There was a brief period at the start of the 2020-21 season when Everton seemed to have found an antidote to their chronic midfield problems.
Summer signings Allan and Abdoulaye Doucoure joined Andre Gomes as part of a midfield trio for the season opener at Tottenham Hotspur. They, along with James Rodriguez moving from the right flank, controlled that area of the pitch in a way unknown to the Evertonians. The Blues they won 1-0 that day and it was striking how well that newly formed triumvirate worked.
Allan provided an effective shield against the defense, Doucoure offered the push from frame to frame and Gomes displayed an air of composure from his spot on the left of the three.
Concerns about the age and fitness records of the players acquired that summer took a backseat as Everton embarked on an exciting start to the campaign. But sadly, as the Premier League’s attrition grind went on, the Toffees’ new midfield set-up stagnated: James, Allan, Doucoure and Gomes all suffered from injury problems that season.
It meant that Everton’s midfield problems persisted and remain unresolved. It now also means that as the Toffees enter another summer transfer window, midfield is a priority position to strengthen. Again.
That in itself is remarkable given the amounts invested in midfielders. After all, in the summer of 2019 the Toffees also added three central midfielders, with Gomes making his permanent loan move for £22m, Jean-Philippe Gbamin coming in for £25m and veteran Fabian Delph for £8m.
Factor in the £42m that Doucoure (£20m) and Allan (£22m) cost the Toffees, a significant part of Everton’s wasted outlay in recent years has been absorbed by the empty midfield.
The unenviable task of successfully improving the position will now fall to the manager frank lamp and director of football Kevin Thelwell. And it could be even more difficult for them.
Allan, now 31, has been linked with a return to Serie A and apparently fell out of favor towards the end of the season, while Delph seems unlikely to get a new contract; plagued by injury problems.
On the other hand, Gomes was hooked at half-time against Crystal Palace and now woefully lacks the physical qualities to be a Premier League player. And for Gbamin, despite making 11 appearances on loan at CSKA Moscow since January, he feels like a long way back from becoming a Premier League regular after injury nightmares of his own.
It wouldn’t be a surprise if the entire aforementioned quartet left before the 2022-23 season begins as a result.
Tom Davies is also in a difficult position, having missed a large part of the previous period due to a serious hamstring problem.
Even Doucoure, who is Everton’s most reliable and complete central midfielder, has seen fluctuations in his form after a strong start to the season. At 29, there are also questions about whether he can be a long-term piece in rebuilding the midfield.
Lampard, as one of the best midfielders to ever play the game, will obviously know what it takes to thrive in the role and will have ideas about what he wants from those figures running the center of the team.
But perhaps even he will look at the current crop of Everton in his old role and wonder where to start, because the attributes required to be a strong central midfielder in the Premier League – consistency, tenacity, durability and creativity to name a few – are in short supply.
For Everton, it is unlikely that a player will be available or affordable this summer who has all of these qualities in his skill set. It means Lampard and Thelwell will need to find a couple of new faces, at the very least, who can give the Blues balance, not to mention strength in depth when injuries inevitably strike.
There are some small positives to hold on to in midfield ahead of the summer. Alex Iwobi showed flashes of quality when he was deployed as part of a central trio during the run-up, although later in the campaign he was moved to the full-back role.
Hopefully there will be more to come from Dele Alli next season too, but despite his excellent performance as a substitute against Crystal Palace, there are still plenty of skeptics to convince.
Lewis Warrington may also be closer to a first-team setup, after he impressed on loan at Tranmere Rovers last year and signed a new contract this week.
But capable new faces will still need to come in if Everton are to be frequently competitive in midfield battles in English football’s top flight. At the moment, they are unable to outpass or outrun many opponents.
Finding the right player profile will be difficult for the recruiting team, especially given the club’s ongoing financial battles. But they can’t fall back into bad old habits, as recent history has brutally shown the Blues that quick fixes don’t tend to last long.