With Tony Hibbert injured, Leon Osman in the form of his life and Everton sitting fairly pretty in 5th, there’s a distinct lack of negativity about the place and little seemingly blue to talk about.
Step forward Philip Neville.
We’ve all come to appreciate Darron Gibson and what he brings to the side, so when Cap’n Pip trundles into the midfield breach the boo boys like to target him. Usually by making comments about poor passing, pointing a good game and ridiculous rallying cries.
He’s better at right back, surely? Why doesn’t Thomas Hitzlsperger get more games? A lot of people are so desperate to get Neville out they’ve already signed Vadis Odjidja Ofoe in their minds and installed him in the team. Not that they’ve ever seen him play of course but he can’t be any worse can he? Francisco Junior v Leeds anyone?
Hitting the topic with a stats hammer is probably not going to change any Neville boo-boys minds, but I’ll have a go anyway….and obviously only using data from games when he’s played in midfield.
First up, there’s the assertion that all he does is pass it backwards and sideways. This can’t be denied. According to the excellent Stats Zone app Neville passes to Jagielka more than any other team mate. His next favourite ball is a shuffle across to Coleman at right back. He makes few combinations with fellow midfielders, let alone Fellaini or Jelavic.
The difference between Neville’s passing and Hitzlsperger’s couldn’t be more different. The German rarely goes backwards; he even plays the ball to the front two. He looks like he wants to get involved. It looks better on the eye but is it effective?
Hitzlsperger has started 4 games in the middle and Everton have lost 2 of them (Reading and Chelsea). We’ve looked to be playing well in both those games but ultimately have been caught on the hop.
Neville’s midfield game might be simple but the indicators are that it’s more effective for Everton. Per game, Everton take more shots when he plays in midfield, score more goals when he plays in midfield and concede less goals when he plays there too. Neville has started 12 games in midfield this term and we remain unbeaten when he’s in this role.
Possible reasons? Bong has talked a lot recently about Baines, Pienaar and Osman linking up together causing “pint-sized mayhem”. Very simply, not only is Hitzlsperger left footed, he wants the ball more than Neville. This means Osman having to take up positions on the right side of the pitch and having a gradually decreasing influence. The graphic below shows this:
In the Chelsea game, it looks like Moyes sought to rectify the situation by stationing the German on his unnatural right side. Osman came into his own again, and Everton played well while Hitzlsperger had his quietest game yet. Osman was MoM by some distance, making more passes, interceptions and take-ons than anyone else in the game.
Osman has been key to Everton’s good form this season. He makes more tackles and interceptions than his midfield colleagues and has taken more shots too. He also makes more passes than anyone else in the side. Hitzlsperger reduces Osman’s influence plain and simple. Neville allows Osman to play his game.
Hitzlsperger is actually the least accurate midfielder we have passing-wise. He may look vastly superior to Neville on the ball but the fact is he’s giving the ball back to the opposition with nearly 25% of his passes.
Even if a safety first Neville lay-back to Jagielka ends up with a lump towards the opposition box, the ball is not lost in a dangerous area and team mates aren’t committed. They’re much more likely to be committed if Hitzlsperger gives it away a lot in the middle of the park.
Everton press and push defensively as a unit. The onus is on restricting space and keeping the ball out of danger areas and in the opposition half as much as possible. Our chums across the Park use possession stats as some kind of measure to how well you’re playing and how you should have won the game. Possession better correlates as a defensive tool rather than an attacking one. It denies your opponents the opportunity to hurt you. Not only does Neville keep the ball with his really simple passing range, but as captain and Moyes’s right hand man, he also keeps the shape better.
It may not look pretty but the only stats that matter in football are goals – and these come from shots on target. Create these for yourself while denying them to your opponents and you pick up the points. When Neville plays this is what happens.
I’ve studied thousands of shots in the Premier League and for the vast majority of teams you can predict pretty accurately how many goals they will score over a season based on the no of shots they’ve taken from certain areas. Applying this model to the team we can see that when Neville plays, Everton should and do concede less than when Hitzlsperger plays. We can also see that the team’s numbers hold up as well with Neville in midfield as they do when Gibson’s available, albeit against inferior opponents:
This all may be unfair on Hitzlsperger due to his lack of games, but with Neville, Moyes knows what he’s getting. The manager doesn’t do chance and Everton fans should thank their lucky stars he doesn’t because when you have finances like ours, and a small squad like ours, the odds are always stacked against you.
You can follow or send your objections to me on Twitter here.