Since parting ways with Mikel Arteta, Goodison Park’s chief creative threat for several years, Everton have struggled to find a player capable of replicating his high level of production. This season, the Spaniard’s absence has clearly hampered elements of the Toffees’ arsenal, with many attacking statistics on the decline.
As is emphasised above, despite their recent upturn in form, the Toffees’ creative nous has wavered. What has helped negate these attacking deficiencies and kept David Moyes’ side competing in games this season has been a watertight defence. At the back, Everton are currently the sixth most miserly outfit and, as a unit, they have only allowed 88 shots on target, the least in the league.
It has been on the back of these robust defensive efforts that Everton have conquered the likes of Manchester City and Chelsea in recent weeks. David Moyes’ side clearly respond better when the onus is on their opponents to be the game’s main attacker as, when the Toffees are expected to be the aggressor, they often wither in front of an expectant crowd. This is when Arteta’s absence becomes far more obvious.
Over recent years, Everton supporters have grown accustomed to seeing their side line-up in a fluid 4-5-1 formation. This often morphs into 4-2-3-1 or 4-1-4-1 in attack, and then 4-4-1-1, or 4-5-1 in defence. In this system, focusing on the two central midfielders – that generally line up behind an advanced Tim Cahill or Leon Osman – with Marouane Fellaini certain to start as the side’s ball winner, the other player needs to be a creative influence – the game orchestrator, or quarterback, as Mikel Arteta once was.
Fellaini has gradually become one of the league’s leading midfielders. He roams around hounding the opposition, harrying players for the ball. Once he wins it, he rarely concedes possession back. The Belgian is the defence’s protector and subsequently is not relied on to craft out many chances. His presence shifts the creative duties onto his central partner who, until this season, was Mikel Arteta.
To replace the Spaniard’s contribution, Jack Rodwell, Leon Osman and, more recently, Darron Gibson have all been given time in this role, complimenting Fellaini with varying levels of success. Others have appeared too, but this trio have featured the most. Here is their progress to date, compared with Arteta’s efforts last year.
Part of the reason for Everton’s improved stringency at the back this season is due to Arteta’s replacement being more comfortable defensively. However, they are far less equipped to make an impression in the final third of the field and, given Fellaini’s generally sterling efforts, this is far more of a pressing issue.
Combined, Osman, Rodwell and Gibson have not created half the chances Mikel Arteta made by himself last season, and their minutes to chance ratio is similarly sobering. Against organised defences, Everton have been short on ideas from central areas which, at times this season, has left them appearing far too predictable. Wide players will always fashion out opportunities with crosses and, with Leighton Baines, Landon Donovan, Royston Drenthe and Steven Pienaar peppering the box, there should be no shortage from this avenue. However, each team needs to be asking questions of a defence from central areas, which Everton are not. The Toffees eventually settle for a cross and become easier to contain.
Crosses will only get you so far – as has been painfully obvious on several occasions at Goodison Park this season, notably at home against Stoke, Blackburn and Bolton, size-able teams that played narrow and invited the wide delivery all afternoon. From the central areas a team can dissect a defence with a precise through ball, or catch them unaware with a crafty reverse pass – something the Toffees were unable to execute during any of these encounters. Everton have cropped up the league at several points these season for fewest through ball attempts, a clear indication of their offensive struggles – only two teams have found the net less in the Premier League this season.
Rodwell was initially flourishing at the start of the season. A reliable passer and ball winner, he was re-establishing himself as one of England’s bright hopes before injury curtailed his progress. He leads Everton’s squad in passing, but is often quite unadventurous with the ball at his feet. This is highlighted by his lack of through balls and the proportion of passes he plays sideways or backwards. If he is not going to ask questions of a defence with his passing, he needs to be scoring far more goals to make his selection worthwhile.
Leon Osman’s passing improves in the final third, which is an encouraging trait, but the amount of times he is dispossessed is an alarming feature that has handicapped his game for years. Comparing the 38 times he has coughed up the ball in 18 games to the 25 times Arteta did in 29 games is especially revealing. However, he has been the most creative from central areas and does possess the vision to unlock a defence.
Darron Gibson has not yet been an Everton player long enough to warrant a thorough dissection or assumption of his game, but clearly he needs to create some chances. His percentage of forward passes is promising, and his early through ball ratio suggests he is at least willing to make some plays.
This article’s objective is certainly not to chastise any of these three players, merely highlight that if Fellaini is a certainty to start, his partner needs to create more, as Arteta did. Osman, Rodwell and Gibson are each strong Premier League players in their own right, who would fit into many midfield’s, but Everton need to establish who attains the best chemistry with the Belgian, and offers the team the most balanced combination.
From these statistics, each player merits selection in different scenarios. Osman is the best to create against weaker foe, but, if he plays the deeper central role against the top teams, his weaker passing and knack of giving the ball away could prove costly.
Rodwell should be used when Everton are looking to shore things up. He wins the ball back, passes sensibly, and has enough pace to operate as a box-to-box midfielder on the break. If Fellaini is out, he is also the best replica.
With Gibson, Everton are hoping he may eventually be the happy medium. Whilst the statistics may not show much input yet, what is most crucial is that the Toffees have yet to taste defeat with the Irish international included. Two wins and three draws when he partners Fellaini in midfield could be early signs of a more balanced, cohesive tandem.
With Osman and Rodwell both injured at the moment, the Irish international is currently in possession of the jersey and, for now, it will be his to lose. However, when all three of these players are back, vying for selection, it will be interesting to see which way David Moyes opts to go.