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Irrepressible Ben Godfrey gives Ancelotti a welcome headache

No matter where he’s played, Everton’s newest recruit has excelled, to the point that he is now undroppable. But with the likes of Lucas Digne now fit again, where should he play?

Everton v West Ham United - Premier League
Godfrey has started brilliantly at Everton, but where is his best position?
Photo by Tony McArdle/Everton FC via Getty Images

There’s a video from July 2017 on Norwich City’s YouTube channel, where first team players take on the dreaded ‘corner kick challenge’. One by one, they try their luck at firing a ball from a corner straight into an empty net without it touching the ground. Yes, it really is that self-explanatory.

Suffice to say, it wouldn’t be a challenge if it wasn’t challenging, and of the 13 who attempt it, only wingers Marley Watkins and Josh Murphy succeed. But if quality was anything but consistent across the lot of them, the choreography certainly was.

The routine was simple: turn to camera, state name and position, turn away and strike. ‘James Maddison, attacking midfielder’ - hard to disagree. ‘Jamal Lewis, left-back’ - ostensibly so, anyway. ‘Steven Naismith, forward’ - well, David Moyes may have expected ‘right midfielder’, but otherwise, bang on.

Who’s next? ‘Ben Godfrey, centre-half.’ Ah. Hang on a minute. Was that really written on the autocue? Can’t we do a retake? Doesn’t ‘Ben Godfrey, Swiss Army Knife’ have more of a ring to it, after all?

Southampton v Norwich City - Emirates FA Cup - Third Round Replay - St Mary’s
Godfrey played in a variety of positions for Norwich City
Photo by Nick Potts/PA Images via Getty Images

What’s fascinating about Godfrey, then 19, labelling himself so assuredly a central defender is that up to that point, and for a good while afterwards, he had barely played senior football there. As a burgeoning talent at York City, Godfrey made his name as their midfield anchor, and when a £150,000 move to Norwich arrived in January 2016, it’s notable how even their own website described him as a midfielder at the time.

Regular game time at the heart of Norwich under-23s’ defence arrived in 2016-17, but Godfrey’s maiden start for the Canaries’ first team came at right-back in an EFL Cup defeat at Leeds in October 2016, and the second in midfield against Southampton in the FA Cup the following January. His only other senior outings that season were from the bench, all four of which saw him again cover on the right flank or in the centre of the pitch.

The next season - the one immediately after his failed corner kick challenge attempt - he was loaned to League One Shrewsbury, where as their deepest of three midfielders for much of his 51 appearances, he helped catapult them from relegation favourites to play-off finalists. Their miserly defence shipped just 39 goals - the second-fewest in the third tier that year - and Godfrey excelled just in front of them, only deputising at centre-half once in an EFL Trophy game (when he was part of a back three, and later sent off), and at right-back sporadically.

Fleetwood Town v Shrewsbury Town - Sky Bet League One
Godfrey excelled on loan at Shrewsbury during the 2017-18 season
Photo by James Baylis - AMA/Getty Images

Indeed, it was only in his final two years at Carrow Road (barring three left-back appearances in 2018-19) that Godfrey began making centre-half his natural habitat, as a staple in the Norwich side which strolled to the Premier League and then swiftly returned to the Championship. His subsequent £25 million move to Everton last October has looked inspired business from Carlo Ancelotti and Marcel Brands, but has also slightly muddied the waters again regarding where Godfrey belongs.

Sunday’s 3-0 FA Cup win over Sheffield Wednesday was Godfrey’s 14th Everton game, and the ninth in his most previously unfamiliar defensive role of left-back. Only three have been spent in central defence, having been handed his opening pair of outings at right-back. Yet the extent to which he has excelled at every assignment (aside from October’s right-back display at Southampton, an off-day for all concerned) has rendered him almost instantaneously indispensable.

Which in itself creates a more welcome headache for Ancelotti, especially with more natural full-backs in Lucas Digne and Seamus Coleman now gearing back up to full fitness. For now, the doorway to the centre of Everton’s defence seems closed on Godfrey, with Michael Keane and Yerry Mina somewhat bizarrely emerging as the club’s most dependable duo despite sharing such a transparent leaden-footedness.

So, the temptation may be to not fix what isn’t broken. Before Ancelotti barricaded Everton’s back line by overloading it with centre-backs, they had haemorrhaged goals, conceding at least two for six successive games in October and November and going three months without a Premier League clean sheet. From December’s resolute grind against Chelsea onwards, they have shut the opposition out in four of their last nine games and let in seven. Unorthodox, yes, but a shield of Godfrey, Keane, Mina and the superb Mason Holgate at right-back has at times bore the hallmarks of an impregnable defence.

Then again, in Digne, Everton boast one of the world’s most dazzling left-backs. Though he offers less defensive assurance than Godfrey there, his glorious return from the ankle injury which sidelined him for seven weeks, as a left-winger in the win at Wolves a fortnight ago, offered instant reminders of his supreme end product. Not just in the inch-perfect cross which floated effortlessly into the path of Alex Iwobi to steer in, but in his countless other deliveries which, had Dominic Calvert-Lewin been up front and not Gylfi Sigurdsson, surely would have been converted.

Yet left wing also seems unlikely to be Digne’s new home, given Everton’s attacking triumvirate of Richarlison, Calvert-Lewin and James Rodriguez are limbering up to do damage in tandem again. At least for Wednesday’s visit of Leicester, then, Digne may slot back into left-back and Godfrey cover for the suspended Abdoulaye Doucouré in midfield. Which seems a sensible short-term solution for such a decisive game in Everton’s season.

Everton v Sheffield Wednesday: The Emirates FA Cup Fourth Round
Godfrey was again impressive for Everton in their win over Sheffield Wednesday on Sunday
Photo by Tony McArdle/Everton FC via Getty Images

But longer-term, you wonder if something invaluable will be underused in Godfrey’s game by not persisting with him on either flank. Those full-throttle sliding challenges reminiscent of his rugby days as a youngster, that surging Kyle Walker-esque recovery pace - these are qualities that central defenders and midfielders clearly can utilise in the modern game, just perhaps less frequently than full-backs.

Maybe once Everton return to a clean bill of health, Godfrey could be the heir presumptive to the waning Coleman; at least before a more long-term successor at right-back is recruited. Though, to disrupt Holgate’s rhythm would feel unnecessarily harsh on another player who has barely put a foot wrong in an unnatural role lately. If nothing else, it’s an altogether more pleasant quandary for Ancelotti than, say, which samey midfielder to saddle Allan and Doucouré with.

For three-and-a-half years on from declaring himself a centre-back before lobbing a corner agonisingly past the far post, Godfrey is emerging more as an undefinable jack-of-all-trades who refuses to be pigeon-holed. We are still yet to truly discover what position he will settle into, which in itself is a blessing, not a curse.