While André Gomes has long been regarded as the "must-buy" of the summer, there is a strong case for saying that it is Everton's other loan star who is more important to the Blues’ immediate future
For all the overall success of Everton's transfer business in the summer of 2018, it was the signing that almost didn't happen that arguably had the greatest bearing on what was a frustrating but ultimately promising season. Indeed, it's a bit unsettling to ponder how the campaign might have gone had the club not got the paperwork through at almost literally the last minute to sign Kurt Zouma on loan from Chelsea last August.
Yerry Mina was seen as the plumb defensive acquisition on transfer deadline day that month, the protracted negotiations and media-fuelled misdirections finally resulting in the Colombian transferring from Barcelona in a £27m deal. But it would be weeks before Mina was able to make his debut following successive foot injuries that pushed his first appearance into November. With Phil Jagielka picking up a suspension after the opening day draw at Wolves and Mason Holgate struggling to convince new manager Marco Silva he was strong enough to be a regular starter, Zouma stepped into the breach and never looked back.
The Frenchman was a fairly well-known quantity to Evertonians prior to his arrival. A full France international, he had been signed by Chelsea as one for their future and even impressed in their first team when given the opportunity but had been unable to displace the likes of Gary Cahill, David Luiz and Antonio Rüdiger at Stamford Bridge.
He was sent out on loan for the season to Stoke City and while he was lauded for his performances, he certainly wasn't able to really shine in a team that was eventually relegated to the Championship having conceded 68 goals in the process.
Regarded, perhaps, as a solid back-up at Goodison Park, few at Everton would have predicted that Zouma would finish 2018-19 as an indispensable member of the first team and, were he not a loan player, would surely have been a front-runner alongside his compatriot and eventual winner Lucas Digne for Everton's Player of the Season award.
His partnership alongside a rejuvenated Michael Keane was by season's end, one of the best in the top flight and played a huge role in the team keeping eight clean sheets in their final 11 games, including a 10-game sequence where they didn't concede a single first-half goal between early February and early May.
Providing speed at the back that Keane lacks along with excellent reading of the game, vital aerial ability and strength in general, Zouma was a picture of consistency for the Blues over the course of the season and now that it has come to an end, the prevailing question is how do Everton keep him?
Under normal circumstances, the chances of the club negotiating a deal with Chelsea would be fairly good. In Rüdiger and Luiz, the London club have a first-choice central defensive duo that is supplemented by Andreas Christensen, although the Dane is yet to convince that he can match the other two's level. Under Roman Abramovich, Chelsea have had a habit of signing promising young players, loaning them out and then selling them on for healthy fees that they reinvest in more established, top-quality acquisitions for their first-team.
As Everton found to their benefit with Romelu Lukaku and Wolfsburg and Roma also would where Kevin de Bruyne and Mohamed Salah were concerned, Chelsea are apt to letting talented players go if they haven't been entirely convinced… only to see those players go on to move on again for big money. That pattern may change with the benefit of hindsight but with Zouma having been partially out of their sight and therefore partially out of mind, Everton would have been optimistic about doing a deal this summer if it weren't for Chelsea's transfer ban that has just gone into effect.
That censure by Uefa means that they cannot make incoming signings, at least while their appeal of the ban is pending, and with Cahill having been released and Rüdiger undergoing knee surgery recently, it would seem unlikely that Abramovich and Maurizio Sarri (if he stays at Stamford Bridge) will agree to Zouma's sale if they can't replace him. Ethan Ampadu, Fikayo Tomori and Trevoh Chalobah are all highly-regarded but it's unlikely any of them would be considered ready by the start of next season.
There is also the question of what Zouma himself wants, of course. The defender spoke over the course of this past season of his desire to return to Chelsea a better player next term and while that could also be passed off as the expected rhetoric of a player talking about his parent club, no one could blame him for wanting to go back to London ready to press his claims for a regular starting role in a team competing for the Premier League title and in the Champions League.
He made no secret of how much he enjoyed his time at Goodison and if Chelsea felt he were surplus to their requirements, he would surely jump at the chance to sign permanently for the Toffees. But he might also view the conditions created by the transfer ban as his best chance of breaking back into Chelsea's team and holding down a starting place.
Everton will be doing their best to sign their 2018-19 two loan stars, Zouma and André Gomes, on a permanent deals this summer and while Gomes, with his effortless Iberian skills and potential to fill the Arteta-shaped hole in Evertonian hearts, was long regarded as the priority acquisition, there is a strong case for saying that it is the Gallic defender instead who is more important to the Blues' immediate future.
With Phil Jagielka approaching his 37th birthday and, in all likelihood, the end of his Everton career and question marks over Mina's ability to make the Premier League grade, a centre-half will be high on Brands's shopping list this summer, if not a top priority. While there are decent prospects that an alternative to Gomes could be found in the European market, it's harder to see how the recruitment team could improve on Zouma and if the 24-year-old could be prised away from Chelsea for between £30m and £40m, you would imagine they would move heaven and earth to make it happen.
Together with Keane and Idrissa Gueye, Zouma has formed an impressive defensive unit ahead of Jordan Pickford, one that under-pinned that late-season that has carried Everton into a summer pregnant with possibility and optimism. With Gueye perhaps looking more likely to stay, finding a way of keeping Zouma would keep that in place the foundation from which Silva will look to mount an assault on the top six and beyond in 2019-20.
If only it were that simple but here's hoping…