There aren’t many positives to take away from a 1-1 draw against Swansea City. The Toffees got plastered for long stretches of the game, and looked totally disjointed at times in the process.
I lay that at the feet of Sam Allardyce, who insists on having his team play maddeningly long and direct, even against a team with a decidedly mediocre midfield.
Perhaps the only positive takeaway from this match, however, was the performance of Everton’s deep-lying midfield players (at least when they were allowed to play legitimate football by their manager). That conversation must start with a resurgent Morgan Schneiderlin.
The Frenchman has been under fire for most of the season, with a fair bit of the gripes consisting of fair criticism. But, Schneiderlin’s usage by all three Everton managers this season has often been questionable at best, and downright moronic at worst.
You need only look back to the Manchester City match a few weeks ago to see the worst of this. He was put in a two-man midfield alongside Wayne Rooney of all people, and was predictably overrun regularly against the soon-to-be champions. Surely Schneiderlin cannot be blamed for that — there are precisely zero midfielders in the world who would have been successful against City in a midfield two with Wayne Rooney.
But against Liverpool, and then again this weekend against Swansea, Schneiderlin was used at the base of a midfield three with at least one more athletic player in front of him. This is the only way Schneiderlin can ever be used effectively — and predictably enough, that configuration has coincided with his two best performances of the season.
Take a look at his passing and defensive action maps from the Swansea match (courtesy of EvertonFC.com)
In possession, Schneiderlin was as accurate as ever. He completed 53 of 57 passes, regularly keeping the ball moving in the right direction as the Toffees moved from defense to attack.
In defense, he was the ideal shield for the back four (orange triangles are recoveries, green tackles, purple clearances, and blue interceptions). His discipline, which has at times been an issue this season, was also much improved — he committed only one foul all match.
Two good matches doesn’t constitute a complete turnaround for a player whose 2017-18 still must be considered a lost season. But, he has proven he’s still committed to the cause at Everton and capable of helping the Toffees in a meaningful way.
That’s a big change from even just a month ago, when you might have reasonably believed there was no way the Frenchman would be back at Everton next season.
An improved Schneiderlin also brings to life an improved Idrissa Gana Gueye, in ways that are pretty predictable. Gana has been asked to play as the deepest-lying midfielder at times when Schneiderlin has struggled this season, and he’s frankly done a much better job in that role than I would have anticipated.
But, he’s at his best when he’s allowed to play slightly further forward, with the license to utilize his athleticism and work rate to harass opposing defenses. We didn’t see a ton of that against Swansea for two reasons, though I’m quite confident he remains capable of being that kind of player when unleashed upon his opponents.
The first reason is simple, predictable, and avoidable — Sam Allardyce doesn’t want his players pushing up the pitch in defense. He’d much rather have them sit deep and wait, which wastes Gana’s best attributes. It’s frustrating, but the moronic dinosaur surely won’t be back next season, so we’ll just have to grit our teeth and wait on that.
The second reason is more complex, and points to the continued backlog in the center of the Everton midfield.
The third member of Saturday’s three-man midfield was Wayne Rooney, about whom I could say the same thing I’ve said all season — I don’t know what his actual role is, and I don’t think he’s got the legs to be playing in a true midfield role as a starter.
Take a look at Rooney’s passmap and heatmap from Saturday.
He’s too deep to be a No. 10, too advanced to be a No. 6, and too old and slow to be a No. 8. Yet at times, he looks to be all three in the course of one match — which makes it really difficult for his fellow central midfielders to make decisions. They simply never know where Rooney will be.
If his production was an obvious boon, you could tolerate the organizational nightmare he turns the Everton midfield into, but that isn’t there any more either. Rooney has played 844 minutes in calendar year 2018 — he’s yet to register a goal or assist in that time.
Rooney, in all honesty, wasn’t even Everton’s third-best central midfielder to play on Saturday. That distinction must go to Beni Baningime, who continues to make it very difficult for Sam Allardyce to ignore him.
His introduction against Liverpool helped finalize the turning of the tide in the Merseyside Derby last week, and this week he continued to impress with his smart positioning, composure on the ball, and general skill and smarts. He’s clearly ready to be playing at this level.
I’d argue that Baningime is more deserving of a starting spot that Rooney based on recent form, but a midfield three of Schneiderlin, Gueye, and Beni would probably not pack enough of an attacking punch in most Premier League situations.
Nikola Vlasic or Davy Klaassen could get a chance in front of the deep-lying midfield two — Vlasic got a few minutes Saturday, but not enough to make any judgments on.
And somehow we’ve gotten 900 words deep into a piece on Everton’s central midfield situation and still haven’t discussed Tom Davies at all — another player whose best position is yet a little unclear. Gylfi Sigurdsson has yet gone unmentioned as well, though his status as the Toffees’ first-choice No. 10 seems pretty assured upon his return from injury.
The upshot is this — Schneiderlin’s resurgence and Baningime’s development have made a crowded central midfield into a downright packed one. This week’s draw against Swansea drew even more attention to this fact.
This summer, the new Everton manager and his staff are going to have a ton to sort through at this position. If they get it right, it could set up the Toffees for success for years to come. If they get it wrong, it could continue the club’s downward trend.