Football Features

How Everton’s midfield could work this season

By CJ Smith

Published: 18:30, 7 September 2020 | Updated: 14:13, 5 December 2022

After another season of frustration which saw Everton finish 12th in the Premier League, the Toffees are gearing up for the new campaign with a trio of impressive midfield signings. 

Not content with the mid-table mediocrity which has plagued the Toffees during the Premier League era, Carlo Ancelotti and director of football Marcel Brands have signed pretty much an entire new midfield in Abdoulaye Doucoure, Allan and James Rodriguez.

Doucoure has been a long-time target of the Toffees and with Watford suffering relegation to the Championship, Everton were finally able to get their man. Allan, meanwhile, worked with Ancelotti as recently as last season at Napoli and has been one of the cornerstones of a Partenopei side which has become European and Serie A title race regulars.

Most impressive, though, is their capture of Rodriguez. The Colombian is a player with a bigger profile than most clubs in the Premier League and is absolutely worshipped in his homeland. What’s more, the 29-year-old had arguably his best season at Real Madrid under Ancelotti in 2014/15, scoring 17 goals across all competitions.

Together, the hope is that the trio can help the club better compete with their illustrious neighbours, Liverpool, Manchester City and Manchester United, who have mopped up trophies in recent years.

William Hill’s* 2020/21 top Premier League club in the North West odds:

  • Manchester City – 4/5
  • Liverpool – 13/8
  • Manchester United – 13/2
  • Everton – 100/1
  • Burnley – 200/1

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So, with all this quality coming in, how might we expect Ancelotti to field it out on the pitch? Let’s take a look at some of the Italian’s options.

Verticality and central dominance

Whether it be at Napoli or Everton, Ancelotti has very much favoured a 4-4-2 system in recent years, relying on an organised defensive system in which his side aggressively wins the ball back in their own half before pushing forward quickly with direct, vertical passes.

The main issues Ancelotti has faced so far has been a lack of mobility when it comes to making interceptions and keeping pace with teams who deploy a three-man midfield — Andre Gomes and Gylfi Sigurdsson are fine ball-players but aren’t known for their athleticism — while, when they do win the ball, the likes of Gomes, Sigurdsson and Tom Davies often show a lack of ambition with it.

Everton ranked 13th in the Premier League for passes into the final third last season, while their tendency to recycle the ball between their centre-backs led to a disconnect with the likes of Richarlison and Dominic Calvert-Lewin further forward.

In Allan and Doucoure, Everton are signing two midfielders that tick both defensive and offensive boxes. The former is a fantastic ball-winner who averaged 3.51 tackles and 1.12 interceptions per 90 minutes in Serie A last season, first and fourth respectively among Napoli players.

Doucoure, meanwhile, is a brilliant box-to-box midfielder, able to both sit and win the ball in a rigid structure and break out into a high-press, while his time playing in the No.10 role with Watford last season highlights his underrated ability on the ball. The Frenchman is precise and progressive; only Gerard Deulofeu (44) created more chances than him (38) for the Hornets in the Premier League last season.

By now, you’re probably wondering where Rodriguez fits into all this. Ancelotti himself praised the Colombian’s work rate in his autobiography, also stating his best position is starting out on the wing and drifting inside to get involved in attacking phases.

“I wanted James on the wing for his talents as a footballer,” Ancelotti said. “He is a hard worker and not selfish at all: an authentic professional.”

Last season, the likes of Alex Iwobi and Bernard were tasked with this role, lining up on the flanks but given licence to drift inside to offer Everton dominance centrally, while trying to create for Richarlison and Calvert-Lewin.

Unfortunately, whether because of fitness issues, a lack of confidence or simply not being cut out for the role, neither player did enough to inspire Ancelotti to keep them in the side moving forward.

Alternatively, Rodriguez could also act as a shadow striker in a 4-4-1-1 system, complementing Calvert-Lewin with his work-rate and creativity while also allowing for Richarlison to move back out onto the flanks. Given Everton’s shortcomings on the wings, having Rodriguez partner Calvert-Lewin and moving Richarlison into his preferred role again solves two problems at once.

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A change of shape

Of course, these are crazy times at Goodison Park. Even for all the money Everton have spent during the Farhad Moshiri era, the club has rarely secured players as strong and with the profile of this trio. With this trident of talent comes an opportunity for Ancelotti to try something different, reverting to a system which could get the very best out of each of the Toffees’ most important pieces.

During his productive 2017/18 season, shortly after being signed by Ancelotti for the second time in his career, Rodriguez played as the most advanced of a midfield three. Everton have a forward line well-suited to bringing the best out of Rodriguez in this position. Calvert-Lewin is better known for his work rate and ability to find space than he is for his goalscoring, and using these qualities to occupy opposition centre-backs. Rodriguez would therefore find himself with an increased amount of space in which to pick his passes and create chances.

What’s more, reverting to something closer to a 4-2-3-1 system would position Richarlison back out onto the wings, where he has spent the majority of his time as an Everton player and, in reality, where he excels the most. The Brazilian has completed 99 dribbles across the last two Premier League seasons, at least 29 more than any other Everton player. He also ranks third behind only Lucas Digne (145) and Idrissa Gueye (142) — now at PSG — when it comes to tackles (119). At both ends of the pitch, Richarlison is incredibly effective when deployed as a winger.

Iwobi would be most likely to start on the opposite flank — although he would face stiff competition from the likes of Bernard and Theo Walcott. It’s true that the Nigeria international has underwhelmed at Goodison Park so far but with someone like Rodriguez to combine with, he now has the best chance to succeed and reach his full potential.

Rodriguez could be highly involved in a high-press in this system alongside what would be one of the quickest and most mobile forward lines in the Premier League.

And behind him, although not essentially defensive midfielders by trade, Allan and Doucoure have shown themselves to be incredibly adept ball-winners over the years for Napoli and Watford.

More mobile and aggressive than Gomes, Davies et al, this pairing could share box-to-box and holding responsibilities and would provide Everton with a wonderful platform to dominate possession, out-manoeuvre the opposition and protect their centre-backs.

Many other problems need solving at Goodison Park if Everton are to fulfil their ambitions of Champions League qualification and lifting some long-awaited silverware over the next few seasons. Indeed, Everton are still only priced at 16/1 with William Hill to make the top four in 2020/21 and there’s no denying there are six or seven clubs better placed to do so right now.

William Hill’s 2020/21 Premier League top four odds:

  • Manchester City – 1/33
  • Liverpool – 1/12
  • Chelsea – 2/5
  • Manchester United – 4/9
  • Arsenal – 3/1
  • Tottenham – 7/2
  • Wolves – 13/2
  • Leicester – 15/2
  • Everton – 16/1

For starters, Jordan Pickford has become more and more error-prone and increasingly seems like a problem goalkeeper devoid of confidence. Meanwhile, there is a distinct lack of experienced depth at the centre-back position, Seamus Coleman is past his best at right-back and there remains doubt about whether or not Calvert-Lewin can deliver enough goals on a consistent basis.

However, the arrival of three midfielders of this quality certainly goes a long way to solving one of the Toffees’ biggest issues from the 2019/20 campaign. Ancelotti will be hard at work on the training ground to ensure that Rodriguez, Allan and Doucoure not only excel personally, but also bring the best out of those around them.