Everton’s seasons have come to rest on the edge of a blade. With Tim Howard, Phil Jagielka and Co. securing the rearguard to the tune of just 190 goals allowed over the past 5 EPL seasons (that is just 38 goals allowed per season), Everton have the defense upon which to build a top four assault. However, Everton has finished in the top 5 places in the table just twice in that time, have not finished top 4 once and have not cracked the top 6 since 2008/09. The reason for this is the lack of scoring over that same period.
The consistency that David Moyes has retained in his squad is remarkable. Even when we go back as far as 2006/07 Cahill, Neville, Arteta, Howard and Osman were on the roster. Moving forward to 07/08 Jagielka, Aiyegbeni, Baines, Pienaar and Rodwell had matches for Everton. The other remarkable constant over these five years has been Moyes reliance on tactics that have required exceptional goal production from their midfield players.
A quick glance at the last five years of scoring show Everton scoring 52 goals in 2006/07 ( joint 6th goals scored in EPL with Reading, Blackburn), 55 goals in 2007/08 (7th), 60 goals in 2008/09 (7th), 60 goals in 2009/10 (7th) and just 49 goals, a five year low, in 2010/11 (12th). In those five seasons Everton relied on their midfielders to score a very high percentage of these goals. From the chart below we can see that Everton’s midfield has done leal duty for their gaffer.
The 2008/’09 season was the most stark example and, looking over the club scoring table, it was apparent that midfielders were the top scoring threats. Cahill (8), Fellaini (8), Osman (6) and Arteta (5) were four of the top six scorers for Everton (Saha, 6; Jo, 5). The following season Cahill (8), Bilyaletdinov (6) and Arteta (5) were again in the top 5 (Saha, 13; Aiyegbeni, 5). This past season only three strikers managed to score goals for Everton (Beckford, 9; Saha, 7; Aiyegbeni, 1) while eight midfielders scored, led once more by Cahill (9). And Moyes doesn’t even look to be addressing the issue either internally or externally. From football365’s transfers and rumors Everton has sold or released 5 players, brought in 0 players and seem to be linked with a host of attacking midfielders.
There is an expectation that the Toffees are going to go into this season with much the same roster as they had last season. This means that Goodison will again be host to the most consistent lineups in the EPL. Everton started the fewest players of any EPL team last term with just 20 different Blues making one of Moyes starting XI’s. With injuries to Luis Saha and inconsistent play from Jermaine Beckford increased scrutiny of the midfield and an even greater reliance on the four or five men in the middle to both create and finish chances is de rigueur.
Everton’s reliance on their midfield is highlighted by their inability to take shots and create chances inside the opposition’s box. Because of the lack of a true goal scoring presence up front Everton takes a large percentage of their shots from >18 yards out. In 2010/’11 Everton took 579 shots. Of those 254 were outside the box, or 44%. They managed 180 shots on target (31% accuracy) and a full 65 on target from outside the box (26% accuracy). Unfortunately, as can be expected, the goal returns were not proportional to the shots, not even the shots on target. Everton scored 8 goals outside the box – 1 goal for every 31.75 shots. Inside the box they scored 42 times from 325 shots – 1 goal for every 7.7 shots. By shifting their tactics to result in 50 additional shots inside the box Everton could be expected to increase their goal scoring by approximately 5 goals. That would bring their totals to 375:200 or 35% of shots outside the box. Those five goals may seem small but they would have brought Everton’sgoals scored/allowed in line with Tottenham’s, who finished 2 places above them in 5th and is similarly reliant on their midfield to provide the goals (Spurs 55% of shots >18yrds; 14 goals >box; 80% open play pass completion; 23% crossing accuracy; 109 through balls at 28% accuracy).
Another problem with the reliance on the midfield is that the tactics are clearly skewing the overall attack. Of the three principle strikers used by Moyes last term (Saha, Beckford, Aiyegbeni), each took a significant number of shots from outside the 18 yard box. Saha was the most prolific, taking 29 of his 66 shots on the season from outside (44%!) and scoring 2 goals (5 goals inside on 37 shots). In fact, midfielder Cahill who scored a team leading 9 goals also led the clubs scoring from inside the box as his penchant for pushing the attack with his off the ball runs culminated in frequent headed chances and all 9 of his goals coming inside the box. His 21 headers accounting for 6 of his final goals haul. These headers are not the result of short pass build-up play but are reliant on strong defense and midfield wing play coupled with Cahill’s preternatural ability to find seams in the defense.
The passing of the midfield also reflects this need for midfield scoring. Arteta clearly makes a number of successful passes, maintaining possession through the defensive half and well into the attacking half. However, in the final third he is pressing, attempting 9 crosses but only successfully completing two of them. For the season Everton completed 76% of their open play passes, but were successful with just 26% of their crosses. This is a problem because 14 of their total goals came from headers and of the 35 total assists this team contributed, 29 came in open play (six on set pieces). Their entry on the ground was much more successful playing 47% accuracy with their through balls. However, the raw numbers are less encouraging, Everton played just 73 through balls on the season, less than 2 per game.
If Everton does return their current roster to start the season there is no reason to believe that they will change their approach at either end of the pitch. While they should again prove excellent value at the back Moyes’ men will require a Herculean (or perhaps just Ronaldian) effort from one of their midfield cohort to make the leap from safely mid-table to once more challenging for Europe. A task that would be considerably easier with a legitimate goal scoring threat at the head of the attack.