This season has certainly not gone to plan for Everton. After another summer of significant investment, the club has spent more time in the bottom-half of the table than in the top-six this season, dipping as low as No. 12 overall in the Premier League. Manager Marco Silva seems to have turned things around for the club over the last month-plus, as the side has lost just once in their last six matches -- taking points off of Chelsea, Arsenal, and bitter rivals Liverpool in the process. Off the back of these results, Everton is now just one point behind both Wolves and Leicester City for seventh which, for those who don't know, could mean a spot in the Europa League, depending on who wins the FA Cup.
While this turnaround has not been the result of some massive change in approach by Silva, the full commitment to playing in a 4-2-3-1 formation has certainly helped. Silva has utilized this formation 24-of-33 times in the league this season, and it has been working better of late, especially in terms of defense. In fact, over the last six matches, the Toffees have kept five clean sheets -- only one fewer than they'd managed all season prior to this recent streak.
Unsurprisingly when you get the most out of your defense, your results improve. Everton has recorded 0.45 more points from matches in which they employ the 4-2-3-1. While this playing style has clearly benefited the team on the whole, few have performed as well as Gylfi Sigurdsson, who we discussed earlier this season, and Lucas Digne.
Digne arrived as part of what was practically a convoy of players that swapped Barcelona for Merseyside over the summer, alongside center back Yerry Mina and midfielder Andre Gomes. Of the trio though, Digne is the one who has performed the best -- and the transfer certainly seems to have worked out for both the defender and the club. Despite playing as a defender, only Sigurdsson has created more chances (62) than Digne (57) and nobody at Everton, nor the rest of the Premier League, has whipped in more accurate crosses (70). With all of that service translating into just four assists, it's easy to overlook his contributions -- but his absence really emphasized his importance. Everton has won just one of the five matches in which Digne did not start.
The switch to Everton has obviously worked out for Digne as well, who has already posted career-highs in goals, total shots, shots on target, chances created, and accurate crosses -- and there are still five matches left to play. Among that host of improvements, the most marked one is the crossing. Per 90 minutes, the 25-year-old is averaging 8.35 crosses -- a massive improvement over his three-year average of just 2.81. He's been incredibly accurate with those crosses as well, having connected on more of them this season (70) than in the previous three seasons combined (29).
The end result of this incredible surge in production is that Digne not only leads the league in accurate crosses, but he has also completed an impressive 11 more than James Maddison in second (59). While accurate crosses are not by themselves a scoring category in the ESPN game, they are still a great predictor of assists -- or at least they're supposed to be.
Over the past three seasons, the player that has led the league in accurate crosses has averaged eight assists. Digne still lingers well behind that pace with only four. However, the fact that he's a full three assists behind his expected assist total only accentuates just how unlucky he has been. While there's not a huge amount of time left for regression to the mean, this run of misfortune should at least help to frame just how impressive it is that Digne has been a top-50 player, despite this statistical oddity.
Perhaps merely ranking in the top 50 may not bowl you over. However, compared to the rest of his tier, Digne has been incredible. Not only did he set the high-water mark for Tier 2 defenders with 39.1 points in Matchweek 19, but he's consistently been the best overall option here. In his tier, the Frenchman has finished as a top-three player 42 percent of the time. He has been the high-scorer on four separate occasions -- better than anyone else in this grouping.
While it would be easy to lay all this success at the feet of his incredible attacking statistics, Digne's efforts on defense should be lauded as well. This season, he has been no worse than second in this tier in tackles won (41), interceptions (55), and blocks (10) -- all of which give him a more reliable floor than other high-upside attacking wingbacks. He offers massive upside should more of his crosses lead to tallies but, beyond that, he's got a very solid floor. Digne has only had four games with five points or fewer. So, even in down weeks, he's been a decent fantasy contributor.
Which brings us full circle, back to Marco Silva. Under his regime, down weeks have been few and far between thanks to that 4-2-3-1 shape. Digne has recorded nine of his 10 best fantasy outings when playing left back in this formation. Everton may well find themselves rising up the table and playing their way into a Europa League bid. The only thing that may be standing in the way of Digne finishing the season as the best Tier 2 defender is that he may perform at such a level that he rises up to Tier 1. That level of fantasy performance is certainly worth a look.