Everton Transfer Series Part 3 – Central Midfield

Ask any Evertonian what the top priority should be for the club this summer, and the answer will most likely be a new centre-midfielder or following the injury of Jean-Philippe Gbamin, two central-midfielders.

Both a new right-back and a new centre-half will be on the list of priorities for Marcel Brands this summer, but with the financial impacts of the pandemic, Everton’s transfer plans will undoubtedly take a hit. If that means not bringing in reinforcements at the back, then Everton can cope, the same cannot be said in terms of the state of its midfield.

One thing must be noted though, is that when it comes to midfield signings this summer, the club desperately needs to get it right – we cannot be left with more midfielders who are simply not good enough, whilst simultaneously eating into an already limited wage bill. I’m a fan of Marcel Brands, and though the results on the pitch haven’t come to fruition yet, the transfer business so far has been generally fine. There does seem to be a sense of safety about his approach though, almost as if business is done with the handbrake on, and with the current financial situation of the cub following the disaster that was Steve Walsh, Ronald Koeman and Sam Allardyce, it’s understandable. But it’s that risk aversion that saw Andre Gomes’ deal made permanent and the transfers of both Fabien Delph and Gbamin. Three midfielders were signed last summer, an outlay of nearly £60m, and yet that position still needs a massive overhaul.

The Current Crop –

Everton’s midfield has been an utter enigma for years, bar the sole 2013/14 season when a tireless James McCarthy and the majestic Gareth Barry, in my time (2006 onwards) there’s never been a main consistent pairing and I doubt we’ll see that change soon considering the make-up of Everton’s current midfield. Overall, this part of the squad is filled with players who were once the “in-thing”, or players whose output doesn’t even come close to matching how much they get paid, and then there’s Tom Davies.

The Ketwig Kaiser from West Derby is probably the perfect exemplar to describe the football club since the sacking of Roberto Martinez. When he initially burst onto the scene under Ronald Koeman in late 2016, Davies was seen as someone readymade for 1st team football, a midfielder who was great on the ball, whether he was passing it or dribbling with it, and if he didn’t have it, he’d go to extreme lengths to go and retrieve it. He didn’t mind if you were Yaya Toure or Charlie Adam, if you had the ball when he wanted it, more than likely you’d end up on your arse. Unfortunately for him, since that season, his potential has so far been unfulfilled, or better still, simply untapped.

Davies, despite being a local lad, living every Evertonians dream, is one of the most highly criticised players. He has underperformed, there is no doubting that, but with the club quickly moving through managers, Davies has almost been collateral damage in an era that has so far been desperately underwhelming. His best stuff came when he first broke out under Koeman, regularly playing as the #8 in a 4-3-3, or the #10 in a 4-2-3-1, he was box-to-box, most influential in the oppositions half, yet that begs the question why since then, every manager has attempted to transition him into a deep-lying #6. It’s just not his game. Or at least it isn’t when he’s playing in such weak tactical systems. But if the club thinks that’s where his future should be, his lack of goalscoring threat implies he’ll never be a conventional #10 for us, so if the idea is to transform him into a destructive, defensive midfielder – he needs to be trained in that position properly, not placed in the side every 5 games and hoping for the best.

The 2020/21 season could have been the perfect platform for him, at another club, getting 1st team football on loan. With Gbamin coming back from injury, a midfield quartet of himself, Gomes, Delph, and a new signing would have or at least should have been enough to take the side through a non-European season. Those chances may now be ruined. For now, Davies is fine as back-up, but for his own sake, he needs to go and get football elsewhere, playing consistently in a strong league for a full season, whether it be abroad or for a lower side in the Premier League. The Scouser still has a very good chance of becoming a regular at the club, but a fresh start somewhere else is probably the perfect remedy for him right now.

In terms of the rest of Everton’s midfield set-up, it’s not great.

Mins (2)
Minutes allocated at centre-midfield since 2018/19 (minutes overall including other positions)

When you include the likes of Mason Holgate and Alex Iwobi or even Kieran Dowell who could all possibly play in midfield, Everton have 12 different players available. When looking at just the players listed above, long-term wise, I’d say only three at a maximum are good enough for the club as either starters or squad players.

In terms of who won’t be here next season, both James McCarthy and Idrissa Gueye have already been sold, and I’d expect at least Morgan Schneiderlin and Mo Besic to follow this summer. I wouldn’t put it past Delph going either if Leeds United eventually get promoted, but he’ll likely stay for at least another 12 months. Under-23 players Beni Baningime and Dennis Adeniran could finally get some minutes in the final games of this season, but I would assume neither have long-term futures at the club. Elsewhere, Gbamin will probably remain crippled for at least the next six months, and Davies will hopefully get his loan move.

If Fabian Delph stays, I can’t see his role becoming anything more than back-up. That leaves just Andre Gomes and Gylfi Sigurdsson as the main options for midfield. I wrote about Gomes last summer when he signed permanently, and even though the majority of his season has been ruined through injury, my thoughts on him haven’t really changed. As for the Icelandic Teflon, similar to that of Michael Keane’s position, I’d be doing everything I can to get rid. It would probably be an understatement to state how big of a boost it would be if the club could get upwards of £40m for the pair this summer.

Even from just that short review, its clear Everton’s midfield needs a complete overhaul, but in one window that won’t happen. As already mentioned, Gbamin’s injury will now lead some Blues to want two new signings for that position this summer, but realistically I don’t see that happening either.

Subsequently, what type of midfielder should we be looking to bring in? If he can keep himself fit, I’d expect Andre Gomes to be a mainstay in the starting XI next season, or at least definitely will be until Gbamin comes back to full fitness. But both Gomes and Gbamin are completely different players, and with the possibility that Sigurdsson stays too, whoever comes in would need to be able to complement all three, at least for the short-term.

When posing the question to twitter, the outcome was hardly conclusive;

The performance of the midfield is always integral, but even more so when you play 4-4-2. The inadequacies and vulnerability of our midfield, and the problems that are created in consequence, were personified vividly in the 4-0 defeat to Chelsea before the break. Tactically, Ancelotti got it wrong that day, but the personnel didn’t help either with the lack of positional awareness from both Gomes and Davies being transparent. Whether the club looks at a traditional #6 or a dynamic box-to-box juggernaut, their tactical and positional understanding has to be high-level.

Characteristically it’s difficult to determine the type of midfielder both Brands and Ancelotti will be looking at this summer. In a 4-4-2, the use of a conventional, lone #6 is uncommon, but then a box-to-box midfield powerhouse would not be the right fit next to Andre Gomes either. Just like he did last summer, Gomes poses a lot of interesting questions in terms of Everton’s shape. Gomes doesn’t do enough offensively and does next to nothing defensively, I think if you asked five different Evertonians what type of midfielder Gomes was, you’d most likely get five different answers.

One part of Everton’s play under Ancelotti that definitely need to improve, is the role or influence that the midfield pivot has. Since the arrival of the Italian gaffer, Everton places 17th out of the Premier League sides for deep completions. Since Boxing Day, we’ve completed just 45 passes within 20 yards of the opposition goal, excluding crosses – Everton averaged 7th highest before Marco Silva’s departure. The metric isn’t an imperative indicator for how well teams play, both Wolves and Sheffield United are proof of that, but as I mentioned in my analysis piece following the Chelsea defeat in March, ‘the fact that the current top 4 make up the ‘deep completions top 4’, indicates that you’d rather come out favourably in this category, than not’.

Ancelotti’s tactical system will have definitely impacted Everton’s presence in the middle thirds, creative responsibility, for instance, is almost always on the shoulders of the full-backs, and not having a conventional #10 will also be detrimental too – but quite simply, Everton’s central-midfielders, just do not do enough. Between Sigurdsson, Delph, Schneiderlin and Davies, the quartet have plucked up an Expected Assist tally of just 2.22 since Ancelotti joined, Lucas Digne and Djibril Sidibe have an xA of 2.36. It’s not good enough.

Even through a glance of Everton’s passes within ‘zone 14’ against Man Utd, or the pass-map from the 2-2 draw vs Newcastle. The link between the midfield pivot and front two is minimal.

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In balance, I think Everton need a mix of both a box-to-box midfielder and a conventional defensive midfielder. Versatility has been a common theme through these write-ups so far, and it’s the exact same for this piece too. A midfielder who can play different roles within that position, someone fine being used within different systems would be a key attraction to the Everton hierarchy.

Personal Choices –

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Pierre-Emile Højbjerg –

  • Nationality: Danish
  • Age: 24
  • Club: Southampton
  • Position: Centre-Midfield
  • Other Positions: Full-Back
  • TransferMarkt Value: £10.8m
  • Expected Value: £15-20m

The 24-year-old Danish international, Pierre-Emile Højbjerg, is one of the only players who has been concretely linked with the club within the past few months, with Everton manager Carlo Ancelotti said to be quite a big fan of the Southampton midfielder, and though that says something in itself, it’s not hard to see why Højbjerg is rated so highly. From afar, PEH has always been a player who’s looked quite an interesting player, in general, he’s always looked fairly comfortable in possession, he appears to be quite smart and attentive off-the-ball too, both in terms of his defensive value, and his supposed intelligence.

The interview below is a pure example of this. Following his first start for the Saints in 2016, only 21 at the time too, Højbjerg comes across as both thoughtful and tactically-aware. This alone explains why Pep Guardiola saw him as a personal project early in his Bayern days. Characteristically, he’s the off-pitch representation of the club, the voice of the dressing room, an old-school leader but on young shoulders.

It’s practically self-explanatory as to why he’s the youngster captain amongst all Premier League teams at the moment.

He left Bayern before Pep was given the chance to mould him the way he wanted too, Højbjerg cited his ‘impatience’ at the time, and with the likes of Toni Kroos, Xavi Alonso and Javi Martinez ahead of him that was understandable. Most players would have stayed, you’re at one of the biggest clubs in Europe, learning from one of the best coaches in the game, why would you leave? The Dane seemingly wanted his own path, and though it’s probably taken longer than he would have preferred, he definitely seems ready for that next step.

As mentioned, it’s already been leaked that the club sees Højbjerg as one of the possible players they could target this summer. Ancelotti is a fan, as is Spurs gaffer Jose Mourinho and will consequently face competition for his signature. Both Everton and Spurs will see the midfielder as a good player, someone who improves both sides, which he does, but his contract situation makes the transfer even more attractive. Saints’ captain has just 12 months left on his current deal, and with manager Ralph Hasenhuttl already stating that it would not be ‘ideal’ for PEH to continue as captain if he doesn’t sign a new deal by the start of next season – indicating that it’s either sign an extension or be sold. This puts potential suitors in a healthy position, and if Everton can drive a price down to £15m, you could be looking at one of the best bargain buys of the summer.

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When looking at the data, it’s clear that Højbjerg is decent in the majority of categories but doesn’t necessarily strike you as a sensational midfield that is ready to transform Everton’s fortunes. His defensive contribution emphasises the notion that he could fill the need for a defensively-capable midfielder. His 2.43 tackles p90 isn’t outlandish, but he still ranks 4th in terms of under-25 midfielders in the Premier League this season (over 1,500 minutes), and his 1.6 interceptions p90 ranks 6th. Højbjerg benefits from an overly-aggressive system (8.28 PPDA, 3rd highest in PL) but the tactical concepts simultaneously gets the best out of the Danish midfielder.

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Courtesy of WhoScored.com

The visual above in isolation represents the type of midfielder he is off-the-ball too. In watching Højbjerg, it’s his work rate and determination that is most striking, he’s the definition of a workhorse and it’s this that makes him such a suitable partner for Andre Gomes in midfield next season. Albeit Gomes didn’t exactly excel in his debut signing for the Toffees, but his responsibility defensively was minimal, Idrissa Gueye practically protecting the defence on his lonesome. Højbjerg is in turn, an apt replacement.

In terms of what Højbjerg could bring to the side, he possesses the quality on the ball that you would expect from a Bayern youngster, and his time at Southampton, especially in the high-pressing system that Hasenhuttl has implemented, has shown how he can thrive as a modern-day ball-winning midfielder too. In some ways, it’s easy to infer Højbjerg almost as a carbon copy of Idrissa Gueye. The former Everton man was an obscene ball-winner, so it’s difficult for anyone else to compare when it comes to defensive out-put, but PEH could still fill the Idrissa Gueye-shaped crater in the side’s midfield.

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Quite vividly, defensively, Gueye was an absolute monster. Trying to replace those type of numbers is almost impossible, especially if you try and sign a player like-for-like. Højbjerg for example, wouldn’t be a like-for-like replacement, but he would at least give the midfield the balance and defensive solidarity that it’s crying out for. Besides the defensive metrics, the differences between Højbjerg and Gueye are minimal, if anything the Danish international offers a lot more on the ball than Gana did in his Everton years. It may be surprising for some, but Gana had more influence on the ball than Gomes did last season, implying the impact Højbjerg could have especially in terms of creativity.

Quantity-wise, PEH again doesn’t appear sensational but Southampton’s mediocrity in terms of possession goes some way to explain that, when Højbjerg is involved on the ball though, the intent is always forward-thinking. The ‘WhoScored progressive pass’ visual portrays that. Højbjerg’s pass accuracy in truth isn’t the greatest, and hopefully in a more possession-based side that I think we’ll develop into under Carlo Ancelotti, this part of the game will more mature. The main point though is how the visual signifies Højbjerg’s intent on always pushing forward, his 6.95 passes p90 into the final third ENVISAGE that too. PEH, both data-wise and visually, comes across as the type of progressive midfielder that Everton needs.

Over time, Ancelotti will need to be more adaptable in how they create the majority of their chances. Right-now, both Lucas Digne and Djibril Sidibe are the two main sources of chance creation for the side, but eventually relying on full-backs will become easy to defend for the opposition and without a traditional #10, having central-midfielders such as Højbjerg, who is capable of putting the ball into the right areas, or even by creating opportunities himself (0.7 xA p90) will be imperative to Everton’s development.

As for the future, especially in a 4-4-2, Hojbjerg and Gbamin for instance, is a much more complete, physically imposing, and creatively-influential midfield than the partnership of Gomes and Gana that we saw under Marco Silva.

Pierre-Emile Højbjerg would be a smart buy there’s no doubting that. His work rate would be massively beneficial, especially playing in a 4-4-2, his time under Hasenhuttl has proven his tactical suitability too. He can play multiple roles in a midfield pivot and would be comfortable next to most partners, and as proven, is competent enough both offensively and defensively. He may not be a goalscoring threat that some want from midfield, but he’s progressive and audacious with the passes he makes – Everton need creativity in midfield and though PEH isn’t necessarily known for it, it’s an undervalued part of his game and the side would benefit from it.

So, in short; he’s fearless on the ball, tenacious off it, and could act almost as the brains of the coach. Leadership can’t always be bought, Everton’s recent purchases prove that, but even without those qualities, Højbjerg is a promising proposition – unlike some 35-year-olds who might be astronomical in price.

Pierre-Emile Højbjerg may not be the clubs first choice, but in a summer window where value could be imperative – the Southampton captain resembles both an astute investment, and an upgrade on Everton’s current midfield.

Ibrahim Sangare –

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  • Nationality: Ivorian
  • Age: 22
  • Club: Toulouse
  • Position: Centre-Midfield
  • Other Positions: N/A
  • TransferMarkt Value: £8.55m
  • Expected Value: £15-20m

For those who have followed me on twitter, you’ll know of my love for Ibrahim Sangare. In short, I think he’s boss, and when it came to selling Idrissa Gueye last summer, I was disappointed when the club chose against signing the young midfielder and instead went for Mainz midfielder Jean-Philippe Gbamin.

Sangare, like many others who have been mentioned in this transfer series so far, is another top prospect from Ligue 1 in France. The Ivorian has blossomed within the past two years for a Toulouse side that this season particularly, have been nothing short of dreadful. Toulouse may be bad, but they still have a decent track record when it comes to bringing through young talents, Sangare has looked one of the most promising amongst the likes of Issa Diop (now at West Ham), Jean-Clair Todibo (who could also join the Blues this summer), and goalkeeper Alban Lafont, as well as current Spurs right-back, Serge Aurier.

This time last summer, when forwarded as a possible replacement for Idrissa Gueye, Sangare was still quite a no-mark outside of the data analytics bubble on twitter, and though Toulouse have got progressively worse since, the midfielder’s stock has continued to rise and finally looks likely to make a move to a much better side.

Similarly, to Højbjerg, he can be used quite flexibly in midfield. He’s predominantly made his mark as a defensive midfielder, but within that, he could be utilised as a screening #6 in a 4-3-3, or as a modern ball-winner similar to Gueye as someone who can actively attempt to retrieve the ball. Though he’s played in a dreadful set-up within the past two seasons, he appears well-equipped to deal with the majority of the defensive contribution, so would be a fine partner for Andre Gomes, and if playing next to Gbamin, he could also take up the responsibility of having more influence during the build-up phases.

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At 22-years-old, Ibrahim Sangare comes across as one of the most promising defensive midfielders in Europe. Defensively, he has an out-put that demonstrates a similitude to Gana, and though his out-put will be tinted by the downfalls of his side, he still ranks in the 86th percentile (2.28 p90) for pAdj tackles throughout the past two seasons. In terms of the players looked at throughout this write-up, Sangare seems the most similar to Gueye in terms of his defensive contribution, and though the Ivorian’s numbers could be a result of the failings of his teammates or the system he plays in – bad teams will always be susceptible to more defensive duty – he has still proven that he has the attributes that Everton’s midfield is desperate for.

Quantity-wise, his defensive numbers are superb, but I still have doubts surrounding his awareness or maturity off-the-ball. Last season, when Toulouse were generally better off, he did portray the positional awareness that is integral to any midfield signing – often showing the tuition to know when to nip in for the ball and when to hold his position. Sangare though is still developing, and this season has conveyed his need for a higher-level of coaching to make sure he reaches his potential. Yes this season he has still been guilty of lapses of concentration, and though he’s predominantly been used as a #6, he can often push out of position probing for the ball – but again, that could be a result of the performance of the side he plays within.

Sangare is most commonly known for his defensive responsibility, but his passing ability and progressive pedigree is one of his biggest assets. He is still quite raw, and technically he does appear quite inferior to other options, especially aesthetically, but his contribution on the ball is impressive, nonetheless. Characteristically, he’s quite an unorthodox midfielder, similar to Yaya Toure in terms of his lankiness and size – he’s strong but not bulky, lanky but also quite pacey and still efficient in carrying the ball as he uses his long legs to his advantage. His 1.78 dribbles p90 over the past two seasons is in the 88th percentile amongst midfielders in the top five leagues – his progressive carrying ability would massively beneficial in Everton’s midfield pivot, especially if playing alongside largely stagnant partners such as Gylfi Sigurdsson or Fabian Delph.

1_I5d6zLiavRW6Ir-x9Mx2EQ
Courtesy of @thirtyfeet

In the same way, Sangare’s influence through his passing is quite the attraction too. The Toulouse man is always looking forward, trying riskier passes, intent on pushing the ball into the final 3rd, and though his passing accuracy takes a hit (similar to Højbjerg in the WhoScored visual) his ability to influence the game despite his position, would be key for Everton. The visual above signifies that too, he makes just 6.55 ‘touches per progressive pass’ (again weighted due to the side he plays in), emphasising how forward-thinking he can be. The quality is also there too, in open-play this season, he’s produced 2.18 shot creation actions which is still more than Gylfi Sigurdsson, an actual attacking midfielder – representing both Sangare’s quality and Sigurdsson’s downfalls this season.

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Courtesy of @TheHalfSpace

Overall, Sangare would be a logical signing and though he may not be the first choice from the perspective of Brands and Ancelotti, he could be a shrewd addition. It’s important to stress that patience would be a necessity for the Toulouse man, he’s already a strong midfielder but he’s still developing his overall game and playing in a side as bad as Toulouse have been this season has definitely exposed his flaws – but it’s also earmarked how good he could be in an even better side. Defensively he’s sound, he’s clearly comfortable on the ball whether it be in tight-spaces, or under pressure – the Premier League is faster and more physical than Ligue 1, but he’s shown that he’s more than capable of transitioning his skillset. He’s still quite young and has a lot of room for development, considering the system he’s currently restrained within too, there are arguments to say there’s still a vast untapped potential that Sangare hasn’t been able to show.

The fact that the club chose against signing Sangare last summer implies that the likelihood of a transfer this summer is again minimal, that’s despite the midfielder seemingly appearing as the type of signing that Brands would be interested in. Yet, similar to Højbjerg, the Ivorian would resemble a possible bargain following the impacts of the pandemic on transfer values, and if the club are priced out of other moves this summer, Sangare could be the perfect alternative.

Boubakary Soumare –

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  • Nationality: French
  • Age: 21
  • Club: Lille
  • Position: Centre-Midfield
  • Other Positions: N/A
  • TransferMarkt Value: £22.05m
  • Expected Value: £20-25m

Boubakary Soumare is one of the ‘hottest’ prospects in Europe. He’s another young talent that has slipped through the grasp of PSG. And, with the right coaching, he could become of the best midfielders in Europe. Maybe this one is less fact, more questionable, but the Frenchman has the quality and the traits, to make it at the highest level.

There’s a lot of fuss about the Lille midfielder, but with a quick look at the basic statistics, it’s understandable why some would be dubious about the quality of the player. He’s played just over 2,000 minutes in three seasons since his debut and has just one goal and one assist, it hardly screams must-buy.

Despite the Frenchman’s rave reviews, Soumare has been criminally underused by Lille over the past two seasons and following the departure of Thiago Mendes to Lyon, most thought he would really explode onto the scene this season – yet, that hasn’t happened, and has since fallen out with manager Christophe Galtier. However, despite his small sample of just 1,213 minutes this season and 564 minutes last season, Soumare has expressed the technical quality that has lead to links to some of Europe’s biggest clubs.

Boubakary Soumare would resemble a risk for Everton this summer though, especially following the injury news of JP Gbamin. Defensively he isn’t perfect and wouldn’t be able to carry the midfield defensively like Idrissa Gueye did, or Ibrahim Sangare or Pierre-Emile Højbjerg could. Though in stature he shows barely any similarities to Gueye, he could provide the mix of ball-winning ability and physical presence that Everton missed last season, but if utilised mainly as a defensive midfielder, you’d simultaneously be restraining his key strengths.

Soumare is good though, he’s the type of midfielder you would be willing to compromise other parts of the team to bring him in. Whilst himself and Gomes as a partnership would hardly be the most balanced of midfield duo’s, it could be a sacrifice that Ancelotti would be happy to make with Gbamin hopefully returning after Christmas – albeit that might be naïve thinking from the Everton hierarchy.

There has been previous evidence though, that at least in the short-term, Soumare could offer the defensive stability Everton need – in big games though, it might be a case of utilising Fabian Delph or a back-three as extra protection.

Boubakary-Soumaré
Courtesy of footballslices.com

As shown above, the Lille man played just 564 minutes in Ligue 1 last season, and whilst his metrics will be heavily impacted due to the short sample size, the midfielder represented the skillset that Everton could use in the short-term. In terms of his future development, his ball-winning ability and defensive presence will unlikely be what he ends up being known for, yet he’s still demonstrated snippets of quality that Everton’s midfield need. In his first two seasons, just 1,055 minutes between them, Soumare won 2.3 and 3.3 tackles p90, he’s not your typical defensive midfielder but he can still be that destroyer that Everton will need while Gbamin continues to be half-dead.

Away from the data, and though his raw tackles numbers have declined with more minutes played, he has shown signs of maturity in his awareness off-the-back, as well as a growing football IQ. The midfielder is a giant in comparison to others, and this season especially is now using his body more to his advantage – often brushing players off with ease when trying to win the ball back, but also able to effortlessly shield the ball from opponents when carrying into from one end to another. Generically, commentators and pundits will rely on his distinctive size when describing his performances – he’s already (incorrectly) been compared to Paul Pogba, and I can already hear Jamie Redknapp highlighting Soumare’s pace and power in comparison to others – though that terminology is frowned upon in the modern analytical world, Soumare’s power shouldn’t be undermined.

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On the eye, Soumare oozes class. He’s one of the most promising talents in Europe and though game time has hardly been consistent at Lille, he’s still been able to convey the quality that has lead to rumours to the likes of Manchester City and Arsenal. The eye-test is always imperative, especially when judging midfielders, context is always a necessity anyway but judging a midfielder’s positional and cognitive awareness is just as significant – whilst Soumare, still at just 21, has a long way to go in terms of his career pathway, his metrics are still pretty good, but prove why I primarily saw him as an alternative to Gomes last summer, rather than a replacement for Idrissa Gueye.

Boubakary Soumare is a superb ball-playing a midfielder, in reference to Football Manager definitions, he’s the perfect example of a deep-lying playmaker. The data proves this too. Over the past two seasons in Ligue 1, he’s remained consistent in how often he places the balls in the right areas. Despite having a fairly high pass completion rate of 89.5% of the past 24 months, the midfielder is still averaging 6.99 passes into the final 3rd p90, which places in the 91st percentile. In the context from the Lille side, when Soumare plays, his function, similarly to Sangare at Toulouse, is to be the main ball-playing midfielder. The onus is on him solely to get the ball into the right areas, and although that does affect the quantity (his numbers would likely decrease alongside Gomes for instance), it represents the quality he has in his locker.

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Courtesy of @TheHalfSpace

A lot of the people I speak to on twitter, see Boubakary Soumare as their preferred target this summer and with Lille reportedly ready to let him go for a cut-price deal, I can see why. It wouldn’t be a gamble to say that Everton could have a £60m player on their hands within 12-18 months, he could end up being *that* good. Ideally, Soumare doesn’t exactly tick the boxes that Everton desire this summer, yet it wouldn’t surprise me to see this signing materialise – even if it forces Ancelotti into tweaking his tactical system at least for the first couple of months.

Soumare signing could force Gomes’ hand in terms of his defensive responsibility, as without Gueye by his side, there will be no free-ride anymore, especially in a system where your midfield can be left more vulnerable than other formations, such as 4-3-3 or 4-2-3-1 for instance. It could be a case of Gomes having until Gbamin comes back to prove that he can contribute more in the defensive thirds if not, it wouldn’t surprise me to see a ‘Gomes replacement’ on the shortlist in 12 months.

Soumare will likely be near the top-end of Brands’ shortlist this summer. His comfortability on the ball makes him signing-worthy anyway but add that to his physicality and his potential ceiling too, and you’re looking at one of the most promising, dynamic under-23 midfielders in Europe. Similar to the Richarlison signing in 2018, Everton have the chance to pick-up a coup.

Denis Zakaria –

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  • Nationality: Swiss
  • Age: 23
  • Club: Borussia Mönchengladbach
  • Position: Centre-Midfield
  • Other Positions: Centre-Back
  • TransferMarkt Value: £32.40m
  • Expected Value: £35-40m

In Ibrahim Sangare and Boubakary Soumare, you have two young midfielders in Ligue 1, who together represent the perfect blend that Everton’s midfield desires. So, why not find the player who provides the qualities of both players whilst also discounting the flaws that they carry too.

And yes, that player exists, but that player will also cost you.

Last summer, I found myself quite bemused that Everton went for JP Gbamin, that’s despite me previously touting him in 2017. Originally, I was frustrated that the club had seemingly ignored both Ibrahim Sangare and Boubakary Soumare. As that previous frustration softened, I then realised that if you’re signing any midfielder from the Bundesliga (that Everton could realistically attain), it wouldn’t be Gbamin, it would be Mönchengladbach’s, Denis Zakaria.

Previous to last summer, Zakaria had two solid seasons for Gladbach, he wasn’t magnificent, but he showed glimpses of what could come, and at 22, there was still a big ceiling to grow into. 12 months on, Brands & co chose Gbamin, who’s played a mere 135 minutes across two games, and Zakaria has blown up, transforming into one of the best defensive midfielders outside Europe’s biggest sides. I think it’s fair to say that Everton made the wrong choice last summer.

But Zakaria could still be an option this summer.

The 23-year-old Swiss international has been a revelation under Marco Rose this season, going from a fairly decent midfielder, into one of the most important players in Gladbach’s system. As mentioned in the last piece on centre-back targets, Nico Elvedi was seen as a viable option in-part due to his experience of playing in such an offensively orientated system – Zakaria, similar to how Fernandinho has been utilised since the arrival of Pep Guardiola at Man City, is imperative to making sure things don’t fall apart at the back for his side. In reference to his pAdj defensive numbers, this season he’s averaged in the 94th and 88th percentile for tackles and interceptions this season (2.79 & 2.02 p90), proving how essential he is to the German side. Whether he plays as the #6, covering the back four in a diamond 4-4-2, or in a 4-4-3, or even dropping in as a centre-back if the side changes formation to a back-three. The Swiss midfielder is the perfect representation of football’s ‘swiss army knife’, he’s a managers dream.

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Zakaria comes out well through the data, Rose’s Gladbach side aren’t a complete possession-orientated side, and that shows through his limited passes into the final 3rd, their reliance on long-ball from the centre-backs to Thuram and Plea will impact this too, yet he’s still displayed key effectiveness on the ball this season. As seen in the previous graphic, showing under-24 midfielders and their ‘touches per progressive pass’, Zakaria’s 7.91 ranks as the 5th highest in Europe’s big 5 leagues. Consistently, he isn’t the most prominent of progressive passes, especially in comparison to someone like Ibrahim Sangare, but he’s still conveyed the quality that Ancelotti will want on the ball.

Having watched Mönchengladbach frequently this season, Zakaria has impressed practically every time I’ve seen him. As per the data, Zakaria is effective on the ball, he’s comfortable under pressure and in tight spaces, always picking the right passing option rather than hoofing it long – though he can sometimes be guilty of holding onto the ball for too long rather than picking the easy option.

One thing that’s been noticeable since the arrival of Rose, is the prominence of Zakaria’s football IQ, with the majority of the side flooding forward – the Swiss midfielder is a necessity in preventing counter-attacks. Constantly within games, Zakaria can be seen covering for others if they push out of the defensive structure, or get caught high up the pitch, in a similar way to how he’s pivotal for Gladbach defending counter-attacks, his game heavily involves him reading passes or patterns of play before they happen – whether it be through closing down opposition passing lanes or forcing the ball out of the opposition’s hand (or feet).

Despite mainly being utilised in a defensive role this season, he’s previously been used as a modern box-to-box midfielder, and he’s not lost his progressive carrying ability this season either. So far this season, Zakaria has completed 2.17 dribbles p90 this season (94th percentile for midfielders) compared to 1.7 last season (86th percentile), whilst his progressive runs have practically remained consistent over the two different season – 1.53 and 1.54 progressive runs p90. It’s this part of his game, as well as his defensive contribution, that could be of most importance to Everton next season. As already noted, the responsibility of the midfield pivot is considerably higher than it would be in a 4-3-3 for example, for starters, there’s a smaller amount of players to go through even more work. Gomes isn’t the most agile, but his dribbling and progressive runs numbers have been great since he joined from Barcelona, whilst Zakaria, similar to James McCarthy in the 2013/14 season, will cover every blade of grass if he needs to.

What’s clear through the analysis of the Swiss midfielder, is how integral he is to Gladbach’s tactical system, so trying to get him out of that side, will cost you. Over the past six months especially, Zakaria has quickly become one of the most sought-after midfielders in Europe and out of the options put forward, he would be the hardest to attain. Not only would cost a fair chunk of Everton’s budget this summer, the likelihood of him wanting to swap (possible) Champions League football under one of the most promising managers in Europe, is unlikely.

If Everton’s overall squad condition were stronger, I’d see Zakaria is a viable option for the club, but unless Everton are able to make big money from incoming transfers this summer, then the midfielder is likely out of the club’s price range. Unfortunately for us, previous years of continuous bad spending means any big deals just won’t happen.

Wildcards –

With the likelihood being that Everton will be unable to spend a good amount of money this summer – I personally don’t expect to see an expenditure over £70m this summer, but player sales are needed – the club’s attention could well turn to low budget options.

So far though, through the players analysed, bar the potential interest in Denis Zakaria, the likes of Højbjerg, Sangare and Soumare could all be available for between £15-25m fees and I don’t expect us to spend anything more than that, and so we shouldn’t. Since the arrival of Moshiri in 2016, the club have spent upwards of £75m+ every season, and according to TransferMarkt, the club have spent £458.01m since 2016/17 – taking the side from 11th to one 7th place position, two 8th position finishes, and are now fighting to just finish in the top half this season. Putting it lightly, that amount of money spent in comparison to what we’ve got in return, is an absolute embarrassment.

Financially, we are now feeling the consequences of such heavy spending, even more so now, so much so that Everton’s aim transfer-wise over the next few summers, should be focusing on making astute investments as well as looking for quality. Farhad Moshiri wants the club to become self-sustainable, and unless the club becomes smarter in the market and better on the training ground – spending less on players, but getting more out of them – then that won’t happen until the club cash-in on someone like Richarlison.

Desperate for a bargain this summer? Then France’s Ligue 1 this season will likely be the place to look this season. Having already curtailed their season, French clubs could feel the financial damages more than anyone else and could, therefore, be willing to let players go for below their market values. For Everton, a club in a pretty bad financial position themselves, need to exploit situations like these. Ibrahim Sangare and Boubakary Soumare are two possibilities that Everton could look at, Angers midfielder Baptiste Santamaria, and Stade Brest’s Ibrahima Diallo are two other options that would meet the criteria for this summer.

Santamaria, for instance, has been one of my favourite players to watch in the past two seasons, constantly impressing for an interesting Angers side in the heart of their midfield.

20200613_015523

The French midfielder wouldn’t be the most inspiring of signings and isn’t the youngest either, but he would still comfortably be the best midfielder at the club if he signed and would likely be available for between £12-15m. As the data visual portrays, Santamaria would be a solid replacement for Idrissa Gueye, his raw defensive numbers of 3.23 tackles p90 and 1.54 interceptions p90 suggest that he would be well-equipped to filling the defensive-midfield void in Everton’s current set-up, his 7.54 pressures p90 and 1.6 tackles won in the final 3rd also emphasise how he could comfortably play the aggressive ball-winning role that Gueye played.

Significantly, Santamaria is a massive presence in midfield and is central to how Angers tick over – both defensively, and how they operate during their build-up patterns too. Not only does he contribute to the defensive side of the game, but he’s also pivotal in getting in supplying the forward players with the ball. Despite playing for Angers, who tally as the 18th highest for possession in Ligue 1, Santamaria has still played 5.03 passes into the final 3rd, which would be 3rd highest amongst Everton’s current players. As the data envisages, Santamaria is a fairly solid player right now, he’s not perfect but playing for a better side, and learning under a better manager, Ancelotti would hopefully take the midfielder even further.

Similar to Santamaria in terms of the impact he could have in proving a defensive outlet to Everton’s midfield, Stade Brest’s Ibrahima Diallo could be an astute signing for the Toffees this season. The former Monaco midfielder is only 21 and this has been his first full season in a top division, but Diallo has shown glimpses as what could come as he matures as a player.

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Diallo would be a risk if Everton brought him in this summer, and in terms of current quality, he’s probably down the lower end in comparison to some of the other players mentioned so far – but his ceiling is one of the largest. Despite Monaco letting him leave permanently, Diallo has benefitted from first-team football within the past two seasons and the data visual emphasises the impact he could have if signed. Though his raw defensive numbers don’t look superb in contrast to other midfielders, when ‘possession adjusted’, he ranks in the 82nd percentile for tackles won (2.18 p90) and through his role as a #6 at the base of a 4-3-3 for Brest this season, he’d be a suitable partner for Gomes who can hopefully regain his Valencia form further forward next season.

When watching Diallo, the Brest midfielder comes across as smooth on the ball and though Brest aren’t the most progressive of sides, Diallo is still quite adventurous and is capable of quite a few monstrous long-passes splitting and stretching defences open – a type of ball-playing ability that Calvert-Lewin and Richarlison could thrive off chasing in-behind. The data itself exemplifies how strong he appears passing-wise and is quite strong at beating the press or evading tackles with his progressive carries. At times he can struggle under pressure, sometimes taking the wrong touch, or over-playing into trouble so patience would be needed.

Diallo could be shrewd purchase, and the type of signing people may have expected with the arrival of Marcel Brands. Though Everton need to get it right with the midfield signing this summer, and the before mentioned players would fit the clubs needs better, Diallo could grow into an influential player for the Toffees and could be quite a steal. Brest brought in the Frenchman for just shy of £2m last summer, so it’s unlikely that they would turn down a bid that would more than quadruple the money they originally parted with.

In terms of other potential wildcard options, AZ Alkmaar captain Teun Koopmeiners has always been a personal favourite, and finally looks ready to make a move away from Holland, which would bring additional risk as Eredivisie players always do. In truth, it’s unlikely that Teun will be on any Everton shortlist just yet, with Brands’ ‘safe but sure’ approach, the Dutchman would arguably need to prove his worth at higher-level before Everton consider him. That’s not to say they shouldn’t move for him now though.

The midfielder that comes in this summer, needs to be a sure thing, and though Koopmeiners has a vast ceiling, and data-wise already matches up to the likes of Granit Xhaka or Marc Roca (another potential target for the club) as per ‘Smarterscout’, he would still be a gamble. There is a sense though, that if the overall state of the midfield were to stronger, Teun would be a plausible option for the Blues. Brentford’s Josh Da Silva, or Eintracht Frankfurt’s Djibril Sow, file into the same category too. They’re both solid players, with big potential, but Everton need significant improvement now, not in 12-18 months.

Conclusion –

Out of Højbjerg, Sangare, Soumare and Zakaria, Hojbjerg probably offers the best value for money option, and that type of perspective this summer will fundamental in trying to second-guess which moves Brands & Ancelotti make. Soumare arguably has the highest ceiling and would be the best investment if the club can get him at a good price. Sangare again has a strong ceiling, stylistically, he fits the defensive needs and is good on the ball, but he would need to mature quickly, and patience amongst Evertonians is a rarity. Gladbach’s Denis Zakaria, is simply, the combination of both Soumare and Sangare. He’s older, and much further along his developmental trajectory, and this season alone has really taken a major step in his career. Ideally, Zakaria would be the first choice, but he would cost much more than the club will be willing to spend, and realistically, he wouldn’t come to us even despite the pull of Carlo Ancelotti.

Having said that, as much as both Soumare and Sangare would be strong additions, and much welcomed from my viewpoint too, I see Southampton’s Pierre-Emile Højbjerg as the most likely addition to the club. Competition from Spurs will make the transfer difficult to complete, but his transfer fee would be fairly solid for a Premier League midfielder and even when looking beyond the finances, he’s an interesting proposition. Most importantly, he’s practically everything the midfield needs, he’s flexible in how he can be used and being captain at 24 is another key attribute that I’m sure appeals to both Brands and Ancelotti.

As mentioned quite a bit, Everton would have more ‘wiggle room’ or at least the possibility to take a larger risk in the transfer market if the squad was already at a higher level, but it isn’t, and though I primarily criticised Brands’ approach, a sensible signing like Højbjerg could be the best way to this summer. Despite reports, there is a possibility that the Dane could be available for between £15-20m due to his contract situation, without that, you’re probably looking at a £35m+ player in a normal market. At that price, I think it’s just too good of a deal to look elsewhere. Pep Guardiola, Carlo Ancelotti, and Jose Mourinho are big fans of the former Bayern man, three of the best managers in the past decade, there’s obviously a reason why.

One thought on “Everton Transfer Series Part 3 – Central Midfield

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