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Beni Baningime’s stock rises again after another 90 minutes of nothing

Decision time awaits the 21-year-old - if he can’t break into an Everton midfield this weak, he probably never will

Everton v Kariobangi Sharks - Pre-Season Friendly
Baningime has been an unused substitute in all of Everton’s Project Restart games
Photo by Tony McArdle/Everton FC via Getty Images

The problem with being a Tomorrow Man is that tomorrow never comes. That wall still needs a fresh coat of paint. That grass still needs cutting. That Netflix box set that everyone else has seen by now still needs watching.

In Everton’s case, that midfield still needs retooling. It was never meant to be this way, of course. Idrissa Gueye made his garlanded exit from Goodison Park with the blessing of every Evertonian, but all was not lost. Jean-Philippe Gbamin was here to compensate for the loss of Gueye’s steadfastness. Consecutive-title-winner Fabian Delph was here to provide a cool head in an often chaotic side. André Gomes was here to brush textbook diagonals as easy on the eye as the man himself.

If only. Everton may well have spent more on Gbamin’s medical bills by now than on the £25 million for the player himself - in a case of rotten luck, the midfielder who had made at least 26 appearances in each of the last six seasons only managed three-quarters of the first two games of this term before hitting the treatment table. Now sidelined by an achilles injury, he will not feature until 2021. For a multitude of reasons, chiefly lack of professionalism, Delph has been an unmitigated disaster. Gomes fluctuated before a horrific ankle injury in November and has since returned looking like he forgot there are men in a different-coloured shirt to him who would rather like to rid him of the ball if it’s not too much trouble.

Tottenham Hotspur v Everton FC - Premier League
Gomes has struggled to recapture his old form since returning from injury
Photo by Tony McArdle/Everton FC via Getty Images

Everton could not have foreseen the plights that have beset Delph, Gbamin and Gomes, but the three of them were never enough anyway. Tom Davies had by then garnered as much of a reputation as an erratic, capricious footballer as for his straggly locks and love of skateboarding. The ability to run - a fairly crucial prerequisite for any midfielder, let alone a Premier League one - departed Gylfi Sigurdsson and Morgan Schneiderlin some time ago.

The permanent signing of Gomes was not strengthening, merely tying down an asset Everton already had temporary ownership of. Yet Gueye’s inevitable departure should have catalysed a total reshuffle of a weary department. Having previously dithered over a replacement striker for Romelu Lukaku and holding out in vain for Kurt Zouma for far too long, what followed instead smacked of more corner-cutting negligence from Everton, disregarding the midfield as an afterthought in favour of apparently more pressing matters such as not signing a centre-back.

At which point: enter Beni Baningime. Into this discussion, at least, if not yet the pitch. Because five games into Project Restart, and Baningime, 21, is beginning to establish himself as more of a placeholder than a footballer, the ninth of Everton’s nine substitutes, a bunch of letters scribbled hastily at the foot of a list of names. Then again, this is a man with just 11 Everton first team appearances (the most recent of those in April 2018), who made only one outing on loan at Wigan Athletic last term, and was on the verge of moving to Brondby last summer. Yet clamour for him to receive a starting berth appears to be growing.

The obvious caveat is that Baningime, aside from his efforts in training, would not earn this on his own merit. Rather, it would be as a consequence of the departure of Schneiderlin, the identity crisis enshrouding Davies, the injuries sidelining Gbamin and Delph, the exasperation greeting the every move of Gomes, the most dribbled-past player in the Premier League since its restart, and Sigurdsson, the £45 million albatross around Farhad Moshiri’s neck.

Everton FC v Southampton - Premier League
Sigurdsson has similarly toiled this term
Photo by Tony McArdle/Everton FC via Getty Images

Yet while Gomes continues to suffer from Bryan Oviedo syndrome - i.e. returning from a long-term setback looking a shadow of his former on-pitch self - not least in a wretched first-half performance in Thursday’s lame draw with Southampton, Baningime appears to have contracted Kevin Mirallas syndrome - the apparent ability to become a better player when you’re not on the pitch than when you are.

That’s not to suggest Baningime has nothing to offer Everton; far from it, in fact. It’s easy to forget, ancient history it now feels, his rousing first team debut at Chelsea in October 2017, when a vigorous, immaculate tackle on Ethan Ampadu characterised a man-of-the-match performance. “He’s a class act and probably shouldn’t be playing at this level,” said mentor and then-caretaker boss David Unsworth after an under-23s game last September, like a proud dad on parent’s evening.

Though later outings under Unsworth or Sam Allardyce were not quite as spectacular, he never once looked out of place in Everton’s midfield. Not only tough-tackling, but the energy to glide from box to box, and - the rarest of rare things - the ability to pass the ball forward. Yet an amalgam of a debilitating ankle injury and an association with a club intoxicated on upheaval and turbulence, have left Baningime appearing another of Everton’s bright young upstarts who has slipped through the net; a ghost in the machine.

Everton Training Match
Baningime is a first team member but hasn’t played for Everton for more than two years
Photo by Tony McArdle/Everton FC via Getty Images

Now, though, has to be his chance, potentially his final chance, even if primarily by virtue of his more established colleagues’ failings. Everton were utterly mauled in midfield by a peppy, sprightly Southampton, who will curse the fact they hadn’t already sewn up their first Goodison victory since 1997 before Richarlison’s equaliser on half-time. Ralph Hasenhuttl’s side preyed on the most transparent of deficiencies and swarmed Gomes, guilty(ish) of conceding a penalty that wasn’t, and Davies into a tailspin for the entirety of an embarrassingly one-sided opening period. Even the replacement of the injured Gomes with Sigurdsson, fresh from a tackle-free night of nearly causing Gary Neville to spontaneously combust at Tottenham, only helped the onslaught simmer down marginally.

When Gomes and Sigurdsson flourished in Everton’s midfield triumvirate last term, their success was largely underpinned by the dirty work carried out by Gueye, a hot-footed, tenacious lynchpin small in stature but towering in heart, who truly validates Joni Mitchell’s theory that you don’t know what you’ve got ‘til its gone. Baningime is not Gueye, and if given the chance may prove to not even hold a candle to the under-appreciated Senegalese. But at least while Gbamin and Delph are out of the picture, he is the best-suited and probably only available midfielder to deputise in this defensive role, which has already proved anathema to both Gomes and Sigurdsson.

He may not be the answer for Ancelotti. Truth is, Everton don’t really need him to be. They can simply assess him over the remainder of this dreary campaign, which consists of just four more largely meaningless matches, and take it from there. Gomes, you sense, might be glad for the intervention and be able to heal much more efficiently. Sigurdsson and Davies might just be relieved to draw more breath than Evertonian ire for once.

But for Baningime, a man who has spent Project Restart socially-distanced from the pitch throughout, a reckoning could soon arrive. Given the dearth of alternatives, and the flatlining of another Everton campaign, the bar could hardly be set any lower for him. But in order to know whether he can stick the landing, he has to be allowed to fly first.