Are Rafa Benitez’s Tactics at Everton Too Passive for the Modern Game?
We are probably witnessing the final weeks of the Rafael Benitez and Everton anachronism. Failure to win any of the last seven Premier League games threatens to pull Everton into a relegation battle and with a tough Christmas run ahead a change looks increasingly plausible, especially after a particularly busy November elsewhere in the division.
Six clubs have already changed their manager this season and at least five (the jury is still out on Eddie Howe) are in a better place because of it. That alone should make Bill Kenwright and Farhad Moshiri more likely to ponder a reshuffle, but the manager changes in the Premier League this season are about more than just an upturn in form. The landscape has shifted beneath Everton’s feet, and what looked like a questionable appointment in July now looks out of touch.
Defensive, safety-first football built on long balls and counter-attacks is well and truly out of fashion again. Tottenham Hotspur, Manchester United, and Newcastle United have all moved towards expansive attacking football with their latest appointments while Aston Villa and Norwich both doubled-down on a progressive approach despite the threat of relegation, leaving Everton as one of the few clubs with a more conservative coach in charge.
And while originally the fans’ reluctance to accept Benitez was about his historic ties with Liverpool, now it is just as much about the timid and reactive football he deploys. Results, and the underlying statistics, suggest Benitez’s favoured style just isn’t suited to the hard-pressing Premier League of 2021.
Direct Football Relies Too Much on Individuality
Everton’s pressing structure, based on a low block, is arguably the biggest concern at Everton under Benitez. But first, let’s look at what Everton do with the ball. This is not a possession team, not one concerned with patient build-up or intricate passing through the lines. Instead, they look to get the ball forward very quickly with long balls into the final third and counter-attacks whenever possible.
They rank fifth in the table for direct attacks (24), defined as the number of open-play sequences that start just inside a team’s own half that at least 50% of movement towards the opposition’s goal and end in a shot or a touch in the opposition box. It’s basically a measure of directness.
The Toffees rank second for total fast breaks (13) – a proxy for counter-attacks – just behind West Ham United. Everton are among the bottom five in the Premier League for the total number of 10+ pass sequences made (63), build-up attacks (12) – basically the opposite of the direct attacks measure mentioned above – and the average length of time a possession sequence lasts (7.1 seconds).
The team styles comparison above shows Everton’s direct style of play. Only four teams make fewer successful passes per sequence than Everton do.
Only four teams have attempted more open-play crosses than Everton (188) but only three teams have attempted fewer dribbles (215). This shows us that Benitez’s side do not break by holding possession, but rather by hitting longer passes, looking to win second balls, and swinging crosses into the box. It is a rather old-fashioned approach, and one that relies on individuality.
Analysing the 16 league goals they have scored this season, four resulted from winning the second ball after a long punt forward; six from set-pieces (first or second phase); and five have been quick counters led by a piece of brilliance from Demarai Gray. Only their most recent goal – a goalmouth scramble against Wolves four games ago – does not fit into one of these three categories.
Not only does that make Everton one-dimensional and therefore predictable for opponents to shut down (note how Brentford stumped them by forcing Everton to hold 60% of the ball last weekend), but it also means they need their top players performing. Individualistic teams are more vulnerable to injuries of the sort that have hit the Toffees, and undoubtedly their poor form can be partly attributed to Dominic Calvert-Lewin, Yerry Mina, Richarlison, and Abdoulaye Doucouré having collectively missed 2,513 minutes.
Such simple attacking patterns, and reliance on Gray, also makes Everton too vulnerable to the changing winds of form – and indeed it comes as no surprise that many of their on-ball metrics have declined badly since those first four games of the season, when Everton won ten points (66% of their current total). Their fast breaks have gone down from 1.5 per game to 0.8 per game, while their shots on goal are down from 14.8 per game to 12.0 per game and xG per game from 1.7 down to 1.1 per match.
Low Block and Low Pressing Sees Everton Shrink
Off the ball, Everton are not at all interested in pressing high up the pitch, instead quickly dropping into a low block and only engaging in defensive actions when the ball gets nearer to their goal. The main problem with this approach is that it leaves the players gradually withdrawing into themselves, producing hesitancy and passivity. Players need to assert themselves to feel confident, to feel like they are on the front foot.
They top the charts for the number of opposition passes allowed (4,980 in total). They have the fourth-highest PPDA (15.1), a measure that tells us how many passes a team allows the opposition to make before attempting a defensive action to win the ball back. They rank second for the total number of 10+ pass sequences the opposition make (197 in total). In other words, this is a passive team who fall back and let the other side dictate things.
Although that is not to say they do not engage ferociously once the play enters a deeper zone.
Interestingly, Everton top the charts for total number of pressures applied to players this season (4,083). However, breaking it down into by thirds shows they are second for pressures in their own third, top for pressures in the middle third, and 16th for pressures in the final third. They do not engage high up the pitch at all. This is backed up by the fact Everton are third bottom for both possessions won in the final third (48) and high turnovers (78).
Splitting the % of Everton’s pressing down by thirds tells a similar story. Their proportion of total presses in their own third is far higher than the league average, and the opposite is true for pressures in the opposition’s third.
Again, these numbers have declined over time, and when we compare those first four league games to the most recent nine, a story is revealed of Everton shrinking: possessions won in the final third is down from 5.3 per game to 3.0 per game, and their PPDA has risen dramatically from 14.2 to 19.9.
Perhaps this explains the appearance of defensive chaos at Everton. Eight of their 20 goals conceded have been from set-pieces, but even more concerning is that seven were the result of clear defensive errors, of which six were the fault of Michael Keane.
A More Progressive Coach Required?
Keane might not improve under a new manager and certainly one would have expected Benitez to stop Everton conceding so many set-pieces, but this misses the deeper point here. The Spaniard’s style of football invites pressure in an era when targeted high-pressing is almost universal – certainly among the division’s top ten – and a territorial retreat quickly translates to lower self-esteem.
The sort of boost Graham Potter, for example, would provide should improve their defensive organisation with the deployment of a more confident high line, not to mention the detailed possession structure that would see the ball stay away from the Everton goal for longer periods.
That is, quite simply, how a team of Everton’s size are expected to play these days. It is not only the proactive way to lift them back into the top half but a necessity to get supporters on side. Ironically, given his even deeper connections with Liverpool, Everton fans may look enviously over at how back-to-back wins for Steven Gerrard has changed the vibe at Villa Park. They want their own version of that.
And they know Everton will not qualify for Europe with a conservative tactician in the dugout.
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