There’s a very surprising side leading the ‘shots per game’ statistic across Europe’s five major leagues so far this season. Most of the contenders are guessable – there’s Manchester City and Real Madrid, both league winners last season and more direct than their main rivals. Bayern Munich are up there too, in joint-fifth place with Italian champions Juventus. Tottenham, now pressing and dominating games in the manner typical of Andre Villas-Boas, also figure highly.
But with a considerable lead is Everton, who have had more attempts than any other side in Europe – 20.1 times per match. City, their nearest challengers in this respect, manage 19.0.
Everton’s shooting accuracy isn’t overly impressive. When you look at ‘shots on target per game’, David Moyes’ side drop down to joint sixth – but even then, they only trail clubs who are in this season’s Champions League.
Of course, when a team shoots frequently but lacks accuracy, the customary cause is a high percentage of shots from long-range. But this doesn’t apply to Everton, who attempt just 31% of shots from outside the box, the lowest figure in the Premier League.
Various players are accountable for the high number of attempts, as seven players average two or more shots per game. All seven have found the target, with one inevitable exception, Darron Gibson.
So what are Everton doing so effectively to get the ball into the box?
First and foremost, they are efficient with their use of the ball. They average 52% of possession so far this season, which is 5% less than any other side in Europe’s top ten most frequent shooters (with one exception, Tottenham, which can be attributed to them parking the bus at Old Trafford recently). They get the ball forward quickly – 32% of their touches are in the opposition half.
Get the ball forward quickly and you’ll have lots of shots – that’s not particularly enlightening. More revealing is Everton’s unashamed bias towards the left side of the pitch, where the permanent return of Steven Pienaar has seen him reprise his excellent partnership with Leighton Baines. Pienaar drifts inside and Baines overlaps, as you’d expect, but it’s more than that – the timing of the passes and the cohesive movement appears brilliantly natural. But it’s not – it’s the type of thing Moyes spends hours on the training pitch drumming into players. He likes creating overlaps and two-versus-one situations in wide zones, and in contrast to the majority of top Premier League sides at the moment, he likes crosses.
The left is further strengthened by Marouane Fellaini’s deployment on that side. He started the season with a winning goal and a fine all-round performance against Manchester United, and he allows Everton to play an unusual but consistently effective triangle. Baines gets the ball, chips it forward towards Fellaini, who can either nod the ball down or control it with his chest, and then he lays the ball off to Pienaar, who darts infield from the touchline as soon as Baines receives the ball. It’s a common pattern of play – 46% of Everton’s passes go down the left, the most in the league. Somewhat predictably, their figure of 26% down the right is the lowest in England’s top-flight – it’s an obvious gameplan.
The only side to beat Everton so far this season, West Bromwich Albion, are also the only side to have a specific plan for that side of the pitch. Graham Dorrans played a defensive-minded role on the right flank, and Everton were restricted to 13 shots, and just two on target.
The statistics also reveal that two of Everton’s key players are excelling at their particular tasks. Baines has completed 3.6 crosses per game and created 4.3 chances per game – in both cases, the most in the Premier League. In a closely-related statistic, Fellaini has had the most headed attempts.
Another intriguing aspect of Everton’s play is that while they remain a direct footballing side that gets the ball forward quickly, their central midfielders are patient and composed on the ball. Leon Osman and Phil Neville record 89% and 88% passing accuracy respectively, up from 83% and 81% last season, helped by their more regular deployment in the centre of the pitch this campaign. They focus on knocking the ball from flank to flank, providing the wingers with opportunities to cross the ball. Gibson is capable of this, although so far this season his passing accuracy is just 83% from his two matches.
One of Moyes’ favourite training drills involves switching play quickly from one wing to the other. “Technically we are looking for players to move the ball quickly whilst maintaining control at all times”, he told Elite Soccer magazine. “We’d expect the switch of play to vary in its execution - either a number of short quick passes or one long ball.” Osman and Neville favour the short passes, while Gibson is more prone to ambitious diagonals – but the intention is the same, to get the ball into wide positions to work overloads.
At such an early stage of the season, it’s difficult to read too much into overall team statistics – in a few weeks, Everton’s ‘shots per game’ record might be much less spectacular. But the Toffees are notorious for improving as the season goes on – if that happens again, opposition goalkeepers should be prepared for a busy afternoon at Goodison Park.