Feature

Why Everton can exploit Brighton's unique studs-on-the-ball tactic

By Alex Keble 22 Feb 2024
Dunk and Dyche

Alex Keble analyses Roberto De Zerbi's side and whether the Toffees can enjoy another success at Amex Stadium

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The pace of change in the Premier League gets faster and faster.

Elite-level coaching across the division has created a scenario in which tactical innovations lauded for their ingenuity can be decoded, counteracted, and squashed within just a few months.

That might be what’s happening to Brighton & Hove Albion.

Roberto De Zerbi initially threw the Premier League off kilter with a strange-looking tactical hallmark: putting studs on the ball and standing stock still.

But the strategy’s powers are waning – and nobody has picked apart the De Zerbi trademark better than Sean Dyche.

Everton’s 5-1 victory at the Amex last May set a blueprint that many other Premier League teams have since followed.

Nine months on, their rematch on Saturday provides a good opportunity to assess how De Zerbi’s tactics have influenced the Premier League and whether there is a long-term future in the studs-on-the-ball technique.

Put your foot on the ball – and stop playing

It is one of the weirdest sights in modern football. The team in possession, close to their own goal, put their studs on the ball and stop dead.

Nobody moves. The defender holds still, waiting for the opponent to press them. The opponent holds still, refusing to be drawn. It’s a stand-off that can last 10 to 15 seconds, during which time the contest grinds to a halt.

We have De Zerbi to thank for that, or rather, we have De Zerbi to thank for the tactical ripple effect that has led to so many teams repeating his trick – and just as many working out how to neutralise it.

Press-baiting and "artificial transitions"

The basic idea is to bait the press, which is to say draw the opponent towards you in order to create space.

When this is done successfully, it either pulls the opposition out of their compact shell to give central midfielders space on the ball or creates what we might call an "artificial transition".

A "transition" refers to the moment possession changes hands, at which point there is usually space to attack quickly because the team who just lost the ball is dishevelled, caught between a spread-out attacking formation and a compressed defensive one.

By baiting the press, Brighton can suddenly switch gears, play forward quickly, and appear to counter-attack as if benefiting from a transition.

Brighton’s third goal in a 3-1 win at Manchester United in September was the perfect example of press-baiting and artificial transitions.

By passing the ball at a snail’s pace at the back, Brighton drew United’s forwards into pressing them.

Man Utd 3rd goal #1

Having pulled Man Utd out of their midblock, Brighton now have two easy passes down the wing, opening up the pitch to the extent that the image below looks like a counter-attack.

Man Utd 3rd goal #2

The other benefit of studs-on-the-ball press baiting is getting central midfielders on the ball, which is precisely how it worked for Brighton’s opener in the same match.

United again are drawn to pressing Brighton’s deepest players, which stretches them out of shape to create space around Pascal Gross.

Man Utd opener v Brighton #1

Having moved quickly to the halfway line, there now isn’t enough time for the United forwards to get back, meaning, a couple of passes later, Gross has possession in the middle, ready to initiate a goalscoring attack.

Man Utd opener v Brighton #2
Everton worked out how to negate it

If only Man Utd had paid attention to how Everton beat Brighton 5-1 at the end of last season.

Dyche, refusing to be baited, ensured that his team remained in an ultra-compact shape that both surrounded the central midfielders and gave the centre-backs and goalkeeper as much time on the ball as they wanted.

For a perfect example of what the match looked like, here’s Lewis Dunk, studs on the ball, waiting for something that was never going to happen.

Incredibly, he walked forward, stopped, and walked again for a grand total of 15 seconds in possession, unopposed. Note how many Everton players are camped in a tight rectangle around the Brighton team.

Brighton v Everton

In this example, note how Everton push up to squeeze the central midfielders, leading Dunk to hold the ball for a full 14 seconds.

Brighton v Everton #2

All five Everton goals were scored on the counter, with Dominic Calvert-Lewin, Abdoulaye Doucoure, Dwight McNeil, and Alex Iwobi bursting forward into the gaps behind the ever-advancing Brighton team.

That was possible due to the tenacity of Everton’s pressing and tackling, which was triggered by certain Brighton actions, namely when getting the ball into the middle third or moving towards the flanks.

All in all, you could even say that Everton, rather than baited into being drawn forward, baited Brighton into coming onto them.

Don’t drop too deep, don’t press too high

The 1-1 draw between the two sides at Goodison Park this season was similar in tone (Everton’s 20 per cent possession was the second-lowest share in any match in the competition in 2023/24), although on home soil Everton were a little bit more proactive, pressing even more assertively.

Across the season, Everton rank second in the Premier League for tackles won with 284, while their 243 interceptions rank second and they are first for team presses with 926. That kind of aggression is needed to stop Brighton, so long as it isn’t enacted too high.

Others have since copied the Everton method, hence why those bizarre standstill moments are getting longer, and hence why Brighton’s results have worsened since the electric early days of De Zerbi.

Brighton’s average possession share has gone up from 60.2 per cent in 2022/23 to 61.9 per cent in 2023/24, while their number of ball carries has risen substantially, from 429.8 per match to 517.0 per match, reflecting that ambling Dunk action shown above.

But perhaps the cleanest way to show the new problem for Brighton is the correlation between possession share and results.

De Zerbi’s side have won just one of the six Premier League matches in which they have held more than 70 per cent possession this season.

The only victory, 5-0 against Sheffield United last weekend, was an instructive example of how there is a delicate balance between refusing to be baited and dropping too deep.

Chris Wilder’s side were so deep they failed to surround the Brighton midfield, meaning Gross could easily get on the ball and pull the strings.

Gross v Sheff Utd

Gross became the first Premier League player on record to create eight chances while completing 110 passes at an accuracy of 97.3 per cent.

Luton Town’s two matches against Brighton also neatly capture the issue with dropping too deep.

The first image below shows Luton's average positions in the 4-1 defeat on the opening weekend, while the second shows their (much higher) average positions in the 4-0 win in January.

Luton ave. positions Brighton (A)
PL2324-LUTON-AVE-BRIGHTON-H
Brighton’s midfield losses shouldn’t be underestimated

So, by refusing to press high or drop deep, we technically have a blueprint for how to stop De Zerbi’s studs-on-the-ball baiting.

But to suggest his tactic has simply been decoded is unfair. If it had, nobody would be copying it.

Aston Villa under Unai Emery now play in a similar style out from the back, baiting the press and happily standing stock still for long periods.

Even Manchester City and Arsenal have slowed down at the back, meaning three of the top four have used De Zerbi’s example to dare to do nothing.

That others are still doing it suggests the tactic hasn’t been nullified entirely. Why, then, does it work better for them than it does for Brighton this season?

The simplest explanation is the correct one. Last summer Alexis Mac Allister and Moises Caicedo were sold to Liverpool and Chelsea, meaning Brighton lost their only two elite press-evading No 6s.

Looking at Opta "player pressure" data for the 2023/24 season, we can see that Brighton’s current midfield pair are more likely to be dispossessed when pressured compared to Caicedo, who was the linchpin under De Zerbi.

Caicedo/Mac Allister v Gross/Gilmour comparison
Player Pressured Pressured/90 Turnovers Turnover (%)
Caicedo 495 25.3 23 4.6
Mac Allister 520 28.7 38 7.3
Gross 576 25.9 48 8.3
Gilmour 515 27.2 35 6.8

And that is the main reason Everton will feel confident of another victory this weekend. Doucoure will hound from the front and Everton will be ready to counter-attack at breakneck speed, putting pressure on Gross and Gilmour.

Those two will need to channel their inner Caicedo if Brighton are to avoid a now-familiar mismatch - and avoid the growing accusation that De Zerbi’s studs-on-the-ball trick has been found out.

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