Everton beat Blackburn Rovers yesterday in their second closed-doors friendly of the preseason, with the only goal of the game coming from Jean-Philippe Gbamin, who started and finished the move. The 25-year-old played a prominent role in the first friendly against Accrington Stanley a week ago too, and his progress from a litany of injuries has indeed been a welcome sight for the Blues who saw a marked improvement in the midfield last season from the previous year, but still could use more reinforcements over the summer.
In an interview after the friendly, new manager Rafa Benitez spoke about the decision to allow Richarlison to go to the Olympic Games in Japan with the Brazil national team just a week after he played in every game of his country’s Copa America campaign where they came away with a silver medal after losing in the final at home to Argentina. The player had in a previous interview indicated that he had to ‘fight’ for permission from the Toffees to go the Under-23s tournament, stating that it was his dream to represent his country at the event.
The concern for Richarlison’s overall fitness after not getting a significant break over the summer is valid, considering how he appeared to hit the wall in his first season at Watford FC in the second half of the campaign after nearly 18 months of non-stop football. Should Brazil make it all the way to the gold medal game, that would mean he would not return to Everton’s preseason until the week before the new campaign begins in mid-August. Still, Benitez thinks that Richy will come back more motivated and wanting to prove a point.
“I was in contact with him, he had the Olympic Games in the back of his head, we needed to sort out his situation and he is fine.
“He is happy because he can go there… and he knows he has to give us something back because we were supporting him.
“That [not being involved at start of season] could be something we can consider not great in the beginning but will be a massive boost for us in the rest of the season because he will try to deliver.”
Left back Lucas Digne picked up an injury during France’s Euro 2021 campaign which ultimately ended with a surprise exit at the hands of Switzerland, but is on the road to recovery and Benitez is expecting him back very soon.
“I had contact with him [on Wednesday morning], he is training well, doing his job and ready to join the team as soon as possible. He is a great professional and I know he is working hard.
“My exchange of messages with him has been good because he is telling me he is nearly ready.”
Benitez has already spoken about the importance of the senior corps of the squad showing leadership, as well as his direct conversations with club captain Seamus Coleman leading up to and after his appointment as manager.
Last season Coleman captained the club with Gylfi Sigurdsson and Digne as his assistants, but Rafa would not say who he had in mind for the position, or if it would change at all.
“I am yet to make a decision [on the captain] because it is a new season and you need to know your players.
“I am quite comfortable with the senior players, any of them. They show they have the right mentality when you talk with them. They are keen to learn. They know something was missing [preventing Everton from sustaining consistently good form]… they are desperate to change that.
“Maybe they need someone to guide them in the right direction, I will try to do that.
“Seamus is a great lad… any of the senior players can be captain, if they have the character and leadership you are looking for in a captain.”
Grit and resolve on the pitch has sadly not been a hallmark of this Everton team since the departure of David Moyes, with the team capitulating far too often in recent seasons when the going has gotten tough. It does feel like if Benitez can change that mindset then he will have taken a huge step in propelling the Blues up the table, and staying there.