You’re never as good as you look when you win, or as bad as you look when you lose. It’s a quote that’s been ascribed to a number of different coaches over the years, and a sentiment that all coaches, across all sports, almost assuredly share. And Everton are a walking, talking, currently playing out of their minds example.
Everton are flying high right now. They’ve recorded three strong wins in a row. The streak has taken them to 46 points (almost 20% of the teams points this season have come in the last three matches), tied with Watford one point behind Leicester City and Wolves for seventh place (although Wolves and Watford have a game in hand). For a team that seemed to be falling short of its aspirations for a seventh place, best of the rest season, the last month has seen the dream revived.
The team’s underlying numbers support their case. While their attack has been somewhat underwhelming, 1.06 expected goals per match places them 12th in the league, their defense has been stronger. Marco Silva’s men allow opponents only 1.09 xG, the eighth best total in the league. Put it together and the xG difference of -.03 lands them tenth in the table, or roughly where they currently are.
But, Everton’s season has not been steady. It’s been a rollercoaster of ups and downs. The nine points from the last three matches are only slightly less than the ten points the team took from the 11 matches before that. The first thing to check in a situation like this is to wonder if perhaps the team’s level of performance has stayed constant, but their luck has drastically shifted. Maybe they were playing fine for 11 games but had sinned in some way in the eyes of the soccer gods and were enduring punishments meted out by the fates. Or, maybe it’s the other way around and Everton’s performances remain bad, but after ten games of suffering the gods relented and rewarded them with ill-deserved points.
As it turns out, neither of those things are true. Looking at a ten-game rolling average of their xG difference shows a team that’s goal difference hangs pretty consistently around where the model predicts it should be, and if anything they were overperforming even while struggling.
In fact, if we look at the component parts of Everton’s xG difference, it’s clear that there have been real and dramatic changes in their performance level over the course of the season.
Both the attack and the defense have varied wildly as the season progressed, and fairly faithfully mirrored the side’s results. Early on as Everton played well to start the season, they were a positive xG differential side, then came the dark times, and now, once again, the light.
Clearly this isn’t schedule driven either. Everton’s three wins, and the accompanying strong performances came against Arsenal, Chelsea, and West Ham. It’s certainly true that the tougher two matches were at home, but so were matches they lost against Wolves, and Leicester during their struggle months. And crushing West Ham away from him stacks up pretty favorably against Newcastle, Brighton, Southampton, and Watford, all matches they failed to take even a point from before the switch flipped.
It might be possible to explain away Everton’s swingy performances if they had suffered from a rash of injuries. Maybe for a few months they simply couldn’t put their good players on the field. But, that too isn’t the case. The side has been remarkably healthy and consistent this year. Ten different players have played at least 2000 minutes so far, and two more have cracked the 1500-minute barrier. Silva has a settled side and a couple of preferred substitutes, but for the most part the Everton team is the Everton team, and there’s not a lot of tinkering going on under the hood.
So, how to explain the wild swings? One way is to suggest that perhaps Silva, in his first season is only now, 30 games deep, getting the team to play the way he wants. The early season results were nice, but largely built on the back of a team still throwing off the big shackles of Big Sam Allardyce. They won because they successfully played a more conservative brand of football than Silva wanted. The bad times were just growing pains, as the team slowly transitioned from one style of play to the other. Sure they weren’t playing well but it was all in service of the plan. The plan that is now coming to fruition.
The other option is that there is no particular reason for the swings and roundabouts of the Toffees' season. Sometimes teams play well, and sometimes they play poorly. Variance, good and bad, is part of the game. Everton weren’t as bad as they seemed for those months, aren’t as good as they seem now, and the truth will inevitably work out somewhere in the middle. The good and the bad averages out, and the truth of the team over the course of the season lies somewhere in the middle.
This may seem like an academic argument. What exactly does it matter in the grand scheme of things if Everton are improving or just floating adrift around their average level of performance? Points are points, and at the end of the season that’s all that matters. And that’s certainly true as far as it goes, you don’t get bonus points for moving the right way, or demerits because you got lucky. But, as the season winds down the Everton brass are going to have to make a decision. And that’s not academic.
Everton management are going to look at the season, see the performance and decide whether to keep Silva in charge. And making that decision involves a judgment call. What does the future hold? Is the story of improvement true? If it is then keeping Silva and investing in his vision of the team is a no brainer. If Everton are closer to the team that’s showed up the last three weeks, than the team of the previous three months, than the future is bright indeed. But, if the other story is true, that Everton are both things at once, then the call becomes a lot harder. On the balance of the season Silva has been just ok, but nothing special, on the balance of the last three matches he’s been amazing. The question is which window is telling the fuller picture?
Header image courtesy of the Press Association