Next up in our review of the past Everton season, in which each area of the pitch will be recapped and rated, is defenders, featuring Mason Holgate, Yerry Mina, Michael Keane and Jarrad Branthwaite.
One of the biggest mistakes from last summer’s transfer window was the failure to add a fourth centre-back to the squad. The club seemed to go all-in on Kurt Zouma, but when Chelsea finally decided they wanted to keep him, there was little time to bring in an alternative.
Jean-Philipe Gbamin was therefore seen as the emergency fourth central defender, a position he had played in before. But a season-ending thigh injury left the squad with just three senior centre-backs and bigger issues in the middle of the park.
The Toffees therefore can count themselves lucky that no more than one of them was unavailable at any one time for the majority of the season. Only as the campaign entered its final weeks did two defenders suffer injury, meaning young Jarrad Branthwaite was thrust into the limelight.
The 18-year-old was only recruited from League Two Carlisle in January but his promising early displays for the first team provided a ray of light in the post-lockdown gloom.
- Michael Keane and Yerry Mina began the campaign as the first-choice centre-back partnership, starting the first nine league games together, before Mina suffered an injury against West Ham in October.
- After making his first league start of the season at Brighton the following week, Mason Holgate only missed five more games until the end of the season, one through suspension and four through injury.
- Keane made more clearances (150), interceptions (44), passes (1,447) and won more aerial battles (130) than any other central defender.
- Keane also made more Premier League appearances (31) than any other centre-back.
- When Jarrad Branthwaite made his Premier League debut against Wolves at the age of 18 years and 15 days, he became Everton’s youngest Premier League debutant since Tom Davies against Southampton in April 2016 (17y 291d).
Michael Keane and Yerry Mina were undisputed first choice at the start of the season, but the emergence of Mason Holgate was one of the few plus points from an otherwise torrid season.
There were doubts about Holgate’s long-term future after spending the previous campaign out on loan, but his development took a great leap forward during 2019-20 to the extent where he is now seen as our best defender and potential future captain.
Mina would be the natural choice alongside him, given both are quicker and more comfortable on the ball than Keane. That said, Keane enjoyed a largely consistent season, putting the difficulties of his early Toffees career behind him. When you need someone to block, head, tackle and scrap your way to victory, then the former Burnley player is someone you want on the front line.
The emergence of Branthwaite was a real bonus, particularly after a difficult debut against Wolves. With Lewis Gibson enjoying a promising loan spell at Fleetwood, centre-half is a rare position of strength in the Everton squad.
Despite the Branthwaite bonus, Everton still need another left-footed centre-back to add vital depth. We may not get so lucky on the injury front again next season.
Lille defender Gabriel looks to be Everton’s first choice, with a deal reportedly agreed earlier this year. But the Covid-19 outbreak forced the Toffees back to the negotiating table and has seemingly allowed rivals to enter the race, meaning the Brazilian’s signature is far from guaranteed.
Lewis Gibson will likely be in and around the first-team squad next season, though he and Branthwaite may also head out on loan, particularly if Everton do sign a defender.
Everton’s second worst defensive record for 16 years limits the grade I can award, though that is admittedly more down the team organisation rather than individuals.
Centre-back is also one of the few positions where Everton possess genuine options. The addition of just one more new face this summer would ensure we have quality and depth of numbers. Leaving just the rest of the squad to worry about...