This might seem something of an over reaction to recent results, but the wheels are dangerously loose if not quite coming off for Marco Silva’s Everton. The reason I propose is the adoption of a system that hitherto has been largely unsuccessful in the UK, namely Zonal Marking.
Before we get into this divisive and often ditched defensive formation, let’s first just throw some conjecture at why Marco Silva was pursued so strongly by Everton and in particular major shareholder Farhad Moshiri in the wake of the dismissal of Ronald Koeman.
Silva doesn’t have a trophy laden CV like a Mourinho, Guardiola or even a Benitez, nor did he have a proven record or reputation in a level of football as high as the English Premier League. So what was it that Moshiri found so attractive?
Well, Silva does like his teams to play attacking football, and there have been times this season when Everton have played really good looking football… just not for a solid ninety minutes, totally taking a game by the scruff of the neck and dominating it start to finish.
The 0-0 at Chelsea was good, the game at Anfield proved why we were right to be optimistic because we gave them a game, a real game, and held our own till… but that single moment has shattered the belief, the bubble, and we are watching the air escape right now. Silva tends to make the majority of his substitutions offensive only occasionally putting caution first to protect a lead or maintain equilibrium for a draw.
So, rightly or wrongly, this leads to the conclusion that Moshiri likes maybe prefers an attacking, offensive approach to football, and to some degree even a somewhat cavalier outlook. Silva certainly favours attack over defence and this is sadly borne out by the alarming rate at which Everton have been shipping goals in recent weeks, indeed all season.
Silva’s philosophy of attacking football is therefore the element Moshiri wanted to bring to Everton, and we should celebrate that. However, a team must be balanced to believe in itself, and its managers philosophy and without a solid defence (which we obviously do not have) the castle cannot stand.
In Jordan Pickford, we have Englands’ first choice goalkeeper, in Lucas Digne a massively impressive new left back, three centre backs in the improved Michael Keane, on loan Kurt Zouma and Columbian Yerry Mina, and the RoI international captain at right back.
Yet somehow these six or any combination of them seem unable to stem the flow of goals into our net. Why – Zonal Marking, the system Marco Silva advocates and that patently isn’t working.
And it’s not just against the teams in the Premier League, because only this weekend in the FA Cup, Lincoln City gave a clear indication and abject lesson that any opposing manager with half a brain cell can figure out how to play against and capitalise upon a system that breaks down far too often if not properly implemented. Let me stress at this point, I’m not suggesting Danny Cowley only has half a brain cell, just that he only needed half a brain cell to figure how to counter Everton’s zonal marking deficiencies.
Look at their goal… a free kick forty yards out, wide left. Where were the big Lincoln players? Not in the middle where you’d be forgiven for expecting it to be where the ball would be delivered. No, they had guys towards the near post, others on the back post and the rest loitering with deadly intent centrally, but three or four yards further behind waiting to pounce.
The free kick was sent towards the back post – beyond Zouma where Shackell easily got above Baines to power in the header. Pickford did well to beat it out, but with Zouma and Mina marking a mythical zone, Bostwick was able to steam in from that slightly deeper attacking position to pounce and score. Once again, and not for the first, second, third, fourth or even fifth time this season, Everton had conceded from a set piece, and the reaction of Pickford spoke volumes.
Later in the game with Lincoln defending well against an Everton attack that largely misfired after the opening quarter of an hour, and looking to push forward for an equaliser that might earn a replay, Cowley sent on 34-year old Matt Rhead. The former Mansfield striker looked like he was carrying a few extra pounds following the festive period, but he knows a thing or two about causing defenders problems.
So when Lincoln won a couple of late corners and free kicks, you’d fully expect the Everton defence to assign either Mina or Zouma to mark the veteran forward, but oh no, we again saw the set pieces swung over and Rhead being marked by either Baines or Kenny… Mina and Zouma were busy (?) elsewhere marking zones… tantamount to footballing suicide.
Okay, enough of analysing a few plays from just one game, we need to look at the root cause of our defensive frailties and it’s this crazy idea that marking zones will prevent the opposition scoring.
Zonal marking has many advocates however, it can only work and does only work, if all the players and the goalkeeper are:
a. perfectly drilled in how to perform the system
b. fully understanding of the job they’re supposed to be doing
c. fully confident of the system they’re playing, and
d. fully capable of adjusting to counter the way the opposition sets up to overcome zonal marking.
Everton under Howard Kendall, in the 1980’s glory period, employed a form of zonal marking with Stevens, Mountfield, Ratcliffe, Watson and van den Hauwe. All of these were confident, strong characters both mentally and physically and had the added insurance of Neville Southall as the last line, completely and ruthlessly controlling the six yard area.
Conversely, Rafa Benitez tried – spectacularly unsuccessfully – to get our neighbours to play zonal marking and they too shipped goals with almost gay abandon before the Spaniard saw the light and changed to a system that actually suited the players at his disposal.
For reference, here is a simple, definitive explanation of the theory…
In this type of defending (see image below), each player is given an area or zone to mark relative to their team mates.
It is advised by the manager or the coach that whenever the ball enters their zone, you attack it and try to win the ball.
Zonal defending doesn’t require fast players or great stamina like man-to-man defences do, and it’s usually employed by top flight managers where they ask the midfielders and attackers to defend when the opposing team counters and tries to break them down.
With zonal marking, whenever the team defends from set pieces, the six yard box will be divided into two or three zones for players to attack. If one player sees the ball entering this zone, he gets rid of it.
So there’s the theory explained in a nutshell but right now, it doesn’t appear that Everton are ticking any of those boxes. We’re conceding from almost every free kick we concede in our third of the pitch, opposition corners are ringing alarm bells all around the ground, but apparently not in the dugout with the manager or coaching staff.
Consequently, we have a first choice England goalie beginning to look like a sieve, three centre backs verging on not knowing whether they’re coming or going and fullbacks who must dread the sight of opposition centre forwards or centre halves appearing on their flank or worse their blind side at every set piece.
As a result, our defence looks disorganised, the players, all of them, appear uncomfortable and unsure about playing zonal marking, it simply doesn’t come naturally to some footballers to mark space rather than a player.
Now, the big questions that need to be asked are…
Does the adoption of zonal marking have the blessing of the Director of Football?
Are we going to persist with a system that better managers than Marco Silva have tried and ditched?
And if the answers to both these questions are in the affirmative, then when the heck are the players and coaching staff going to get it sorted?
Marcel Brands and Marco Silva probably need to re-evaluate the adoption and implementation of zonal marking as any continuation of the goal leaking will bring Evertonian scrutiny rearing its ugly head again as it tends to have done all too easily in recent seasons.
Silva, particularly, has to demonstrate a capacity to dig himself and his squad from a deepening hole. He enjoyed similar initial bursts of ‘success’ at both Hull and Watford and it’s probably too early to judge in part because he’s never stayed long enough for others to properly judge. So the jury on Marco Silva has to sit out, as we simply can’t keep changing managers every few months but…
That’s it for this missive, the next one might, sadly, be a rather brutal assessment of some players and a genuine need for on-field leadership.