It’s an old football truism that games are won and lost in midfield and certainly it is tough for a team to be successful over an entire season if there are deficiencies in this department. All of the best Everton teams of recent years have deployed solid performers in the centre of the park — under David Moyes and the early stages of Roberto Martinez’ tenure — and though there’s been issues aplenty all over the place since, midfield has been an ongoing problem for far too long. Idrissa Gueye held the fort almost single-handedly for a time, but attempts at restructuring this area have been made, particularly under the unfortunate Marco Silva in 2019-20 when Gana’s replacements (Andre Gomes, Fabian Delph and Jean-Philippe Gbamin) all succumbed to injury at various stages of the season.
Carlo Ancelotti recognized this core weakness, bringing in Abdoulaye Doucoure and Allan as instant fixes - but two years on, following another unsatisfactory campaign, in which the team failed to exert any control of midfield and struggled for a decent share of possession, the Toffees face (yet) another rebuild. Let’s take a look at how Everton’s midfielders stacked up during last season.
Appearances - 31, Goals - 0, Assists - 3, Yellow Cards - 7, Red Cards - 1, PL xG+xA/90 - 0.04
The former Napoli man was a key component of Everton’s impressive start to the season but as injuries piled up and the opposition adapted, flaws in Rafa Benitez’ system became apparent and were ruthlessly exploited by opposition managers. One such was the Brazilian’s vulnerability when fielded as part of a central midfield duo. He’s not the quickest, so him being expected to cover half the width of the pitch was optimistic, to say the least. Where Allan excels is in pressing the ball and he posted an excellent 31.5% successful pressure rate.
What he is not, however is a holding midfielder: he lacks the positional discipline that is integral to the role. The Toffees found themselves outnumbered in midfield throughout much of the season, so what we saw was a player doing his best to plug gaps, whilst sacrificing solid areas of his game, such as an ability to carry the ball forward and pass it competently. Eventually, the player’s body started to give out as the team was overrun and he was just worn down. He made only two appearances from the bench over a run of five crucial games at the end of the season, as he delayed having surgery for a persistent groin problem. Now 31 years of age, what the future holds for the player at Everton is uncertain at this point.
Appearances - 8, Goals - 1, Assists - 1, Yellow Cards - 1, Red Cards - 0, PL xG+xA/90 - 0.35
A season to forget for the academy graduate. He seemed far away from Rafa Benitez’ thoughts as the campaign started and was only just beginning to feature when beset by a series of injury problems, which put him out until the final game. Approaching the final year of his contract, it appeared his Everton career may be coming to an end but the arrival of Frank Lampard, who seems to rate the 23-year old, means he enters the summer on an upturn.
Appearances - 11, Goals - 0, Assists - 0, Yellow Cards - 3, Red Cards - 0, PL xG+xA/90 - 0.11
A lost soul at Tottenham Hotspur, the attacking midfielder was a surprise addition at the end of the January transfer window, being one of two new acquisitions by Lampard. The deal to bring him in seemed structured to reward long-term success, but it was still a surprise to see him relegated to substitute appearances as he supposedly built up match fitness, only to mystifyingly remain rooted to the bench for five consecutive matches.
By the time the critical meeting with Crystal Palace came around on May 19th, many were thinking the move was looking like a total bust, but he showed as a second-half substitute for the woeful Andre Gomes what an asset he may be next season. A full preseason and a better balanced formation that utilizes his unique skillset could yet see the former England man turn his career around.
Appearances - 11, Goals - 0, Assists - 0, Yellow Cards - 2, Red Cards - 0, PL xG+xA/90 - 0.02
The forgotten man of Goodison Park, who had spent much of the three seasons since his arrival in the treatment room at Finch Farm, Delph had been a gamble in the Silva era: to bring in a quality operator with a poor fitness history for a modest fee, adding discipline and composure to Everton’s midfield. Alas, it didn’t exactly work out that way and this (along with other mishaps) did for the young Portuguese manager. This season followed the pattern of those prior, as the ex-Manchester City man almost immediately picked up a shoulder injury which kept him sidelined until November. A brief glimpse that he may offer something lacking in the side up to that point followed, but all too soon he was out again, this time with a hamstring injury.
Just as it seemed we’d seen the last of him in a Royal Blue shirt, he recovered just in time to play a major role in reversing Everton’s fortunes. Five starts from six matches in April and May saw a return of eleven vital points, enough to give the side a fighting chance to stave off the dreaded drop. Predictably, the 20-cap former England international ended the campaign injured once more. He will be leaving the club soon, but if his time on Merseyside has been a giant waste of time and money, then at least he departs head held high, knowing he came up big for the Blues when it really mattered. That’s all that can be asked, really.
Appearances - 34, Goals - 2, Assists - 4, Yellow Cards - 6, Red Cards - 0, PL xG+xA/90 - 0.17
The Malian international started the season like a freight train, showcasing all the box-to-box attributes that had been expected since his arrival the previous year; in fact, all of his goal contributions ended up being made during those first seven league matches. At the point he went down with a stress fracture of the foot, in mid-October, the Blues were riding pretty high in the table, but things were very different upon his return to action at the end of November.
The bright counter-attacking football that symbolized the early Benitez era was long gone and with it opportunities to showcase the offensive side of Doucoure’s game. Instead, what we had was a reduced version, emphasizing athleticism and hard graft, mostly alongside midfield partner Allan. Much like his teammate, the former Watford man ended up being run into the ground, desperately attempting to protect a fragile defence amidst diminishing performance levels.
Nursing a knock at the time of Lampard’s arrival, he took some time to get up to speed - an argument that could be made for many - but showed a significant uptick in form commencing with the win over Chelsea on May 1st. That day he put in an intense, battling display that was a little overshadowed by Jordan Pickford’s saves, Richarlison’s audacious goal and Yerry Mina’s mugging off of a frustrated Kai Havertz, but make no mistake, his contribution was vital. Doucoure was, as expected a strong all-around contributor on defence, even if (like Allan) he is not a natural defensive midfielder, but for a player often considered technically limited, it is interesting to note that his passing accuracy percentage of 80.1 ranks top for the team, from those playing more than 1,000 minutes of league action.
Appearances - 19, Goals - 1, Assists - 2, Yellow Cards - 6, Red Cards - 0, PL xG+xA/90 - 0.13
If his status in the team diminished to one of a squad player under Carlo Ancelotti last season, this term surely spelled the end for Gomes as an Everton player. Clearly unfancied by Benitez as the campaign kicked off, the ex-Barcelona man subsequently spent ten weeks out with a calf problem as the injury crisis at Goodison Park deepened. Recalled in December, the pattern for his recent Blues career continued: a decent cameo from the bench, followed by indifferent, or downright poor displays when offered a chance to start. Under Lampard, the writing seemed on the wall when a quality effort against Brentford in the FA Cup (Frank’s inaugural game at the helm) was followed by a pretty abject display three days later versus Newcastle United.
A dreadful performance as a second-half substitute eleven days later as Everton were embarrassed by Southampton appeared to have sealed his fate, the Portuguese managing only two minutes of league action across the next three months. As the team emerged from the Goodison dressing room for the second half, trailing by two goals to Crystal Palace in what was considered to be a “must-win” game on May 19th, it was notable that Gomes had been replaced by Dele Alli and of course the Blues went on to a remarkable comeback victory. A major ankle injury suffered in his second season at the club looks to have left the player as a spent force, but in truth he probably peaked during his two seasons at Valencia in his early-mid 20s. It now seems highly likely that Gomes will depart in some form this summer.