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Antonee Robinson, Jonjoe Kenny, and the Everton Academy conundrum

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How do you solve a problem like defenders?

Arsenal v Everton - Premier League Photo by Michael Regan/Getty Images

Last week, two things happened in the Everton world — they may have been separated by 72 hours and 4,000+ miles — but make no mistake, in an important way these two events were inexorably linked, in a way so evident that it brought the Police’s Synchronicity II to mind.

The whole song revolves around the idea of synchronicity — that is, the idea that two seemingly separate incidents can be meaningfully linked. For Sting, those events are the increasing desperation of a family man and the awakening of the Loch Ness monster miles away.

For Everton, it started during last Saturday’s victory over Leicester City with one Jonjoe Kenny.

Kenny got absolutely roasted by Ricardo Pereira on this goal. It wasn’t a lack of speed or desire that got him into trouble — he kept up with the Portuguese wide player remarkably well, in truth.

The issues were all between the ears for Kenny — he took up an absolutely miserable starting position, and after his speed got him back into the play, he made a ridiculous block attempt that took him completely out of the play.

Five days later and many miiiiiiiiiiles awaaaaaaaaaaaaaay Antonee Robinson put on a display on national team duty for the United States that one of the foremost voices in US Soccer had this to say about him.

That relatively well-regarded Academy? Everton’s, naturally.

Now, let it not be said that this is the first time such accusations could be leveled against Robinson, who also somehow did this last time the USMNT played.

Look at Robinson’s positioning when Douglas Costa receives the ball. He might be able to get away with offering opposing wingers a literally unobstructed path down the sideline in the Championship, but Costa damn well is not a Championship-level player.

The synchronicity here is unsettling.

Here we have two Everton born-and-bred defenders — Kenny with the club since 2006, Robinson since 2008. Each is 21 years old, has had substantial success in their youth careers, and now sit on the precipice of not quite being a kid anymore.

And they spent last week getting torn apart by superior attackers — not because they were too small, slow, or weak to make a play, but because both showed an utter lack of tactical and technical awareness that is so desperately needed to succeed at the highest levels of world football.

Tottenham Hotspur v Everton: Premier League II
Brendan Galloway
Photo by Alex Morton/Getty Images

The optimist in me wants to believe these are isolated incidents for isolated players, but the unshakably familiar sensation that these breakdowns bring on doesn’t really allow that theory to stand. Consider:

  • Many miles away from Antonee Robinson’s USA collapse, Luke Garbutt was unused by League One side Oxford United for the second straight week. Garbutt, the former heir apparent to Leighton Baines at left-back, is now 25 years old. Oxford currently sits in the relegation zone.
  • Matthew Pennington earned his sixth start of the season at Championship side Ipswich Town. Pennington had just returned from a red-card suspension. He is now 24 years old, and his team sits in 23rd place in the Championship.
  • Brendan Galloway and Tyias Browning remain in club purgatory. Neither were good enough to regularly feature for Sunderland last season, think about that.. Sunderland, and didn’t find a loan home over the summer. They are 22 and 24 years old, respectively.
  • Mason Holgate was thrust into the starting lineup earlier this season during a center-back injury crisis. He was benched once again as soon as Michael Keane got healthy, and with Yerry Mina set to return from injury as well, he’ll soon be completely out of a place in the matchday squads.

What do these players have in common with Robinson and Kenny? They too were more than physically gifted enough to play for Everton, but simply didn’t have the tactical nous for it.

Our friends at Roker Report once compared Galloway to the sort of animatronic character you’d see at Chuck E. Cheese because he navigated the field as if he’d been programmed to at least kind of understand what was going on around him.

Mason Holgate might be the fastest player at Everton, but as he displayed with painful clarity in Everton’s match against West Ham United this season, you can’t outrun the rocks in your head.

I could go on about each of these players, but I think I’ve made myself clear. Everton seems to be great at identifying players who are physically built to become Premier League defenders, but it just cannot manage to teach them how to defend.

Brazil v United States
Antonee Robinson
Photo by Jeff Zelevansky/Getty Images

With the slew of recent failures among Everton Academy defenders, it’s tempting to think of this as a relatively new problem. But... it isn’t.

There’s an inclination to think of Phil Jagielka and Leighton Baines as Everton products simply because they’ve been at the club for so long, but in reality neither player is. Jagielka came to Everton from Sheffield United, while Baines was originally a Wigan Athletic product.

There’s an even greater temptation to look at players like Shkodran Mustafi, Shane Duffy, and John Stones at point to them as Academy successes, even though they no longer ply their trade on Merseyside. But even that doesn’t hold up to scrutiny.

Mustafi spent only one year in the Everton Academy, with the majority of his development coming at Hamburg. Duffy’s formative years were primarily spent in Ireland, with limited time in the youth setup at Everton. John Stones barely ever touched the Toffees’ youth system after spending 10 years in the Barnsley Academy.

It quickly becomes challenging to come up with any true defensive Everton Academy graduate who has made an impact at the top level anywhere, not just at Goodison Park.

In reality, if you want to name the last solid defender to come out of the Everton youth setup, you’re forced to go with...Tony Hibbert. Hibbo was promoted to the Everton senior side in 1998 — meaning it has been 20 years since the Toffees generated a true Premier League defender from its academy.

So yes, Kenny and Robinson are still young enough that they can make themselves into something greater than they are right now.

But ultimately, we keep coming back to that word — synchronicity.

We’ve seen all of these separate instances over the last two decades of promising young Everton defenders who just can’t seem to get the mental side of the game right when they reach the senior level.

At a certain point, the stories of these players are no longer unrelated. There is a serious problem on the developmental side of Everton Football Club, and it is hobbling the team’s ability to defend its own goal — not to mention the cost to Farhad Moshiri’s bottom line when he has to keep buying players like Ashley Williams, Michael Keane, and Yerry Mina to make up for what his academy lacks.

Hopefully it won’t take the Loch Ness monster arising from the lakes of Scotland to wake up Marcel Brands to this increasingly troubling development.