Evertonians were rocked by the news that midfielder Abdoulaye Doucoure is set for a prolonged spell on the sidelines. His form in a more expansive role afforded to him by Rafa Benitez had been really good, and indeed one of the main reasons for the good start to the season.
Put simply, there is no absolute like-for-like player in the squad. Doucoure’s clear strengths are his athleticism, stamina, tackling, work rate and rediscovered ability to get forward into dangerous positions for the team. Add to that his height bringing a bit of aerial ball winning in the centre of the field and also at defending and attacking set pieces and his absence is pretty devastating.
In all we are talking about replacing a player who has averaged an 8 or 9 out of 10 rating for each game played, apart maybe from the game against West Ham where it did appear he was struggling towards the end. Doucoure has been revitalized in his box-to-box role under Benitez after admitting that he was somewhat stifled when Carlo Ancelotti used him in a more reserved manner.
This season the Frenchman has already potted twice and assisted four goals, apart from covering almost every single blade of grass on the pitch. The indefatigable 28-year-old is second-highest in successful tackles on the team, and within top five in a number of key attacking and defending metrics.
Last season, with the Blues chasing Europe in the latter half of the season, the pursuit fell apart when Doucoure was injured, with Ancelotti’s side getting just one in the eight games he was sidelined. Everton in this campaign rely even more heavily on him especially with the absence of Dominic Calvert-Lewin and Richarlison.
So what can Rafa Benitez do?
Jean Phillip Gbamin is probably the nearest we have in terms of size and mobility. He is a little taller than Doucoure, probably a little more naturally defensive but as no Evertonian will need reminding his injury record is shockingly bad. As a consequence he is a totally unproven quantity at Premier League level. This season he has not played a single minute in the league, and just ninety minutes in the Carabao Cup. He has played a total of 236 minutes in all competitions across 3 seasons under 3 different permanent managers.
The displays for Mainz in the German Bundesliga and internationally for Ivory Coast are pretty much consigned to history. Fans will be disappointed with the lack of game time and while there is some sympathy for the luckless Gbamin, the current temporary vacancy screams out for him to step up and be counted and of course stay fit! There is a sense of “now or never” surely.
Tom Davies is another contender having played a lot of games over the last 5 years but one look at his involvement this season (35 minutes of Premier League football plus 2 Carabao cup games) suggests that even in these difficult circumstances he might not be the automatic choice to fill in for Doucoure. One of the issues that have hampered Davies’ progress is his failure to nail down one role. He had started with the team as a box to box midfielder, remember that surging run and finish against Manchester City? His early, largely effective, days with the team saw him play regularly, pressing high behind Romelu Lukaku to win the ball back and perhaps do some of Lukaku’s defensive duties.
Under Marco Silva it was declared that he was an attacking midfielder but that really never materialised. At a time when we had barely recovered from having 4 attacking midfielders in Ronald Koeman’s poor second season, the last thing we needed was another one. By that time anyway Gylfi Sigurdsson had laid claim to that role.
For England Under 21s in a good side he was more often than not the number 6 and at that level looked impressive. He has played that role also for Everton and has not done quite so well. His strength, composure and determination do compensate for his lack of pace but everything is played a little too safe and the attacking threat is barely there. Passing the ball sideways to an offside Yerry Mina when he was in a clear shooting position a few weeks ago against Manchester United tells the story unfortunately. Tom might be considered as part of a centre three?
Andre Gomes has been injured but is far from a natural replacement for Doucoure. In a two-man centre midfield with Allan (or Doucoure for that matter) he has looked swamped and offers little defensive cover. Before his horrific injury a few years ago he had done well with Idrissa Gana Gueye alongside him but you could almost say “who wouldn’t?”. This season has seen him play just 65 minutes in the league and 91 Carabao Cup minutes. His average form aside and as good as he normally is on he ball, he would not appear to be the answer as part of a midfield pairing even if fit. Like with Davies possibly even alongside him with Allan as part of a centre three if the formation is altered?
Mason Holgate or Ben Godfrey, I’m bracketing the two together in all honesty. Both are centre backs by trade but have shown their versatility (Holgate for Everton and Godfrey an entire season at a much lower level for York City a few years ago) to adapt their game a little further forward. Both have similar qualities, pace (a lot in Godfrey’s case), height, strength and tenacity. It’s just a very different game playing with opposition players behind you and in front. The awareness and composure required to feel comfortable only comes after practice, a lot of the passes you make are shorter and with less time on the ball. Short-term the option is worth considering but sadly Doucoure’s absence looks lengthy.
Tyler Onyango, Lewis Warrington and Isaac Price from the Under 23 squad. Hard to see any of these players being selected ahead of the other options mentioned although they may find a place on the bench. All of them have good qualities at Under 23 level for sure but all unproven.
Onyango is athletic, tall has a great stride can tackle and in the last period before his injury was playing further forward to good effect. Without the serious ankle injury he suffered 6 months ago he might have been a more serious contender but even thought he impressed for 80 minutes in Monday’s Under 23 game it is a quantum leap to imagine him playing 90 minutes for the first team right now.
Warrington might be a surprise name to even talk about as a replacement as he does not appear to have been one of those selected for first team squad training but regular Under 23 viewers will know that although he is not a tall player he is a very good defensive shield (much like Allan, perhaps too similar). Very strong in the tackle and confident on the ball, good range of passing. If he was even to be considered it is likely that Allan would be given more licence to roam in the Doucoure mould but it remains unlikely given the fixtures ahead.
Price likewise is a taller option than Warrington, carries the ball well and does a bit of everything. Even though he has trained with the first team he is possibly too slight for the hurly burly of the Premier league right now. As he fills out that might change of course.
Will the formation change?
Benitez has a range of options available to him to try to overcome Doucoure’s absence. The Blues have already been bouncing back and forth between a 4-4-2 and a 4-2-3-1 depending on the opponent and players he has had available.
The news from yesterday that Calvert-Lewin will be out for much longer than first expected certainly will play a part in Benitez choosing how to line up his players.
- A 4 -1-4-1 with Allan as the pivot and a hard-working/ pressing 4 ahead of him is a possibility. This could certainly be an option against teams that hold the ball well in midfield and the Blues will need more bodies in the middle to cut off passing lanes.
- Benitez often played a 5-4-1 formation at Newcastle whereby the midfield load was shared and the team relied on their wing backs to provide the width. Very much a counter-attacking line up but the recent success this season with Everton has been on the counter. We have plenty of centre backs so it’s a possibility even if it doesn’t sound too inspiring or attacking.
- 4-3-3 as previously mentioned with a permutation of two players from the trio of Davies, Gbamin and Gomes alongside Allan might be the best compromise, especially if Richarlison is close to returning.
Sometimes the effect of one player’s absence is felt more keenly than with others. Let’s hope whatever personnel or formation is selected our tactically-clever manager can find a winning formula!