Finding a Midfield Replacement for Everton

James Nalton uses TransferLab to find some potential midfield replacements for Everton.

Despite the ongoing turmoil at the club, Everton have still managed to sign two players this January in positions where they have long needed reinforcements. But there is still one key area they need to address.

Whether right back Nathan Patterson or left back Vitaliy Mykolenko are the solutions to their problems in these roles remains to be seen. Nevertheless, there at least seems a will to sign young players with the potential to improve the squad while they do so.

The signing of Anwar El Ghazi from Aston Villa made less sense initially. With hindsight, though, a loan in an area where Anthony Gordon, Andros Townsend and Demarai Gray have been overworked or playing through pain or injury, gives them a bit of breathing space and offers more options off the bench.

Beyond the full back position, the area most in need of improvement is midfield. Everton have relied heavily on 2020 summer signings Allan and Abdoulaye Doucouré. They were good signings, but as is often the case at the club, they lack quality depth around them which has a detrimental effect on their own output.

Allan declined slightly during the latter part of his spell at Napoli but has shown few signs of any waning of ability or added fatigue since he turned 31 this month… or at least no more fatigue than the rest of the overworked Everton midfield which appears to consist primarily of Allan himself, Doucouré, and… that’s pretty much it.

The latest Andre Gomes mini-resurgence has been useful, but while Allan has played 1,531 minutes so far this season and Doucouré1,458 even with his injury issues, no other Everton central midfielder has played much more than 500 minutes across all competitions. Gomes is the next most-used central midfielder but he has played just 522 minutes.

It is, therefore, no surprise that Allan was among the number of players out on his feet at the end of 120 minutes in the FA cup versus Hull City recently. After that tie, Rafael Benitez also admitted Gray was “playing through pain” and Townsend came off the bench to play despite being injured.

The midfield position needs attention, then. And it’s not an area to be taken lightly. Loan signings or emergency backup won’t cut it in such a key position. With the help of Transferlab, here’s a look at some of the players Everton could consider to solve their midfield problem.

Positional Profiles

One of the best things about Transferlab is the ability it gives users to compare players across different profiles.

Allan is a good example of this in action. When looking for players similar to Doucouré, using the “Box to Box” player profile makes sense. But with Allan, we can use the “Box to Box” profile for one search and get another angle by using the “Ball Winner” profile.

Allan is a bit of both, although his advancing years means he may be used in a more restrained, less exertive ball-winning role in front of the back four in future seasons. For now, we can look for players across both profiles.

From here, we can use TransferLab’s Find Similar tool to compare players across the database for similar statistical footprints to the players we’re looking to replace. This tool assigns a similarity score to other players and then lists them in order of commensurability.

A couple of names that appeared on some initial searches are those of Leicester’s Boubakary Soumaré and Yves Bissouma of Brighton. Leicester are unlikely to want to sell a promising player to a team in the same league with similar ambition, while Bissouma’s next move is likely to be to a Champions League side.

Though they aren’t included in the analysis below, they are still useful names to bring up as they hint that Everton should go about their business a bit more like Leicester or Brighton. If Everton can’t sign another player such as Doucouré or Allan operating within their peak years as midfielders (just about in Allan’s case), they need to find the next Soumaré, the next Bissouma.

The signings of a 20-year-old right back and a 22-year-old left back suggest this is the direction Everton are going in anyway. To comply with this, we can set the age range on TransferLab to show players under 25.

Ball Winners

Looking first at players similar to Allan using the Ball Winner profile (including defensive and central midfielders) a couple of names stand out straight away. Some of the more realistic transfers have been highlighted in red (the numbers in yellow are similarity scores ranging from 100 (completely the same) to 0 (completely unalike):

German midfielder Salih Özcan—who plays for his hometown club, FC Köln—emerges as the most similar player to Allan while also boasting a high TransferLab player profile score (94 in Box to Box and 97 in Ball Winner).

The only player on this list with a higher profile score in the Ball Winner profile on TransferLab is Denis Zakaria (99), who is available on a free transfer at the end of this season but will have a whole host of clubs chasing his signature. A savvy club might offer a small fee to Borussia Mönchengladbach in an attempt to sign him in January in order to jump the queue.

Ainsley Maitland-Niles has been linked with Everton in the past and his move on loan to Roma this month suggests he might be available in the summer.

Leipzig, though a Champions League club, are also a selling club so Konrad Laimer and Amadou Haidara may also be worth investigating.

Here’s an overview of some of those players using the metrics for Ball Winners with percentiles measured against players in their position in their respective leagues:

Özcan and Zakaria immediately stand out as players who are both tidy on the ball and good defensively, while the quality of carries from Haidara and Laimer is typical of midfielders who’ve come through the Red Bull system.

Salih Özcan

It may be useful to take a closer look at Özcan and see if the eye test supports the data.

Köln’s number six, who turned 24 this January, is a very proactive midfielder when it comes to trying to win the ball back. This can sometimes lead to him committing fouls or being bypassed with space in behind.

However, this front-foot and alert defending can also be a big bonus for his team. In fact, the data shows that he wins far more than he loses and is putting up elite numbers for 1v1 defending win percentage.

He’s not the quickest (nor is he especially slow) but a doggedness in midfield can help him against quicker and more athletic opponents. Below he is shown winning the ball back against Augsburg and driving through midfield, using his body to stop the quicker opponent getting ahead of him.

Özcan stands at 6ft which helps when it comes to dealing with aerial threats in front of the defence and only Zakaria in our shortlist has a better aerial win percentage.

His pass accuracy is also higher than the other players selected for comparison, bar Zakaria, and he is decent in the air. Here he is bursting forward through midfield before setting up a chance for a striker.

Box to Box Crossovers

It’s interesting that there is already some crossover between the Box to Box players similar to Doucouré and the Ball Winners similar to Allan. These are Conor Gallagher, Giulio Maggiore, Weston McKennie, Youri Tielemans, as well as another appearance for Haidara:

Gallagher’s excellent season on loan from Chelsea at Crystal Palace suggests his parent club should add him to their own squad next season but Everton should be on the lookout if there is even a hint he could be sold.

Tielemans is unrealistic for the same reason Leicester would not sell Soumaré to Everton, while McKennie is unlikely to want to drop down from his current level with Juventus.

Haidara is still a maybe in terms of getability but Maggiore is probably the most realistic option from these crossover players.

Giulio Maggiore

Maggiore is already the captain of Spezia at just 23 years old and is attracting interest from most of Serie A’s top teams.

There’s a bit more urgency about his play compared to some of the other players listed here and he is able to zip through midfield across short distances, despite not boasting a top speed among the quickest.

As a result of this, he can also be an energetic and effective presser in midfield, as shown below:

He also demonstrates good awareness and vision which helps with cross-field passes as well as through balls. The example below shows an effective switch of play from a packed area of the pitch after picking up a loose ball, leaving the winger one on one with a defender on the far side.

The example below is a first-time ball from the left of midfield, Maggiore providing the incisive pass and secondary assist for the goal.

Positionally Maggiore can pop up anywhere across the midfield but his career heatmap shows he favours the right side where he can operate in the half-space in a Box to Box role, although that pass inside from the left in the clip above shows how effective he can be elsewhere:

The fact Maggiore is already Spezia’s captain is a positive in terms of the mental side of his game, and although there would likely be a bedding-in period for a player moving from a lower-half Serie A team to a… whatever Everton are now… you’d back him to come through it and eventually settle.

Other Box to Box Options

Shifting attention to other Box to Box players—specifically those similar to Doucouré—a number of names stand out: names that are perhaps more attractive or recognisable than those aligned to Allan.

Mikel Merino tops the list with a high score for similarity (92/100). The Spain midfielder plies his trade with Real Sociedad after spells with Borussia Dortmund and Newcastle since leaving Osasuna in 2016 as a highly-rated youngster. Now 25, he is approaching his peak and a move back to the Premier League may be tempting.

Like Doucouré, Merino also stands at over 6ft, and to narrow this search down further, it might be worth looking at other midfielders who fit this profile in terms of height.

When using TransferLab to filter players similar to Doucouré using the box to box profile, under 25, and over 183cm tall, Maggiore pops up again along with Hertha Berlin’s Suat Serdar, Sasa Lukic of Torino, and Marseille’s Mattéo Guendouzi — all with a similarity score of 86.

Serdar is an attack-minded central midfielder who often looks to dribble through the centre of the park or take up advanced positions off the ball. Though he may offer less control in midfield than some of the others, the trade-off is plenty of directness and attempts to make things happen, progressing the ball, creating chances and shooting.

Guendouzi would offer better ball retention and leadership qualities. That said, he looks at home at Marseille and you would imagine would make a push for a permanent deal with the Ligue 1 side after his loan from Arsenal ends.

Conclusion

Looking at the bigger picture at the club, Everton are back to square one yet again. If they appoint a replacement for Benitez before the end of the season they will be on their seventh permanent manager within a period of six years.

The type of midfielder they look for could depend on the results of their ongoing strategic football review and what direction the new director of football — the hiring of whom should happen before their next big decision on a manager — will want to take them in.

Giulio Maggiore is difficult to ignore seeing as he shows up so well on pretty much every TransferLab search for players similar to both Allan and Doucouré .

For a bit of extra ball retention, you would be looking at players like Ozcan, Zakaria and Guendouzi, but as mentioned earlier, Zakaria is likely to be wanted by most of Europe on a free transfer so will be difficult to get.

Someone like Merino is on a higher level technically compared to others, while players like Serdar and Lukic might be worth a look depending on the style of play and system the club are looking to implement going forward.

Given recent trends in playing philosophies, the Leipzig duo of Haidara and Laimer may end up being among the most desirable targets.

Though Everton have signed some good players in recent years, they now need to get extra quality throughout the squad and implement an overall idea of their football direction, which should lead to fewer mistakes in the market and more singings of use. Many of their current players can look like square pegs in round holes, especially in midfield or playmaking positions.

The findings using TransferLab here show there are players out there, and more importantly, players who Everton should be able to acquire, to complement and support Doucouré and Allan, and ultimately improve the overall quality of the playing staff.

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