PL Stats 2020-21 Central Defenders
Carlo Ancelotti rarely strayed from a back four last season, playing three centre-backs in eight of the club’s 46 games in all competitions, most notably in the 2-0 win at Anfield in February.
It also produced wins at Fulham and West Ham United and draws against Crystal Palace, Burnley and Brighton. He also played back five in a desperate but ultimately unsuccessful attempt at a containment job against Manchester City in the quarter-finals of the FA Cup.
Is a back four likely to continue under Rafael Benitez? Probably, if the recent friendlies are anything to go by, though he has been known to play three or five at the back at times.
Like in 2019-20 Michael Keane was almost an ever-present, playing 41 of the club’s 46 games and playing more Premier League minutes than anyone else. He was at his best when the team had the backs to the wall, especially in digging out hard-earned away wins such as at Leeds and Liverpool.
Ben Godfrey, who made his debut at right-back in the Merseyside derby in October, became undroppable by the end of the campaign, filling in right across the back four. Mason Holgate and Yerry Mina saw their seasons disrupted by injury at times and have question marks over their futures heading into the new campaign.
Ancelotti leaned heavily on Keane last season to provide leadership and resilience at the back, and the former Burnley man is likely to be Rafa Benitez’s go-to guy this term.
We all know his strengths and weaknesses by know. If there is a high ball to be headed clear or a shot to be blocked, Keane is in his element. If the team is playing a high line or requires centre-backs to dribble the ball out of defence, then he isn’t quite as comfortable. Given Benitez’s approach traditionally relies on defensive organisation, I expect Keane to play a key role again this season.
One of last season’s major success stories, Godfrey seamlessly integrated himself into the side, endearing himself to the fans with his no-nonsense, all-action approach. He filled in at both left-back and right-back last term but his natural position is in the centre and that’s where I expect him to start the season. If he can maintain his form then I also expect him to become an England regular.
Plenty will disagree, but I’d argue Mina is Everton’s best all-round defender, though his slightly awkward style, inconsistency and occasional lapses on concentration mean he frustrates and enthuses in equal measure.
Is he a Rafa Benitez-type defender? That is the key question. Speculation linking him with a move away suggests not, though in fairness he has had little time to make an impression having only arrived back at Finch Farm last week after an extended summer break. There’s so much work to be done on the squad elsewhere it would seem unnecessarily disruptive to start messing around with the central defenders, but late changes cannot be ruled out.
Holgate turns 25 in October, so he can no longer been considered a promising youngster. He has all the attributes to be a Premier League central defender and certainly has the self-confidence, bordering on arrogance, to succeed at this level, even if that doesn’t always match up with his performances.
In mitigation, a foot injury suffered on the eve of last season disrupted his progress and meant he only returned to fitness in November. But I’d struggle to see him getting ahead of Keane, Mina or Godfrey when they are fit.
One of the surprise breakout stars during Project Restart, Jarrad Branthwaite’s 2020-21 season was disrupted by an ankle injury that needed surgery, cutting short his loan spell at Blackburn. There were reports earlier this summer that the 19-year-old would be part of Benitez’s first-team squad this season (immediately putting other players’ futures in doubt) but if that doesn’t prove the case, then a loan move is essential to maintain his development, because he is certainly a player of some potential.
Three years into his Everton career and Lewis Gibson has yet to make a senior appearance for the Toffees, spending time out on loan at Fleetwood, Reading and now Sheffield Wednesday. With just one year left on his contract time is running out and at 21 he needs to be playing regularly, wherever that may be.
State of the Position
It has been a quiet window for Everton so far, but one deal could spark a flurry of transfers elsewhere and mean the squad could look significantly different after the deadline.
In terms of central defence, Keane and Godfrey’s positions in the side look relatively secure and will likely start the opening game against Southampton.
Mina and Holgate’s futures are less so, with both players being linked with moves away – though speculation suggesting Brighton are in for Holgate have since been dismissed. With finances tight it may well be that one or both will be sold to raise funds for signings elsewhere.
That could see Branthwaite, who impressed at the tail end of the 2019-20 season, make the step up to the first team. The 19-year-old spent the second half of the season out on loan at Blackburn before an ankle injury curtailed his season. If he isn’t part of Benitez’s immediate plans then another loan, like with Gibson, is essential to continue his progress.