In 2015, injury kept an established, well-respected full-back out of Everton’s lineup for the opening weeks of the season. A young player, a center-back by trade, stepped into the wide defender’s role and played so well that there were questions as to whether or not the veteran deserved his spot in the lineup back.
Football can be a funny sport, and nearly exactly a year later, Everton has found itself in almost an identical situation. Last season, Leighton Baines missed out on the start of the season, and Brendan Galloway was quite impressive filling in for the left-back, despite the fact he was widely considered to be a center-back first at the time.
This season, an injury to Seamus Coleman has kept the Irish right-back out of the lineup for the first month of the season, and Mason Holgate, originally thought to be a center-back, has filled in so admirably in the last match and a half that once again, supporters are wondering if perhaps he should keep the spot long-term.
Without a doubt, Coleman is healthy now. He played 90 minutes and captained his country in the Republic of Ireland’s 2-2 draw against Serbia on Monday. But, does he deserve his starting spot back at Everton?
Coleman had a tough 2015-16, but so did nearly every player at Everton, so it is difficult to assess the Irishman on last season alone. We know he is capable of presenting constant danger to opposing defenses with his pace and trickery, despite the fact that his crossing historically has been underwhelming. In his 185 Everton appearances, he has 16 goals and 14 assists.
But, defending has never been his strong suit, and after two years of improved defending, last season was a struggle for him in his defensive third. Was it a serious, worrying deterioration of skill, or simply a side effect of Everton’s woeful team defending?
Holgate, who turns 20 in October, may well already be better defensively than Coleman. His positioning has been sound and he’s rarely missed on an opportunity to make an effective, well-timed tackle. However, he was beaten in the air for Everton’s conceded goal against Tottenham -- while Coleman’s aerial strength has always been above average for a full-back.
In attack, it is still a little early to judge Holgate’s ability. Yes, he assisted Gareth Barry’s match-winner against West Brom, but it came on a corner kick and it’s unclear if he was even attempting to pass or shoot on the play. Much of his career has been spent at center-back, so he lacks significant experience playing in a more forward role.
What will Koeman decide then? Does he want experience and attacking ability from his right-back? Or his he willing to overlook Holgate’s inexperience and potential attacking shortcomings to keep a defensively sound presence at the position?
Of course, if Koeman decides to play three across the back then this discussion becomes moot as both players could find themselves in the starting lineup.