For much of the first half of the season, the center of Everton’s midfield felt like a clear area of weakness.
Idrissa Gueye was a new-entering star, but little else was looking good. Gareth Barry’s aging legs continued to show at times, James McCarthy appeared completely out of Ronald Koeman’s plans, Muhamed Besic was injured, Ross Barkley was underperforming, and Tom Davies had yet to get a real shot in the first team.
Now, with 13 matches to play, you could argue that central midfield is Everton’s biggest area of strength.
Gueye is back from the African Cup of Nations unscathed, McCarthy seems to have worked his way back into his manager’s good graces, Barry’s physical limitations have been somewhat covered up by the work of the previously mentioned players, Barkley has (at times) found his form, Davies is nearly undroppable, and Besic is close to a return from injury.
Oh — and there’s that Morgan Scheiderlin fellow that the Toffees shelled out £22 million for.
With all those players available for selection, Koeman faces a significant problem — a problem that’s preferable to the original problem, but a problem nonetheless. How do these players fit together on a week-to-week basis?
In an ideal world, Everton would have a European and domestic cup competitions to give Koeman a chance to rotate these players in and out of the lineup, but the team’s poor 2015-16 and performances in domestic cups this season have eliminated that option for now. Everton has only one mid-week match the rest of the season, so Koeman’s lineup choices will be based solely on form and tactical necessity, not fitness.
Let’s start with the obvious — taking Besic out of the equation for now. Koeman wasn’t the one to bring the Bosnian to Everton, and we’ve seen how the Dutchman has treated fringe players brought in under Roberto Martinez thus far. Besic is the gritty sort of player Koeman seems to like, but between injury and the position logjam, there’s no doubt that he’s at the bottom of the depth chart.
That leaves us with, in no particular order:
- Idrissa Gueye
- Gareth Barry
- James McCarthy
- Tom Davies
- Ross Barkley
- Morgan Schneiderlin
The first factor to consider in determining Everton’s ideal midfield combination is what formation the team is utilizing. This doesn’t particularly affect the number of central midfielders you’ll see at a given time in a match (it will be three at least 95% of the time), but it does impact some other considerations.
Let’s take a look at the two formations Koeman has used most frequently in Everton’s recent good run of form.
First, the 5-3-2:
This formation removes the need for true attacking wide players, a net positive for Everton given that the only out-and-out winger in the squad at this stage appears to be Aaron Lennon. I’m not convinced Ademola Lookman is a true winger as opposed to an attacker being shuffled out into a wide position, though that could change.
As a result, the full-backs are tasked with getting into the attack extensively and providing width to assist Romelu Lukaku and (probably) Kevin Mirallas up front.
The central midfielders have multiple tasks in response to these. The deep-lying midfielder, or #6, is tasked with:
- Sitting in front of the back three,
- Breaking up oppositions’ attacks in the defensive third,
- Filling in for one of the back three when a center-back has to chase a ball out wide, and
- Handling possession as the team transitions from defense to attack.
For that player, defensive awareness, composure, and passing ability are key, while athletic prowess is less important. Sounds like a job for Schneiderlin, with Barry as the first choice backup in that position.
Now we’re left with Gueye, McCarthy, Barkley, and Davies to fill in the other two spots. Those players must be able to:
- Serve as a box-to-box midfielder, covering lots of ground in the middle third,
- Shift into defensive positions out wide when the full-backs are caught up the field in a counter-attack situation, and
- Provide occasional playmaking duties from the center of the pitch, with the understanding that a lot of the creative burden still falls on the full-backs.
When I hear “cover lots of ground in the middle third,” I think Gueye every time — he’s got to be a lock for one of those positions. McCarthy has those traits as well, but I think of him rather as a less talented clone of Gueye, rather than a player who complements him.
That leaves Davies or Barkley as the candidates for the last spot. You don’t really want to have to leave either player out of the lineup on a regular basis (which is part of the reason we may see a different formation, as I’ll shortly discuss), but the reality is that Schneiderlin and Gueye both must be out there in this setup.
Personally, I take Davies over Barkley in this situation. The 18-year-old has proven to be looser in possession than Barkley, but more likely to find a final, killer pass, which is a bigger need for a player in this position. He’s also proven more willing to cover ground defensively and put a tackle in, another prerequisite for success in this role.
So this leaves us with Schneiderlin as the deep-lying midfielder backed up by Barry, with Gueye as the primary ball winner, backed up by McCarthy, and Davies as the primary playmaker, backed up by Barkley.
The biggest problem with this setup is the absence of Barkley, which is solved in the 4-3-3, Koeman’s other favored formation.
When we’ve seen this formation of late, it has included Barkley as the team’s right-sided attacking player. The wide players tend to gravitate toward the middle of the field and allow for the full-backs to get forward, so I hesitate to call them wingers.
In the center of midfield, the three roles are a little more distinct in this setup. The deepest-lying midfielder has the same role, so we’re going to stick with Schneiderlin/Barry there. The two more advanced central midfielders have different roles though, which changes things from the 5-3-2.
As I discussed in the analysis of the Middlesbrough match, the most advanced central midfielder was, at times, closer to a second striker than a midfielder. This player, Davies in that match, sat higher up the field when Everton was not in possession — providing much-needed support to Lukaku when the Toffees forced turnovers and tried to break out of the defensive third.
Frankly, this second striker / #10 role is best suited to Barkley, but with the Englishman occupying the right wing, Davies is the next best fit. He lacks Barkley’s size and strength, but he’s clearly the most creative and attack-minded of the remaining midfield options.
The final midfield role in this formation is a pure box-to-box player — he’s expected to help in possession in the final third, but also to help shield the back four in defense. Once again, Gueye is the simple choice here.
So, two formations and 1,100 words later, we’ve found that Everton’s best central midfield trio is likely Tom Davies in the most advanced role, Idrissa Gueye in a box-to-box role, and Morgan Schneiderlin as the deep-lying midfielder, with McCarthy and Barry backing up Gueye and Schneiderlin, respectively.
But, this personnel with either formation still leaves some significant problems. In the 5-3-2, Ross Barkley finds himself stapled to the bench — the last thing Koeman will want to do to a young player who has had an up-and-down season.
The 5-3-2 also helps the Toffees avoiding putting too much of a creative burden on any single midfield player, but at the cost of shifting much of that burden onto the full-backs. Seamus Coleman and Leighton Baines are very good players, but I doubt anyone wants to see them as the long-term fulcrum in attack.
Of course, we saw Koeman go away from the 5-3-2 in part because it appeared Mason Holgate was being exposed as one of the three center-backs, and that issue probably hasn’t gone away in the last few weeks. For the 5-3-2 to be viable, it either must compensate for that potential problem or provide clear advantages that outweigh such weaknesses.
In the 4-3-3 though, Tom Davies is forced into the role of a true #10, something he simply is not capable of doing at this stage of his career. Everton’s had problems with finding a player who can fill that position all season, and the club appears to have no immediate answer there.
But, the final takeaway from this discussion should be positive — the Toffees have three very talented central midfielders whose skills work well in combination, with adequate cover at each position, the oldest major contributor to which is only 27 years old.
Koeman has some problems to solve, but he’s got all the pieces to build a high-quality team around in the coming years.