Remember that wretched day against Millwall in January?
Inclement weather, Everton humiliated on free-to-air television, awful refereeing decisions and another season effectively over.
It was more than a bad one, wasn’t it? More than just your classic Everton FA Cup exit. The goals conceded were deeply concerning—indicative of a team that lacked on-field leadership, organisation and seemingly coaching.
It was a nadir for Marco Silva. At that point, it appeared his belief in a broken zonal marking system would be the rope with which he would hang himself. We’d all be chatting about it in the boozer in a couple of years time. “Remember that zonal marking? Bloody hell.”
It was a drastic situation and in the current cut-throat landscape of Premier League football, managers often don’t get an opportunity to pull teams out of such predicaments. After Millwall and then defeat at his former club Watford, it looked unlikely Silva would.
Yet here we are, a few months down the line, all changed.
Everton have 10 clean sheets from their last 13 games.
Everton have not conceded a goal at Goodison Park for six months.
Everton have gone almost 10 hours since conceding from open play.
Everton are the only team in the Premier League to have nothing in the goals against column for the 2019-20 season.
It’s a remarkable transformation when you consider the ease at which opponents would find the back of the net against Everton in the middle third of the previous season. It’s also an evolution that should enhance faith in a manager we’re all still learning about.
Silva remained steadfast in his principles despite the timid defensive displays last season. While there was the odd move to a three-man back line at Burnley and Brighton & Hove Albion over the festive period, Everton persisted with zonal marking and continued to play an aggressive high line.
Perhaps it’s no coincidence that the 17-day break after the Watford game, when Silva had time to get these lads on the training pitch for a sustained period, was the catalyst for this defensive renovation.
The change points towards Silva being something we all anticipated he would in the current setup—a head coach rather than a manager.
Everton looked like a coached team now. Not only is there a sudden assurance and aggression when it comes to set-pieces—Watford’s aerial bombardment in search of a point on Saturday was fruitless—cohesion is beginning to creep into other aspects of the side.
Up top, there may be concerns about the influence of Gylfi Sigurdsson, put he’s part of a front four that presses with synergy and appetite. No players have won more tackles this season for Everton than their wingers, Richarlison and Bernard.
Individuals have kicked on too. We all witnessed the developments in the play of Idrissa Gueye and Kurt Zouma last season, while Dominic Calvert-Lewin became a crucial part of a team that consistently beat top-six sides.
There are early signs we’re seeing something similar with the likes of Jordan Pickford—who has been handled brilliantly since his meltdown at Newcastle and infamous night out in the north-east—and Yerry Mina, who have each been key in Everton starting off the 2019-20 term on a strong defensive footing.
Despite being pigeon-holed as a coach who plays expansive and defensively-careless football, Silva has been able to establish a foundation over the last six months.
Of course, there are pieces of that structure that have had to be replaced in Zouma and Gueye, and it’s arguably too early to make judgement on Mina and Jean-Philippe Gbamin despite encouraging starts to the campaign. Pickford has also been on hand against Palace and Watford to make key interventions.
But that we’re even here, talking about such a stellar defensive record, says a lot about Silva. Not only that he can organise a side given time, but he’s capable of reinvigorating a set of a lads who were on their knees after the Millwall and Watford defeats. It’s not something a lot of coaches could do.
It means that when Everton do hit their rough patch this season, hopefully a much less significant one than the previous campaign, calmer heads should prevail.
Previously, we didn’t know if Silva could turn the tide. Whether he can prompt a turnaround in fortune, make some tweaks, but still maintain his own belief and that of the players in his core principles. Whether he can cope and thrive when the pressure bites.
Now we do.
Statistics courtesy of Matt Cheetham.