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What’s wrong with Morgan Schneiderlin?

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The Frenchman’s struggles have much more to do with his team than his individual play.

Everton FC v Apollon Limassol - UEFA Europa League Photo by Alex Livesey/Getty Images

At the end of last season, I wrote the 2016-17 review for Morgan Schneiderlin, and stumbled upon this statistic:

The team’s record with and without him this season tells a huge story:

With Schneiderlin in the lineup: 14 matches, 9 wins, 3 draws, 2 losses; 32 goals for, 13 goals against; 2.29 goals scored per match, 0.93 goals against per match.

Without Schneiderlin in the lineup: 24 matches, 8 wins, 7 draws, 8 losses; 30 goals for, 31 goals against; 1.25 goals scored per match, 1.29 goals against per match.

With Schneiderlin in the lineup, Everton had a 1.36 goal differential per match. Without him, the Toffees’ goal differential per match was -0.04. Pretty clearly, he was Everton’s most important player not named Romelu Lukaku last season.

His contributions to the team were pretty similar to those he brought to Manchester United and Southampton in prior seasons. Let’s start by looking at the details of his 2016-17 season at Everton.

Among central midfielders in Europe’s top leagues, Schneiderlin is an elite ball-distributor from deep in the midfield. The Frenchman isn’t a chance creator, but rather the player who gets the ball to a team’s chance creators from the defensive or middle third into the attacking third.

His defensive numbers were average to above average, but also reflect the fact that he played with ball-winner extraordinaire Idrissa Gana Gueye, which reduced his need to get involved defensively.

Now compare that output to what he did with Manchester United and Southampton in the seasons prior.

For Southampton and United, Schneiderlin had a higher measurable defensive output to go along with his impressive passing stats. These radars, in fact, may even undersell Schneiderlin’s passing skills.

Consider this comparison of Schneiderlin’s passing numbers to those of a big-name player who played in a similar role — Xabi Alonso.

Morgan Schneiderlin

Season Long Passes per 90 Long Pass Accuracy Overall Pass Accuracy
Season Long Passes per 90 Long Pass Accuracy Overall Pass Accuracy
Soton 2014-15 5.5 72.5% 89.3%
Everton 2016-17 5.9 75.0% 89.9%

Xabi Alonso

Season Long Passes per 90 Long Pass Accuracy Overall Pass Accuracy
Season Long Passes per 90 Long Pass Accuracy Overall Pass Accuracy
Real Madrid 2012-13 7.4 70.0% 82.5%
Bayern Munich 2015-16 5 63.0% 91.1%

Schneiderlin’s numbers, on clearly inferior teams, are pretty comparable to Alonso’s, high praise for the French midfielder.

Yet, Schneiderlin’s numbers this season are down well below what we saw from him last year, as well as what we’ve seen from him over his career.

  • Passing percentage down to 87.5% from 89.9% last season
  • Long pass accuracy down to 45% from 75% last season
  • Long passes complete per 90 down to 2.5 from 5.9 last season
  • Total passes complete per 90 down to 53.7 from 72.3 last season
  • 5 yellow cards in all competitions, including two yellows and a subsequent dismissal against Manchester City — after taking 2 yellow cards in 14 appearances for Everton last season

The eye test might tell us even more about Schneiderlin’s struggles than his numbers, too. He’s looked rushed and uncomfortable on the ball, while stuck chasing and making bad challenges in defense.


So, what’s wrong with Morgan Schneiderlin?

To me, it looks like absolutely nothing. Everton’s current state is impacting Schneiderlin’s ability to succeed — not the other way around.

There are two main, team-wide factors affecting the midfielder’s play — one in possession, and one in defense.

In possession, Everton lacks speed and width because, for whatever reason, Ronald Koeman has decided that he simply isn’t ever going to play true wingers (among other things). This puts immense pressure on Schneiderlin as the deep-lying distributor.

When Schneiderlin receives the ball from a defender or fellow midfielder after Everton wins the ball, he wants to look up the field, find an open player, and pick a forward pass that gets his team going in the right direction. With no pace or width in the side though, that’s damn near impossible.

Consider the following situation — Schneiderlin is on the ball with Everton in its narrow 4-3-3, having just forced a turnover.

Scenario #1

The Toffees have just won the ball, so the full-backs haven’t gotten into the attack yet. Instead, Schneiderlin is looking only at the four players playing ahead of him — and boy, are they easy to defend.

Gylfi Sigurdsson and Wayne Rooney present absolutely no danger of getting loose down the wing, so the opposing full-backs can cheat to the inside to try to cut the passing lanes to them. Opposing central midfielders can simultaneously cut those passing lanes and block off Davy Klaassen, given that the players are so tightly grouped.

That leaves playing Dominic Calvert-Lewin over the top as the only option. The youngster has been decent at playing that style this season, but he’s not Romelu Lukaku, and he certainly isn’t yet good enough a player to serve as his team’s only outlet.

The result? Lots of forced long passes to Calvert-Lewin and backwards or sideways passes to Idrissa Gana Gueye and the center-backs — or, forced short forward passes to players who aren’t really open.

Instead, imagine that same situation with two legitimate wide players in the lineup.

Scenario #2

Now, with Aaron Lennon and Kevin Mirallas in, there are substantially more options. Those players adopt wider starting positions (though they can cut inside if that’s where the space is), and have the pace to get in behind opposing full-backs if they try to front the Everton attackers.

With the wingers in wider positions, Calvert-Lewin and Sigurdsson have more room in the central channel to operate. Gylfi can look for gaps between the central midfielders and in front of the back line, while DCL can try to isolate a specific center-back, rather than being pinned in one spot.

Schneiderlin has proven to be a top-level distributor of the ball when given these options — he’s talented enough to play long balls behind the full-backs to pacey wingers, or to find the right short pass into the feet of a midfielder or striker.

The only problem is that he’s not being given a chance to do that.

Now, let’s take a look at Schneiderlin’s issues off the ball.

Because of the issues noted above, Everton is struggling to keep possession when transitioning from defense into attack. This is the worst time to turn the ball over, because the transitioning team has players in vulnerable defensive positions — the full-backs are starting to bomb forward, the center-backs are re-organizing, and the central midfielders are trying to open passing lanes, rather than getting into defensive positions.

So, when Schneiderlin or another player tries to force a pass into a crowded midfield (usually because it’s the only option), the opposing team sometimes forces a turnover. With Everton defenders and midfielders spread across the field, Schneiderlin is in a tough spot.

He’s not got the pace to cover the ton of open space that’s now around him, so he’s forced to press the ball carrier and hope to either quickly win the ball back or take a tactical foul. If he succeeds in fouling, it may well earn him a yellow card. If not, now he looks to be the player at fault for allowing an odd-man break borne out of his aggression to win the ball back — even though immediately pressing for the ball or a foul was really his only option.

Everton v Burnley - Premier League Photo by Clive Brunskill/Getty Images

The story is similar when Everton actually manages to get into the final third. Because the team doesn’t usually include true wide players, the full-backs always need to get into advanced areas. With the team struggling for goals and creative play in general, Gana (or another central midfield partner) may also foray forward, leaving just Schneiderlin and the center-backs in position to defend a counter.

As mentioned before, Schneiderlin doesn’t have a ton of pace, so if the opponent comes on the counter with only him and the center-backs in defense, he’s in trouble. He’s forced to try to win the ball back aggressively or take a foul — and if he fails, things go bad quickly.

Conclusion

Morgan Schneiderlin is a top-level Premier League deep-lying distributor. He’s proven it at Southampton, Manchester United, and Everton. He’s only 27 years old, and has never really relied on pace anyway, so his age isn’t really a factor either.

Sometimes players do simply have down seasons for reasons that are unintelligible from an outside perspective, but it seems unlikely that’s what’s going on here. Instead, Ronald Koeman insists on putting Schneiderlin, and his team as a whole, in positions where they cannot possibly succeed.

Morgan is at the center of everything the Toffees do, and excelled when given that responsibility last season. But, as long as their plans are incoherent, he’s going to continue to struggle — through no fault of his own.

All radars courtesy of @MixedKnuts and @FussballRadars