A Big Fish in a Small Pond
– Why can’t Everton get the best out of Gylfi Sigurdsson? An investigation in to the importance of team building and role players.
Lets start with this. Gylfi Sigurdsson is a very good Premier League footballer. He’s arguably Everton’s best player. After a strong season in which he essentially carried Swansea to top flight safety, the silky Icelandic playmaker earned himself a £45 million move to Everton: a club with seemingly bigger ambitions than Swansea, coming off a 7th place finish and armed with a new owner intent on investing. We would expect these factors to contribute towards Sigurdsson performing even better yes? The thinking goes; if he can perform so well for a struggling Swansea team, his level of play will surely rise to an even higher level when surrounded by better talent. So why has this not been the case?
To get an idea of how to get the best out of Sigurdsson, we should start by looking at his strengths. What does he bring to the team, what are his best pieces of play and where on the pitch do they happen?
In the Barclay’s Premier League, 2016/17, Sigurdsson was responsible for (scored/assisted) 22 goals on a Swansea side that managed 45 in total, good for 12th best in the league. That accounts for a whopping 49% of his side’s goals. For context, Kevin De Bruyne, a world class player in a similar position was only responsible for 30% of Manchester City’s Premier League goals that same season. Over the course of his last 3 seasons at Swansea, he averaged 8.7 assists, 9 goals and 12 big chances created a season. What is clear from these stats is we know Sigurdsson is a player who has the ability to put teammates in a position to score, with the added bonus of chipping in with a few in himself. These seem like the type of numbers you would traditionally expect from a number 10, the role he was given in Swansea (hold that thought).
At the time of writing this, Sigurdsson has registered 2 assists and 1 goal in 13 games played, whilst only directly creating an additional 2 “big chances”. If he continues at this rate across a full 38 game season, he would finish with 5.8 assists and 2.9 goals. As seen from earlier, this is clearly below his mean average season performance. Not ideal production from your £45 million addition you spent the majority of the window courting.
Has Sigurdsson suddenly developed in to a lesser player in his aged 28 (typically prime years) season? I highly doubt it. He is clearly capable of delivering the same wicked delivery he is renowned for, seen here in this perfectly placed free kick during Everton’s underwhelming Europa League campaign.
*will insert clip when I upgrade my scouting software*
So why the lack of production? I think the most basic argument would be to start with the position he is playing. For Swansea, Sigurdsson played almost exclusively in the 10 role just behind the main striker, which most observers would agree is his natural position. He is a rangy player who is comfortable receiving the ball with his back to goal, turning the ball round the corner and starting attacking moves. He excels in making the most of open space opportunities, regularly making good decisions to exploit recovering defences, using his technical ability to release forwards with through balls and threaten the goal with his own shooting ability. It’s unsurprising that a player with these attributes produces good numbers playing from the 10. role.
However, due to the logjam of no.10s in the Everton squad (namely Rooney, Klaassen and despite not playing often, Barkley) we have seen Sigurdsson start games on the left of a front 3.
- As we can see from his heat map he has spent the majority of his time in that left forward position. Also note the lack of time spent getting towards the left hand by-line compared to central edge of the box area, suggesting he tends to cut inside rather than go down the outside (there’s a theme building here…)
Now lets compare the positive contributions from the left forward position, to the traditional edge of box position we would expect to see a no.10 play in.
- Left: Sigurdsson left forward +ve 65%.
- Right: Sigurdsson central +ve 71%
As we can see, there is a 6% jump in positive contributions made when he finds himself in that no.10 position. 71% is a seriously impressive number when you consider we are talking about the most difficult area on the pitch. For context, the phenomenal David Silva is at 77% and teammate Wayne Rooney is at 68%. Again, this points towards Sigurdsson being an impressive forward player. To get the best results from him we need to maximise his time spent in that central area.
This said, I think there is more to it than just playing out wide. The modern footballer often has to be versatile, especially those who operate as attacking midfielders. We have seen on numerous occasions in recent years, forward players having success by cutting in from wide on to their favoured foot. The surrounding personnel could be the bigger issue in this case.
Whilst at Swansea, Sigurdsson played with the likes of Wilfried Bony, Bafetimbi Gomis and Marvin Emnes at striker. He had Wayne Routledge, Jefferson Montero , Nathan Dyer and Andre Ayew contributing from the flanks. Are these players exclusively better footballers than his Everton team mates? Not necessarily. But they do have one thing in common. Pace. At Swansea, the team was built around Sigurdsson, so as a club they acquired players to complement their star player. There is a consistent pattern in their intent to sign pacey forward players with a willingness to run beyond the defence. This helps Sigurdsson for two main reasons, the first being the runs behind give him opportunities to use his impressive passing skills to penetrate defences. These forward runs also provide Sigurdsson with more space to work with, the defence naturally drops deeper due to the mere threat of the pacey forward runs and this is reflected in Sigurdsson’s goal return.
In contrast with Everton, Sigurdsson has routinely found himself playing in forward line ups alongside Tom Davies, Calvert Lewin, Sandro and Wayne Rooney. Who is going to make the runs in behind that Sigurdsson thrives on? Instead, he is just cutting inside in to a crowd of players in that central area. Now this isn’t to say Everton should go out and sign players purely because they are quick. But they have been accused of signing players for players sake, with the attitude of worrying about the fit later, and so far it has provided a square peg in round holes feel to the team, reflected in their poor results.
I’m not saying it is or isn’t time to build this team around Sigurdsson (although you did just spend £45m on him). I’m personally not sure how high your ceiling is with him as your best player. However I do think it brings up an interesting question about how teams roster construct, especially with so much money being thrown around. Sigurdsson is merely an example of what can happen when you don’t play complementary players. His early season struggles are more likely accrued from not having a team built around him, not being the clear star man due to the competition of better teammates, as appose to old adages such as the pressure that comes with a big money move.
Ronald Koeman couldn’t make the find the right combination and it cost him his job. I am interested to see how Sam Allardyce will approach this conundrum. My early guess is he will move Wayne Rooney further back in to a midfield role (think: his only England game as manager) and we have seen Aaron Lennon re-introduced into the squad since Koeman left. All is not lost for Sigurdsson either, and the return of Bolasie and Mirallas to full fitness should really help his cause. Could Michael Antonio be a January target? An underperforming wide player with pace to burn and a knack for a back post goal, someone Big Sam is known to like. With West-Ham needing to rebuild he could be available.
It looks to be an interesting few months ahead for Everton Football Club, we will see the impact their record signing has on that future.
// This was written for my Blogspot on 28/11/17. All stats are accurate as of then