A Brand New Midfield

What Everton’s new signings mean for Carlo Ancelotti’s team and their chances at finally challenging the Big Six…

Everton have been active in the transfer market, bringing in three big name signings in a matter of a week. Allan Marques, James Rodríguez, and Abdoulaye Doucouré joined the Toffees from Napoli, Real Madrid, and Watford, respectively, giving manager Carlo Ancelotti almost an entirely new midfield in the blink of an eye. All three players were brought in for a total fee of around £50 million, making this an incredible bit of business for Everton and sporting director Marcel Brands.

With Everton’s first league match of the season on the horizon, many assume all three players will take part in their match against Spurs this weekend. Those three players should make a big difference for this Everton team, but how specifically will they fit into Ancelotti’s system? Well, this gives them the one thing the Italian manager seems to love the most: options.

In Allan and Doucouré, Ancelotti now has two midfielders that are very good at many different things and seem to complement each other very well. Both are very hard-working, dynamic midfielders, but their individual proficiency in defensive and attacking roles, respectively, allows them to function well in a midfield together. Allan is a warrior defensively, saying he prides himself in winning tackles and recovering the ball all over the pitch. He is also a competent passer, but it is mainly his defensive work rate that will greatly benefit this Everton team. Paired with him, Doucouré presents a box-to-box midfielder able to contribute defensively while also being a threat going forward, specializing in late runs and getting a high volume of shots off relative to his position. In some respects, Allan is forming a similar relationship to Doucouré that he had with Marek Hamšik at Napoli. The system is different, however, as they are fitting in with James Rodríguez, a natural attacking midfielder, compared to their former teammate Jorginho, a defensive midfielder. Allan could still function as the defensive player in the midfield, allowing Doucouré and another midfielder to play ahead of him. Doucouré could function in a deeper lying role or more forward, as shown when he was playing almost behind the striker for Watford near the end of last season. The options are there for Ancelotti, but what will they do? How does the system change? How will Everton line up?

Ancelotti has historically not glued himself to one formation or system. While he strongly preferred a 4-4-2 during his early years managing in Italy, he has seemingly grown into a process of formulating a formation and tactical plan to suit the players available to him. For Everton, he returned to his 4-4-2 roots, a system that, while it was not fantastic, seemed to get the best out of the limited resources he had available upon taking over on Merseyside in late December. I wrote in a previous piece about Everton that it is difficult to envision who Ancelotti and Brands might target in the transfer window, as it is hard to pin down exactly how Everton were going to play moving forward. Three signings into the window, and the vast unknown idea of how Everton could line up has formulated into three separate systems, and the key player in how the final system will be decided upon is James Rodríguez. They could line up in the same 4-4-2 they used last season, with a flat midfield four of Richarlison, Doucouré, Allan, and James, but that would seemingly require quite a bit of work defensively from James on the right, taking him out of his preferred attacking role and putting quite a bit of pressure on the right back. There were discussions of James playing in a traditional “number ten” role, which would indicate the usage of a 4-2-3-1, with Dominic Calvert-Lewin operating as a lone striker ahead of Richarlison, James, and the right winger, likely Theo Walcott or Anthony Gordon. Allan and Doucouré would then operate as a double pivot behind James.

Of those two likely options, the 4-2-3-1 is probably the best suited to the personnel available. James can play in that inverted winger role, and we will discuss that further in a bit, but a 4-4-2 system requires quite a bit of defensive work from both wingers in order to support the fullbacks in defending the wide areas and marking the attacking wingers and wingbacks. James is not a lazy player by any account, but he is a player who needs to be further up the pitch in dangerous attacking areas in order to impact the match, and forcing him to operate in that 4-4-2 will either run the risk of pinning him further back or isolating the right back. Both scenarios are not ideal. While the 4-4-2 has an added benefit of two strikers, and the pairing of Calvert-Lewin and Richarlison showed some potential last season, it still does not have an ideal midfield set up. The 4-2-3-1 is better, and while the “number ten” role is starting to die out in football, it is a system that still functions if used correctly. Some may argue it is making a comeback, as demonstrated by Bayern Munich on their road to Champions League triumph, as well as by Manchester United during their resurgence following the arrival of “number ten” Bruno Fernandes. James is a traditional “number ten”, so he would function well in a system that provides him with freedom going forward and the ability to focus on the attack. The pairing of Doucouré and Allan would be a solid double pivot, with Allan being a defensive workhorse and solid passer from deep and Doucouré being a dynamic box-to-box midfielder with an eye for goal, and they could also count on the potential inclusion of André Gomes and Jean-Philippe Gbamin in that position. It is not without its negative aspects, as it breaks up the partnership of Calvert-Lewin and Richarlison to put the Brazilian on the wing, and it also forces Everton to utilize a right winger, a position without much proven quality for the Toffees at the moment. Calvert-Lewin also hit his stride in a 4-4-2, and while he will definitely have much better service now than he did previously, he does run the risk of being isolated up top. Despite the negatives, the 4-2-3-1 seems the more logical choice to get the most out of his signings, so I would anticipate Ancelotti strays from his 4-4-2 to begin the season.

However, there is one system that could get the most out of James while not utilizing that now unconventional “number ten”. Everton could line up in a 4-3-3, with James as part of the front three with Richarlison and Calvert-Lewin ahead of a (likely) midfield of Allan, Doucouré, and Gomes. In this system, James would function as a sort of inverted winger/inside forward, akin to how Hakim Ziyech was deployed for Ajax the past two seasons. He would have the room and space to drift inside, moving onto his stronger left foot and able to cross into the forwards, have a shot himself, or play a pass to the overlapping fullback. The cross specifically is tantalizing, as James has always been very good at the left-footed, in-swinging cross toward the far post. Calvert-Lewin is clearly competent in the air, but the potential late runs from Richarlison and Doucouré, who are both also very good in the air, onto that cross make it a very difficult move for teams to defend against. While his starting position is not as central as it would be if he were a “number ten”, this still provides James with freedom in attacking moves. The right back would still face a decent amount of pressure defensively, but at least the right sided midfielder would be able to provide some cover should the right back overlap James. A midfield three of Allan, Doucouré, and Gomes provides a nice blend of ability on the ball and defensive solidity, though the likely best third midfielder in that treble would be the now-injured Gbamin. Doucouré still brings goals from midfield to help lessen the goalscoring burden on the front three. It also means Everton do not have to field a right winger, where they are weak, and are able to keep Anthony Gordon as a game-changer coming off the bench. A 4-3-3 could also easily shift to a 4-4-2 defensively, with James moving up and Richarlison pivoting back to form the bank of four with the three midfielders. Calvert-Lewin would be available to knock down a clearing pass and James would be able to drop into space and play the pass to the darting winger or advancing midfielder. It is an unconventional set up, but it is one that just might work.

So how will these signings do? Well, they are definitely risks. For those who focus on resale value, which quite a few Everton fans have, these three do not have much in the way of resale potential. James, Allan, and Doucouré are 29, 29, and 27, respectively, so they have theoretically reached the peak of their values. Doucouré is a bit more of a known quantity than the other two, having played several seasons in the Premier League, but simply having experience in the league does not guarantee success. Everton fans know well that players who move from smaller teams in the league to bigger teams are not guaranteed constant success, despite having the notorious “proven Premier League player” tag attached to them. Allan has experience in a strong Napoli team and was part of their Coppa Italia triumph last season, as well as multiple European runs. He has not been at his best as of late, however, and there is a fear he could be on the decline as a player. James is the biggest risk, as the last few years have been very up and down for the Colombian. Success at Bayern Munich has been bookended by struggles for fitness and playing time at Real Madrid. The World Cup in Brazil, where James announced himself to the world, is getting further and further away, and this move to England represents a likely final hope at fully reviving James’ career. The risks are clear, and there is no guarantee any of these signings work out.

But there are still absolutely reasons to be positive about these signings. Doucouré has been a very solid player for several years, being a key player in a Watford team that regularly went through managerial and tactical changes. He demonstrated an ability to function in multiple roles while still being a difference maker in a Watford side that struggled at times throughout the years before their relegation last season. Allan was a favorite of Ancelotti while he was at Napoli, and he seems to bring the fight and toughness that the Everton midfield has lacked since the departure of Idrissa Gueye. He has many characteristics and personality traits that the Everton fans should love, and he brings a level of experience and leadership as a veteran and a trophy winner into a dressing room that already has quite a few Portuguese speakers in it. James’ best season since his breakout World Cup year came at Bayern Munich under Ancelotti. They have a good relationship, and Ancelotti tried to bring the Colombian to Napoli before his eventual departure from Campania. I still trust Ancelotti’s judgment as a manager, and if he sees quality still in James, then I trust that judgment. If you needed another testimony, you can look to the other team in Madrid. Diego Simeone was very interested in bringing James to Atlético Madrid before last season, and the deal was apparently very close to being finished. It was reportedly Real Madrid’s 7-3 loss to Atléti in their preseason match up in the United States that pressured Real Madrid to cancel the deal, not wanting to seemingly aid a direct rival. Simeone is also no fool, and he is a manager that is hard to impress as a player if you do not bring the level of effort and defensive work rate that fits into Simeone’s system. James does not seemingly bring that, but if El Cholo pushed hard to sign the Colombian in spite of that, then there clearly has to be some level of talent still there. There are clearly risks in these signings, but there is indisputable star power in all three of these players. If they are able to come into the team, fit into Ancelotti’s system, and find form, then Everton suddenly become a much better and much more dangerous team.

Ancelotti’s revolution on Merseyside is more than underway, and it will be interesting to see what else Everton can do in this window. If this is it, then it is definitely not a failure of a transfer window, and it shows how far Everton have gone in the last few years that they are able to attract this level of talent without the promise of European football. This team is far from the finished article, however, and there should not be an expectation of breaking into the Top Six this season. Everton are not there yet, but this has the potential of being a massive step in the right direction toward that goal of getting into Europe. At a bare minimum, this is an immediate upgrade on the Toffee midfield that struggled through the second half of last season. The phrase “scared money don’t make money” comes to mind, and while this was a risk, the reward is also quite high.

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