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A frank discussion about Everton’s current midfield situation

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The RBM crew got into a sometimes-heated debate about Everton’s midfielders and Ancelotti’s options

Everton FC v West Ham United - Premier League
Gomes, Davies & Sigurdsson in happier times
Photo by Tony McArdle/Everton FC via Getty Images

The repercussions from Everton’s loss at Tottenham Hotspur on Monday are continuing to be felt in discussions everywhere, but one theme from that game is nothing new, and is something that has plagued the Toffees all season long.

With Jean-Philippe Gbamin joining the club last summer as the replacement for all-world Idrissa Gueye, the Blues were expected to see no drop in performance in the middle of the park. The addition of experience Fabian Delph was supposed to reinforce that area.

However, serious injuries to Gbamin and Andre Gomes, as well as well missed time from Delph and Morgan Schneiderlin resulted in the Blues continuing to be weak in midfield and there is no solution in sight either with the Blues needing to likely win all five of their remaining games to have a chance at getting into Europe next season.

This morning, these two tweets sparked off an impromptu roundtable on the RBM team Slack about Everton’s midfield in general, who was best-suited to playing how and where, and while we didn’t leave the chat with any warm fuzzies, the conversation had a little bit of something for everyone.

Gomes has been taking some flak recently for how poorly he has played - while he’s still looking like he’s coming off a serious injury and has only shone in spots, the Portuguese midfielder has also appeared quite uncomfortable in Carlo Ancelotti’s 4-4-2 that demands a kind of midfielder that the Blues do not have on their roster.

Zach: When Gana was there in a three-man midfield, the idea was for Gana to win the ball, Gylfi to be the primary creator, and Games to carry the ball between the two. Gbamin was brought to continue this concept, except it never came to fruition. So Gomes was bought to serve a specific role that he was very good at, a goal where it didn’t matter what his tackling rate was and it didn’t matter how many chances he created.
Now in the 4-4-2, that role doesn’t really exist and Gomes is being asked to do some of everything - actually a lot of everything - because he’s the only central midfielder that can consistently do much of anything.
So, to me, criticising Gomes for things he wasn’t originally bought to do doesn’t make sense. Is he a flawed player? Of course! That’s why he’s at Everton. If he didn’t have major flaws in his game Barca wouldn’t have sold him.

Matthew: If he can’t tackle he shouldn’t be playing there, then. The same applies to Sigurdsson.

Zach: There’s not a better option.

Matthew: Playing Mason Holgate or Beni Baningime there would be a better option. Duncan Ferguson and Ancelotti have both played Holgate in midfield already and he did very well there.

Zach: Holgate is an England quality centre-back, let him do what he’s best at. And what evidence has Baningime shown that he can compete at this level? You need two central midfielders and there hasn’t been any evidence Everton have two better than Gomes.

Matthew: But as you pointed out, Gueye was the perfect complement for Gomes last season. With legs and a tackler around him, Gomes can focus on what he’s better at. Sigurdsson is the absolute antithesis of Gueye.

Zach: I think Gomes, paired with a quality destroyer, could still work in a 4-4-2. You could bring Gana back and I still wouldn’t want Sigurdsson playing there.
And I think Ancelotti is seeing something in training that says no defensive midfielder is better than Beni in defensive midfield and I’m inclined to trust his judgment, even if it implies sad things about the midfield options.

Matthew: If that was the case with Baningime, surely there be no point involving him either. He must see something in him to have training with the first team and naming him on the bench.

Zach: Baningime is probably a lot more likely than a under-23 player to be able to provide 30 minutes of play in a pinch, hence he’s the one on the bench.
Against a team of Southampton’s level, I’m not as worried about ball retention as I normally would be so I’d go Tom Davies and André Gomes.

Matthew: I would drop Gomes but more because he needs a break than anything else. He’s played too much football since coming back. Davies has been well below-par since the restart and I think time’s running out for him to prove himself, but he’s 22 and can still improve. Sigurdsson is 30 and over the hill, and if nothing else won’t provide the same energy Davies does.

Brian: I don’t think Davies and Holgate (when fit and if he’s in midfield) gives you anything in the attack. And that’s the real problem. It would regress our already anaemic attack and put more pressure on the defence.
I think it isn’t gassed so much as he isn’t completely back yet, given his injury.
We could theoretically give him a break in a different formation. However, Ancelotti doesn’t seem inclined to go that route. Without finding quality midfielders I’m not sure a 4-4-2 is a long-term viable option.

Calvin: I don’t think 4-4-2 is going to be our system in the future, depending on who we can get in, of course.

Zach: If Everton are going to make the Europa League, they probably need about 12 points the rest of the way, and that’s only gonna happen if you play Gomes pretty much every match.

Matthew: Can you say we really need Gomes if he’s too tired to contribute much, though?

Zach: Even a dead tired Gomes retains the ball well and reads the game better than our other central midfielders.

Matthew: That just isn’t fair on him or his body though. I would say an absolutely gassed very good player isn’t much more use than a fully fit decent player.

Mason Holgate at defensive midfielder
SmarterScout

Zach: So, I looked up Holgate’s minutes at DM. He has 146 of them. Ball retention score of 0, attacking output really low, doesn’t progress the ball... not a midfielder at all, basically.
A midfielder that doesn’t dribble, doesn’t pass towards goal, has no linkup play whatsoever, loses the ball a lot - what’s the point in any system other than Ferguson’s ‘run around and tackle people’ tactics?

Matthew: I think it’s unfair to suggest his tactics were that rudimentary. We beat Chelsea and drew at Manchester United. They got impressive results nonetheless.

Pete: I think Holgate certainly shouldn’t be dismissed as a midfielder. The sample size of stats on SmarterScout is tiny for him in that position and is likely heavily skewed based on Ferguson’s ‘if in doubt, kick it out’ tactics in those games.
He’s got a good range of passing and happy to carry the ball forward given the opportunity. That, combined with his defensive attributes, could translate nicely in that position. Plus, if Mina and Keane stay fit, they’re two capable (although slow) centre-backs.

Zach: It’s definitely a small sample size, Pete, but I’m personally taking that sample size with what Carlo is seeing in training. And Carlo’s decisions reflect what he’s seeing in training, so I’ve got to connect the dots there.

Andre Gomes
SmarterScout
Gylfi Sigurdsson
SmarterScout

Zach: The biggest thing to me about Gomes in the 4-4-2 is his ball retention score out of 100 is a 66, which is light years better than our other options. When everyone else is catastrophic at taking care of the ball, the one guy who can keep track of it decently becomes incredibly valuable.
Worth pointing out that in his minutes as an attacking midfielder, Sigurdsson rates better at ball retention. Not great at it, but better.

Tom Davies
SmarterScout
Morgan Schneiderlin
SmarterScout

Zach: Basically, what Ancelotti is doing when he plays Sigurdsson and Gomes is he’s going with the two guys least likely to turn the ball over, and hoping the attack can work off the wings.
Also worth noting, you’ll see there that Gomes disrupts opposition play more than his colleagues, so he’s not a great tackler but he’s a willing presser, and I’m sure Ancelotti values that too.

Brian: It is bad when Sigurdsson is in there for ball retention with a 30? And I’m guessing that is second-best on the team in midfield?

Zach: That’s the fundamental issue with our midfield options.

Matthew: I just don’t see any justification for playing Sigurdsson again now. He offers absolutely nothing because his legs have given way. What is worse than a midfielder who bottles out of tackles as he did on Monday and can’t run?

Zach: In a 4-4-2, I agree. A midfielder that gives the ball away to the opposition a lot more than Sigurdsson does is worse, though.

Matthew: We’ll have to agree to disagree on that one, then.

Calvin: I’m not enamoured by either Gomes or Sigurdsson right now. But it’s come down to playing the two of them half-crocked and playing poorly (for whatever reason), or playing anyone else and running the risk of being worse while having fresher legs, and looks like Ancelotti has gone with option one.

Zach: Ancelotti has set this 4-4-2 up so that his central midfielders aren’t asked to contribute to the attack. They just need to not screw the attack up.

Matthew: And if all of your senior midfielders are useless, could you do no worse than blood one of the kids? As he has done with Gordon on the wing?

Zach: Blooding a new kid out wide and blooding a new kid in a position that specifically requires ball retention aren’t the same thing.

Tottenham Hotspur v Everton FC - Premier League Photo by Chloe Knott - Danehouse/Getty Images

Matthew: How much would we get for Sigurdsson? What value does he have? Who would want him?

Zach: Like £10 - 12 million? If I’m a lower table Premier League club that wants to survive I’d buy him in a heartbeat.

Calvin: In this economy, not more than £15 million. A Southampton would be a likely destination.

Zach: Give him a big burly striker and let him lob in dead balls like he did at Swansea. Look at his combination with Fernando Llorente at Swansea that last year [2016-17]. The whole idea was: earn a free kick around the area, lob it in to the big guy. And it was brutally effective.

Matthew: But that was four years ago. My point is he has regressed enormously since then.

Zach: Not really, not as a free-kick taker which was always his best asset.

Matthew: He has never scored a free kick for Everton.

Calvin: His value is in dead ball delivery, not necessarily scoring off them.

Everton Key Passes 2019-20
WhoScored

Zach: Put aside assists for a second. Let’s talk key passes... so, chances created from dead ball situations. Sigurdsson has one skill that is Toni Kroos-level good, and when we bought him for our largest fee ever, we should have done so with the intention of building around that skill. Otherwise, there was no point in buying him.

Matthew: Yes, which is why Ronald Koeman was so desperate for Olivier Giroud.

Calvin: Clearly, Koeman thought he could become a Christian Eriksen, and he didn’t. We didn’t cut bait and move on, and now we’re stuck with ageing legs. And yes on Giroud, we were so hot for him.

Matthew: Sigurdsson was a very good player, no doubt about that. But I stress the word ‘was’ in that sentence. Now I look at him and think he can no longer contribute, and is finished at this level of football.

Zach: In any kind of system designed to be open and free-flowing, Sigurdsson was always going to be a train wreck. Though, if we had offensively productive central midfielders, I’d being willing to give minutes to Sigurdsson as a left midfielder.

Matthew: Even last season, though, despite his much higher number of goals and assists, he was anonymous for at least three months from December to February. He was also helped massively by having Gueye and Gomes behind him.

Zach: Of course, but as I kept telling people when Gana was here, he’s one of the best midfielders on the planet, so he’d help anybody.

Matthew: He certainly is.

Pete: I think the issue is that something has to change in the middle of the park. That means changing personnel or putting another body in there.
I wouldn’t be against a return to 4-2-3-1, with Richarlison back on the left.

Zach: I don’t think anything necessarily has to change in the middle of the park in terms of the production Everton is getting there. Not for the rest of this season, anyway.
Four matches since the restart, three against opponents further up the table, seven points. It hasn’t been pretty but the results have been there and I think Ancelotti’s just trying to cobble together results Everton can build off of when 2020-21 starts.

Matthew: I don’t think there’ll be a mass exodus because there never really is one, but he needs to clear the decks eventually.

Everton Unveil New Manager Carlo Ancelotti Photo by Tony McArdle/Everton FC via Getty Images

Brian: With Ancelotti’s brand, our performance before the stoppage, and the funds available, we should be able to attract talented players.

Zach: It seems to me like Ancelotti thinks we need to, and at the end of the day I think when you hire him you have to give him a wide berth and trust his judgment.
Ancelotti is in his early 60s. There’s a perception by some that he has lost a step and I think he feels like he needs to remind people he hasn’t.

Matthew: By people in football or in media?

Zach: I think there was a lot of that kind of rumbling from the Everton fanbase when he first came on.

Matthew: The vibe I got from some fans was that it wasn’t so much that he’s lost a step, more that he’s used to fine-tuning big teams (Real Madrid, Bayern Munich, Chelsea, PSG) that are already good and improving them. And not used to the task at hand at Everton, which is much more of a rebuilding job.
I think it was a very unfair conclusion to draw, because not having experience of something doesn’t make you bad at it.

Pete: I was pretty anti-Ancelotti when he was appointed. It wasn’t so much about him having lost a step, but more to do with what his motivations were for coming.
Also, he’d been sacked within two years of his last few jobs (admittedly at top clubs), but I felt like he was good as a long-term caretaker manager for big clubs, rather than someone that is hungry enough to create something from pretty much scratch.
Now, I love Ancelotti as a man and think he’s been spot on since he’s come here, but I’m still not convinced he’s going to transform the club long-term. That said, I would truly love to be wrong.

Calvin: I wasn’t entirely thrilled by the signing either, Pete, but I’m with you there. I would love to be wrong ‘positively’ for a change; usually we expect diamonds and end up getting pebbles.