How do you like your Tom Davies? Buccaneering midfield tyro? Deep-lying battering ram? Jack of all trades, master of none? Now 22, it feels he’s spent many of his 138 Everton first team appearances a little unsure of himself, hopping between on-pitch personas, yearning for a remedy to his own identity crisis.
Davies’ career apogee so far undoubtedly arrived in just the tenth of those 138 when he danced nonchalantly through Manchester City’s line of defence to leave them in a royal blue reverie, before chipping Claudio Bravo to add a final chef’s kiss to an Everton attack he carved out in the first place. And with that came the coronation of Goodison Park’s latest hero; a boyhood Blue living his and their dreams.
But even before that fairy-tale January afternoon, Davies had already shown he was no one-trick pony, with his dynamism and tough-tackling attitude proving a welcome antidote to one-paced, anaemic midfields under both Roberto Martinez and Ronald Koeman. Davies’ debut, against Koeman’s Southampton (the only game he played on Martinez’s watch), earned coo after coo of approval from an otherwise simmering home crowd, as one of few willing to put a foot in during a meek 1-1 draw. The City stunner nine months later just felt a grander showcasing of more of the strings to the teenager’s bow.
It’s a little jarring, then, to believe this was all more than four years ago now. Davies’ development has stalled since then, even if that crowning moment against City elevated him to a sky-scraping pedestal. Collateral damage in the Everton maelstrom, he was overindulged by Koeman and then mismanaged by Marco Silva, a man who captained him one week then left him out altogether the next. It feels the only constants in Davies’ fledgling career have been the socks at half-mast and the bedraggled locks.
Davies himself may also admit he’s left a lot to be desired on occasion - there have certainly been games when he’s been mollycoddled by a more senior midfield partner, or when an inability to find a team-mate has left Goodison exasperated. But it’s easy to forget, given how often he’s featured, that he still remains of a relatively tender footballing age. Couple that with the amount of upheaval Everton have endured and it should be no surprise that he has yet to take the world by storm.
Yet slowly but surely, Carlo Ancelotti is helping Davies find a happy medium between the City fireworks and the nadirs of regimes past. As a deeper, more disciplined midfielder, Davies is currently in the best form of his Everton career since his breakthrough season, and his all-action performance in Saturday’s frenzied draw at Manchester United was the latest evidence of that.
Having been burned by Bruno Fernandes on multiple occasions before, Ancelotti promised a different game plan to that which led to two Everton defeats against United already this term. He delivered, and Davies’ shadowing of the Portuguese was proof in the pudding. Davies may be blamed for Fernandes’ goal, allowing him too much time to pick his spot before curling in over Robin Olsen’s head. But one thunderous tackle on Fernandes, showing a total disregard for his low pain threshold and harshly earning Davies a yellow card, felt more emblematic of an engrossing battle which, by and large, Davies won.
TD26. #MUNEVE pic.twitter.com/D1688M8gEd— Everton (@Everton) February 7, 2021
There were brains to complement his brawn, too. His 90 per cent pass accuracy, a season high, was hugely encouraging, but more so was the fact that almost half of Davies’ 28 successful passes at Old Trafford were played forward, one of which scythed open United’s defence and ended with Abdoulaye Doucouré halving their lead. Truth be told, despite salvaging a point in euphoric circumstances through Dominic Calvert-Lewin, Everton rather missed Davies’ resilience when he was replaced by Alex Iwobi on 75 minutes.
Yet perhaps unlike previously with Davies, this impressive display was far from an isolated incident. He performed stoically in January’s 1-1 draw with Leicester, a game Everton spent much of hemmed in by their visitors, screening an overworked back four and providing four crucial interceptions. At Sheffield United on Boxing Day, Davies was integral to Everton’s gnarly 1-0 win, again sitting deep, keeping it simple, doing the dirty work with no fuss. It’s a smaller sample size, but Davies’ pass completion and tackle success this campaign stand at 82 and 62 per cent respectively, one per cent shy of his best over a season in each of these.
Ancelotti’s use of Davies has also been key to his rejuvenation, rather than showing him too much too soon like Koeman or muddying the waters like Silva. In recent one-goal wins against Fulham, Chelsea and Leeds, for instance, Davies was trusted with helping get Everton over the line in each as a late substitute. United was only his third league start of 2021, sensibly sharing a heavy workload with the likes of Gomes in Allan’s absence. In short, Davies finally has a manager giving him just the right amount of responsibility. Little wonder, then, that it’s yielded his best run of form since 2017.
Davies hasn’t had it easy by a long stretch. Far from Everton’s worst offenders even in their lowest ebbs, there’s been a strange, disproportionate amount of dislike for an eminently likeable bloke. Likeable not just because he hands out essentials to homeless people, or through the time he dedicates to Everton in the Community, but also because he wears his royal blue heart on his sleeve with unquestionable commitment.
Indeed, at times you wonder if his Evertonian and Scouse heritage is as much of a curse for Davies as it appears a blessing. Supporters are, understandably, more desperate to see him succeed than most, and conversely more aggrieved when he flounders, given he’s someone they can latch on to more closely as one of their own.
But while drive and application can only get you so far, Davies is now beginning to consistently find the requisite level of quality to underpin that. It was wrong to ever expect regular acts of alchemy from him just because he did it once against a side managed by Pep Guardiola. This, though, feels more healthy, more sustainable, as he carves out his own little niche under Ancelotti at the heart of a reinvigorated Everton midfield.