With the weekend trip to the tin mine almost upon us many Toffees will be wary of being on the end of another derby shellacking, especially given our recent defensive form.
Whilst we’ve been comically bad this season at the back, our rearguard record against the top sides has been poor since the turn of the year with Arsenal and Liverpool each putting four past us, City three and Chelsea six. In total we have shipped 17 goals in 7 games this season which marks us down as the worst defence in the league and whilst some will pin point blame on individuals such an alarming change in fortunes surely can’t be down to any one player?
This brief analysis will look at ten themes which have contributed to our unravelling defensive predicament and try to judge if this is merely a momentary blip or if more deep-rooted ‘spooky’ trends are emerging.
1. Pressing effectively as a team
Defending starts from the front of course, and Chelsea’s opening goal was a good example of what happens when you don’t press effectively from the top backwards as we allowed the league leaders to go from their 18 yard line to our net without so much as a challenge.
A quick look at our pressing data over the last three seasons shows the amount of times we press opponents and win the ball back is on the wane, maybe due to having more possession or maybe not. The amount of times we won the ball back from opposition per game in 12/13 was 34.5 dropping to 32.6 per game in Martinez first year in charge and this season dropping further to 25.6 per game.
Our three-year ‘tackles lost’ data gives an indication of our increasingly powder puff defending
2.Conceding shots in more dangerous areas
In terms of shots conceded our figures per game is actually less than last season which is encouraging given our goals conceded figure was comparable to the best in the league last term. However, there is a spike this season in where we are conceding these shots. Whereas in 12/13 and 13/14 the % of shots conceded in our 18 yard box was fairly steady at 54% this season the figure has risen to 59% which would indicate we are not defending the ball into our box well enough.
3.Losing the ball in the wrong areas
Moyes grand plan of playing a high line with 2 solid banks of four was that if you lost the ball you usually did so in the opposition half where it is less dangerous than in your own half.
Martinez on the other hand plays a more possession orientated game in our own half of the pitch, will look to pull opponents out of position and then exploit the space. This has been a contributory factor in what has made us not only successful but also a team that is easy on the eye and has more control of their own destiny.
Perhaps this is obvious given the bags of goals we have been scoring, but a look at our ‘passes forward’ data this season shows just how much more positive we have been on the ball compared to last season.
Everton Forward passes per game 3 Year trend
The risk here from a defensive perspective is that the more offensive you play, particularly against sides adept at regaining possession, the more it poses risks when possession is turned over in your own half. Besic, arguably Martinez most defensive minded recruit, has epitomised this in the minimal gametime he’s had so far. First he lost possession in his own half leading to Chelsea’s sixth goal and then with his first touch against Swansea recklessly conceded the ball on his own 18 yard line which should have led to Swansea’s opening goal.
4.Concentration & Individual errors
This is probably the most obvious and important factor in our recent descent into defensive madness.
Errors have been aplenty, from Jagielka’s indecision to Howard’s flapping and most recently in midweek Distin’s fear of using his right foot. Jagielka has made the most errors (3) and his own confidence is certainly a contributory factor here. England’s calamity World Cup bid was undone by poor defending and our skipper was the only defender to have been dropped from the disgruntled Owl’s backline in the recent round of internationals. Its more than possible that this mental doubt – a factor which can often precipitate mistakes – has sneaked into his psyche.
Confidence can be restored fairly quickly, though, and this spike in errors doesn’t worry me too much as a long-term factor for our season.
Everton Defensive Errors per game 3 Year Trend
5. Communication & Sniding
Martinez conceded this week that communication has been a problem for our defence – a factor highlighted by the penalty conceded against Palace and the lack of a shout for Osman in the same game.
Gareth Barry we know won’t think twice about volleying someone up the arse when it’s needed, but he’s in the minority in the current crop with our fouls per game data below showing this.
Everton Fouls Committed per game – Last 3 Seasons
Arguably the fact we have no bell-end personalities – a strength – is also an inadvertent weakness here. You couldn’t imagine Distin, Jagielka or Baines sniding an emotionally vulnerable opponent such as Balotelli. Coleman’s incident with Costa in the Chelsea game when Jagielka looked the other way was a pointer as to how our skipper looks to avoid conflict at all costs with Howard the only player to assist his teammate in the resulting melee.
Whilst only a marginal factor, being a tad too quiet and nice to play against isn’t helping us at the back.
In terms of qualities on the ball, the previous regime would look to sign attackers for their ability to defend from the front. The Straq, for instance, was complete dog shit on the ball not to mention being blunt in front of goal, but he would toil relentlessly off the ball and stop defenders being able to play a pass through our forward and midfield lines. Similarly Moyes liked midfielders to buy into ‘putting in a shift’ for the team or quite often playing defenders in midfield to over compensate. The key emphasis was that players were subservient to the defensive needs of the team.
The more the offensive playing staff have turned over in the past 12 months the less defensive capability has resided in the midfield and attacking positions. The players Martinez wants are those who will cause their opponent’s problems, who will go for the throat of a defender and not be scared to take on their marker. Again, this isn’t a bad thing, but its an indicator of why we are more open.
Probably the most startling observation from the latest instalment of defensive misery against Swansea in midweek was how easy it was for our hosts to waltz through our midfield and defensive lines with consummate ease. At 0-2 Shelvey strolls 20 yards to our 18 yard line without so much as a challenge. Two minutes later fellow world beater Marvin Emnes does exactly the same, this time dealing a fatal blow.
“This is the best move I could have hoped for. The manager has faith in me. Some of his ways are totally different. He doesn’t want me to track back. Those were the instructions I received for games against West Ham, Stevenage and Villa. My natural instinct is to track back and I started to do it a few times. But he told me to stay up the pitch and let the opposition worry about me. It’s different from other managers I’ve had in the past.”
We’ve trotted this quote out before but its pertinent to this point. A by-product of the changing qualities in the playing squad is a more open shape off the ball when possession is lost. We know in the 4-2-3-1 Martinez prefers that wingers push on to fullbacks rather than the 4-4-1-1 when they will retreat and support their fullbacks. Put simply, our fullbacks are afforded little protection which has resulted in opposition sides making decent 2v1 gains down our flanks.
The data shows then that we are conceding less shots per game than last season (12 vs 13.1) however opponents are being ridiculously ruthless against us. There’s 2 ways of looking at this I guess. Theory #1 is that Howard’s form is costing us big style, whilst theory #2 is that we’re having rotten luck . As with most things in life, the answer probably lies somewhere in between.
The below ‘saves per goal’ data shows how limited Howard has been in repelling opponents in the league this season
The combined average age of our first choice keeper, defence and defensive midfielders is now the wrong side of 30 and its conceivable that less than half of these 7 players will be considered a regular starter come the end of next season.
It’s fair to surmise, then, that our rearguard is in a state of flux. The transition of Stones into one of the centre back berths alongside Jagielka will continue this season, but whilst he is clearly ace he is also inexperienced and will make mistakes as he cuts his teeth and the new defensive unit is moulded together.
It’s reminiscent of the seasons before Jagielka came in to partner Lescott when for a few years we experimented with various combinations with the likes of Stubbs, Weir, Ferrari, Kroldrup and Yobo all dipping in and out which led to a lack of certainty between goalkeeper, defence and midfield.
Whilst burying your head in the sand is a valid strategy in dealing with many life situations, Martinez failure to heed previous errors is not. He isn’t one to learn from his mistakes defensively; he’s an idealist and won’t compromise his approach for anyone. In 2010 for example his Wigan side conceded 8 against Chelsea and then a further 6 against the same opponent just three months later. The weekend game was the third Crystal Palace manager he’s faced in 12 months and the third time he’s failed to record a win or even a decent performance.
Yes, Martinez has rightfully earned our respect and is lauded for what he has achieved in such a short space of time since taking over, but surely the hallmark of a great manager is learning from your mistakes?
The bottom line is that whilst we have become a lot more easy on the eye we have lost something at the other end. Leaving more gaps is probably expected to an extent given Martinez approach of placing more emphasis on what we do with the ball rather than without it, but becoming a soft touch (which we currently are) is certainly not.
You don’t suddenly become crud overnight, though, and whilst it could quite easily get worse before it gets better I’m sure Martinez methods of controlling games and introducing a new back line will see us return to winning ways soon. This in turn should restore confidence and reduce errors. However, as some of the trends we have rode through in this article shows, the days of rock-like defensive solidity and racking up clean sheets may have gone for good.
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