Whilst Everton’s overall squad portrait depicts a roster ominously stretched in several quarters, in central midfield, David Moyes is blessed with some truly optimum Premier League talent. For countless campaigns, Mikel Arteta, Tim Cahill and Leon Osman have been continually producing the goods at Goodison Park, whilst Marouane Fellaini, and Jack Rodwell seem destined to eventually reach the upper echelons of the game. With the exciting Ross Barkley set to emerge this season, centrally, Everton’s midfield looks destined to become heavily congested.
Yet with Seamus Coleman scythed down in pre-season, out for the foreseeable future, Moyes is now bereft of any recognised personnel suited for the flanks, with the exception of the enigmatic Diniyar Bilyaletdinov. Therefore central midfielders are guaranteed to be often shuffling over to the wings this season. With two positions to fill, it is crucial David Moyes meticulously marshals this situation carefully.
To assess exactly what Moyes has at his disposal, here is an in depth look at statistics in several key categories for midfielders. Information is taken from the 2010/11 season and players were only considered who played the majority of their games in midfield.
First and foremost these stats illustrate how Tim Cahill, when fit, is essential for Moyes, who is a manager devoted to a fluid 4-5-1 system. The talismanic Aussie hangs behind a striker and is integral in linking midfield and attack. Everton’s 4-5-1, which often gushes through forms of 4-1-4-1, 4-4-1-1, to even 4-2-3-1, is a formation that an attacking midfielder, such as Cahill, is paramount in. As the Australian’s stats reveal, he trumps the other Everton midfielders with his goal tally, chance conversion rate and impressive minimal minutes per goal. In this formation, a place for Cahill is a necessity.
Many would then assume Arteta and Fellaini would be natural choices behind Cahill, playing in roles that both would certainly prefer and played in for the majority of last season. However, Arteta has begun this campaign wide, a position he has not regularly performed in for almost four seasons. The Spaniard started his career on the right for Everton, twice winning Everton Player of the Year awards in 2006 and 2007. Nobody can argue he has failed since then, but it is debate-able whether he has ever quite matched the form he showed in his first two years.
What is clear, as these stats reflect, is that Arteta is imperative to Everton. His passing is supreme, 5% better than any other player, despite fathoming more chances and spraying the ball around most often. His creativity is also integral, with 58 chances created he almost doubles any other player’s total. However, what is also notable is firstly, the amount of crosses he delivered last season, and also how he found his target more regularly than anyone else.
With Arteta roaming around midfield, orchestrating attacks, he often finds himself in a wider position to cross. Yet if he occupied that position for the duration of a match, Everton would surely fashion out far more chances than if anyone else played out wide? This is a philosophy David Moyes seems to have reverted to in the two games played this season.
If Arteta’s influence has reduced a tad over the seasons it is only because Leighton Baines has become Everton’s primary creative weapon. Whereas Arteta tops Everton’s midfield list, sending in 171 crosses, from left-back Baines delivered 351. He also recorded 11 assists and created 74 chances, numbers that far outdo even Arteta. In recent years Baines has enjoyed a potent pairing down the left with Steven Pienaar, yet with the South African moving on to Tottenham Hotspur, Everton are yet to fill that void. With the diminutive Baines likely to be far more closely guarded this season, were Arteta to continue playing wider, he may experience slightly less coverage than he is used to and therefore become increasingly deadly from the flank. It would also increase the speed that Everton could deliver a cross, increasing scoring potential, instead of seeming predictable when waiting for Arteta to progress to a crossing position.
Elsewhere, Marouane Fellaini is the dominant holding midfielder. His is capable in attack, but far more at home breaking up play and transferring possession on, reflected by his ratio of a tackle every 25 minutes as well as his 1000 plus passes. His place is assured, and with Coleman out injured, that currently leaves one wide role and one central role to fill.
Over the years, Leon Osman has often been the player sacrificed to a flank, despite his main assets being hampered out wide. However, his success achieved centrally at the end of last season may be the thinking behind Everton initially sticking Osman central this year. His versatility allows him to be a viable option for each position, including Tim Cahill’s attacking berth, where he played this weekend. However his five assists from open play, all generally stemming from threaded through balls, would be most beneficial centrally, especially with Arteta’s creativity sent wider. He also has a more wasteful 22% cross completion rate, highlighting just how significant it could prove to reverse Osman and Arteta’s traditional roles and keep Osman off a flank.
Therefore, to fill Coleman’s position, although Jack Rodwell started against QPR out wide, he should not be considered here. Against QPR, he looked a player short on confidence and vastly out of his comfort zone. His crossing accuracy was almost non existent at 5% last season and with the exception of Johnny Heitinga, he dribbled the least. His astuteness in the tackle and ability in possession show just how much he is naturally a central midfielder, more defensively minded than many assume. Rodwell should only be employed wide in an emergency.
That leaves Ross Barkley to vie with Diniyar Bilyaletdinov for the final wide position. Barkley has been acknowledged all summer as a youngster with outstanding pedigree. Everton may well play him often this season, and despite the 17-year-old preferring more central duties, Moyes will introduce him wide. He has started here, and has all the attributes to succeed on a flank, achieving 60% crossing accuracy in the two games he has so far featured in. Over recent years, other Premier League protegees such as Jordan Henderson and James Miler have initially acclimatised to the Premier League on a flank, before flourishing centrally. This is a tactic Moyes may well replicate with Barkley. Coleman’s injury now provides the youngster with a platform to succeed here and potentially hasten Coleman’s eventual return to his more natural right-back position.
What these stats also highlight is how much Johnny Heitinga and Diniyar Bilyaletdinov were peripheral figures last season. Bilyaletdinov too often sits on the fringe of the game, unable to adapt to the pace of the Premier League. However, he is a decent proposition from the bench and can add goals (as his 2010 tally of six better reflect).
The main problem lies with Johnny Heitinga, who far too often is used to sit in front of defenders offering little to midfield. Last season he had a low tackle success rate and passing rate and almost non existent creative input. Against Blackburn this weekend, with Osman moved forward, he was paired centrally with Fellaini. This a partnership Everton should disregard as a combination, as the two offer far too little creatively for a Premier League game. Together they made just 24 chances last season, a tally eclipsed by many individually on the list. Whereas Fellaini impresses elsewhere, Heitinga seems to drift through games in midfield.
If Moyes does not fancy the World Cup finalist in central defence, playing him midfield should not become a compromise to keep him happy. For midfield, Jack Rodwell has enough facets in his game to be deemed understudy to both Osman and Fellaini. Heitinga should simply be considered a defender.
If everyone were fit, Everton’s strongest midfield line-up should be RM: Coleman (with Barkley deputising for now), CM: Osman, CM: Fellaini, LM: Arteta, with Cahill behind the striker. Rodwell can provide cover centrally and can be used to add more steel over Osman against better teams, whilst Bilyaletdinov covers the flanks and Heitinga competes for defensive outings.