. Their 0.96 xG allowed is fifth best in the Premier League. They do it by allowing comparatively few shots. Opponents take 10.15 shots against them per match, only Manchester City, Liverpool and Chelsea allow fewer shots.
In theory these numbers paint a clear picture of an effective pressing team. You’d expect this team to press a lot, win the ball back high up the pitch frequently, take shots quickly, and then do it all again. And yet, here’s their defensive pressing map.
Hrm. That’s not the defensive pressure map of a team that presses a lot. It’s not really the defensive pressure map of a team that does anything a lot. What’s going on? Well, the first thing to check is the possession numbers. It’s possible that if Everton just keep the ball a lot they could just be playing under the radar good defense. Extreme possession imbalances could, at least in theory, lead to a team pressing when they don’t have the ball, but simply not logging that many pressing events due to how rarely that happens. And while even then we should find some evidence of pressing, at least skewed possession numbers would show us where to start.
But Everton don’t actually have high possession numbers. They play 469 passes per game, only the 11th highest total in the league which nullifies the fact that they only allow 455, the fifth fewest. They aren’t keeping the ball for long stretches, and they certainly aren’t allowing the opponent to play a lot of passes themselves. But, stubbornly, it doesn’t look like they do much defending either. Something just doesn’t add up.
The missing piece of the puzzle comes if you filter out pressures. This is Everton’s head map only looking at the more traditional defensive stats and voila, we begin to see something resembling a defensive shape appear. Silva’s team may not apply a ton of pressure to their opposition, but they’re very focused on taking the ball away right before it gets into their own half.
The pattern shows up in Everton’s midfield star Idrissa Gueye too. Here’s a defensive heat map of all of his actions.
Here’s one that only looks at defensive actions that force a change in possession.
Looked at the first way, he’s a pretty good midfielder who patrols his area of the pitch but not much more. Looked at the second way and he sure seems like an elite ball hunter. Same story comes through on his radar where he maxes out tackles and interceptions adjusted for possession but is much more average when it comes to pressures.
In fact Gueye leads the Premier League (among players with 500 minutes played or more) with 3.63 possession adjusted tackles per 90 minutes this season and he’s seventh with 2.01 possession adjusted interceptions. Even if you don’t adjust for possession he’s still third in the Premier League in combined tackles and interceptions with 5.11 per 90 minutes. He’s not a machine at applying pressures, but he is one when it comes to winning the ball back.
This is the Everton gamble. They’re a high wire act. They get tons of bodies forward, and position themselves high up the field, but rather than work collectively to pressure the ball, they rely on an elite midfielder to win the ball back for them. Without Gueye the entire system would collapse. The fullbacks would get caught high up the field, Andre Gomes would constantly be stranded in space. The center backs would be left out on an island. That still happens sometimes, Everton's shots conceded map shows that the opposition has some success taking the ball to the rim, but not nearly as often as it might, and that’s all thanks to Gueye.
On one level, Everton’s defensive plan isn’t a strong one. Pushing high up the pitch while not pressuring the opposition effectively is a massive tactical red flag. It’s how teams get themselves ripped to shreds by any old half decent counterattacking operations. Giving an opponent time and space to pick a pass against a high defensive line is asking for trouble. But, either by design or just dumb luck, Silva’s setup gets the absolute most out of Gueye. Gueye’s unique ability to turn the opposition over in midfield backstops the entire setup. Teams can’t exploit Everton because Gueye takes the ball back as they try.
Everton are in the thick of a battle to qualify for the Europa League. Should they succeed a lot will be made of their newfound open style. New players like Richarlison and Bernard will garner plaudits in attack, and the former (and maybe future when his loan ends) Barcelona midfielder Andre Gomes will get credit for bringing much needed passing to Everton’s midfield. But, it’s Gueye who makes it all possible. He’s the heart of Everton’s defense and the reason Everton are able to play an open attacking high volume style and still get away without pressing the ball well in transition.
Idrissa Gueye is Everton’s most important player, the reason their defense functions, the reason their attack and be so open, and the reason Marco Silva has Everton in sixth place. This weekend as Everton roll into Liverpool to face their rivals, if they have any hope of an upset it’ll be because every time the ball looks like it’s headed towards Jurgan Klopp’s killer front three, Gueye shows up to win it back. It’s what he does.
Header image courtesy of the Press Association