Ranking Everton's Midfield Options
Everton have six potential combinations in midfield this season involving Darron Gibson, Leon Osman and a pair of new acquisitions in James McCarthy and Gareth Barry. These options decide who partners who at the base of the Toffees' midfield.
In most formations Ross Barkley will feature in a forward berth, flanked by the likes of Kevin Mirallas and Steven Pienaar, while this quartet contest the two deeper berths behind them.
Osman, for one, may eventually compete for these forward roles, but here's a look at the strengths and weaknesses of each of these partnerships and which benefits Everton most going forward.
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6. Osman and McCarthy
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This seems the least suitable partnership on paper and by quite some margin. Both players are skillful on the ball, equipped with sharp touches, quick feet and decent vision.
However, it's off the ball where the concern lies.
Osman can be a liability when run at by attacking midfielders. He was dribbled past 58 times last season, the second most in the Premier League, and McCarthy does not provide enough defensive stability in support.
The Irishman also fared poorly when attacked, having been dribbled past 42 times, the seventh most in the top flight.
Both these players are far more gifted with the ball and need a more resilient, positionally accomplished partner alongside them. Perhaps only an option for when Everton are guaranteed to dominate.
5. Osman and Gibson
Osman (left) and Gibson
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Every other option is considerably above the previous one and certainly has potential to succeed. Gibson and Osman have partnered each other before with moderate success during last season, and it could certainly work again.
Gibson is positionally astute enough to cover Osman off the ball, and both players are capable of influencing the passing game. However, each are survivors from David Moyes' regime and are therefore still familiarising themselves with Everton's new, evolving style under Roberto Martinez.
The reason McCarthy and Barry arrived was primarily to speed up Everton's passing, with fewer touches and more intricate, expansive interplay—something Osman and Gibson are still adapting to.
Both new signings are more familiar with the system and are ideal fits for this approach, meaning a lineup featuring neither of them would be a peculiar choice.
4. Barry and Gibson
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Gibson and Barry play similar roles, as do McCarthy and Osman. But while the latter would be a poor match, there's nothing to suggest that these two players couldn't strike up a strong understanding.
It wouldn't be a natural fit immediately. Both have similar traits and would have to alter their natural game to complement each other and provide enough contrast in midfield.
Gibson would have reduce his sweeping diagonals and involve himself in a few more shorter exchanges, while Barry would need to be slightly less conservative and link up with those ahead of him.
There's certainly potential for this partnership to gel, but it would perhaps take the longest to develop, lowering its position in this list.
3. Barry and Osman
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Leon Osman often receives a harsh deal from Evertonians. He may be unspectacular, but he's generally reliable and Everton would boast a strong midfield if he partnered Barry.
Barry would mop up behind, giving Osman more freedom to express himself and locate those ahead of him, such as Ross Barkley and Kevin Mirallas.
This partnership proved itself effective enough in the recent win over Chelsea, clearly benefiting from 10 days of training together during the international break.
There is a slight lack of pace; however it's a good balance and one that can be counted on to make a steady enough contribution.
2. Gibson and McCarthy
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Long term, this partnership makes a lot of sense and would benefit Ireland as well as Everton.
Both players are still young, at 22 and 25, respectively, and are a strong stylistic fit. Gibson's fine range of passing and positional awareness is the perfect foil for the more metronomic ways of McCarthy, and both players have potential to develop further if played in a consistent combination.
The only drawback is Gibson's infuriating habit of acquiring injuries that keep him sidelined for chunks of a season.
That limits the continuity and fluency and takes this partnership off the top spot. He also dwells on the ball slightly more than Barry at the moment, and though this will be coached out, it favours the Englishman's selection initially.
However, if it suddenly appears that Barry's loan spell will prove his only time at Goodison Park—and his deal won't be extended—then the Toffees should turn to this duo as a priority.
1. Barry and McCarthy
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For this season, with both players fully settled in, this is Everton's premier midfield pairing.
It combines youth with experience, positional excellence with smart, intricate passing, and enough defensive cover mixed in with creative potential. At the heart of it all is a slick, one-touch philosophy sure to rapidly accelerate Everton's approach play and delight Roberto Martinez.
Speed of transition has been an issue this season, with the Toffees taking far too long to transfer the ball and cut through an opponent. Part of that is to do with learning a new style and that's why these two were summer targets, as both have been familiar with similar methods.
Barry has played at the highest level and would be the perfect partner for the prodigiously talented but developing McCarthy.
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All four of these players are reliable options and give Everton a solid core. They are all at different stages of their career but have all proven themselves effective Premier League performers.
Most of these partnerships would work, excluding a McCarthy and Osman pairing, but in terms of a best fit, Barry and McCarthy provides Everton's midfield with the right blend of fluidity.
Overall, it seems a case of either Darron Gibson or Gareth Barry partnering either James McCarthy or Leon Osman. And, as Everton look to progress their style, at least one of the new signings should ideally be featuring.
One player provides insurance for the defence but still contributes with the ball, while the selection has more freedom to locate pockets of space for attackers.
Barry is the most versatile selection, competent in a defensive role, but also underrated in his ability to increase the tempo and switch the play. He can just about be paired with anyone, but the best option is the combination of Everton's two newest additions.