With a week off due to the international break, RBM is taking a look at where Everton stands at each position across the pitch with just seven matches to play. Who is in good standing? Who needs to prove themselves? Who are some potential transfer targets at the position — and how badly are they needed?
Today, we’re taking a look at the club’s situation at center-back.
Everton’s team defense has been brutal this season. The club has conceded 50 goals in 31 matches — the worst among top-10 Premier League teams and 16th overall in the league. There are a lot of causes for those struggles — instability in the center of midfield and injuries at both full-back positions immediately come to mind.
But struggles in the center of defense might be the primary defensive issue faced by the Toffees this season. Let’s start by taking a look at the current players available at the position, who has a spot secured for next season, and who needs to make an impact before the season ends.
The £25 million summer signing has had an up and down season. Keane was brought in to be an regular first XI player, but a foot infection kept the Englishman out of the lineup for stretches of the season, and rendered him ineffective at times when he played.
He has now started seven matches in a row though, and has begun to look the part of a first-XI center-back. He’s not the fleetest of foot, but he moves pretty well for a man who stands at six-foot-three and uses that height to be a commanding aerial presence.
Barring a complete overhaul of the entire center-back group, Keane will have a significant role to play next season.
The Everton skipper has also had a stop-start season, but injury hasn’t really played a role. Instead, managerial preference has made his season unpredictable at best.
He was preferred in the Premier League by Ronald Koeman (while other center-backs generally played in the Europa League), and he started every Premier League match under David Unsworth. From the moment Sam Allardyce took over, however, his minutes disintegrated.
It’s not entirely clear why Big Sam froze out the captain for weeks at a time — especially given that Michael Keane was missing for stretches of December and January dealing with his foot injury. However, Ashley Williams’ recent struggles have finally push Jags back into the starting XI.
Jagielka will turn 36 before the start of next season, and it’s hard to imagine he is a regular starter for next year’s team. But, a continued run of strong performances could secure him a place in the rotation for next season.
The Welshman has been bad for almost the entire season. He’s somehow gotten even slower, his decision making his atrocious, and he’s as mistake-prone as center-backs come. I suspect his most recent transgression has all but assured he’s no place at Everton for the remainder of this season or any of next season.
The young center-back turns 22 in October — so he’s right around the age where Premier League caliber players start to assert themselves. For Holgate, that moment hasn’t quite come yet. He was favored for a spell at the start of Sam Allardyce’s tenure, but has played exactly 13 minutes since the start of February.
He definitely isn’t a right-back, and those experiments seem to have been finally put to rest. But can he be a true Premier League center-back? The story for him hasn’t really changed in two years.
Holgate has the physical gifts — he’s strong and incredibly quick for a center-back. But the mental side of his game still needs a lot of work. He’s caught switched off far too frequently, often shows a lack of discipline, and his betrayed by suspect positioning on a regular basis.
If he’s given a chance before the end of the season, he may need to prove that he’s improved those mental skills, otherwise there could be a loan for the English defender next season.
Ramiro Funes Mori
What do we make of the case of Everton’s Argentinian defender?
He’s healthy and ready to play now, so Big Sam has told us. Argentina has called the 27-year-old into its squad for a couple of friendlies over the next week.
And yet, he still hasn’t played for Everton. Does Allardyce not fancy him? Has his fitness been overstated? Is something else at play? It’s still hard to say.
If he does get a chance before the season is over, it’ll be a big opportunity to prove he could be an answer at a problem position for Everton — though his past suggests he can be no more than a rotational option.
I have no idea why Everton got Mangala on loan from Manchester City. It was apparent quite quickly that he’s not very good, and the loan didn’t appear to have an option to extend him to next season anyway. An unfortunate injury cut this experiment short, and it’s hard to see any way that he’s back with Everton next season — though you can never be sure what club leadership has in mind.
That’s six center-backs currently at Everton, but it’s probably the team’s biggest position of need heading into the summer. Williams and Mangala should be total non-factors going forward, which trims the list to four. Holgate’s yet to prove he can be relied upon for regular minutes at this level, which bring us to three.
Phil Jagielka will be 36 by the time next season starts, and Ramiro Funes Mori has never given any indication that he could be more than a squad rotation player. That leaves Michael Keane as the obvious starting option, with Jags and Ramiro as options off the bench. So, it seems pretty clear that Everton must add at least one first-XI caliber center-back this summer.
A few potential additions include the following:
The English center-back has been a preferred starter for Jose Mourinho at Manchester United — a team whose defense has been powered predominately by David De Gea. Jones isn’t a bad player, and would probably be an upgrade over all Everton’s current center-backs except for potentially Keane.
Is he the best we can do, though? Time will tell.
Stefan De Vrij
The 26-year-old Dutchman currently plies his trade at Lazio in Serie A, but is set to leave the team on a free transfer at the end of the season. De Vrij has been an every-week player for Lazio this season, with the club sitting fifth in Italy and through to the Europa League quarterfinals.
De Vrij was also an important part of the Dutch team that finished third in the 2014 FIFA World Cup — he was named to the team of the tournament in recognition of his solid play.
In all, De Vrij is probably a better option than Jones, but he’s also being pursued by Inter Milan, Manchester United, and Liverpool, so there’s reasonable doubt that he could end up at Goodison Park.
Soumaoro plays his club football with Lille in Ligue 1, so he’s significantly further off the radar of most Everton supporters (myself included). Lille sits in 19th in the French league with eight matches to play, so there is a genuine possibility that Soumaoro’s club could be relegated, hastening his departure.
In addition to center-back, the Frenchman can play left-back or right-back, a valuable skill on a team that found itself scrambling for outside defenders at times this season (more on that later in the week). But once we get past that obvious plus, there are red flags on Soumaoro as far as the eye can see.
He missed the first half of this season with an Achilles injury, something that could potentially recur in the future. Lille is the only club he’s ever played for, and in his two prior years starting for LOSC, the club finished 5th and 11th in the often unimpressive Ligue 1. Soumaoro has never appeared for the French national team at any level.
That resume would seem to indicate he’s a rotational player at the Premier League level, rather than a regular starter — and Everton doesn’t really need another squad rotation center-back.
Six center-backs is too many center-backs for a team in Everton’s situation right now. So, it feels weird to say there must be additions at this position, but the club’s defensive numbers speak for themselves.
Perhaps for that reason, this position may be essentially a proving ground the rest of the season. Keane will look to solidify his place as a starter going forward, Jagielka and Funes Mori will look to solidify their places in the center-back rotation, and Holgate and Williams will just try to keep any kind of place at all.
The outcome of those battles across the last seven matches of the season may dictate a significant portion of the Everton transfer strategy this summer.