Last season, center midfield was a consistent source of concern for Everton. Darren Gibson spent much of the season injured, Ross Barkley was unable to force his way into the starting 11, we signed Thomas Hitzlsperger, and Phil Neville...well...let's just try not to think about that. That being said, Marouane Fellaini established himself as a force at the center of the pitch, and a solid goal scorer as well, and Leon Osman put forward yet another solid campaign, earning his first England cap.
So where does that leave the group this season? Ross Barkley is a year closer to being a full-fledged first team player (hopefully), Marouane Fellaini may very well be on the way out, and Leon Osman certainly isn't getting any younger. No new additions have been made at this position, so right now we must put our faith in Gibson, Fellaini (for now), Osman, and Barkley. Before we can consider the players in-depth though, we have to consider the new system it appears they will be playing in. Roberto Martinez's decision to adopt a 3-4-3 means that only two of these players will be in the starting 11 per game, as opposed to the three we often saw in David Moyes' 4-4-1-1. This will hopefully give the team more depth at the center of midfield, providing better and more effective squad rotation, and cover in case of injury.
Darron Gibson - 22 starts, 1 goal, 2 assists. (All stats reflect only EPL performance from last season.)
Gibson is the cog that holds together to midfield. He isn't a flashy player, and his stats certainly do not jump off the page, but any Everton fan that has watched the team both with him and without him in the past season and a half will tell you that the Blues are an entirely different team in possession when Gibson plays. Everton was the losing side for the first time with Gibson in the starting 11 in their third game last season, a 2-0 loss to West Brom that saw him removed at half with a thigh problem. The thigh was a problem for a good part of the season, and the team struggled to fill the hole left by his absence. The health and fitness of the 25 year old Irishman will be key for Everton this season.
Marouane Fellaini - 31 starts, 11 goals, 7 assists.
No one needs me to tell them that the big Belgian had a breakout year last season. He remained a monster in the air, as always, but we also saw an improvement of his skills on the ball and passing ability. His temper problems also persisted however, as the team was without him for a 3 game span in December, as he rightfully served a 3 game suspension for headbutting Ryan Shawcross. During the second half of the season, he, like many Everton players, disappeared at times, and failed to make the impact he had through most of the first half. Felli showcased his attacking prowess, playing behind the striker for most of the season in Moyes' 4-4-1-1. This season, obviously, he will not have a similar opportunity in Martinez's 3-4-3. Fellaini has maintained throughout his Everton career that although he will play wherever he is needed, he prefers to play a more holding midfield role, rather than the center forward-esque role he has played with Everton often times under Moyes. He will be given that opportunity under Martinez, but it would seem realistic to expect less goals from the Belgian this season if he continues to operate in a more withdrawn position. Obviously, the elephant in the room is Fellaini's transfer status, as within a week's time he could very possibly be back under David Moyes at Manchester United. That being said, if he remains an Everton player, he will remain an important part of the squad.
For these two players, it seems Martinez's change in tactics will be positive, or at least neutral. For Everton's other two central midfielders, it could be a little more complicated.
Leon Osman - 36 starts, 5 goals, 3 assists
If any statistic can give a proper impression of Leon Osman last season, it's his 36 starts out of 38 league games. Ossie was constantly ready to go in a position where we had very little depth last season, and Everton really would have struggled if not for his constant presence. Osman earned his first England call up in November, deservedly so, a just reward for his excellent play the first half of the season. Ossie faded some during the second half however, displaying a tendency to drift out of games for large chunks of time. Osman is now 32 years old, and in Martinez's system, has no clear path into the starting 11 right now. Gibson and Fellaini are the obvious choices at the center of the park, and Osman has done little to disprove that during the preseason. He also will be asked to play an enhanced defensive role with the team playing only 3 at the back, and although his effort will never be in doubt, his ability to defend well given his size and speed could certainly be in question. He will also have to compete for time off the bench with this man...
It feels like we've been waiting forever for Barkley to explode into the first squad, so it is hard to believe he's still only 19. He has shown flashes of brilliance in his limited time under David Moyes, but also decision making fitting of a 17 or 18 year old at times, perhaps providing some support for Moyes' reluctance to use him frequently. In the (hopefully) free-flowing, attack minded system of Martinez, Barkley could fit quite nicely. In his limited time last season and so far this preseason, Barkley has shown an ability to take on defenders, a willingness to go to goal, and the potential to make very good passes, if he can find the right targets. Barkley's willingness and ability to defend, however, could play a significant role in how much time he can get this season as well. We have usually seen Barkley in a more attack-minded central midfield role, a position that we may not see much of this season. But if Ross can prove to be flexible, and continue to build on the good things we've seen from him so far, this could be the season he begins to become all that we hope for.
So what does this all mean? With Fellaini's future up in the air, it is tough to tell. If the big Belgian stays, the center of the park could be a stronghold for Everton, with two very talented players starting, and an experienced club mainstay and hopeful star of the future coming off the bench. With Gibson and Fellaini anchoring the team, we ought to be able to compete with every team in the Premier League. If Fellaini does leave however, Martinez will almost certainly have to bring in at least one more player before the transfer window closes, perhaps his old Wigan player James McCarthy.
What do you think? Are Gibson and Fellaini in line for solid seasons, or is the center of Everton's midfield a point of concern for you heading into the season? Think Leon Osman still has enough to push into the starting 11? Is this going to be Ross Barkley's year? Share your thoughts in the comments below!
More from Royal Blue Mersey:
- School of Science: Tactical Analysis
- School of Science: Transfer Targets
- School of Science: Schedule Analysis
- School of Science: Academy Prospects
- School of Science: Forwards
- School of Science: Right Midfield
- School of Science: Center Midfield
- School of Science: Left Midfield
- School of Science: Left Back
- School of Science: Center Back
- School of Science: Right Back
- School Of Science: Goalkeepers
- School of Science: Welcome