Everton host Newcastle United on Monday evening with David Moyes having virtually a fully fit squad to choose from. The only absentee looks to be Darron Gibson, but the injury to the former Manchester United midfielder presents the manager with a quandary.
Moyes does not have a direct replacement for Gibson. And in hindsight, Everton’s chances of beating West Bromwich Albion in their last Premier League match disappeared when the Republic of Ireland international went off injured. Gibson is the player who offers Everton control in midfield, and allows Marouane Fellaini to commit solely to attacking. When Fellaini dropped deeper to cover for Gibson his attacking threat was gone, and he did not offer the same positive qualities as the stricken Irishman.
Perhaps Gibson’s greatest attribute is his anonymity. He offers nothing particularly flashy, save for the occasional long-range shot. What he does offer is a specialism in the mundane, expertise in the ordinary. The simple five or 10 yard pass after an Everton attack has been half-cleared, knocking the ball to a teammate in a position from which the move can be resurrected, is Gibson’s forte. It is a duty his compatriot Lee Carsley also excelled at, one Everton struggled to replace when he left the club and one they must re-discover against the Magpies.
On the surface, Phil Neville might appear well-suited to stepping into Gibson’s shoes. The captain is without doubt at his best when he avoids anything over-complicated with the ball. But so much of Gibson’s neat passing is hit first time, out of necessity at playing in such a crowded central midfield. Neville does not have the technique needed to replicate the contribution of his fellow United graduate. And while Neville’s best position has always been at right-back, his second-best is as the water-carrier in midfield, the one who rarely gets out of the centre circle. Gibson pushes forward as the team’s dominance dictates.
There may not be a true substitute for Gibson but the best is arguably Leon Osman. A more attack-minded player than Gibson and much the slighter, Osman has nevertheless frequently excelled in the heart of midfield. He has possibly the quickest feet of any player at Goodison Park, which provides the ability to skip out of the congested midfield, the vision to build attacking moves and the nous to offer a goal threat from deep as well. Played next to Neville and Osman could offer Everton the balance in midfield they will require against Newcastle, particularly as his small stature should not demean his ball-winning capability too.
Whoever Moyes picks in Gibson’s position will necessitate something of a change in approach. Gibson has quickly become a vital cog in the Everton machine and each candidate brings their own positives and negatives to the equation. Neville’s passing is poor but Osman could be too forward-thinking. Moyes may have a third option in mind but he must be sure it is the right one, since on such decisions games are won and lost.
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