During the 2020/21 season then-manager Carlo Ancelotti gradually recognized an intrinsic vulnerability in the Everton defence and adjusted the playing style of the team in order to compensate. Rafa Benitez, a more naturally pragmatic operator set up in a mid-low block with a counterattacking philosophy, which helped to shield deficiencies - at least until injuries started piling up. The Blues have neglected refreshing at centre back for some time and it is really at a point where it cannot be ignored any longer. The last major recruit in this area was Ben Godfrey two years ago and before that, Yerry Mina back in 2018. Both, for differing reasons, were unable to provide a stout defensive shield for goalkeeper Jordan Pickford last season.
Entering this summer, the powers that be at Goodison Park must address this core weakness in the team. Frank Lampard has spoken about how, in order to play the front-foot high-press style of football that he desires, that this starts from the back line and he’s right on the money. Changes need to be rung, big decisions on personnel and recruitment are long overdue. Let’s take a deeper look at how Everton’s central defenders fared during the season just gone.
Appearances - 8, Goals - 1, Assists - 0, Yellow Cards - 0, Red Cards - 1, PL xG+xA/90 - 0.10
It’s worth remembering that the defender, who has been at Goodison Park now since January 2020 is still only 19 years of age. He was blooded into the Everton first team two years ago by Ancelotti and made a favourable impression on fans during a handful of appearances. A loan to Blackburn Rovers in 2021 didn’t go as planned (he played only one of the team’s last 14 games) and he was retained as a member of the Blues squad for the last campaign. Unused in the league until December, when he scored Everton’s winner against Chelsea at Stamford Bridge, he’s looked unready for Premier League football in subsequent outings, notably being naively sent off after only 18 minutes in a pivotal match versus Brentford. Undoubtedly a talented prospect, the club needs to secure Branthwaite a good loan for the upcoming season to allow the youngster to develop.
Appearances - 27, Goals - 0, Assists - 0, Yellow Cards - 7, Red Cards - 0, PL xG+xA/90 - 0.08
Much was expected of the ex-Norwich City man after he impressed during his debut campaign with the Blues, but it didn’t work out that way. The defender was hit hard with Covid during preseason and appeared to take some time to fully shake off the effects. Noted for his pace and sheer athleticism, Godfrey was a step slower as the season kicked off and lacked the strength and tenacity that had previously endeared him to the Goodison faithful. Benitez didn’t see him as an out-an-out centre back either, deploying him across the backline as needs must, which didn’t help him find any consistency. The prospect of a fresh start under Lampard was nixed as he was forced off with a hamstring problem in the manager’s first match, an FA Cup win over Brentford on February 5th, which put him out for more than a month.
Godfrey at last started resembling his old dynamic self with impressive performances against Manchester United and Leicester City, before again succumbing to injury, this time during the warmup before the Anfield derby; a quadriceps problem would end his season prematurely. The versatile 24 year old will be hoping to kick on after the summer. He’s not the tallest and is still a bit raw, but has pace to burn, which Lampard will surely value as he seeks to play a higher defensive line going forward.
Appearances - 29, Goals - 3, Assists - 1, Yellow Cards - 7, Red Cards - 1, PL xG+xA/90 - 0.05
Not really considered to be a first eleven player, Holgate has actually started 73 games for the Toffees over the past three years. Under Benitez, however he was clearly fourth choice at centre half, starting only three of the opening 14 league matches; one other appearance, from the bench saw him red-carded in a disastrous ten minute cameo as a defensive midfielder. Upon his return from suspension, injuries to Mina and Godfrey forced the Spaniard to plug him into the starting line-up and he retained his place under Lampard, including a couple of outings as a holding midfielder, so reduced were Everton’s midfield options in early April.
Holgate’s performance levels improved down the stretch and he even came up with a winning goal against Leicester and a clever headed assist for Michael Keane’s stunner versus Palace. At 25, the Doncaster-born defender may have shown Lampard enough to challenge for a starting berth next season, though he will need to demonstrate better concentration levels and more intelligent usage of the ball, as a 70.2% passing accuracy just won’t cut it. Always seems one touch away from a catastrophic error.
Appearances - 38, Goals - 3, Assists - 2, Yellow Cards - 2, Red Cards - 1, PL xG+xA/90 - 0.06
Second only to Pickford in terms of Premier League minutes, Keane was an ever-present as Everton’s season unravelled in spectacular fashion and consequently he took a lot of flak as a result, some fair, some not. Shorn of defensive partner Mina for most of the season, the ex-Burnley man had to work with Holgate and Godfrey and these pairings rarely looked comfortable. With defeats piling up and the Blues plummeting towards the Championship, some high-profile errors seemed to get the better of him and his confidence eroded. Like many of his teammates, he rallied with the club seeming doomed during the closing weeks of the campaign and that is to his credit, because he was a target for a lot of fan outrage, being the senior centre back. Consequently, it must have been a huge moment for him to finish with unexpected coolness against Palace in the season’s penultimate match, triggering Everton’s memorable fightback.
Keane has some decent attributes, being reasonable on the ball and solid in the air, but he really only shines under certain situations and when partnered with the right man. For a defender approaching veteran status, at 29, he is lacking in leadership qualities, shows brittle confidence and a lack of agility can be exposed in space. Whether the manager will want to retain him, or consider a replacement with a more appropriate skillset remains to be seen.
Appearances - 14, Goals - 1, Assists - 0, Yellow Cards - 3, Red Cards - 0, PL xG+xA/90 - 0.03
Following two seasons where the Colombian was available for selection to a reasonable degree, this term was a disaster. The big defender who (when fit) is clearly the club’s top centre back, managed to start five of Everton’s opening seven matches before picking up a hamstring problem in training. Absent for two months, he was unwisely pushed straight back into the starting eleven by a Benitez desperate to reverse the team’s dreadful form and limped off against Arsenal after 31 minutes, this time with a calf injury. Cue another six weeks out. In Lampard’s first league match, Mina succumbed to a quadriceps injury after 35 minutes against Newcastle United; it would be ten more weeks before he could take to the pitch again.
Crucially, he was able to return for a couple of vital games in the Spring and the team picked up four valuable points, but following an awkward collision with Seamus Coleman at the King Power Stadium he again was forced off with a recurrence of a calf problem. This was the last action he’d see, ending the season with only eleven league starts and less than 850 minutes on the pitch. Considering he is one of the highest paid players at the club, on an estimated £120k weekly wage, a lack of reliability has become a real problem. A defensive unit is very much that: a unit and a key component who is in and out of the starting team in an unpredictable fashion is not acceptable. The 27 year old has entered the final year of his current deal and whilst he brings a big personality and combative defending to the table, it is time to cut him loose and try to recoup some kind of fee for a rebuild.