There was a lot of attention paid to Everton’s central midfield trio of Idrissa Gueye, Gareth Barry, and Ross Barkley before Saturday’s match against Middlesbrough.
Gueye has arguably been the best value signing in the Premier League this season, with a lot of love being directed his way by the fans — love he reciprocated with comments about his start on Merseyside this week.
Barry made his 600th Premier League appearance on Saturday, making him only the third player in league history to do so.
Barkley’s attention was significantly less positive — after a poor performance and early exit last week against Sunderland, Ronald Koeman (and what felt like more than half of England) had comments for the young midfielder.
It should come as no surprise then, that the trio was right in the middle of Everton’s 3-1 victory against Middlesbrough at Goodison Park on Saturday. Barry scored Everton’s first goal and had a performance generally characteristic of his time in the Premier League — his calming influence sitting in front of the back four kept the team moving forward, with his goal simply an added bonus.
His role, along with the role of Gueye and Barkley, changed slightly this week after Barkley’s struggles last week, and Koeman’s central-midfield tweak made a big difference for his side.
Koeman set the team up as follows.
The major change came in the positioning of Gueye, who was asked to play a more advanced role on Saturday than we’ve seen from him the rest of the season.
Prior to the ‘Boro match, Gueye had played essentially alongside Barry in a traditional 4-2-3-1 — yes, the Senegalese midfielder had played slightly more forward than the Englishman, but there was little doubt he was playing as a holding midfielder, rather than as a box-to-box player.
But after another another masterclass from Gueye against Sunderland, which included 101 passes completed out of 106 attempted and an assist on an inch-perfect cross, Koeman decided to give him a more advanced role in Everton’s play — to great effect.
Let’s start by making clear exactly where Gueye was playing — take a look at his heatmap (courtesy of EvertonFC.com) compared to that of Barry.
As you can see, Gueye had a significant impact farther up the pitch than Barry. Gueye got into the attack, ahead of Barry and alongside Barkley on the right side of the pitch.
As you might expect, his passing accuracy dropped a little bit from last week, both because it’s almost impossible to complete over 100 passes at 96% efficiency on a regular basis, and because he was playing in more forward, congested areas. Still, his passing was impressive and crucial to his team’s success, as you can see on his passing map (courtesy of FourFourTwo.com).
His play in the attacking third doesn’t look particularly impressive on paper, but his presence in the attacking third ultimately led to all three of his team’s goals.
Barry’s equalizer came from a corner kick that came about after a free kick won by Gueye 40 yards from goal.
His role in the third goal was much clearer — he flayed two Middlesbrough defenders on the dribble, creating space for Yannick Bolasie to whip a cross in toward Romelu Lukaku.
He was equally crucial in the second goal, and his involvement points to the change in Barkley’s role as well.
At the start of this play, you can clearly see that Gueye has involved himself pretty significantly in the attack — he’s surveying for an entry pass to get in behind a relatively well-organized ‘Boro backline.
You may notice that Ross Barkley is nowhere to be found in this image.
Gueye plays the perfect pass into Romelu Lukaku, who redirects it toward the breaking Seamus Coleman. The Irish right-back reminds any doubters why he belongs in the lineup by scoring a lovely goal after an impressive dribbling display.
You may notice that Barkley doesn’t come into the frame until Coleman has already made his move to the center of the field — the English midfielder is actually farther left than even Kevin Mirallas.
This was not an uncommon occurrence during Saturday’s match.
Gueye’s advanced position down the right side slid Barkley into a more left-leaning role. On paper, this may not seem like a great move — Barkley has been pretty mediocre when asked to play in wide positions in the past.
However, it worked pretty well on Saturday, as it took a lot of pressure off the 22-year-old. Frequently, Barkley plays at the team’s central attacking midfielder, with the onus to create an incredible amount of the team’s attack on his own.
By pushing Gueye up the field and Barkley a little farther left, Koeman split up the attacking responsibility between the two players, a welcome change for Barkley after struggling against Sunderland.
The result was that Barkley passed the ball more effectively and ultimately had more space to operate on the ball.
Barkley didn’t see any of his plays lead to goals like Gueye did, but he completed nearly 92% of his passes, at least eight of which were in very dangerous positions. He may not have gotten rewarded this week, but performances like that will lead to results over the long term.
Everton needs Ross Barkley. He’s got the ability to be a game changer on a week-to-week basis, with his passing, dribbling, and shooting. But the reality is that at least right now, he may not be ready to be the complete focal point of his team’s attack — and he may never be the true No. 10 that many of us would like him to be.
But, if Gueye can continue to make an impact in the attacking third, playing dangerous passes of his own and drawing the attention of opposing defenses, things for Barkley could improve. He’ll be less frequently asked to single-handedly break down defenses with his passing and find himself in more space to take players on with his dribbling ability.
Koeman has found a way to play to Barkley’s strengths while also discovering Gueye’s ability to play in a more creative role. This may not be feasible against top teams in the league, but against lesser opposition, the Toffees will have a significantly improved ability to break down bunkering teams, a valuable skill that they sorely lacked last season.