Even though the fee was reportedly minimal many eyebrows were raised in football when David Moyes brought Darron Gibson to Everton last January. Manchester United fans were glad to be rid of him and made jokes about less shots ending up high in the Stretford End. Everton fans seemed massively underwhelmed with the signing – Gibson being the first player in to replace Mikel Arteta who went for 10m five months previously.
For eighteen months prior to his arrival, Everton had tried all the permutations of Fellaini, Arteta, Rodwell, Neville and Heitinga in the middle. None of them worked all that well. It was difficult to see what each individual or pairing’s role was or what instructions they’d been given beyond sitting in the zone. Fellaini, Arteta and Rodwell looked uneasy being restrained, often letting people in behind unaware of the space behind them. Neville and Heitinga seemingly didn’t/don’t have the all-round game to be anything other than temporaries in the position. Gibson looks to be different.
Arteta and Rodwell have gone. And already this season we’ve seen further confirmation that Fellaini is no ‘defensive’ midfielder. Within 5 minutes of Gibson departing the pitch at Villa Park, Villa had scored – Fellaini in no position to close down El Ahmadi’s shot. Last time out, the Belgian reacted too late to McAuley’s run gifting the centre half a free header at goal from two yards out.
In contrast, Everton haven’t conceded this season when Gibson’s been on the pitch. His long run unbeaten run in the Premier League while at Everton was been widely publicised. His introduction to the side has allowed Fellaini to run free. Everton’s pressing game which had been conspicuously absent pre-January looks to have returned to good effect. No team has spent more time in the opposition half as Everton in the last two seasons.
So exactly what is it that Gibson brings to the side? The below graphic shows Everton’s last two away games v Villa (left) and WBA (right):
It’s noticeable that the two centre backs, Jagielka (6) and Distin (15) in both games are touching the ball high up the pitch. Tim Howard kicks short away from home less, Jagielka makes fewer passes away and Distin makes 20% more passes away. This all suggests that Everton play a higher line on opposition ground.
The recent MCFC Analytics project released the recorded data for every player in every game last season. With Everton employing this defensive squeeze away from home, Gibson comes into his own. The number of tackles and blocks he makes remains the same but the number of loose balls he recovers goes up 30% and interceptions go up 50% compared to home games. This could be down to luck, but it doesn’t look like it – both recoveries and interceptions for the team as a whole were up less than 5% for away games compared to home games. The numbers suggest Gibson’s positional play is excellent when Everton don’t have control of the ball – especially as the midfield space is more compacted.
Obviously winning the ball more often allows Gibson more opportunities on it. He made 20% more passes in away games than home ones last season. In this season’s two away fixtures he’s making even more passes than last year. 22 passes in 20 minutes v WBA is the kind of passing rate Yaya Toure, Carrick and Arteta get through each game.
Also notable is the fact that the extra passes he makes in away games are mostly all to the middle and final thirds of the pitch. He likes to get on with it if he can and is unafraid to move the ball quickly over long or short distances.
Take a look at the passes Gibson receives from his team mates away from home:
The compact nature of Everton’s play can be seen with Gibson receiving lots of short passes as the dead-central support act in the build up or the out-ball when someone’s in trouble. The arrow patterns look like there’s still some play to be had in front of him. Contrast that to the passes he receives from team mates when at home:
The arrows don’t converge in the centre and appear more random. With the team building from the back more at home the play is stretched out. He looks much less prominent in the build up here. Gibson still has a bit of a rep for being a unit and a little immobile and this lack of prominence at home is possibly the reason. It’s maybe a little unfair. Everton would be expected to take the game to the opposition more at home and this would necessarily involve the players with a more attacking brief – Baines, Pienaar, Fellaini etc being the main outlet.
However, Gibson still does his thing off the ball at home. He made 33 passes against Manchester United despite only receiving the ball 17 times from team mates. Only Hibbert made more interceptions in that game than Gibson. The man is a hoover sucking up the danger. Everton have kept 5 clean sheets in the 7 home games he’s played in.
As the games go by, Darron Gibson looks like a more and more important part of the Everton unit.
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