Carlo Ancelotti in his first full season as an Everton manager decided to change the outlook of his squad. It was clear from last season that Everton needed major changes across different departments after Ancelotti managed to salvage their season with a respectable mid-table finish (12th) in the league after a disastrous first half of a campaign.
Ancelotti knew his midfield options and the squad depth was nowhere good enough to challenge for a spot in the top 6. Everton brought in some high profile names in the midfield, with both James Rodríguez and Allan shifting to Merseyside for newer challenges from Real Madrid and Napoli respectively. But there is one man who has made a silent switch from a relegated Watford and has been a mainstay with his presence at the centre of the park, Abdoulaye Doucouré.
Doucouré has predominantly been deployed as a right-sided defensive midfielder in Ancelotti’s 4-2-3-1 system. His heat map for the season can be seen in the following image with most of his actions coming in the right flank and deeper positions as suggested by his defensive role.
Being a defensive midfielder, Doucouré’s role is to win the ball back for his team and initiate the first phase of Everton’s counter-attack. He averages 6.19 defensive duels per game for Everton this season with an impressive success rate of 64.4%. This means that he wins around 4 defensive duels every time he steps onto the pitch. When compared with Allan, who attempts 27.1 on average, Doucouré attempts very fewer pressures with a value of only 17.8.
The Frenchman’s defensive responsibilities are much more space-dependent (he looks to cover space in most situations instead of occupying an opponent) and he looks to maintain his position while defending. In the example below, we don’t see him marking any Leicester City players, but he defends a huge space in front of the defensive line, and with his positioning, Everton are safe to defend on the far side.
With a lanky frame and standing at 184 cm, Doucouré is impressive in the air and wins a good amount of aerial duels. The image below shows him engaging in a vital aerial duel inside his box against Fábio Silva. He wins the battle and directs the ball well into the path of his teammate, Tom Davies.
The statistics confer the same where he contests 2.3 aerial duels per game and wins almost 67% of them. While the accuracy may not be very high, Doucouré manages to destabilize his opponent and makes sure that he does not win the duel in the air very cleanly. This often results in his marker winning the duel but not directing it well into the right path.
In the following image, after a long ball from the opposition’s goalkeeper enters the middle third of the pitch, Doucouré looks to engage in an aerial battle with the Rotherham United player. Though he doesn’t win the battle, his physicality means that the duel is won but directed properly and it falls onto the feet of Rodriguez.
His reading of the game is very good, and that is evident from the number of times he has intercepted on average in a game this season, 3.89. The image below shows his defensive awareness to track the movement of players. With Micheal Keane stepping up to close out James Maddison (on the ball), Doucouré tracks back initially to fill the space left open with Keane’s movement up. Then he notices that Vardy has made a run on the blindside of Yerry Mina and he quickly accelerates to intercept the pass before Vardy.
When we analyze in detail the regions where Doucouré applies pressure on his opponents, we get an insight into his positioning and importance to the defensive setup of Everton. In the defensive third, he attempts 7.13 pressures per game. This rises very slightly to 7.57 in the middle third. The ratio of the former is to the latter is around 9.5:10. When you compare that with Allan, the ratio is 8.5:10. This shows that Doucouré performs at least one pressure more than Allan in the defensive third for every 10 pressure in the middle third.
The obvious way to interpret this is that Allan is slightly given much more freedom to press higher up the pitch. But when we look at the number of pressures they attempt at the attacking third, it contradicts the interpretation. Allan records just 1.67 pressures (6% of his total pressures) while Doucouré averages 3.09 (17% of the total). After analysis, we found that Doucouré attempted a lot more pressure in his defensive area due to the lack of effort from Rodríguez, who has played in the same flank as Docuouré this season.
The image below shows an instance against Manchester United in their earliest encounter in the league. United have formed a 3v2 against Doucouré and Seamus Coleman with Rodríguez (red circle) showing very little interest to track back and support them. This has forced the defensive midfielder on that side (right flank) to be more proactive and due to Doucouré starting predominantly we see the stats come out that way.
The graph below shows the midfielders in the league plotted based on their defensive stats. The y-axis covers the mean duel win % (aerial duel, 1v1 duel, etc) while the x-axis is a possession adjusted tackle and interception value. We summate the number of tackles and interceptions the players have made and divide it by the number of touches the opposition has made while playing against your team. This would do justice to players playing in teams having high possession like Manchester City, Liverpool, etc as their players will not have numerous chances to do such actions.
The graph below shows that Doucouré has a very good duel win % (46%) while he ranks below the league average in terms of making a huge number of interceptions and tackles, 2.32. Whereas Allan, his teammate, performs such actions more frequently than the league average. This again outlines Doucouré’s role as he looks to protect spaces around him (especially in a mid-block) than to engage in duels, unlike his teammate.
Doucouré’s Role in Possession
Everton’s attacking responsibilities predominantly fall onto their forwards, Rodríguez and their full-backs. The defensive midfielders in their generic role are to help their team in recycling possession. Doucouré in Everton’s first phase of progression does the same. On average, he attempts 52.5 passes per game with an accuracy of 87.1%.
When we break it further down we see that only 5.4 passes on average are long passes with the rest of them being short or medium ones. Even in that sample, most of the long passes were lateral. An example of that can be seen here where he switches the ball to the opposite flank without any vertical progression on it. Though statistically, it is a long pass, the progression it made was very less. This shows that he is pretty much a risk-averse passer and looks to keep things simple in the midfield.
In another image below we can see him dropping into the pivot along with Allan, With that, he brings a player with him and when the ball is played to him he recognizes immediately that Allan beside him is free of any marker and has huge space to run into and plays the pass to him. It was a simple pass, but it helped Everton push higher up with Allan then playing a line-breaking pass to Richarlison.
Despite being less adventurous in passing the ball forward, Doucouré exhibits a very good ability to carry it. He averages 1.22 dribbles per game with a decent accuracy of 53.8%. His ability to use his body i.e physicality, to protect the ball aids well while he carries the ball, and also he uses his quick feet and small changes in body orientation to go past markers.
In the image below, we can see him receiving the ball in the middle third. His body posture and angle meant that the closest Leeds player, Kalvin Phillips, looked to block the passing lane to the Everton player behind him. But Doucouré feigned and immediately drove forward to attack the space between the lines.
Another good example of him using a feint to go past the West Ham player. His body orientation but with loose shoulders meant that he was looking to take the ball to the wider region. This forced Tomáš Souček to track him with his body facing down the wings. Doucouré then suddenly switches the ball with his quick feet and moves inward while escaping from his marker on this occasion.
Compared with other PL midfielders, his progressive abilities seem to be just below average. The graph below plots the players based on the % of their passes and carries that are progressive (more the value, more progressive).
We can see Doucouré falling below the average value for a PL midfielder, but his carry stats are much closer to the average line than the passing value. This more or less indicates his style of play during possession as he is decent at carrying the ball, either across the pitch to escape from markers or forward while he is more or less a very passive passer.
He has also made some good runs into the box this season as he averages around 1.43 touches in the opposition’s penalty area. This forms part of his versatility which is discussed in the next section.
Ancelotti hasn’t had a smooth ride this season as he had to deal with various issues especially concerning the injuries this season. He had to go through a run of games without his key full-backs, Seamus Coleman and Lucas Digne and has had to play Mason Holgate and Ben Godrey in those positions, who are centre-backs by trade. But Doucouré has been one of the mainstays in the Everton starting lineup and has 20 appearances in the league this season. Additionally, he was also subjected to changes in his role due to the absence of key players.
So far this season, he has played as a defensive midfielder in a 4-2-3-1 system, one of the defensive pivots in a 4-4-2, a central attacking midfielder in a 4-2-3-1, and also a right CMF in a 4-4-2 diamond in their recent draw against Manchester United. The graphic below shows the zones where Doucouré has received passes from his teammates this season. We can see a lot of yellow zones (places where he has received the maximum) around the right central space in his defensive third, a normal position for a right DMF.
In their season opener against Tottenham, Doucouré shuffled across the CAM and RCDM positions. He rotated constantly with André Gomes dropping deeper at times to help Everton progress the ball. The reason could be Gomes’ superior ability to pass the ball forward when compared with Doucouré against a quality side. The first image shows him in a double pivot (blue circle) with Gomes higher (red circle) while in the second one he holds his position higher while Gomes has dropped deeper.
In the next game against West Brom, an inferior opposition, we can see Doucouré staying deeper to progress the ball where Gomes’ service is not required since West Brom didn’t press with much intensity when compared to Spurs.
In the same game, he looked to drop into the defence and from a 3-man defence against West Brom’s first line of press. This gave Everton a 3v2 advantage using the 3-1 shape.
During the games against Arsenal and Chelsea in December, Ancelotti went with a 4-1-4-1 formation when Everton had the ball. With centre-backs playing as full-backs, Ancelotti decided to use them deeper unlike Lucas Digne when he plays (given the freedom to overlap and provide the width).
Doucouré was then told to occupy the right half-space (red circle in the image below) with the winger providing the width. We can see the graphic below that shows the locations where he has received the passes. We find most of them in the right half-space and more in the opposition’s half.
Against Manchester United, Everton lined up in a 4-3-1-2 diamond shape with Doucouré playing as a right central-midfielder. This allowed him to go forward and attack the half-spaces during the game. He came out of the match with a goal and an assist from the game. The left image below shows Doucouré making a run into the box after which he scores a goal. In the right image, he cuts-back from the byline to provide an assist to Rodríguez.
Before Alex Iwobi took over the RW role, Rodríguez was the one Ancelotti deployed in that position. The Colombian despite starting in a wide role would always look to cut inside and occupy central positions. Doucouré was then used by Ancelotti to stretch the defence to make overlapping runs. He would share this responsibility with Coleman, with the duo taking turns to stay deep or overlap.
This section clearly shows the importance of Doucouré to the Everton side, with his versatility providing some solutions to Everton when they have had personnel issues with respect to injuries to the key players.
Neither their best player nor their star signing but Abdoulaye Doucouré has managed to become one of Everton’s most consistent and vital players this season. So far he looks to be an underrated addition to the Toffees with his performances gone unnoticed amongst the likes of Dominic Calvert-Lewin and James Rodríguez.
Like Doucouré, Everton has so far had a very good season and look destined to earn a European spot. It remains to be seen whether they can push for a top-4 spot will always be difficult, but in such congested season players like Doucouré, who has shown great ability to remain fit apart from his exploits on the pitch, can help them drive their ambition to the success.
By: Rishi Ramesh
Featured Image: @GabFoligno / Michael Regan – AFP