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Everton Season Preview: Central Midfielders

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The Toffees have lots of central midfielders — but do they have enough good ones?

Huddersfield Town v Everton - Premier League Photo by Gareth Copley/Getty Images

Stats

2017-18 Central Midfielders

Player Minutes Goals Assists Pass % Int+Tkl/90
Player Minutes Goals Assists Pass % Int+Tkl/90
Morgan Schneiderlin 2126 0 0 83.9 4.1
Idrissa Gueye 2757 3 1 84.7 5.8
Tom Davies 1896 2 1 78 2.5
Beni Baningime 194 0 0 81.7 1.1
James McCarthy 206 0 0 74 6.1
Mo Besic* 1,178 1 2 n/a n/a

Tactics

I took a look at our general expectations of Silva’s tactics in June, and I don’t suspect all that much has changed since I wrote that piece.

Silva will roll a 4-3-3, with one attacking midfielder (preview on those coming tomorrow) ahead of two more traditional central midfielders. At least one of those midfielders, as Marco has clearly stated, will be a true No. 6 — that is, a deep-lying midfielder responsible for distribution out of the back, transition from defense to attack, and the last line of defense ahead of the back four.

Everton has an obvious candidate to serve as that player, so the more interesting tactical discussion comes with what he’ll do with that other slot. He could try to slot another No. 6 alongside Schneiderlin, hand the pair a substantial defensive and distributive role, and completely turn the front four loose in an attacking role.

Alternatively, he could utilize the other central midfielder as more of a box-to-box player, ahead of the No. 6 and slightly behind the No. 10. The player would have a slightly reduced defensive and distributive role, and would instead largely focus on wreaking havoc and winning balls in the midfield.

Either setup is workable in theory — Silva’s choice will largely depend on the players available at the position. So, without further ado...

Current Players

Morgan Schneiderlin

No Everton player was more divisive last season — and maybe divisive is too kind a word for how negative the general feelings toward him were at times.

That said, he finished the season pretty strong, and I’ve long been an admirer of the Frenchman. Schneiderlin is very much a prototypical No. 6, and with rumors connecting the club to players like William Carvalho all but dried up, it seems pretty certain at this point he will be Silva’s deep-lying midfielder of choice.

The 28-year-old remains what he has always been — an excellent distributor of the ball in both short and long passing situations, generally reliable in terms of defensive positioning, and not the quickest or most offensively-gifted player. The Toffees should have the players around him to emphasize his strong points and minimize his soft spots.

Senegal v Colombia: Group H - 2018 FIFA World Cup Russia Photo by Dean Mouhtaropoulos/Getty Images

Idrissa Gana Gueye

We’ve not seen much of the Senegalese midfielder this preseason because of his participation at the World Cup, but Gana remains even more of a known entity than Schneiderlin.

His top attribute, now and forever, is his ability to win the ball back in midfield and the work rate and stamina that allow him to do so effectively for 90 minutes. He’s not a great passer, he’s not good in the attacking third on or off the ball in space, and he’s not going to knock in more than one or two goals in a season.

But, among midfielders whose primary role is to win the ball, you’re not going to find much better in all of England. Provided Gana is a regular starter under Silva (which seems pretty likely, obviously), I suspect he’ll be employed in a more advanced role than Schneiderlin, rather than alongside him.

In those more advanced areas, his pressure and tackling can make transitioning from defense to attack an absolute nightmare for opponents.

Tom Davies

Ah, Tom Davies. Local boy. Hard worker. Intriguing character off the pitch. I want him to do well so, so badly.

And yet, he might have been one of the most disappointing players at the club last season. He wasn’t by any means the worst, let me be clear about that. But for a player who showed such promise in 2016-17, the 2017-18 season was one of total stagnation.

Davies simply spent 2017-18 looking exactly how he did in 2016-17 — hard-working, but lacking discipline, tactical awareness, and anything more than average technical skills. He’s only just turned 20 in June, so there’s still plenty of time for him to develop.

But, if that development doesn’t start soon, he might need to be loaned to have a realistic shot at regular playing time.

Beni Baningime

The list of footballing crimes committed by Sam Allardyce last season is nearly infinite — but near the top of the list is his refusal to utilize Beni Baningime. After impressing in a few chances under David Unsworth, Baningime found himself entirely out of the senior team picture for almost three months.

The return to form of Morgan Schneiderlin certainly played a part in that, but it cannot entirely explain his vanishing act after such a promising start.

Baningime, in an admittedly small sample size, looked to be a true No. 6 who could play as a box-to-box midfielder if needed. He’s by no means ready to be a week-to-week starter, but he is definitely the clearest Schneiderlin understudy at the club, and he needs to get chances this season.

Bury v Everton - Pre-Season Friendly Photo by Lynne Cameron/Getty Images

Muhamed Besic

After playing basically no meaningful minutes for Everton through January last season, Besic was loaned to a decent Middlesbrough side in the Championship.

He quickly became an everyday starter for the second-division side, and played 180 minutes in his club’s Championship Playoff two-leg loss to Aston Villa. That development really tells us all we need to know about Besic.

He’s a perfectly capable midfield destroyer at the Championship level. He simply does not have the technical ability or discipline to be a regular contributor at the Premier League level though, and at a certain point the Toffees will probably have to cut their losses.

James McCarthy

The Irish midfielder was an enormous factor in Everton’s 2013-14 season, playing all but one of Everton’s competitive matches after being acquired (he missed that match through yellow card suspension). His partnership with Gareth Barry was outstanding, and nearly powered the Toffees to a Champions League place.

Since then, McCarthy’s career has been a wave of injuries and poor form — and every time he seems to finally be rounding a corner, he gets hit with another injury.

So it was last season, when he was starting to again show his value before a horrific leg break ended his season. That injury will keep him out of the first part of this season as well.

What can he be upon his return? Well, I don’t know if anyone can really say. We have seen his what his ceiling is, and he could be a useful player at those levels. I just don’t know if he’s ever going to be able to reach those heights again.

Andre Gomes

A late addition into the squad, Gomes represents something of a reclamation project. At one point, he was one of the most promising prospects in Europe, but two horrific years at Barcelona have threatened to completely derail his career.

Regardless, Silva was willing to take a chance on the midfielder — one that’s relatively low risk, but high reward. If he can rediscover the promise of old, he could legitimately push for a starting spot. If not, he’ll simply be another mediocre backup for Gana.

State of the Position

In theory, there is the talent and potential at this position to be a strength of the club, much as it was in the second half of the 2016-17 season. In practice though — who knows?

Will Everton get good Schneiderlin or bad Schneiderlin? Does Marco Silva have the proper vehicle for Gana’s skills? Can Davies or Baningime have a breakout season? Can James McCarthy get and stay healthy?

If the answer to even just two or three of these questions is yes, then I would anticipate the Toffees’ central midfield to be solid. If not, then there might be real problems in front of Everton’s already suspect back line.