The secret to Everton’s success over the past year isn’t down to a return of Steven Pienaar, nor is it due to the arrival of Nikica Jelavic or Marouane Fellaini reaching his potential as has been mentioned in some places. Though all have played their parts for Everton, the true reason for their success is due to one man, Darron Gibson.
Gibson’s arrival from Manchester United this past January was met with curiosity more than anything. Despite a load of promise, Gibson had been unable to establish himself in the United midfield. The 25-year old Irish international needed to get away from the stifling confines of United, and David Moyes was willing to shell out a minimal amount to secure the man’s services.
Ever since then, Everton have never looked the same with him in the squad. Before the end of last season Gibson’s inclusion in the starting lineup meant that you could safely guarantee at least 1 point for Everton each match.
That run of form continued into this year. The only game Gibson has been on the losing side of with Everton was a 2-0 defeat to West Brom. Fittingly enough, Gibson’s departure due to injury early on is when things began to go wrong for the Toffees.
The big reason Gibson is never mentioned much for Everton is due to his very simple approach to football for Everton. Think of Jelavic and immediately your mind turns to scintillating one-touch finishes or quick turn and shoots near the top of the box. Pienaar and Mirallas inspire thoughts of dancers weaving their way into the box for a cross or pass. Fellaini even invokes the bull as he puts his head down and makes his own path towards goal.
Gibson is all of these and none of these. He has moments of beauty such as against Man City when he essentially told 3 defenders to stand there and watch as he moved the ball in and out of them. He is certainly willing to jostle with defenders and has no qualms about physical play, and when it is on target his shot is a beauty from long range.
But because he excels at none of these things he is often forgotten, except when he isn’t there. Gibson’s greatest asset is his ability to control the flow of play, to dictate how Everton will play in possession, and when we need it most he can help retain possession when the other team is in the ascendancy. This will never win him any awards from the media, but it will help Everton win games.
Folks like to talk about the importance of having a creative presence in the midfield. They want someone who can generate chances with the ball at their feet. There are few Ronaldo’s and Messi’s in the world who can actually do this. Instead most teams really need a Xavi, someone to play precise passes onto the feet of strikers and attacking midfielders. This is what Darron Gibson does best.
Mr. Gibson often sits more defensively than Osman or Fellaini will, but this gives him time to see the field and play the ball on the overlap to Baines or Pienaar for the cross. If you look at the Everton goals scored when Gibson was on the pitch, Gibson was involved in the run up on almost every single one. A key pass or dribble by him helped open things up and continue the attacking play.
The best part of Gibson’s return for Evertonian’s is how he will settle the defense. Though the statistics may lie, it seems like the Toffees have a bit of a sieve in the backline. Goals have been allowed to too many soft opponents at late moments in games. A good 9 points have been dropped in games we should have won, all of them when Gibson was out. Gibson helps to shield the defense by tracking back. He has no problem sticking his nose in on a play, and it allows the central defenders to get back and into position in time.
In addition, Gibson also does well in giving the defense breathing room. Almost every match there is a 15-20 minute spell where Everton is bunkering down and can’t get out and attack because the defense and midfield are playing too deep. Anytime the ball is played up and out Jelavic either can’t get to it or is unable to hold the ball up long enough to generate an attack. Gibson has shown a great ability to hold the ball and bring it out of the back. This allows Everton to transition forward as a team and makes it easier to recover if possession is lost. There will still be moments of panic just like with any team, but Gibson can help prevent a lot of it, especially against weaker sides that have no business dominating Everton like that.
While Everton will certainly be hurt by any loss of Baines or Fellaini, they can adapt and over come. It may take time and it may radically alter the team, but it can be done. Unfortunately losing Gibson is much harder. The first part of this season has already shown the lost promise of Everton without him. Hopefully Moyes doesn’t lose him anytime soon to a club with more money than sense.