In the bowels of this hollow Holloway arena, home to the club formerly known as Arsenal of the European Super League, something peculiar happened on Friday. And no, it wasn’t just Everton actually winning at said ground for once, or even Fabian Delph’s sock colours.
No, this was also the first time this term that Mason Holgate had started consecutive Everton games at the heart of their steely defence. In a breathless, condensed campaign which has forced Carlo Ancelotti into his fair share of making do and mending, few have been pigeon-holed quite as much as Holgate. This his 25th appearance of the season, 13 of them have seen deputise admirably if sometimes awkwardly at right-back, while the recent Brighton draw even saw him cover in midfield.
After a breakthrough campaign last year, culminating in him winning both young player and players’ player of the season, progress has stalled somewhat for Holgate. A multitude of summer injuries meant he didn’t feature for Everton this term until November, by which time new arrival Ben Godfrey had dethroned him as flavour of the month. Yet while Godfrey’s stunning form has persisted, Holgate has been left feeling a little like yesterday’s man. Nobody spends their 21st birthday enjoying the presents they got for their 16th, after all.
Much of the Godfrey chatter has revolved about him being a purportedly ‘proper Everton player’ with the ‘right DNA’ - buzzwords and clichés which mean everything and nothing in the footballing lexicon. Godfrey has electric recovery pace. Godfrey embarks on intrepid, marauding ventures into the unknown down the left flank. Godfrey pickpockets opponents on the slide with venom and precision. And what of Holgate these days? Well, Holgate chews gum. Holgate struts. That’s not Everton.
It’s entirely fair to say that Godfrey, despite being similarly shoe-horned by Ancelotti, has had a better season than Holgate. That much is obvious. But while Holgate has struggled for consistency, criticism aimed his way has felt at times disproportionate. Clearly, those aforementioned tropes fan the flames of Evertonian anger; certainly following wretched displays like the Valentine’s Day home loss to Championship-bound Fulham, for instance. But even if Godfrey has taken the limelight, there is still an eminently good defender in Holgate, as he is now showing again with a much-improved run of form.
Friday’s win at Arsenal, however fortuitously it came about, felt the most leading recent example of Holgate’s quality. Again, Godfrey stole the show with a thunderous chef’s kiss of a slide tackle on Dani Ceballos, but this was a noticeably mature performance from Holgate, acting as a human shield between the goal and Bukayo Saka, or Eddie Nketiah, both of whom he committed vital blocks and interceptions on. Nor did Holgate lose his composure after a booking on the hour for an ill-timed challenge on Nicolas Pepe. And of course, he played the offside trap perfectly to catch Pepe out in the build-up to Arsenal’s then-overruled penalty.
This was only the second time Godfrey and Holgate had partnered each other in an Everton back four, the first being that horror show against Fulham. But after that false start, this bore the early hallmarks of a fine defensive duo made in Yorkshire, but forged in Highbury. To say the two are polar opposites is a stretch - both, for example, completed more than 80 per cent of their passes, a testament to their more cultured games. Neither have the sky-scraping abilities of, say, Yerry Mina, and will get stricter examinations of their credentials - of course, ‘The thing about Arsenal is, they always try and walk it in.’
But here, there was an appetising balance between Holgate’s more Zen-like approach and Godfrey’s no-holds-barred disposition. It’s telling, too, how liberated Holgate looked without being next to the injured Michael Keane; a solid defender but, as last week’s draw with Tottenham accentuated, one whose confidence has all the stability of a house of cards. By contrast, the way Holgate and Godfrey complemented each other here was as encouraging as it was perhaps surprising.
Then, post-match, came Holgate’s crowning moment. Bernd Leno’s match-winning own goal, Mason. How good was it? “Best-looking goal I’ve ever seen,” he joked to Sky’s Geoff Shreeves, complete with Cheshire Cat grin. This, from the man who once appeared to tell striker Clayton Donaldson, then of Bolton, ‘I don’t f***ing know who you are, you’re f***ing crap’ mid-match.
"To get the three points is massive"— Sky Sports Premier League (@SkySportsPL) April 23, 2021
Mason Holgate on Everton's performance against Arsenal. pic.twitter.com/vGIoqyByA1
You see, Holgate has one of the most Marmite qualities about footballers: personality. In the deepest of nadirs, this is construed as hubristic, as misplaced arrogance. In the most exhilarating of highs, it only endears you more to your own supporters. It is the finest of tightropes to tread, one with absolutely zero middle ground.
Yet whether or not he’s always channelled it correctly, Holgate’s self-belief should be applauded and harnessed. Arsenal was the 150th appearance of a club career which has seen him take a more circuitous route to becoming a Premier League centre-half: from young upstart at Barnsley, to wet-behind-the-ears wing-back under Ronald Koeman, via a brief detour at West Brom, the road hasn’t been without its bumps for Holgate. Yet like several of his predecessors, Ancelotti has trusted him implicitly in various positions during his tenure. On the evidence of the last few weeks, arguably Tottenham aside, you can understand why.
Yet as versatile as he and Godfrey have proven themselves to be, perhaps now is the opportune moment to infuse a sense of continuity. Already in his fledgling Everton career, Godfrey looks a necessity at the heart of Everton’s defence. Holgate has earned the chance to try to solidify his place alongside him, but to do so, his Arsenal performance must be his benchmark.