2016/17 brought Everton a new manager, a new start, and renewed hope in the club’s future.
This promise was embodied in the emergence of Tom Davies, an 18-year-old academy graduate who has been at the club since the age of 11. Davies played 90 minutes in the final match of the 2015/16 season and earned man of the match honors, but it was unclear if he would break into Everton’s XI under Ronald Koeman. After a handful of bench appearances during the first half of the season, he started against Southampton on the second of January and never looked back.
Like his academy predecessor Ross Barkley, Davies possesses considerable technical ability. He is comfortable with the ball at his feet and has a deft touch. He isn’t quite as physically imposing as Barkley but demonstrated a willingness to get stuck in and in sometimes held off defenders in a manner that belies his slight figure.
Perhaps what endeared him most to Everton supporters (aside from his tremendously awful/awesome hair and beard) was his energy and work rate. “All-action midfielder” was an easy cliché to throw around, and in a midfield often defined by mindless running it’s no surprise he found a home.
Looking at actual numbers, there were signs early on that Davies could offer a passing ability not seen elsewhere in Everton’s ranks:
Tom Davies, 18, signs a new 5-year deal. Plays throughballs more often than any other Everton player and runs around a lot. pic.twitter.com/vXS48Gfu4t— Thom Lawrence (@deepxg) April 3, 2017
He certainly wasn’t off the charts, but Everton sorely lacks penetrating passers, and Davies’ willingness to play through balls was more than welcome.
Davies is also a pretty decent dribbler, and contributed three assists and a pair of goals to the effort this year, the first of which will not soon be forgotten:
The goals are nice but in truth it’s probably the passing that Evertonians should most be excited about, and should most be paying attention to as Davies develops. The sample size is small, but there is some room for optimism when you have an 18-year-old center-mid spraying the ball into the final third with some success:
Watching the second half of Everton’s season, it was quite often the case that Davies’s role in the team was unclear. He had a tendency to drift out of games, to be drawn out of position, to be caught behind the play—in short, many of the things you’d expect a young central midfielder to experience when making the jump to the Premier League. Even so, it’s not a forgone conclusion that just because he is young he will automatically work those aspects out of his game. If he wants to progress in a serious way, he needs to grow his on-field intelligence past the simple footballing instincts that he is clearly blessed with. Again, Ross Barkley comes to mind here as a player on whom we are still waiting to develop a higher “football IQ”.
Moving into the numbers again, they agree with the tape in that defensively Davies offers little. He was dribbled past more often than any of his midfield teammates and registered precious few blocked passes and interceptions. Thus, while “box-to-box” is a tempting label to place on Davies due to his high work rate, true box-to-box midfielders demonstrate defensive traits that Davies has yet to.
Davies also experienced a significant drop off in performance at the end of the season, with a dreadful 25 minutes and early substitution against Arsenal the cherry on top. So it was probably wise that Koeman did not allow Davies to be selected for the U-19 European Championships this summer.
As I mentioned above, things are sort of unclear in this department. Often it seemed as if Davies was given no instructions but to do his thing and allow Morgan Schneiderlin to hold down the fort in midfield. This was perhaps good for him in terms of not overloading his young brain, but it also probably helped indulged his tendency to aimlessly roam about. The fact is that Davies played fewer passes per 90 than each of Schneiderlin, Idrissa Gueye, Barkley, and Gareth Barry, which corroborates the eye test conclusion that he often went long stretches of play where he was largely anonymous. A dictator of tempo he is not, at least at this stage.
With all that in mind, I’m not really sure what to say about his place in the Everton midfield. He is certainly comfortable and fearless enough to occupy the central areas of a Premier League match, but he absolutely needs more stable players next to him, at least at this young age. He’s more mobile and likes to be deeper than a typical #10, not good enough defensively to be a true DM or a box-to-box player, lacks the calmness and vision to be a deep-lying playmaker, and so I think the jury is still out and that’s probably fine for now. It’s up to the coaches to mold him into the best player he can be.
It is also worth noting here that Koeman has praised Davies’s versatility and indeed even used him at right back against Watford. So really, who knows?
When healthy, Everton could have a crowded midfield this season, especially with the arrival of Davy Klaassen and potential arrival of Gylfi Sigurðsson. Schneiderlin should be an automatic starter and Gueye is probably not far behind. Still, though, there should be minutes for Davies in the first team next year, although they will likely be wherever he is needed rather than always in his best role. At this point in his career he will have to adapt and do what is asked of him to survive; Everton won’t and shouldn’t build their midfield around him as they have flirted with doing with Barkley.
With all of this it’s again important to stress that Davies’s sample size at the highest level is small. It is certainly impressive that he has 1500+ Premier League minutes for a 7th place team under his belt before his 19th birthday. But Everton are a club looking to progress quickly, and he will need work hard and grow his game to keep up. In a certain sense, the environment could be good for him, as he will not be relied upon to be the next great hope.
Regardless of where he is on the depth chart come the 2017/18 season, he has at least demonstrated that he can fit in at this level and will not be totally out of place. For now, that’s good enough.