In what feels like a lost season, it’s been easy to forget the level of talent that exists on this Everton squad.
In many ways, that talent has been squandered this season — via individual poor form, injury, or tactical malfeasance on the part of three separate managers with varying levels of idiocy. But Saturday against Huddersfield Town, we got a reminder of what some of these players are capable of — a positive sign for the Toffees as they move into an important summer.
As is often the case, everything for Everton starts in the center of midfield. Morgan Schneiderlin has been portrayed as a villain for much of the season, but his most recent return to regular playing time has served as a reminder that he’s an exceptionally gifted player when mentally engaged and utilized properly. When he’s alongside Idrissa Gueye, both of those are usually the case.
Against bottom-half opposition, the pair is an absolute brick wall in the center of midfield — opposing teams simply can’t work through them. Take a look at Schneiderlin and Gana’s combined defensive map from the match, courtesy of EvertonFC.com.
Blue triangles are interceptions, yellow recoveries, green successful tackles, and purple clearances.
Yes, the duo made defensive contributions close to their own goal, but they also served as a defensive force significantly farther up the pitch. One of the biggest factors in Everton’s second consecutive clean sheet was the central midfield’s continued ability to disrupt incoming attacks before they get off the ground.
We’ve without a doubt seen an improvement in play from the back four once Sam Allardyce committed to the current configuration of Leighton Baines, Phil Jagielka, Michael Keane, and Seamus Coleman — but don’t underestimate the impact of Gana and Schneiderlin in front of them as well.
The ability to win the ball in the midfield is an obvious defensive boon, but it also impacted Everton’s attack on Saturday.
For the majority of Sam Allarydce’s reign at Everton, the Toffees have been a pretty predictable team. They’re going to sit deep, defend you with 8 to 10 guys behind the ball at all times, and look to launch it long on the counter when winning the ball back.
It’s excruciating to watch, even if it has been effective at times — but Saturday was different.
Yes, the Toffees were out-possessed by Huddersfield Town (54% to 46%), and yes, Everton was content for spells to sit men deep behind the ball, rather than pressing to win it back.
But once they won the ball back, the Toffees actually pretty rarely looked to the long ball. Take a look at the passing maps of the Everton center-backs from this match.
There are a fair number of long balls in this graphic, so I’m by no means suggesting we’ve become Manchester City overnight. But, the majority of those long balls were played from close to the halfway line — which suggests that they were targeted efforts to pick out teammates during spells of possession, rather than hopeful hoofs down the field from under pressure.
There are two reasons for this change of style — both again related to Schneiderlin and Gueye.
First, when Schneiderlin and Gueye win the ball higher up the pitch — or at least not 5 yards from their own goal — it means they’re starting with possession further up the pitch. That seems obvious, but it’s an important point to note. This means that the ball carrier is likely facing less pressure from the opposition, has better passing options going forward, and faces less dire consequences if the ball is turned over.
And of course, bypassing Keane and Jagielka in possession is a positive as well.
Second, even when the ball is won closer to Jordan Pickford’s goal, having a high-performing Gana/Schneiderlin pair means that the Everton defenders have the confidence to play short into the midfield, trusting those two will be effective with the ball.
And that faith is well placed — take a look at the combined passing map for the central midfielders.
They don’t create much once the team gets to the final third, but hot damn they’re pretty good at getting the Toffees there.
Against teams like Huddersfield, there’s absolutely no reason Everton shouldn’t be looking to play through the midfield once they win the ball, because this midfield duo is more than capable of building the play.
Now, it isn’t all rainbows and sunshine, even with the 2-0 victory. As I noted above, Gana and Morgan aren’t the guys who are going to create the attack for you in the final third — they’ll get you there, but that’s it.
So, much of the creative impetus falls to Wayne Rooney, currently playing in the No. 10 role. That...hasn’t been going great.
Rooney had no discernible impact on the match. He created next-to-nothing and was again prone to untimely turnovers in the midfield.
The midfield pairing behind him is so obviously working, but his inclusion with those two is so obviously not working. With two matches to play, Big Sam really ought to consider giving Davy Klaassen or Nikola Vlasic a shot at that central creative role — they certainly can’t bring much less than Rooney has been.
Yet, there’s good news to take in attack, even with Rooney’s struggles. Everton took seven shots, five of which were on target, and four of which came from inside the box.
It doesn’t sound like much, but those five shots on target equal the number that Everton got in its last three games combined — so there’s obvious progress there.
It’s a testament to the play of Everton’s more talented attacking players — guys like Theo Walcott, Cenk Tosun, Leighton Baines, and yes, even Oumar Niasse — that they managed to get reasonable chances with a non-existent No. 10.
Maybe for the first time since November’s 4-0 thrashing of West Ham United, this week there was reason to walk away from an Everton match feeling somewhat optimistic about the Toffees current pool of talent.
Yes, depth is still needed at the back. Yes, Phil Jagielka isn’t getting any younger. Yes, the Toffees still need a winger to play opposite Theo Walcott who they are confident in.
But the most glaring weakness in this match was in the role of the central creator — and Everton’s got a pretty good one in Gylfi Sigurdsson out with injury right now.
With the right manager and three to four of the right signings, this is a side that could easily be the best of the rest in the Premier League. They’d still be a fair bit away from pushing the top six, but they’d be capable of playing aesthetically pleasing football and occasionally pulling out a few surprises.
Now, will Farhad Moshiri find the right manager, and will his staff find the right players? Let’s not think about that too much right now.