With seventh place and a Europa League berth locked up, Everton doesn’t have much to play for in the closing month of the season.
This isn’t exactly a secret, and there’s no doubt that it’s impacted the team’s performances against West Ham United, Chelsea, and Swansea City the last three weeks. It might even be correct to argue that a lack of motivation is the biggest factor in the Toffees’ mini-winless streak.
But, that’s not particularly interesting or particularly telling about the team’s chances in what will surely be a crucial 2017-18 Premier League season. What is telling, however, is the development of a major point over the course of these matches that has nothing to do with motivation.
The problem is that only three months after his signing, Everton is already completely reliant on Morgan Schneiderlin — and the issues that have appeared in his absence make that clear.
I’ll be the first to admit I was dead wrong about the signing of Schneiderlin. I felt that the Toffees needed a player in a more advanced midfield role, rather than someone to complement the existing midfielders by playing in a deep role.
But since arriving on Merseyside, Schneiderlin has proven to be both an excellent deep-lying distributor and a useful shield for an at-times unreliable back four. In fact, he’s been so good that the Toffees resemble two different teams when he is and is not on the pitch. Consider the following:
- Everton in 2017 with Morgan Schneiderlin: 12 matches, 8 wins, 3 draws, 1 loss — 2.25 points per match
- Everton in 2017 without Morgan Schneiderlin: 5 matches, 1 win, 1 draw, 3 losses — 0.8 points per match.
“But wait!” I hear you yelling at your screen, “Schneiderlin missed matches against Liverpool, Manchester United, and Chelsea! How can you compare those to matches against clubs like Hull City and Sunderland?”
That’s a fair question, intelligent reader, but let’s dig a little more into that. Schneiderlin also played in Everton’s 3-2 loss at Tottenham Hotspur — the Toffees’ only loss with the Frenchman in the lineup. In that match, Everton played Spurs evenly and was ultimately let down by an abysmal goalkeeping display.
Against Liverpool and Chelsea, with Schneiderlin sidelined, the Toffees lost by a combined score of 6-1, miles behind their crosstown rivals and the likely Premier League champions. The United match Schneiderlin missed was only marginally better — Phil Jagielka converted an awkward corner kick goal, and Everton was frequently saved by Manchester United’s wayward finishing, before a Zlatan Ibrahimovic penalty got a deserved point for Jose Mourinho’s side in the dying moments.
So yes, many of Everton’s difficult matches came while Schneiderlin was out of the lineup — but the team’s performance in those matches was noticeably poorer than at White Hart Lane in early March, when Schneiderlin played a full 90.
So what is it, exactly, that Schneiderlin brings that is so desperately missed by his team? The French midfielder is the man who brings out the best in all of his potential central midfield partners. Consider his impact on each of these teammates:
— Idrissa Gueye: The Senegalese midfielder always wants to be as active as possible. He looks to get forward when Everton has the ball and win the ball back when his team does not. To be free to play that role, Gana needs a deep-lying teammate who can both distribute out of the back without assistance from another midfielder and cover enough ground to snuff out counters on his own from time to time.
Schneiderlin is the only Everton player who checks both those boxes, in large part because Gareth Barry simply can’t move well enough anymore. Speaking of Barry...
— Gareth Barry: The 36-year-old has been on the receiving end of plenty of criticism from supporters this season, but most of his issues have come as a result of misuse, rather than poor performance. Barry simply cannot serve as the deep-lying midfielder in a 4-3-3 at this stage of his career.
His mobility (never great to begin with) is a significant liability when asked to play as a lone holding midfielder, particularly when the box-to-box player alongside him is Gueye, whose tendencies to chase and wander have already been noted.
However, in matches against inferior opposition that will likely look to bunker and counter, a 4-2-3-1 approach with Schneiderlin and Barry makes a lot of sense. Both players are excellent distributors out of the midfield, creating the constant threat of a killer ball from the center of the pitch. Their collective defensive awareness also allows the front four to play freely without having to worry about getting beaten on the counter attack. Koeman used this setup against West Brom in March, and it worked to perfection.
— Tom Davies / Ross Barkley: Depending on the match, you may see either of these players in the No. 10 role for Everton, but Schneiderlin’s impact is the same regardless of who plays there. Put simply, Schneiderlin:
- Is an excellent distributor out of the back, and can get the ball forward to the attacking midfielders without requiring them to drop deep to receive the ball. This means less space between Davies/Barkley and goal when they get the ball out of the back.
- Provides a layer of defensive cover plainly superior to that of Gueye or Barry, meaning the No. 10 has a reduced responsibility to help out on defense. (Our own Sean Lunt took a look this week at why asking Barkley to play defense is a particularly poor idea.)
Morgan Schneiderlin is an excellent footballer, and is looking an absolute steal for the 24 million pounds Everton gave to Manchester United for his services. But, Everton’s record without him this season is troubling, particularly if you widen your scope to before he was signed as well.
Evertonians ought to be concerned that he’s already missed out on nearly a month of football due to injury since joining the club, though hopefully this will turn out to be a bit of bad luck that is quickly forgotten next season.
But with Europa League football on the agenda for 2017-18, the Toffees will need a plan for when he’s not in the lineup, as the Frenchman surely won’t be able to play in every league, cup, and European match next season. Whether that means re-thinking the team’s setup when Schneiderlin is out of the lineup or adding another central midfielder over the summer is unclear.
What is clear, though, is that Everton has already become incredibly reliant on Morgan Schneiderlin, and needs to come up with a Plan B before Europa League play opens in July.