Saturday, June 25, 2022

Why Chelsea and Tottenham transfer target Richarlison carries too many risks for Everton’s superstar price tag

Richarlison of Everton appears to be on the career trajectory of a star winger. The Brazilian began his career in his home country at Fluminense before a move to Watford at 20 years old brought him to the European game. After only one season there, he moved up the English ladder to Everton. Now, four seasons later, he’s entering the prime of his career and some of the Premier League’s biggest names are coming calling. Tottenham Hotspur have shown interest and even Chelsea are kicking the tires on a possible swoop for Richarlison.

Everton, understandably, want superstar money for their attacker, reportedly asking north of $60 million for him. Is that a price some of the world’s best clubs should pay? Let’s take a look.

What makes Richarlison appealing?

What makes Richarlison a fairly unique player is that despite being an attacker, his scoring and assists are not what necessarily makes him stand out. Over his four years with Everton, Richarlison has averaged 0.35 goals per 90 minutes, which ranks 29th among players who have played 4,000 minutes or more over that four-season span. He’s nestled right between Chris Wood (now of Newcastle) at 28th and Ashley Barnes of relegated Burnley at 30th. His expected goal (xG) totals tell much the same story. There he’s 39th with a 0.31 xG per 90. And his scoring is significantly better than his assist totals. He’s averaged 0.10 assist per 90, which isn’t even in the top 100. And it’s not like his teammates are constantly fluffing easy chances he creates for them. His assists per 90 are actually higher than the 0.08 expected assists (xA) the STATS perform model predicts his passes are worth.

It’s when you start to look at all the non-scoring stuff that Richarlison really begins to shine though. Over those same four seasons, Richarlison is fifth among all attackers with 1.69 tackles per 90, and he wins those tackles too. His 44.7% tackle success rate is second-highest among attackers. His ball recoveries are also strong with 4.92 ranking him seventh among Premier League attackers over the last four years.

Then there’s Richarlison’s above average ability to run with the ball at his feet. He doesn’t carry the ball a lot, which is a product of playing on some deeply mediocre sides. He’s only attempted 27.09 carries per match over the last four years, which is not even in the top 30 in the Premier League. However, when he does, he averages six yards per carry, which is the 17th-best total in the league.

Put it all together and you’ve got an average scoring forward, but one who plays on the wing, is a fierce defender, and is good at carrying the ball forward with his feet, even if his passing is somewhat unremarkable. He’s managed all that while playing for, at-best, a midtable team which almost got relegated last season. So, there’s easy to see why there’s some interest.

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What are Richarlison’s downsides?

Even though, in total, Richarlison profiles as a player who could, at the very least, play a role on a top team, there are still some major reasons for concern. While on average his profile looks quite good, the direction of his trajectory might suggest otherwise. In theory, Richarlison should be hitting his prime with his numbers peaking as he enters the best years of his career. In practice, even accounting for the fact he played fewer minutes last season due to wear and tear, he experienced his worst season at Everton in several important areas.

His 1.43 tackles per 90 were the lowest of his time at Everton, as were his 4.06 ball recoveries. These defensive numbers dropped despite the fact that Everton only had 39.5% of the ball, the lowest amount of possession they’ve had by far in a season when he’s been there. In a season when he had more opportunity to defend, he did less of it.

It becomes even more concerning when you look at the data surrounding his carries. His average carry distance per 90 minutes, which had never previously been below 170 yards, dipped to just under 123. He both had the fewest numbers of carries per 90 minutes of his time at Everton at 22.52 and the lowest average yards carried per each attempt at 5.4. So he carried the ball less and for shorter distances each time.

In theory, all of those changes could be explained by a position change. With striker Dominic Calvert-Lewin injured, Richarlison played a lot more at the top of the formation as a true striker and a lot less as a second striker coming in off the wing. But pure scoring has always been the more average part of Richarlison’s game, and if playing as a striker hurt his other abilities, it didn’t improve his scoring. Strip away penalties and you see a player whose goals were only at 0.25 per 90 (second-lowest of his four Everton seasons), xG per 90 at 0.27 per 90 (tied for lowest) and shots at 2.46 (again the lowest). The lone bright spot for Richarlison was that his assist rate was by far the highest of his time at Everton at 0.18 per 90, but even there the stats suggest he mostly benefited from his hot finishing by his teammates as his xA total was 0.03, again the lowest of his Everton career.

Should teams be scared off by Richarlison’s down season?

Sometimes a bad season is just a bad season. It is absolutely true that Richarlison’s 2021/22 season was, comparatively speaking, a disaster but plenty of good players have bad years. And there were plenty of mitigating circumstances. Everton’s struggles last season were no secret and the team spiralled from a solidly midtable side to a serious relegation battle. Management was a mess. Rafa Benitez started the season in charge after Carlo Ancelotti left for Real Madrid and played a depressing style of conservative football that didn’t particularly work. Frank Lampard eventually took over, and while he did guide the team to safety, he also didn’t really solve many of the problems. It’s not exactly surprising to see a player struggle in that environment.

On top of that, Everton had to deal with a serious injury crisis. Striker Dominic Calvert-Lewin only played 1,300 minutes, and he similarly suffered the worst season of the last four years while he was on the pitch. Richarlison went from being part of a young dynamic duo to doing a lot of flying solo, in a position that didn’t suit his skills. And it showed. Add to that the fact that the young Brazilian had basically no offseason and you can absolutely craft an explanation for his down season. Richarlison played in both the Copa America and Olympics for Brazil, as well as a couple of World Cup qualifiers. He played 15 matches over the summer of 2021, starting in all but two of them. Then his 2021-22 season started.

All told, Richarlison is not an exceptional striker. At his best, he’s a very good defensive winger who also gives you the scoring of an average striker along with a lot of ability to carry the ball forward. That’s a very valuable type of player. He would have easily been the kind of player a club would sensibly pay potential superstar money for a season ago. But his recent struggles have made things a little less clear. It’s possible that after a summer off Richarlison will be back to his old self. Put him back on the wing and in a functional side with his legs back under him and you’ll see the gamble pay off.

It’s also possible, however, that last season revealed that Richarlison depends on a non-stop motor that might never be the same. Instead of refining his game in his mid-twenties, he might struggle to ever recapture the production of his younger years — the likely product of an engine that now has permanently lower output. Often, players recover from grueling overuse, but sometimes they simply never get that edge back.

It’s certainly possible to imagine a price point at which buying Richarlison would make sense for some of the world’s biggest teams. But the price Everton are currently demanding is basically can’t-miss-star money. And, well, we’ve seen Richarlison miss. It happened last season. Teams like Chelsea and Spurs could certainly use Everton’s star, but unless the Toffees lower their asking price, the best teams in the world can probably find better value for their dollars elsewhere. And, if it turns out that last season was, in fact, a blip, and Richarlison returns to form for the 2022-23 campaign, teams with money can always come calling again next summer.

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