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Time for André Gomes to make third midfield spot his own

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The Portuguese is probably the least fashionable and most disposable of Everton’s current central trio, but an early-season improvement has set an encouraging tone

Everton v West Bromwich Albion - Premier League
Gomes battling for possession with West Brom’s Kyle Bartley
Photo by Nick Potts - Pool/Getty Images

Perhaps the most regrettable pitfall of living in such a consumerist world fuelled on instant gratification is the devastating speed at which we tire of our prized possessions. Sooner rather than later, yours will develop Old Hat Syndrome, too.

No child spends Christmas Day revelling and indulging in presents of yesteryear. No band front-loads their setlist with deep cuts from two albums ago. No Apple store, no matter how impossibly kitsch it may be, peddles last month’s iPhone, Pad or Pod. They were the future once, then the next minute tossed away like yesterday’s jam.

Which brings us to André Gomes, who, it is easy to forget, only two seasons ago stirred up quite the hubbub at Everton when he pitched up at Goodison Park on loan from Barcelona. The hug-a-thons and the Brylcreem-and-beard combination certainly helped endear himself to his new supporters, but even these paled in comparison to his most ethereal talent. His arrival marked, at long last, the return to Goodison of the lesser-spotted cultured midfielder who not only actively sought out the ball, but then didn’t flinch at it like an unpinned grenade.

Now, following Carlo Ancelotti’s summer refurbishment of a midfield so painfully anaemic last term, Gomes has remained a starter, but increasingly feels rather like flavour of last month. He does not possess that same wide-eyed glare or literally celebrate tackles like they were goals as Allan does. He is not a one-man wrecking ball, capable of carrying Everton from box to box on his back like Abdoulaye Doucouré. Nor does he match James Rodriguez’s penchant for the mouth-watering.

Everton v West Bromwich Albion - Premier League
Rodriguez is the name on every Evertonian’s lips currently
Photo by Emma Simpson/Everton FC via Getty Images

Then again, these three players are new to Goodison, and Gomes isn’t. Upgrades they may be, but it’s also important to consider the recency bias in championing each of them as the catalysts in Everton’s transformation from stuttering also-rans to early pace-setters. Jim White may not have made as much of a career for himself if we didn’t all love a good transfer, after all. Still, after two undulating campaigns, the spotlight feels simultaneously shunted away from Gomes, yet also glaring on him brighter than ever.

On numbers alone, there would be appear to be little justification for parting with £22 million to tie Gomes down permanently last summer. Invariably occupying the designated deep-lying creative midfielder slot in either Marco Silva’s limp 4-2-3-1 or Ancelotti’s utilitarian 4-4-2 last term, one goal and three assists in 51 Everton appearances would indicate scant return on a sizeable investment. A tackle success rate of 29 and 46 per cent in the last two seasons (Gomes was the Premier League’s most dribbled-past player during Project Restart) suggests he is not fit to take the baton from Idrissa Gueye as Everton’s worker bee, either.

Yet despite all such evidence, Gomes was integral during Everton’s sporadic moments of quality in Silva’s tenure; the tranquil yin to Gueye’s thunderous yang. Whether it was threading balls through for Gylfi Sigurdsson in the heady days before the Icelander’s legs gave way, or carving out in-roads for Lucas Digne or Seamus Coleman to drive full pelt through, there was a sort of mysterious, unquantifiable class about Gomes when at his best. You weren't always sure what it was that he had done, but he always looked good doing it. The kind of player whose merits you only truly appreciate when he isn’t on the pitch.

Indeed, few in the Everton bubble questioned his permanent signing at the time a deal was struck with Barcelona in June 2019. If anything, he felt the closest thing to a sacred cow in Silva’s squad back then; at least among supporters, anyway.

Then Gueye left for Paris Saint-Germain, his de facto replacement Jean-Philippe Gbamin was injured in training before the third game of 2019-20 and hasn’t been seen since, and Gomes himself suffered a fractured dislocation to his right ankle in November’s draw with Tottenham. These are all mitigating factors, but his glorious, miraculous February return at Arsenal aside, when he completed 25 passes in a half-hour cameo - two fewer than Sigurdsson who lasted the full 90 - Gomes spent the remainder of a trying season bearing the look of a world-weary man carrying the weight of Everton’s clunky, stodgy midfield on his shoulders.

Chelsea FC v Everton FC - Premier League
Gomes, like all of Everton’s midfielders, struggled last season
Photo by James Williamson - AMA/Getty Images

With Allan and Doucouré now taking on the bulk of the heavy lifting, though, Gomes looks unsurprisingly liberated in a system bearing closest resemblance to that which served him best during Silva’s fleeting highs. Three games and as many wins into 2020-21 and 4-4-2 has taken a back seat in favour of a more refined 4-3-3. And while Gomes was hardly a stand-out in either Premier League triumph over Spurs or West Brom (then again, he’s been here a while...), he seems undoubtedly among the greatest beneficiaries of Ancelotti’s switch in approach.

No longer does he have to waddle through treacle with the similarly ponderous Sigurdsson, or babysit the muddled Tom Davies. With Allan’s tenacity and Doucouré’s raw power for company instead, Gomes has been trusted with being left to his own devices, to finally resume excelling at the unmeasurables. His involvement in Rodriguez’s stunning strike in this weekend’s win over West Brom feels a particularly pertinent example; without touching the ball once, he was savvy enough to brush off the advancing Jake Livermore like a surly bouncer, enhancing space for Richarlison to feed the dazzling Colombian, who duly put Everton ahead.

Until Gomes becomes directly involved in goals more often, he may always be accused of riding shotgun in a midfield dominated by the brawn of Allan and Doucouré and the brains of Rodriguez and Richarlison out wide. Staying fit for a sustained period would help, too, if only to dispel the notion that he is Everton’s gaudy glass ornament that you really don’t need but looks nice and at least makes the neighbours envious.

Everton v West Bromwich Albion - Premier League
Gomes must keep his early-season form going
Photo by Simon Stacpoole/Offside/Getty Images

Gbamin’s eventual return from injury, expected late this year or early in 2021, will pose another conundrum for Ancelotti. An outright defensive midfielder by trade, the Ivorian looks the most natural fit for the deeper role currently occupied by Allan, yet the Brazilian would surely take up Gomes’ more advanced position alongside Doucouré rather than be dropped ahead of Gomes, given the irreplaceable bite he offers. Gbamin will need to be reintroduced tentatively given the fragile state he will be in after a hellish year-and-a-bit, so the onus must be on Gomes to make his case while Gbamin continues recuperating.

Of course, Ancelotti is not one for the sort of single-mindedness which did for Silva and Roberto Martinez at Everton, either. He may indeed revert back to the 4-4-2 which markedly improved Everton last term, served him well (initially, anyway) at an Allan-inspired Napoli, and helped him lead Reggiana to Serie A in 1996 and Parma to the Champions League in 1997. Whether the lack of insurance provided by that third midfielder would still expose Gomes, irrespective of the difference in personnel to last season, could prove his acid test.

Many Evertonians remain besotted with Gomes, and it would be remiss to play down the significance of the green shoots he’s shown against Tottenham and West Brom after the turbulence of last season. But he also feels the least fashionable and most disposable of Everton’s midfield trio, and with Gbamin still sidelined and Davies and Sigurdsson seemingly at arm’s length, he must continue seizing his opportunity if he is to navigate this more ominous-looking crossroads.