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Seamus Coleman enjoys new lease of life as a defender who can defend

The right-back looked to be on the wane in recent years but has been reborn under Carlo Ancelotti, not least in Saturday’s win at Crystal Palace

Crystal Palace v Everton - Premier League
Coleman was superb in Everton’s win over Palace
Photo by Sebastian Frej/MB Media/Getty Images

Brace yourselves, the second wave is here. For some time even before Neil Taylor inflicted a world of pain on him, Seamus Coleman’s career appeared in danger of spluttering into anticlimax. Under Carlo Ancelotti, though, the Irishman has taken to the field with a renewed vigour.

Coleman Mark I was a dizzying sight to behold. Be it the arrows that darted past Gerhard Tremmel and Kelvin Davis, the keepie-uppies and nonchalant backheel in that Arsenal demolition, or those befuddling overlapping runs, there was a carefree joy in the man who once lost his place to Tony Hibbert now driving at spooked defences with such abandon. Nobody, namely the man who set his shackles free in Roberto Martinez or the supporters putting his £60,000 price tag into song, seemed gravely concerned about the right-back’s defensive shortcomings, but then why concern yourself with afterthoughts like that when his attacking output was so impeccable?

To relive Coleman’s 26 Everton goals is at once a thrilling yet deeply confusing experience. Those aforementioned Swansea City and Southampton stunners in 2013 take the biscuit, but plenty more leave you wondering just how a right-back ended up that far up the pitch. There’s a simple headed tap-in from a rebound against Burnley in 2019; an archetypal poacher’s goal that Dominic Calvert-Lewin now gobbles up. ‘How did he get there?’, you ponder.

Even in 2016 and 2017, his old tricks still wreaked havoc, not least with identikit finishes versus Middlesbrough and Crystal Palace. Hare off down the flank, turn your markers inside and out, finish with composure - it must have felt like muscle memory to Coleman by then. For the most part, this was not a player reinventing the wheel, obsessed with the outlandish, either. Coleman simply excelled at the basics, like finding space and running into it, and finding team-mates or the opposition goal and crossing or shooting accurately at them. It should not have been an overly arduous task to nullify him, or at least fasten on to his routine, yet he became among Everton’s chief offensive threats for years.

Coleman at his best was one of Everton’s biggest attacking threats
Photo credit should read ANTHONY DEVLIN/AFP via Getty Images

Equally, though, it was about this time in his Everton career, as Martinez proved fallible, Ronald Koeman took charge and a late-20s Coleman began to creak, that frailties the other way began to come to the fore. That horror tackle from Wales’ Taylor while representing Ireland in March 2017, fracturing his leg and sidelining him for ten months, only aggravated an already growing issue surrounding Coleman’s defensive prowess. One elementary long ball that pre-injury Coleman allowed Tottenham’s Dele Alli to swivel on, turn and fire into the Gwladys Street net still springs to mind. As does post-injury Coleman being run ragged for the entirety of a defeat at Manchester United by Anthony Martial.

Increasingly, the sight of Coleman being spun one way then another, in much the same way that he used to embarrass opponents, looked set to characterise late-era Coleman. That, and the paradox of quite what the point of breaking sweat to the by-line was if your cross then can’t even evade the first man. And the rallying cries, the trite platitudes, the empty threats to team-mates after the latest chastening defeat that fell on deaf ears time and again. Perhaps to call out Coleman, a man whose off-the-pitch conduct is unblemished and whose affection for Everton is unequivocal, for this is to miss the point; he is captain, after all. Trouble was, it all just felt a little hollow; a bit “It’s not me, Gov, it’s him” at times.

Not before time, though, Ancelotti has moulded Coleman Mark II; a much more no-frills iteration, but equally if not more dependable nonetheless. This, put simply, is just good management - age comes to us all and Coleman will be 32 in October. Not redundant by a long stretch, but equally not basking in the glow of his pomp anymore. Indeed, Ancelotti utilising him as a makeshift third centre-back in his early weeks last winter seems far more probable to resurface any time soon than as an auxiliary second striker as he was at times in his heyday.

Saturday’s 2-1 win at Palace, which extended Everton’s perfect league start to three games, felt like the apex of Coleman 2.0. A week after calling it on with Kieran Gibbs, Coleman stifled Palace jewel and long-term Everton target Wilfried Zaha throughout; this was the only time Zaha had failed to dribble round a single opponent in a Premier League home game in the last four seasons, in fact. If you can’t beat them, Wilfried, perhaps just join them. Then again, Zaha shouldn’t be too disheartened; Sadio Mané and Son Heung-min have found themselves similarly stifled with Coleman for company since lockdown.

Crystal Palace v Everton - Premier League
Zaha got no change out of Coleman
Photo by Sebastian Frej/MB Media/Getty Images

Truly, from a defensive perspective, this is the most consistent run of form Coleman has enjoyed in his Everton career, stretching back to arguably Ancelotti’s appointment in late December. But while it feels timely to lavish praise on the most improved area of his game, it would be remiss to disregard his modus operandi altogether. There was a road-testing of the new material here, for sure, but the greatest hits still got an airing. In that respect, Everton’s opener at Palace felt like a warm, fuzzy throwback to the Coleman of old.

From the moment André Gomes sprayed another inch-perfect diagonal his way, before helping his new partner-in-crime James Rodriguez unlock him ten minutes in at Selhurst Park, Everton and Coleman were away. Off he ventured, shrugging off the persistent Tyrick Mitchell, ambushing Palace’s defence, before serving up Calvert-Lewin’s fifth goal of the season on a platter. It may be in a reduced, more sporadic form these days, but Coleman has still got it.

In many ways, Ancelotti is tailor-made for Coleman in the autumn of his career, both in the Italian’s personality and in the way he deploys his table-topping Toffees. The Irishman is among the best captains he’s worked with, Ancelotti said after the Palace victory, and in the example he sets on and off the pitch, you’d struggle to disagree. And while Rodriguez offers less defensive cover than, say, Theo Walcott, the Colombian’s glistening ability is such that he really doesn’t Coleman to keep busting lungs to support him. Especially with Lucas Digne able to carry the bulk of the attacking workload from full-back so effortlessly, it’s more important now than ever before in his career than Coleman, a defender, can defend.

It feels somewhat strange that only now are the defensive qualities of an Everton back line regular for the best part of a decade coming into view, but it’s a testament to the diligence of both Ancelotti and Coleman that such wrinkles in his game have been so emphatically ironed out.

A player redefined and a man reborn, Coleman no longer feels at risk of burning out ahead of his time. Rather, an Indian summer looks a much likelier prospect for the stalwart from Donegal.