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Data analysis: Finding a ball progressing defensive midfielder for Everton

On December 5, 2019, Everton sacked Marco Silva after the team suffered a thumping 5-2 loss in the Merseyside derby against their local rivals Liverpool which saw the Toffees in the relegation zone. Although the problems within the team ran deeper, it was evident that the core issue was the central midfield. The departure of Idrissa Gueye left a huge void since the Senegalese made the Everton midfield click with his abilities to be a destructor and an efficient ball progressing player. Everton signed a similar kind of player in Jean Philippe Gbamin who was expected to step into Gueye’s role. However, the Ivorian sustained a season-long injury after only playing for 135 minutes for his new club. Since Gbamin has not yet proved himself, doubts remain if he can fill Gueye’s void. It had forced Silva to use the defensive midfield combination of Fabien Delph and Morgan Schneiderlin for most of the games. Since both the players are more defensive-minded, Everton lacked penetration from the center. These circumstances meant that Silva’s side lacked mobility in the middle of the park and the ability to progress the ball from the deeper areas which became the major issue for the Toffees.

Everton’s current options

Besides Gbamin, the only other midfielder in the Everton ranks who could provide a defensive screen ahead of the backline was Morgan Schneiderlin. However, the Frenchman left the Goodison-based outfit to join the Ligue 1 side Nice which leaves the club with the likes of Delph, Tom Davies, Gylfi Sigurðsson, and André Gomes as the available options at the central midfield positions for the next season. None of these midfielders have the all-round quality to play as a defensive midfielder like Gueye or Schneiderlin. While Davies is a decent ball progressing midfielder, his recent form does not justify his first-team selection plus he does not offer much on the defensive side of things. Delph too can progress the ball decently but his progression is more sideways than vertical which is not very effective. Sigurðsson is a proper number 10 which means that the defensive midfield position is not suited for the Iceland international. Although Gomes is Everton’s best ball progressing midfielder amongst his counterparts, like Davies, he too lacks the defensive quality. Hence, his selection without a destructor/ defensive player becomes a risk because if he struggles, Everton runs into deep problems. Hence, the Portuguese is better suited if he is relieved from the responsibility to carry the ball out from the deeper areas and allowed to play slightly higher up the field with a defensive player at the back who is comfortable to take the ball out from the back.

Carlo Ancelotti realized this issue within his new team pretty early in his reign due to which the Italian significantly altered the style of their play, especially the manner of the team’s ball progression. While Everton still emphasized on building from the back, they did not rely on the defensive midfielders to progress the ball. Instead, they started to go direct towards the likes of Dominic Calvert-Lewin and Richarlison. It was a forced change since Everton struggled to bring the ball out from their half against high pressing teams.an

Hence, in this report, we have combined the important data and statistics to conduct a data analysis that will identify the players that Everton might want to look at in the ongoing transfer window to solve their midfield conundrum.

Selection Criteria

Since the report is about finding best defensive midfielders, we have taken into consideration only those players that have significantly served the team at the deeper areas of the central midfield position, whether as a holding midfielder in a two-pivot system or as a central midfielder in a three-man midfield system. It is also important to know that every player in this analysis had played at least 800 minutes of football during the 2019/20 season. This criterion is important to create a fair comparison among the players since a player who has played significantly lesser minutes than another player will have inflated statistics but it does not necessarily make him a better player. The final criterion is the market value limitation. It is unrealistic to imagine the prospect of Marco Verratti or Frenkie de Jong joining Everton because of their market value. Everton is not the biggest spenders in the market and since the record signing fee of the Toffees has been Sigurðsson for reportedly £45m, we have selected only those players whose current market value is not more than £50m. It is also important to omit those players that play for a bigger club and would not consider Everton as a likely destination. One example being Thiago Alcântara, who has one of the best statistics overall but it is not pragmatic to imagine him joining Everton.

Final shortlist

Based on the filters mentioned above, the list of players was narrowed down to 308 players. From the above observations, it is very clear that Ancelotti needs a well-rounded defensive midfielder who is not only adept in screening the defensive line, but also effective in progressing the ball from the deeper areas.

It is important to understand that the manner of selection was purely based on the above-mentioned requirement. Hence, the selected players might not be outliers or topping charts but they fit the profile that the Toffees need. For instance, a player might top the defensive chart but he might be very poor in ball progression, and vice-versa. Hence, those players were not selected. Rather, players who balance all the charts were shortlisted, as are shown below.

  1. Denis Zakaria (Borussia Mönchengladbach)
  2. Lisandro Martínez (Ajax)
  3. Ibrahim Sangaré (Toulouse)
  4. Adam Maher (FC Utrecht)

Defensive Ability

Data analysis: Finding a ball progressing defensive midfielder for Everton statistics

The x-axis shows successful defensive actions taken by a player per 90 minutes and the y-axis shows PAdj (Possession-adjusted) interceptions, while the success rate of defensive duels is represented in the colour, with red being below-average, green above-average, and the intensity representing how close to the top/bottom they are. This set of metrics highlights the defensive ability of a player.

Zakaria comes out as the best defender amongst our shortlisted players. Most of that is due to the Swiss’ excellent success rate in defensive duels of 70.83%, which in fact, is the highest among all the 308 players and shows his defensive prowess. That number is backed with 6.77 PAdj interceptions and 10.89 successful defensive actions. Naturally, these numbers are slightly lower because Mönchengladbach is not a side that conceded a lot of chances last season due to Rose’s tactics.

Zakaria is followed by Sangaré who made 11.84 successful defensive actions and 6.6 PAdj interceptions. His high number of successful defensive actions is only natural since he plays for Toulouse, a side that has conceded the highest number of goals and finished last in the table. Having said that, the Ivorian’s physicality wins him 63.39% of the defensive duels, which is an impressive number that shows his defensive solidity. Sangaré sat at the base of the midfield for Toulouse and if not for him, the Ligue 1 side would have conceded a lot more goals than they did.

Although Maher is a relatively weaker defensive player compared to Zakaria and Sangaré, the Dutchman has shown significant improvements in the defensive side of things over the last few seasons. 7.13 PAdj interceptions, 11.47 successive defensive actions, and 60.34% successive duels show that he is defensively sound and a certain upgrade over the current options that Everton has.

Martínez comes very close to Maher on the defensive side of things. While the Argentine has the lowest number of successive defensive actions (10.69) amongst our group, he compensates it with the highest number of PAdj interceptions (7.43). The Argentine also records a 60.96% success rate in defensive duels. Although these numbers might look slightly lower considering that the Argentine has played as center-back several times, it is also important to know that Ajax has been the second-best defensive team in Eredivisie last season which means less work for the defenders.

Ball Carrying ability

Data analysis: Finding a ball progressing defensive midfielder for Everton statistics

In the figure above, the y-axis shows progressive runs per 90 minutes while the x-axis shows the number of times a player dribbles per 90 minutes. Once again, we have used colour representation, this time for showcasing the dribbling accuracy, with red being below-average, green above-average, and the intensity representing how close to the top/bottom they are. This graph indicates the on-the-ball ability of a player and how it can help his team to vertically progress the ball.

While Martínez trailed the others on the defensive side of things, the Argentine leads the group when it comes to using individual skills on the ball to make vertical progression. Martínez’s 2.01 dribbles per 90 minutes are less than his counterparts since he has played as center-back several times. But the important part is that he is successful in the dribbles 62.5% of the time which shows that his high dribbling ability. The Argentine also makes 2.35 progressive runs per 90 minutes. Even though the Ajax man has not played in midfield position many times, he still manages to put up good numbers in this aspect which deserves credit.

Zakaria comes very close to Martínez in the ball carrying aspect thanks to his 3.27 attempted dribbles which are highest amongst our group. The Swiss can, however, improve his dribbling quality which currently has a success rate of 58.67%. With better dribbling, the 23-year old can also start making more progressive runs, that currently stands at 1.31, which is the lowest amongst our group.

Next in line is Maher, who although makes 2.12 dribbles per 90 minutes which is higher than the previous two players, the dribbling rate of 50% is a concern. The Dutchman wins only half of his dribbles which means he is susceptible to lose balls in his half. It can prove to be dangerous especially with most of the teams now employing a press high. Besides, the Utrecht midfielder makes 1.59 progressive runs.

Eventually, Sangaré doesn’t put up great numbers in the ball carrying aspect, especially because he makes only 0.89 progressive runs per 90 minutes. While the Ivorian’s 2.06 dribbling rate is a decent number, the accuracy rate of 64.15% suggests that he is an adept dribbler because he is a deep-lying player. It is also the best dribbling rate amongst our group. With the Ivorian putting up impressive numbers in dribbling accuracy, he must start making more progressive runs to create a higher impact in the games.

Passing ability

Data analysis: Finding a ball progressing defensive midfielder for Everton statistics

The above graph shows the total progressive passes per 90 minutes (y-axis) versus its accuracy (x-axis). This is combined with the generic passing accuracy, which is represented by colour codes, with red being below-average, green above-average, and the intensity representing how close to the top/bottom they are. This graph indicates the passing ability of a player and how it can help his team to vertically progress the ball.

Maher is one of the best players in the world when it comes to making ball progression through passing. He makes 13.46 progressive passes per 90 minutes which is a mammoth figure. It is the third-highest among all the 308 players that were shortlisted. This number is backed up by 83.61% accuracy which makes him the best from our group in this aspect. Moreover, he has above average passing accuracy of 85.39%. Besides, the 27-year old makes 7.76 long passes per 90 minutes and 14.03 final third passes which are very good numbers that further solidifies his passing ability.


Martínez backs his numbers from the previous section with impressive 10.99 progressive passes per 90 minutes. Having said that, it is the accuracy of those passes which makes the Argentine special. 87.40% accurate progressive passes make him the third-best player amongst all the 308 players in this aspect. It is incredible quality and if we combine it with his generic passing accuracy of 90.38%, the Argentine proves to be an imposing passer of the ball. It proves that the 22-year old is not a one-dimensional ball progressing player. This kind of dynamism makes him a very useful asset for any team that likes to play from the back.

Even though Sangaré makes less than average progressive runs as established in the previous graph, he is very effective in vertical ball progressions through passes. Out of his 48.59 total passes, the Ivorian makes 8.93 progressive passes per 90, which is over 18% of his total passes. Not only that, but the quality of those passes is also impressive, with a success rate of 81.74%. One thing that the Ivorian must perhaps work on is his overall passing accuracy which is 82.83%. For a player who plays deep, this metric indicates that the Toulouse midfielder is vulnerable to lose possession through a passing error in dangerous areas within his half. Also, it shows that Sangaré prefers to maneuver the ball higher using his passing ability rather than ball-carrying ability.

Zakaria makes 5.49 progressive passes per 90 minutes, which is unimpressive concerning the other players from our group. However, the accuracy of 80.16% shows that the Swiss are an effective progressive passer of the ball when given an opportunity. Overall passing accuracy of 89.37% ensures that he is a safe player that can guarantee security in the middle of the park.

Results and player briefing

 The following figure summarizes the graph. The intensity of the colour in each section will determine the player’s ranking amongst the group for that section, with the darkest blue colour being the highest grade and the lightest colour being the lowest grade.

Data analysis: Finding a ball progressing defensive midfielder for Everton statistics

Denis Zakaria

Zakaria is comfortable playing as a lone defensive midfielder or as one of the defensive midfielders in the two-pivot system like 4-2-3-1, which Ancelotti has used in the final two games. The 22-year old has pace, strength, stamina which will suit the Premier League style. He has been a crucial factor due to which the German side recorded the third-best defensive record in Bundesliga last season. While his defensive (as shown in the result above) and ball-playing abilities make him an ideal candidate for the Toffees, he is the most ambitious target out of the remaining not only because of his high market value, which is listed as $44m but will be higher than that but also because Mönchengladbach will play the Champions League next season while Everton won’t be playing any European competition.

Lisandro Martínez

The 22-year old Argentine is another Ajax youngster who is making noises across Europe. Martínez started his career as a left-back and has played as center-back several times during the last season which indicates that the youngster is defensively sound. He is also the best ball progressing player out of the remaining three players. Combine this with his proven composure under pressure and security in possession, along with the market value of $22m makes him the most realistic and best candidate for Ancelotti’s side.

Ibrahim Sangaré

Sangaré’s humongous potential has started to catch attention from several top clubs, Everton being one of them. With Toulouse getting relegated from Ligue 1, the Ivorian is tipped to make a move to a bigger club. The 22-year old is valued just under $11m which is a heavy bargain considering that he can potentially become one of the best defensive midfielders in the world in the future. Like Zakaria, he has also played as a lone defensive midfielder and in a double-pivot. The Ivory Coast international is also physically adept to play in the Premier League. Everton is a bigger club than Toulouse which makes the chances of signing the youngster pragmatic.

Adam Maher

Once tipped as a shining Dutch youngster, the 27-year old has reinvented himself in Eredivisie after a successful season with Utrecht. The midfielder has improved his defensive game drastically after playing as an attacking midfielder earlier in his career. This makes him a well-rounded central midfielder. Although his defensive game has not reached the levels of the others mentioned above, he could still fill the defensive void at the Goodison Park. In addition to the passing stats that we showed above. The Toffees would certainly need more than one defensive midfielder and at the market value of under $4m, Maher can be afforded along with another player.


Overall, this report provides ambitious, realistic, and simple targets for Everton to look during the current transfer window to strengthen the position that is the most vulnerable. While Ancelotti’s side needs a ball progressing player, it is also important to have a player with strong defensive abilities, especially after the departure of Schneiderlin.

Some of the choices that were left out are Geoffrey Kondogbia (Valencia), Mehdi Bourabia (Sassuolo), and Manuel Locatelli (Sassuolo) are also very promising and deserve proper scouting because they stand out in several metrics.