A Pathway For Gordon
Former boss Carlo Ancelotti was responsible for blooding Academy prospect Anthony Gordon into the first team back in 2019, the teenager enjoying an unexpected run when the Covid-hit season resumed play in June that year. The team’s results were not so great, but Gordon himself showed potential that excited Everton fans. The following season, however the young winger saw only limited action: two cup starts and a handful of substitute appearances. It was eventually decided that it would be better for the youngster’s development for him to spend the second half of the campaign on loan, at Championship team Preston North End. There, he gained valuable game time, before losing his spot in the side following a change in management.
Ancelotti had always been an advocate of Gordon’s talent and with him departing this summer, to be replaced by Rafa Benitez, what role the winger would have in the new regime was up in the air. The Spaniard quickly added wide options in Demarai Gray and Andros Townsend, so it came as something of a surprise that he would be retained as a first team player, rather than loaned back out. Indeed, the Liverpudlian would play the entirety of Everton’s Carabao Cup exit to Queens Park Rangers last month, being one of the few Blues to emerge from that game with any credit and also came off the bench to get some minutes against Aston Villa and Norwich City.
Still, nobody really expected him to take to the Old Trafford pitch on Saturday, to face Manchester United as a member of Everton’s first XI. True, Alex Iwobi was unavailable, but it was a declaration of faith by Rafa in Gordon’s abilities and an indicator that the winger must be showing him something on the training field. But how would he fare against elite-level opposition, in a raucous away match? As it happens, unexpectedly well. We already knew Anthony was quick and direct, but he’s added strength and tenacity; United tried to bully him off the ball, but he is not the lightweight player he’s appeared previously and is definitely maturing physically.
As importantly, he’s learning what it is to play as a winger in the Premier League - namely, taking care of his defensive duties. Gordon pressed effectively, helped the team maintain its shape without the ball, made interceptions and put in blocks. In a particular highlight, shortly before being taken off, the Merseysider bombed back down the wing to put in a tackle and stop a possible United counter. This was a mature performance. With the return of Richarlison expected after the international break, the 20-year old will have to be content with a spot on the bench for the time being, but he’s now shown himself to be a top division operator and that his manager can count on him, even in the biggest of games.
Michael Keane had gotten off to a shaky start to the season, being directly responsible for errors leading to goals in Everton’s opening two matches, against Southampton and Leeds United. Despite this, Benitez has stuck with the Englishman, starting him in every league match thus far and it seems this approach is paying dividends. Keane is considered a confidence player and knowing he has his manager’s trust to line up alongside Yerry Mina as a central defensive pairing is getting the best out of him.
Benitez has settled for the moment on a flat back four, which the ex-Burnley man appears to be comfortable playing in, particularly in a tandem with the big Colombian. Mina is a real leader at the back, vocally and by example, and Keane is gelling well with him in his more understated way. The England international is looking composed, only failing to control two passes all season, a high amongst his fellow central defenders. Playing slightly deeper, but not in a low block and screened well by the active central midfield, Keane’s one major vulnerability - his inability to turn quickly - is not being exposed: he’s faced only four dribbles since the opening two matches.
Facing his biggest test of the season at Old Trafford, Keane was steady and error-free, forming part of a solid backline that repulsed United’s attempts to penetrate into dangerous areas time and again. True, he was caught in no-man’s land around the 20-minute mark, allowing Edinson Cavani to power a header on target, but the error was actually Mina’s. The big man had drifted too far over to the right, leaving his partner to deal with both the Uruguayan striker and a threatening Scott McTominay. This was a rare breakdown in understanding between the pair in what was otherwise an outstanding defensive effort. If this continues, Michael could end up having his best season in Royal Blue yet.
Early Season Form
We have now reached the second international break, having played seven league matches and the Toffees are in great shape, sitting in 5th place in the table. Last season, under Ancelotti the team got off to a excellent start but after reaching a similar point, after eight matches Everton skidded into the break on the back of three straight defeats, having won none of their four league games in November — the start of the season had been delayed after the COVID-influenced delays the previous campaign.
However, along with the falling leaves of autumn, the schedule will bring more challenging opponents in the coming weeks. The Toffees will now host West Ham (9th) and Watford (15th), before traveling to Wolves (12th) and then welcoming Tottenham (8th) to Goodison Park before the November international break.
Home comforts have been good for the Blues so far this season with three wins out of three, and if the Evertonians who have continued to make Goodison a bear pit for the first couple of months of the season keep up in that fine voice and lead the Blues to another trio of victories then there’s a very good chance Everton will still be in the top six when the next respite from league football comes around in just over a month.
Benitez certainly will be hoping for better news on the injury front for the next four games after having endured a few weeks now without Dominic Calvert-Lewin, Richarlison, Seamus Coleman, Andre Gomes, Fabian Delph and missing Jordan Pickford, Jean-Philippe Gbamin and Alex Iwobi here and there.