Everton and Vertical Passing

Everton spent over £140m in the summer hoping to build on (or at least further secure) their 7th place finish in 2016/17. However, after a poor start, Ronald Koeman has lost his job and Everton now find themselves in an interesting position.

There’s many things that could be wrote about Everton. Their transfer dealings over the summer could all have a piece each, their poor start to the season could be put under close examination or you could even look into how they should approach the future and who should be next manager.

I’ve previously talked about their signing of Gylfi Sigurdsson and touched upon Lukaku replacements in another, but today I’ll be looking into one specific area of their game which they didn’t strengthen over the summer – vertical passing.

Now, before going on I should point out my method on this isn’t great. Trying to define a vertical pass proved harder than I thought. In the end I’ve defined it as a pass which has to go forward and can’t go more than 10 units wide from the starting point. So if a pass was made from the centre circle it could go into the red zone here:

The problem with this is a pass where the the vertical distance is less than the horizontal distance isn’t particularly vertical. It would have been better if the shape coming from the centre circle was that of a triangle, meaning the further up the pitch the pass advances the wider is allowed. Despite this, some interesting points can still be drawn using this method.

To try and value players who move the ball into dangerous areas I’ve also made it so the end location of the pass can’t be out wide (it must fall within the width of the 18-yard-box). This also rules out passes from wide players slightly advancing the ball down the line.

So how does this effect Everton?

Last season Everton completed the 8th most vertical passes per game in the Premier League – which sounds alright, doesn’t it? However, only 12.3% of these vertical passes entered the final third. The worst in the Premier League.

Looking at how their vertical passes compares to their attempted passes is also interesting. Everton have the 10th highest percentage of passes which are vertical, but the 3rd lowest for the percentage of passes which are vertical into the final third.

While not regarding vertical passes, Everton even have the 7th lowest percentage of passes into the box.

They seem to have a problem advancing the ball into dangerous areas and it shows in the players stats too. Everton only have 2 players in the top 40 Premier League players for attempted vertical passes p90 – Morgan Schneiderlin in 13th and Gareth Barry in 35th, who has now moved on to West Brom.

13th is a respectable place for Schneiderlin, but that doesn’t tell the whole story. For the midfielders in the top 40, Schneiderlin has the lowest percentage of vertical passes going into the final third with 14.1%. Barry meanwhile had 26.6% of his vertical passes heading into the final third, placing him 3rd behind only Cesc Fabregas and Mousa Dembele.

Ross Barkley was also the only Everton player who made the top 40 for passes into the box p90, with the 23rd most last season.

The graph below shows how Everton’s midfielders vertical passing matches up with the midfielders in Europe’s top five leagues:

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While this graph shows the percentage of attempted vertical passes that are into the final third:

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With this in mind, why wasn’t a deeper lying midfielder who could advance the ball into dangerous areas higher up on Everton’s priorities?

Everton’s deeper lying midfield options come down to their first choice (Schneiderlin and Idrissa Gana Gueye), players who’ve suffered with injuries (James McCarthy and Muhamed Besic) and teenager Tom Davies.

Then slightly further up there’s Davy Klaassen and Ross Barkley, however these are players who you’d imagine would want to receive the ball in the final third rather than bringing it out of defence and advancing it there.

It may not all be down to individuals, poor positioning may mean the player on the ball doesn’t have many options to advance the ball.

@Footballfactman did a preview for the Burnley game which included a commentated video showing how poor their passing options are for the player on the ball. Given Schneiderlin has a respectable number of attempted vertical passes if a new manager can come in and sort the structuring out then his vertical passes into the final third could improve.

It’s also not helpful that Everton seem to have players who want to do the same job. Wayne Rooney, Davy Klaassen and Gyfli Sigurdsson all look as though they want to occupy similar spaces and none of them want to get in behind and stretch defences, creating the space for vertical passes.

Dominic Calvert-Lewin, despite not getting on the score sheet, has looked good this season because he’s the only player willing to stretch the oppositions defence. It feels as though Everton should have bought 1 or at most 2 of Rooney, Klaasen and Sigurdsson, while using the saved money to inject some pace and progressive passing into the side.

Given Everton were around average for passes per defensive action and passes in the final third per shot it’s difficult to narrow down players who seem like they could be a good fit, or alternatively narrow down to find teams who play a similar style and then look at their players. While it also makes it harder to build for the future as there isn’t an obvious way of moving forward.

A defensive or long ball strategy (say if Sean Dyche is hired) is unlikely to be well received, while with a slow side it’ll be hard to implement a pressing strategy. Of course there’s huge room between these two styles but it’s more a case that Everton’s recruitment doesn’t feel as though they’re assembling a squad to play a certain way. Ideally they should figure out how they want to play and recruit players (and now a manager) that fit that model.

Everton have some talented young players and some decent older players, they’re not in a terrible position, it just feels as though they lack direction.

They moved to address their aging back line by adding Michael Keane, but long-term replacements for Seamus Coleman and Leighton Baines still haven’t been sorted out. They lost Gareth Barry who was their most efficient player at moving the ball into the final third and look as though they haven’t replaced him – unless Schneiderlin’s numbers improve. They lost Lukaku, who had or created 46.9% of Everton’s total xG last season, and failed to buy a goalscorer who could come in and be close to replicating that. Then their only wingers are Kevin Mirallas and Aaron Lennon, (who are both 30), 20-year-old Ademola Lookman and an injured Yannick Bolasie.

Sticking to vertical passes however, the question becomes: Who should they have signed?

Without going into too much details two interesting options would have been:

Lucas Torreira – 21 – Sampdoria

For midfielders 23 or younger last season (born after 1/6/1993 and >= 900 mins) Torreira completed the 3rd most vertical passes p90 with 9.741. The only players to complete more were Napoli’s Amadou Diawara and Nice’s Wylan Cyprien (who would have been a good option if not for his injury).

Torreira however played a higher proportion of his total passes vertical, as he played 22.2% of his passes vertical, behind only RB Leipzig’s Naby Keita. It should be no surprise then that Torreira was among the best for vertical passes into the final third too. His 1.919 vertical passes into the final third p90 could only be bettered by (again) Amadou Diawara, for those u23.

Torreira was even respectably placed for all aged midfielders. He completed the 11th most vertical passes p90 and 13th most vertical passes into the final third p90, despite only being 21-years-old.

These numbers plus an xP Rating of 1.044 are hugely impressive, but it’s not just his passing numbers that impress. For the same group of u23 midfielders Torreira was 8th for the most interceptions + tackles p90 and 1st for interceptions and tackles in the opposite half p90.

The biggest question mark would have been whether he would consider a move to Everton, having had some interest from bigger clubs but opting to renew his contract at Sampdoria instead. Before renewing his contract Torreira allegedly had a release clause of €12m. Given some of the fees we’ve seen over the summer it seems strange a club didn’t pay the clause, particularly as his contract renewal wasn’t until early August.

Gaston Brugman – 25 – Pescara

Gaston Brugman had some pretty impressive stats last season playing for relegated Pescara. While it may be a risky move, given at 25-years-old he isn’t particularly young, comparing him to Schneiderlin is pretty interesting.

His passes into the box of 0.931 p90 isn’t huge but is over 5 times as many as Schneiderlin’s 0.170 p90. He attempted 11.128 vertical passes p90 with 20% of them headed towards the final third, while Schneiderlin attempts 9.518 p90 with only 14.1% headed to the final third.

The negative however is that Brugman is a lot less accurate. Brugman completes 66.9% of his vertical passes compared to Schneiderlin’s 88.4%, meaning Brugman only completes 0.3 more vertical passes into the final third p90.

His xP Rating is less than that of Schneiderlin’s too, as the Uruguayan’s 1.005 is quite a bit lower than the Frenchman’s 1.073. They do however have similar tackle and interception numbers with them both having ~4.5 interceptions + tackles p90.

The fact Brugman had these numbers for a relegated side is impressive though. I’m not too convinced he’s the answer to Everton’s vertical passing problems, but given that Everton could have probably picked him up for a pretty minimal fee it could have been a risk worth taking.

Conclusion

Everton had problems advancing the ball into dangerous areas last season and did nothing to address it. This coupled with some strange signings, a lack of pace and no real replacement for the only player to score more than 5 league goals under Koeman has led to a poor start for Everton, so poor it cost Koeman his job.

While there’ll be plenty of talk about what Everton should do in the future, this is just a quick look at a small part of their game which needed big improvement. While this isn’t to say this definition of vertical passing is the be all and end all of being successful, it does provide a fascinating look into one part of the game they struggled in last season. It’ll be interesting to see if this aspect of their game improves under a new manager or whether it is personnel based.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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