What's the best midfield setup for Everton?
To read the social media posts of devoted Everton supporters is to delve into a mystery encapsulated by a single word: midfield. "How about we play this time with a midfield?" "Good lineup except for the midfield." "We still haven't solved the midfield." "You call this a midfield?" Individual statistics can't tell you everything about how a three-man unit will play together, but they can offer some hints. And so we begin.
The classic roles for a midfield three are the destroyer, the holding player, and the playmaker. One is the muscle, one keeps the tempo, and one supplies the daggers in attack. Not every midfield needs to fill these roles, of course, but Everton do have players with distinct styles and abilities who compete with each other.
Perhaps it's becoming a little too kind to describe these guys as having defensive aptitude – it's more the combination of their experience and lack of adventure in attack that places them in this role. But Schneiderlin does disrupt a lot of opposition plays, and Delph comes close to average for disrupting plays and recovering balls. Neither is a particularly good tackler by the standards of Premier League DMs, but Schneiderlin is good in the air. Delph is a more aggressive defender overall, and he has better ball retention as well. He's more likely to take the ball forward himself, but he's no box-to-box player.
Now let's move upfield to the players with a bit more attacking capacity:
Tom Davies is a close as Everton have to a true box-to-box player – he's an aggressive defender, a decent tackler, and a very good finisher, too. But his ball retention is poor, so he adds an element of risk to Everton's play that may not be welcome in all situations. By contrast, Andre Gomes keeps possession quite well but doesn't get into the box much at all. He offers a nice mix of passing and dribbling and disrupts a whole lot of moves, too. He's more attack-minded than a typical holding player, so it's easy to imagine him playing in the top two of an inverted midfield triangle.
Then there's Gylfi Sigurdsson. He's played in several theoretical positions this season, and his style in all of them has been pretty similar:
To his credit, in deeper roles Sigurdsson has defended much more, eagerly recovered loose balls, and has also cut down on his shooting somewhat. But for such a potentially decisive passer and excellent finisher, DM is clearly not an ideal position.
Indeed, what's missing here is a dedicated DM who recovers a lot of balls and does the dirty work in front of the back line, all with immaculate ball retention. Neither Delph nor Schneiderlin recover many balls, nor is either a good tackler. Put simply, Everton have riches in attack, but not when it comes to defending. They have potent weapons in wide positions, in Bernard and Alex Iwobi on the left side of midfield, and Theo Walcott on the right (where Iwobi hasn't been as effective). The Toffees need to be winning matches 4-2, not 1-0. So they need to think outside the box, or at least outside the triangle.
Carlo Ancelotti seems to agree. He's played different versions of 4-4-2, first with Sigurdsson partnering Delph or Schneiderlin, and then with Sigurdsson starting wide on the left. That latter option has never really suited Sigurdsson, since he will usually drift inside and leave his flank exposed. It's better for him to play as a second striker or a CAM on the left side of an inverted midfield triangle – which we've already ruled out, given the absence of a rock to sit at DM.
So who should be in Everton's central midfield two? Gomes seems indisputable because of his versatility, but pairing him with Davies, as Ancelotti did against Chelsea, was clearly too risky. Gomes can occupy space on both sides of the pitch but tends to make longer passes on the right:
As a result, it might be better to put him on the left, with Schneiderlin in his more natural position on the left. If there's room for Gomes to be more adventurous, then he could shift to the right with Delph on the left. Davies's time will come, once his ball retention improves.
With some combination of Bernard, Iwobi, and Walcott in the wide positions, Richarlison and Dominic Calvert-Lewin could play up front, with Moise Kean growing into the rotation as well. Or, if Sigurdsson's talents would be especially useful in a match, he could play in the two or – sigh – on the left instead of Bernard and Iwobi. Either way, he probably doesn't belong in the central pairing.
We think Ancelotti's onto something with his 4-4-2, but he has to set it up in a way that takes advantage of what Everton has, rather than exposing what it doesn't.