Keeping a clean sheet for a full ninety minutes plus stoppage time against the vaunted Manchester City is one of the most difficult things to do in all of English or European football. Joao Virginia of Everton, the Portuguese Under-21, and current third-choice goalkeeper on Merseyside, had the task quite in hand for about eighty-four minutes of FA Cup quarterfinal matchup against Pep Guardiola’s machine.
And while the great team unity and organization in front of him must also be credited, with the likes of Yerry Mina and Ben Godfrey accounting for thirteen clearances by themselves, the keeper did make the saves he was asked to make for nearly an hour-and-a-half of gameplay. That he failed to maintain this after Guardiola brought on the likes of Riyad Mahrez and Kevin De Bruyne should be no reason to lay the blame on his shoulders; the first goal let up was a rebound that failed to receive the proper defensive attention from our backline before Ilkay Gunodgan placed it in the net, and the second was a breakaway for their best player, Kevin De Bruyne. As I said in my piece just after the contest itself, with even one Everton goal, the match may have evolved much differently than the match we witnessed did.
But while a sixty-six percent (four out of six on-target shots) save percentage isn’t phenomenal for Virginia, given the pressure and possession of City, it was admirable for such a young, inexperienced piece of the team. As City had 75% of possession and fifteen total shots, it would’ve been understandable for the player to freeze up in such a massive spotlight as the FA Cup quarterfinals; he did not, and that to me spoke volumes about his ambition going forward. Most importantly of all to that end, is that he looked comfortable performing against, not only the best team in England, but arguably the best team in all of Europe and the world; this is a massive juxtaposition from his time on loan for Reading last season, and while one match cannot hold as much weight as an entire season, it should act as a signal that the player has indeed learned from his first taste of senior football.
Indeed, the team as a whole looked much better than against the same opposition from earlier this season. That 3-1 shellacking may have had more threatening offensive play from the Toffees, yet never seemed nearly as close as this recent defeat in the FA Cup; it gives hope to this writer that, like the Manchester United affairs, perhaps even a draw can be salvaged in the final meeting of the teams.
But, returning to Joao Virginia for a moment, the quality of the player at such a young age forces the question to be asked out loud; is this Joao Virginia a keeper that should firmly remain in the future plans of the Toffees?
Yes, Joao Virginia will be heard from down the years, for Everton and Portugal
The possible gem that is Joao Virginia is just now being discovered by the public, yet he is a Toffee already, meaning that he has already been discovered by those more knowledgeable of course. His renewed contract, now running for four more years, should be proof of this belief and commitment. A poor run of form for a club, as was seen across just two matches last season for Reading, can happen for any number of reasons, from a lack of trust amongst teammates, to nerves, or simply the talent, bond and organization of those players playing alongside you.
Sporting Lisbon knew of Cristiano Ronaldo before much of the rest of the world saw him annihilate Manchester United, yet they would’ve also been the first to analyze his first senior season as well, in which he only mustered four goals in twenty-eight matches. They were fortunate not to judge him as harshly as his statistics might indicate, for his rise became meteoric and would only continue once he left the club for Manchester United. To this point, should Joao Virginia continue to develop and train diligently as the greatest learn to do, a match like that against City becomes the game that supporters and admirers reminisce on after years have gone by.
With the young talent coming up and out of Portugal, Virginia will no doubt face competition for the number one shirt. The first name that comes to mind regarding the national team is Sporting’s current keeper, Luis Maximiano. The 22-year-old has far more first team experience to this point, and will likely pose the biggest obstacle to Virginia’s national ambitions for years to come. Having himself just turned 21-years-of-age in October however, Joao will have many, many years to demonstrate his guile as a keeper and like his young Italian counterpart, AC Milan’s Gianluigi Donnarumma, might very well be able to lock down the position for the foreseeable future, once he has grabbed his chance firmly; when and if that happens however, remains to be seen.
With Everton’s current number one, whom also serves as the English National Team’s number one, currently injured, as well as the club’s second number one, Robin Olsen, Virginia will continue to demonstrate what he has learned across the last two hectic and unprecedented campaigns, until the coaches tell him to sit down. Should he do well in his chances however, do not be surprised to witness the entire circumstance get much more interesting. Jordan Pickford has shown flashes of real brilliance recently, but his inconsistencies plagued the earlier games of our season as well, and until he has demonstrated that those moments are flushed from his system, I believe that Don Carlo Ancelotti remains open-minded to possibilities and opportunities.
With that said, while Pickford should likely remain the keeper as Everton continues to attempt to ascend into consistently higher quality competition, the age difference, approximately six years, along with the poise and talent, suggests that Virginia might be an heir to that Royal Blue number one shirt one day. It is truly, in all honesty, up to him and his commitment to getting better and better. We have all seen that the boss is not afraid to play who he wishes to play, and that is both fair, as well as an incentive. Sending the message that playing time equates to training efficiency, voracity and the like, are all important foundations to maintain with any team, let alone one with the great mixture of veterans and young lads that these Toffees have.
The Options for Joao Virginia: Should he stay or should he go?
Depending on the future of Robin Olsen on Merseyside, there are surely a few options for Everton to pursue in regards to the development of Joao Virginia going forward. I am not personally sure whether Don Carlo and Big Dunc would trust the player were they not forced to by injuries and the like. With this understood, as well as the Olsen circumstance after his family suffered through a burglary, the Toffees could be in the market for a confident, more experienced backup keeper to Jordan Pickford for next season, while Virginia could find himself on loan again, to somewhere more positive than Reading where he could see consistent game time, and another opportunity to gain experience for his future.
The first leagues that come to my mind regarding a loan are the Eredivisie, the Scottish Premiership, Liga Nos, the English Championship or even Ligue 1 of France. Each league has its own drawbacks and positives as it relates to joining a club within them, yet were the correct club to choose him, perhaps an Ajax, once they sell Andre Onana, a PSV, Rangers F.C, or even a Brentford or a Barnsley, Virginia could suddenly find himself playing much more often than to this point in his young career at Everton. This would be exactly what the boss would desire I would imagine; a real chance for the young man to experience opportunities, adversity and triumph, so that as he continues to develop and mature, he could find himself in a real competition for that number one shirt on Merseyside.
And when it is time for him to be given the chance for Everton, the circumstance could very well unfold in a similar fashion as we are witnessing regarding Manchester United. While David De Gea has long been revered in the net, Dean Henderson has made a strong case since returning to stay from Sheffield United that he is the goalkeeper of not only the present, but the future as well. While Virginia is not there yet in the contest against Jordan Pickford, two or three more campaigns or actual experience could get him to that point.
In the final analysis, while he remains not only a Toffee, but our starting goalkeeper until either Pickford or Olsen are healthy once more, there will be matches in which he will struggle, as even the best goalkeepers do from time to time. He will not be perfect each and every game of course, nor will his defense sit so staunchly in front him, denying opportunities and vision lanes a though their lives depended on this practice quite literally. But as long as he shows the composure, ability, passion and focus that he has demonstrated in the one-and-a-half matches since Pickford had to leave the match, supporters and players know that the team has a real, fighting chance, no matter what.