Everton Transfer Targets 2018 #2: Midfielders – Analysis & Deconstruction

There are multiple types of central midfielders in football, you have your regista’s who are press resistant and flourishing with creativity, you have box-to-box midfielders who always make themselves an option, you have your number 10’s who are more likely to contribute to a goal than anyone else on the pitch… the type of system you want to play is often defined by your choice in who plays in the middle. Everton’s problem is that it hasn’t had a system to begin with, playing inflexible players like Schneiderlin, incapable players like Rooney and energetic but lack any product like Gueye.

An overhaul is in desperate need at Goodison, but no position on the pitch is full of deadwood as much as our midfield. The only central player I’d say is worth keeping for the foreseeable future (that’s been played consistently) is Tom Davies, we all saw the potential he had in his breakthrough season, lacking in confidence held him back. It’s almost certain we will have a formation that contains 3 midfielders, both Silva (4231) and Brands (433) set-up formations with the same amount. Marco Silva set up a Watford team with 2 box-to-box midfielders at the heart of the pitch, having the likes of Doucoure, Capoue, and Chalobah for selection.

Of course, we don’t know if the Portuguese manager has the same plans for Everton as he did at Watford, but philosophies usually follow managers. Therefore, if we are to have success to follow, we need a well-established, young, energetic, fluid midfield that can spark our attack going forward whilst remaining solid in defence.

So, what should Everton go for in midfield?

If I was Marco Silva, I’d give myself two options; go for a setup I’m already comfortable with by bringing in two box-to-box midfielders who rotate going forward or just have one holding midfielder with a more advanced midfielder sitting next to them. A problem with having two box-to-box midfielders is that you are more likely to leave space in behind, but it also provides another strong option going forward if needed. I believe holding midfielders are very hit and miss, certainly with Everton over the years; Gareth Barry arguably the only one we have that could be productive going forward.

Screen Shot 2018-05-24 at 21.23.58.png
Total xG of all Premier League club’s last season (understat.com).

As you can see, Everton’s xG rate is lower than Newcastle, Watford, Leicester and Crystal Palace; I brought this up as expected goals are calculated where the ball is positioned when a shot is taken; The Toffees are in dire need of not just one creator, but 3 or 4 in the squad to provide the likes of Cenk Tosun and Calvert-Lewin.

For me, two box-to-box midfielders and one creative number 10 would be ideal.

The Checklist:

  • Two box-to-box midfielders who can not only provide a strong defensive presence but also much more in attacking and build up play.
  • A number 10 who can actually create chances for our forwards, unlike those brought in last summer.
  • Players who can actually keep hold of possession.


The Targets: Who Should Everton sign in Central-Midfield?

Honourable Mentions: Diego Llorente (Real Sociedad), Leandro Paredes (Zenit), Teun Koopmeiners (AZ), Lewis Cook (Bournemouth), Max Meyer (Schalke).

#1: Tanguy Ndombele – Lyon


Ligue 1 has a history of developing hard-working, energetic footballers who can be the core of any team across European football, a prime example everyone draws to is Ngolo Kante, but Blaise Matuidi, Corentin Tolisso, and Tiemoue Bakayoko are just some examples of the depth France have in their locker. Over the last season, football’s finest analysts have been drawn to Lyon’s next breakout star, Tanguy Ndombele. The midfielder’s dribbling ability as well as his ability to keep hold of possession hasn’t gone unnoticed.

Analysis: There’s a common trend with those who have the last name “Dembele” or “Dombele”, they often turn out to be very good and effective footballers. Ndombele athleticism is unmatchable at times, having the speed and agility to not only keep the ball but to continue running forward and trying to create a chance for his team. The Frenchman made an average of 2.5 successful dribbles per game in Ligue 1 for Lyon, no player in his position making anywhere near that amount. Taking the ball forward so many times enables Lyon to form an attack very quickly, with the likes of Bertrand Traore, Nabil Fekir or Memphis Depay to feed the ball too in a 4231.

Passing-wise, he is a well-capable recycler and can create chances, but not defined as a prolific producer. He doesn’t produce that many long balls per game, but with his strength and pace, he can carry the ball much more forward than most players his age. When moving forward and offloading it to either Memphis or Traore on the wings, Ndombele often stays up the pitch, either tucking just inside of the wing to provide an inside option and keep the ball flowing or going into the penalty area to have a shot at goal. As well as making passes onward, Ndombele does win free-kicks quite often, which is a great option to get the ball into the area from a set-piece (he’s won 70 fouls in Ligue 1 last season for Lyon, around 2.2 per game).

Ndombele proving to be one of Europe’s most influential forward passers (@barcanumbers).

Defensively, The Frenchman provides good numbers. His hard work and resistance from pressing-play gives him decent defensive numbers, averaging two tackles a game. There’s a really good article produced by StatsBomb that I read up on Tanguy Ndombele; I highly recommend you give it a read if you want more analysis on him.

Why Everton should sign Ndombele: Everton have been cracked by pressing teams over the years, look at our record against the likes of Liverpool and Spurs for example. Our biggest weakness was whenever Rooney was pressed in possession, 9/10 losing the ball. Ndombele isn’t affected when under pressure and can quickly turn defense into offense. Lyon currently have an option to purchase him from Amiens for just £10m which is an incredible bit of business, so it’ll take some bid to take him away from France, but he is 100% what Everton need.


#2. Pablo Fornals – Villarreal


There’s something about Spanish regista’s that can light up any game of football you watch, you don’t even have to watch Spanish football to gain an understanding of just how cool and silky they are. Every top league has at least one Spaniard controlling games, Thiago at Bayern Munich, David Silva at Man City, even a veteran like Borja Valero can still have incredible displays for Inter Milan. The sheer depth of talented midfielders that Spain could’ve picked for the World Cup is incomparable towards any team participating in the tournament. During Malaga’s phase of selling all their best players last season, including Horta, Camacho and a certain Sandro Ramirez, a 21-year-old Pablo Fornals was swooped up by Villarreal for just €11m and he most certainly proved himself, almost close enough to be heading off to Russia; however, he certainly has a bright future ahead of him.

Analysis: Three players all shared the highest number of assists in La Liga last season, Messi and Suarez from Barcelona both made 12 assists, and were also joined by Pablo Fornals with the same amount. Fornals’ had an incredible season at Villarreal, playing a deeper role in comparison to his job at Malaga. This came to some effect, as his assist count shot up and helped The Yellow Submarine to a 5th place finish in the league. His vision is a key part of his play, registering a lot of his key passes through Villarreal’s counter-attacks.

Open Play xG Assisted Per 90 in La Liga last season (@FinerMargins).

Overall, Fornals has the third-highest xG assisted from open play in La Liga this season. He is well capable of making through balls and passes forward which allows the likes of Castillejo to sprint onto when they are in a 41212. In terms of dribbling, he doesn’t complete many take-ons which can have a knock-on effect in terms of his creating ability (despite making 12 assists, he only completes a total of 1.5 key passes per game), however, he is an established playmaker from a deeper position, who has a great scoring contribution.

Defensively, he doesn’t provide that much but he doesn’t need to when you consider he’s alongside Rodri and/or Trigueros in midfield. Having them two there allows him to venture further forward and provide a more direct link with Carlos Bacca or Enes Unal. He is a decent tackler when needs be, good at blocking the ball in various situations as well. 

Why Everton should sign Fornals: I see a much better, younger, a fresher replacement for Rooney (when he was in midfield) when watching him. He can play further back or attacking, create a fairly good amount of chances and has the time to flourish as a more complete midfielder. Villarreal did a fantastic bit of business triggering his release clause, he is a very exciting young player who can be a key component in anyone’s team.


#3. Oğuzhan Özyakup – Besiktas


Everton has already done business with Besiktas in recent times, signing Cenk Tosun from them in January, but ever since there’s been another Turkish player from the club that we’ve been linked with. Oğuzhan Özyakup has played for the Black Eagles since his €500k move from Arsenal back in 2012. Since then he has dazzled the Süper Lig, being compared to the likes of Zinedine Zidane and notorious Everton legend, Juan Riquelme. With two Süper Lig trophies under his belt, it looks like Özyakup’s time in Turkey could be over with rumours about him leaving building.

Analysis: Being matched to one of the greatest players in the history of the game is some comparison, Özyakup certainly has a lot of fans in Turkey with his passing ability. Since the 2015-16 campaign, he’s made an average of 46 key passes per season (2 per game) from deep midfield. Under Şenol Güneş’s team, he plays an important box-to-box role, not only having to provide defensive-contribution but most importantly moving the ball forward and creating chances. In a 4231, he can start games in attacking midfield, but mostly plays games alongside Hutchinson, bringing the ball forward and helping feed dangerous players like Talisca or out onto the wingers which are usually patrolled by Quaresma and Babel.

Bes_v_Alan (pass map)
Besiktas’s pass map vs Alanyaspor back in March this year (@11tegen11).

Besiktas are a possession-based team, so a 433 is also deployed at times and sees Özyakup with a lot of the ball and a lot of links between himself and the wingers; in this case Talisca and Babel. The Turkish midfielder is a good passer, often making short passes forward, but can make longer balls into tighter positions. When having possession around the final third, he is very good at finding players in the wider channels, often in space to grab a shot at goal or drill the ball across the six-yard box. He doesn’t often make that many take-ons, but he does have very good ball control to keep the ball in his team’s possession and isn’t often dispossessed by opposition players.

When in defence, he doesn’t have the strongest of presences, he isn’t a “holding midfielder” and will probably need a player around him for extra support. However, he has great playmaking abilities, able to find players further forward and help create great chances at goal. Özyakup can be inconsistent, but hopefully not having any European football in the near future can help him build more stability.

Why Everton should sign Özyakup: Out of all the players I’ve mentioned, Özyakup is arguably the most likely to join us. His contract expires this summer and if he is to sign a new one it is likely to contain a release clause intact, so there’s a strong chance he can go. The Turk already has the experience of playing high-level football for Besiktas, whilst also having a point to prove to Arsenal who let him go back in 2012. He’s an exciting player who has great vision and the ability to create something from deep, something our defensive midfielders have been missing for quite some time.


#4. Ruben Loftus-Cheek – Chelsea


Chelsea’s academy has dominated British youth football over the last ten years, winning the UEFA Youth League twice and winning the FA Youth Cup 5 times consecutively, 7 times in the last 9 years. Throughout this time, they’ve developed a lot of fantastic talent, however, they’ve failed to capitalise on this, spending massively on players that instantly go into the first team. After just 22 appearances in 3 years at Chelsea, Loftus-Cheek joined Crystal Palace on loan at the start of the season, impressing so much he would be called up to the England squad for this summer’s World Cup. Such form obviously hasn’t gone unnoticed, from a player who wouldn’t be considered at all to potentially being a key player in Gareth Southgate’s squad.

Analysis: Loftus-Cheek is a very versatile player, having played most of his career in defensive midfield, Hodgson has moved him up more forward up the field. He has the build and the ability to play in multiple positions, tall, powerful and fast, he can dominate the middle of the field and carry the ball forward. Loftus-Cheek is a brilliant ball carrier, not afraid to go forward having totaled 4.6 attempted dribbles per game and being successful 3 times on average (around 65% success percentage). Having such ability is crucial if you want to build an offence on fast, counter-attacking football. Taking the ball upfield a lot means he wins free-kicks very often throughout the match, 2.6 times a game he was fouled last season in a Crystal Palace shirt.

Screen Shot 2018-06-02 at 15.37.03.png
Ruben Loftus-Cheek vs Average Statistics (understat.com).

Loftus-Cheek’s skill to pass the ball and maintain build-up play is also very impressive. xG Chain means that every player that is involved in the build-up play is credited with the final xG of the attempt on goal, in Ruben Loftus-Cheek’s case, he is well above average at 0.45 per 90. As for xGBuildUp, this works the same way, but no credit is given for assisting or taking the shot. Once again, Loftus-Cheek’s numbers are quite impressive.

Defensively, he didn’t provide much of an input at Crystal Palace as you would expect from someone playing a more advanced role. However, when the time is needed he still provides a strong foot-in, making tackles and winning plenty of aerial duels. He is a well-disciplined midfielder, booked just once in 24 appearances last season.

Why Everton should sign Loftus-Cheek: Over six-foot tall, a terrific ball carrier and a good short passer; Ruben Loftus-Cheek is built for the Premier League. He received plenty of plaudits during his time at The Eagles and I can see why; his input was very important to Crystal Palace’s fantastic comeback after not scoring a single goal in their first 5 games. If Chelsea is to sell him, it would probably be for a large sum, but it would be a good investment for The Toffees, a versatile midfielder who can control games single-handily, with time to develop his game even further.


Who Should Everton sign to play Number-10?

Honourable Mentions: Manuel Lanzini (West Ham), Luis Alberto (Lazio), Talisca (Benfica).

#1. Hakim Ziyech – Ajax


A player I mentioned in the previous installment of Everton Transfer Targets, Moroccan midfielder Hakim Ziyech has proved once again that he is one of Europe’s ultimate chance creators and ready for a move abroad. After three different stints at Eredivisie clubs (Heerenveen, FC Twente and now Ajax), Ziyech has recorded 57 goals and 62 assists since the start of the 2013/14 season and has only turned just 25 years old.

Analysis: The first thing you notice about Ziyech is his ability to pick players out in very dangerous positions, whether it’s a set-piece or in open play. His vision is a step beyond any else’s in some games, racking up a number of 4.2 key passes per game; which is a crazy amount. Having such a consistent creator definitely benefits Ajax’s frontline, both David Neres and Justin Kluivert have scored 3 times with Ziyech being the assistor. A lot of his chances created are from crosses, almost 2 a game at least, but not only that, he’s created 10 chances from through balls last season; which is a very high amount.

xG90 and xA90 for the Eredivisie last season (@thefutebolist).

As you can see, Ziyech has the highest amount of xA90 in the Eredivisie, recording a total of 0.6 per 90 minutes. This is miles beyond anyone else and is a real indicator of just how important he is for Ajax. It comes as no surprise that the Moroccan made the most assists in the league, reaching 15.

From free-kicks, he has one of the most dangerous deliveries I’ve seen. In the 7 years he’s played in the Eredivisie, 57 of his key passes have come from free-kicks, his record of 12 last season was his 2nd highest in his career. He’s also proven to be very dangerous when he goes for goal, although going through a 49-attempt drought during the season, Ziyech scored 3 goals from free-kicks which is his joint-best tally. As well as creating chances, Ziyech is an impressive dribbler of the ball, only two players in the Dutch league to have completed more than him in the league (Neres and Brandley Kuwas from Heracles – both 3.6 per game, Ziyech recorded 3.4). One flaw I’ve noticed with him is that he can still give the ball away quite easily. His stats in this area did get better this season, but he has recorded 2.4 unsuccessful touches (bad control) and dispossession per game and has set a new Eredivisie record by losing the ball 47 times in a match.

Why Everton should sign Ziyech: I can see why fans would not be sure with him, having not played in any of the “top 5 leagues” and after the Klaassen-saga, we probably aren’t on great terms with Ajax. However, creatively we need him, he displays incredible vision and Cenk Tosun needs a player that can provide him shots in the penalty area, not having to get into positions himself from 30 yards out. Everton needs creativity, simple.


#2. James Maddison – Norwich


Championship football has been overlooked for quite some time, however last season produced a very interesting campaign with Wolves producing incredible football, Cardiff’s 90-points going unnoticed (arguably) and youngsters alike breaking through and impressing fans every week, including Norwich City’s 21-year-old midfielder, James Maddison who had zero starts for the club before the start of the season, to becoming The Canaries’ most important player in the club.

Analysis: England currently have a huge collection of upcoming stars coming through the ranks and Maddison is certainly up there with the potential to become the best about. Creatively he is one of the most productive and progressive passers in England’s second division. He made the most key passes out of any player in the Championship last season, 2.8 per game, but holding onto the ball is a huge factor. Everton struggled to have any player that can complete take-ons (in fact, we loaned him out), Maddison would improve us massively in this area. He attempted 3.5 total dribbles per game, completing 2.4 of them, a total of 68% success rate.

Infographic on Maddison’s impressive statistics vs the Average attacking-midfielder in higher-leagues (@thefutebolist).

In comparison to other players in his position, that play in the “Big 5 leagues”, Maddison proves he can fit in quite comfortably. He makes a high number of chances for his teammates whilst also proving to be a dangerous shooter as well. Overall, only 10 players in Europe produced more than 100 key passes last season, Maddison was third on this list (124 – beaten by Payet, 125 and Hakim Ziyech, 143). Four of his 14 goals have come from outside of the box, including two free-kicks. Another key attribute he obtains is winning free-kicks, 3.3 per game to be precise. This would be important for dead ball specialists who can either get the ball in the box or have a crack at goal themselves.

Maddison’s midfield radar (@FussballRadars)

On his radar, you can see he rarely loses possession and contains a high number of successful dribbles. He contributes massively towards goals; being involved in 22 goals whether you’re scoring them yourself or assisting them is very, very impressive for your debut season. Maddison had an incredible campaign in a Norwich team which struggled with keeping consistency throughout the season. Kieran Dowell returns from his loan from Nottingham Forest, so the prospect of having two English youngsters in our squad who have impressed for their clubs is an exciting prospect.

Why Everton should sign Maddison: Norwich are rumoured to have wacked on a £25m price tag on the youngster who had contributed to almost 30% of their goals, and I can totally see why. He’s creative, fantastic at 1v1’s, scores goals himself and overall is a very impressive young midfielder. Investing him would guarantee a creator who has plenty of time to progress and build on his ability.


In Conclusion to Part Two…

The midfield is the foundation to any team’s style of play, if they’re organised and full of talent, providing a good amount of attacking contribution as well as helping your defence, you’re probably going to get far. Everton has a gigantic problem in this area, there are players in there that have the potential to be involved in a fast, attacking system (Klaassen, Sigurdsson, Davies etc.), but simply haven’t cut the mustard. Mediocrity has been oozed into this club for far too long and the midfield is no exception if you want Everton to be a strong outlet in the Premier League, then at least a new way of thinking has to be installed into a negative-minded midfield.


Data includes WhoScored, understat.com, @barcanumbers@11tegen11, @thefutebolist, @FussballRadars and @FinerMargins.


Final Part coming soon…


Up the Toffees


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