The center of midfield shouldn’t ever be a problem area for Everton.
Last season, Idrissa Gueye and Morgan Schneiderlin were elite box-to-box and deep-lying ball-distributing midfielders, respectively. The Toffees have two promising young central midfielders in Tom Davies and Beni Baningime, and added two central attacking midfield players in Wayne Rooney and Gylfi Sigurdsson who both have a history of great success in this league.
Yet, the center of the pitch hasn’t been the Everton stronghold it ought to be, for a wide variety of reasons.
Schneiderlin is lazy, terrible, misused, not as bad as most people think, in a bad run of form, or some combination of all of the above, depending on who you ask. Davies’ decision making has been poor. Baningime hasn’t gotten a sniff under Sam Allardyce. Sigurdsson maddeningly hasn’t been allowed to regularly play in the middle.
So, under Allardyce we’ve seen several different midfield combinations — though the number of potential configurations decreased when James McCarthy broke his leg. Against Crystal Palace this weekend, Big Sam stumbled into something that worked pretty well, though I’ve got serious doubts about its long-term viability.
Let’s take a look at how the team lined up.
The Toffees came out in a 4-3-3 on Saturday, as we’ve seen for most of the season (5-2-3 fiasco against Arsenal notwithstanding) — but with a midfield three of Rooney, Gueye, and Davies (playing ahead of the other two).
Idrissa Gueye’s role in this midfield is pretty much what it usually is — sit deep, pick his moments to chase down ball carriers, and generally be a nuisance in the center of the pitch.
So, let’s talk about the other two players in the midfield, starting with Tom Davies. In fact, let’s start by talking about what Tom Davies isn’t. Davies is not now, nor will he ever be, a traditional number 10.
His passing simply isn’t good enough to be a truly creative player, and he’s realistically not at his best when on the ball. Davies has a decent positional awareness when his team has the ball — that is, he’s good at popping up in the right spaces while his teammates work the ball around the final third. He’s also proven to be adept at harassing opposing players when they are on the ball, perhaps his most useful skill.
Consider the following — Davies’ passmap from the match against Crystal Palace (courtesy of EvertonFC.com).
Davies’ pass accuracy was decent in the match, but he’s not looking to complete any passes into dangerous positions — that’s just not his game.
That brings us to Rooney, a player who is more traditionally associated with finding teammates in those dangerous areas. However, that wasn’t really Rooney’s role either.
Instead, Rooney was given the role assigned to Schneiderlin last season — sit deep in the midfield, look for the ball from his teammates, and help the team transition from the middle to attacking third.
Take a look at Rooney’s passmap from the match.
It was a lot of recycling possession and working the ball into the final third from the Englishman, a much-needed role for the Toffees when Schneiderlin and Baningime are left out of the lineup.
To draw a fuller distinction between the two roles, take a look at the passes received maps of the two players, courtesy of Statszone.
Davies, then, served as something of an advanced destroyer, looking to break up opposition buildup, while popping up in dangerous areas in the final third once Everton had the ball.
Rooney was a pretty traditional deep-lying distributor, facilitating play for the entire team.
The success of this midfield relied on the wingers, Gylfi Sigurdsson and Theo Walcott, to create the majority of the attacking impetus. Given that the pair are Everton’s most dangerous playmakers, that assignment made sense.
Walcott’s role was pretty ordinary — get wide, combine with the right-back, and try to find players in and around the attacking box. Take a look at his passmap and his passes received from the match.
It was a pretty routine day for the winger, who was the focal point of several attacks, though nothing quite came off for him on the day.
Sigurdsson, as you might expect, tended to drift more toward the middle, as was the case on the opening goal of the match. With Davies playing as the faux 10, there was space and a need for the Icelander to operate as a central creative threat, but he just didn’t get on the ball enough to have a substantial creative impact.
Take a look at his passes received.
The few times he popped up in the center of the pitch, danger was created for the Toffees — but it just didn’t happen enough.
Everton won this match, and that’s what matters most. But, I don’t think this is a sustainable setup for the Toffees for a two different reasons.
First, any team with half-decent attackers is going to create problems for defensive midfielder Wayne Rooney. Rooney simply doesn’t have the legs at this stage of his career to be chasing attackers through the midfield. He didn’t have to against Palace, but against better opponents, he would — which would be bad.
Second, Everton didn’t create a ton of chances for all its midfield possession in this match. Take a look at Michael Caley’s xG map for the match.
xG map for Everton - Palace. pic.twitter.com/fZJ2bMTZ4q— Caley Graphics (@Caley_graphics) February 11, 2018
The Toffees created two good chances all match, converting both. Sigurdsson’s goal was lovely, but not the sort of thing that can be relied upon week-to-week. The reality is that without getting Sigurdsson involved more centrally in the match, Everton will continue to struggle to create chances, even if they can keep the ball more effectively with Rooney as the deep-lying midfielder.
Evertonians will be very happy to take three points from this match and move on, but if Big Sam expects this configuration to be successful long term, the Toffees could struggle in the coming weeks, especially against better midfield players.