Stats: 2021/22 Everton Central Midfielders
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In what now seems like an every-other-season happenstance, Everton split the season between two managers with very different approaches. Over the first half of the campaign, under the ill-fated Rafa Benitez, the Blues utilized a variety of back four formations, primarily 4-4-1-1 or 4-2-3-1. Regardless, insofar as the midfield was concerned it was almost always a duo. Frank Lampard alternated between a 3-4-3 and 4-3-3, with mixed results.
Although the Blues had many areas of concern heading into the summer, central midfield was a major problem all last season, which undermined both managers due to injuries and a lack of quality options. Rumours abound currently as to incoming players: from early interest in the likes of Harry Winks from Spurs, verified attempts to bring back Idrissa Gueye from Paris Saint-Germain, three years after he left Merseyside, to breaking reports that the club have bid on in-demand 20-year old LOSC Lille powerhouse Amadou Onana.
The possible departures of bit-part players Andre Gomes and Jean-Philippe Gbamin could open the door for further moves for the likes of Chelsea’s Billy Gilmour, or even Conor Gallagher later in the window.
For the time being, the boss seems to have abandoned a preference for the 4-3-3 and going off the pre-season, the team appears set up to be going ahead with 3-4-3, probably due to the dearth of available midfield talent at Lampard's disposal currently.
It appeared the academy graduate had reached the end of the road, as he was little used by Benitez during the first half of the season, then sidelined for the rest by serious injury. However, Lampard appears to rate him, so he’s been retained for what as stands is the final year of his Everton contract. Still only 24 year of age, Davies has clocked up 136 appearances for the club in the league alone. It is tough to see him providing anything other than midfield cover and his chances of establishing himself as a regular appear remote, particularly with reinforcements anticipated.
Much excitement abounded as Dele arrived in January via a curiously constructed deal that saw the Toffees stump up no initial fee, with payments of up to £40m to follow depending on targets met, the first of which will be a £10m instalment upon the player reaching 20 appearances. As it happens the attacking midfielder saw little action, only making a first start on May 22nd, a meaningless final fixture thumping at the Emirates. He had shown a glimpse as to what he could offer three days earlier, putting in an impressive display as a second-half substitute during the vital Crystal Palace match. With a new squad number and full preseason behind him, the man who was elite-level only a few years ago should be given every chance to prove his worth. It seems probable that initially he could be deployed as a false 9, given the recent injury to striker Dominic Calvert-Lewin, but long-term should find a place either as one of two behind the front man, or as part of a midfield three. Wherever he is utilized, this is make or break for the 26-year old former England star to show he can still be a top-class Premier League operator.
A mainstay of the Blues midfield over the past two years, the French-born Malian international will surely be an important cog in the machine once more as he also enters the final 12 months of his deal. We’ve only seen patches of what he was brought in to do - namely be an energetic box-to-box player- as all too often he’s been used in a midfield two with an ill-matched partner, such as the defensively useless Gomes, or the positionally undisciplined Allan. As we approach the start of the new season, it looks like this will continue, so we’ll see more of Doucoure trying to cover gaps in the middle, or collect the ball from the defence, which is not his strong suit. The arrival of a player like Gueye, or Onana may free him up to contribute further forward, but we’ll have to wait and see.
Little seen in a Royal Blue shirt last season, or indeed since his arrival in the summer of 2019, an injury-free last year and a successful loan at CSKA Moscow in February, during which he racked up more than a thousand minutes of action in only three months, offered some hope he may finally ready to contribute at Everton. Encouraging appearances during the club’s US summer tour were followed by omissions from the squad for the remaining two preseason games, which cast doubt as to his place in Lampard’s plans. In all likelihood, he will not play a part and will leave the team in some form over the next few weeks.
The Portuguese endured his worst campaign since joining the Toffees, sidelined with injury until December, then largely ignored by the new manager following some poor early outings. Being withdrawn after 45 minutes with the side trailing by two goals against Palace, in what was virtually a must-win game was surely the final nail in the coffin, particularly as the Blues rebounded to stage a memorable second-half fightback in his absence. Apparently uninjured, the midfielder has not featured at all during preseason and is widely considered to be available for sale. Whether he departs on loan, or on a permanent transfer, it looks like his Everton career is finished. At this stage a move would be best for all parties.
It was difficult to pin down exactly where Iwobi fits in when discussing the specific components of the team, which encapsulates his problem since arriving at the club three years ago. Lampard has gotten the most so far of any Everton manager from the ex-Arsenal man and he’s continued to plug the Nigerian into whatever position the situation requires, taking advantage of the player’s newfound commitment and energetic displays. This saw Iwobi, ostensibly a central attacking midfielder end the season putting in a stint at right wing-back; it is quite possible he will start the season there, too. Looking forward, it is actually tough to figure out where he is going to be used best. On paper this would probably be in a “number eight” role in a midfield three, but this seems unlikely at present, since the Blues boss is favouring a 3-4-3. Initially, I expect him to be fielded in a variety of positions, mostly off the bench, which is unfortunate - and undeserved - for a man who stepped up during the run-in to last season’s calamitous campaign.
Much like Doucoure, you get the feeling we haven’t truly seen what this tenacious midfielder has to offer during his time on Merseyside. A dominant player in Italy, he has looked a bit leggy and positionally suspect when used as part of a two in the centre of the park, certainly when expected to sit deeper. Allan as usual gave his all but is at his best when used in a three and with licence to press high and support attacks, which rarely happened last season. Possibly just past his peak when he arrived two years ago from Napoli, the Brazilian is now 31 and another who has entered the final year of his contract. The former international is one of Everton’s highest-paid players and there have been rumours of a return to Italy during the summer, exacerbated by his absence during the early part of preseason, due to recovery from surgery. He can still be a very competent midfielder when used correctly and - should he remain at Goodison Park - will surely be a significant contributor. Perhaps, should he not be required to run himself into the ground for 90 minutes each week, we may even see a more effective player?
State of the Position
The loss of Fabian Delph, in truth a bit-part player but one who proved valuable during the final weeks of the season has left the Blues with only three (true) midfielders whom the manager has any confidence in whatsoever. It’s clear looking at the roster why Lampard appears to have (for the moment) abandoned any intent to play a back four, three midfielder system. All three that are in favour (Doucoure, Allan and Davies) are in the final year of their Everton contracts, so this is a time for appraisal and rebuilding. Others either have one foot out of the door (Gomes, Gbamin), or are better used further forward (Dele, Iwobi).
Despite a lack of arrivals during the summer, it is apparent that Lampard and director of football Kevin Thelwell are acutely aware of the need to strengthen this particular area of the team and are working on making things happen. It’s heartening news to hear that the likes of Gueye and Onana are being approached currently; hopefully within the next week or so we can look forward to putting out a competitive midfield unit.