I think everyone has noticed that Michael Keane has had a truly abysmal season. Fair observers will also note that he was excellent last campaign and therefore ask themselves what on earth happened to the man this campaign. I was puzzling over this riding down the road while listening to the Tifo Football Podcast doing a fan Q&A with one of their Authors, Alex Stewart. Stewart was asked why Everton had one of the best xG ratios in the league yet had so far under performed it badly and he immediately went to two things: the departure of Idrissa Gueye and the lack of speed at the centerback position.
The connection between what he was talking about and Keane hit me immediately. I think (and this is open for discussion) that England international’s bad season can be largely credited to a combination of Marco Silva’s tactics and the departure of a world class holding midfielder in Gueye. If your take on Keane is that he’s just an awful player, I think you’re being unfair and I’m not sure your view is one that is conversant with an analytic approach to the game.
We saw him for a time as a Three Lions regular and his form for Everton (and Burnley before that) clearly merited it. I don’t think a player performs well enough for national team call ups at two separate clubs in a league this good while being bad. The player has quality but he also has his limitations. One of those limitations is his pace. The man for all the things he’s good at just is no speedster.
In Silva’s high pressing system, when the ball gets past the midfield it leaves a high defensive line vulnerable to speed. Ideally, you would have centerbacks with enough speed to recover and close down through balls or streaking forwards. Last season, with Idrissa Gueye on board, very rarely did the ball get through the midfield. Gana completed 79% of his nearly six attempted tackles per 90 and also gathered nearly 2.5 interceptions. That kind of ball recovery is impossible to replace and taking that out of the midfield puts a lot more pressure on the back line if you insist on continuing to high press without it.
I assume that Silva planned on replacing a lot of this production with Jean-Phillippe Gbamin, which due to injury never came to fruition, but it was downright irresponsible to put midfield pairings with no destroyer in front of a player like Keane, press high, and then expect Keane to clean up any messes that ensued knowing how slow he is to turn. Managers asking good players to do things they specifically don’t have the right type of skillset to do is very frustrating to watch.
Against Newcastle Keane struggled at times with the aerial prowess of Andy Carroll but acquitted himself well, making one key pass as well as completing 94% of his 48 passes, winning two of two tackles and making two blocks and seven clearances.
I think, eventually, under Carlo Ancelotti, Keane’s form will come back. Carlo doesn’t really press high. He’s been content in the past to patiently wait until his team regains possession and then go from there. I think this more traditional style will suite Keane’s strengths well and hopefully will see him back to his normal self soon. In the meantime, I hate that he has been a victim of a system that was not only a bad fit for him but for the whole available team this season.