The Most Improved

It's not hyperbole to suggest that at one stage Michael Keane was close to being written off in some quarters as another expensive but ultimately inadequate signing from the Steve Walsh era. He's come a long way since in the space of Marco Silva's first season in charge.

Lyndon Lloyd 03/07/2019 37comments  |  Jump to last

If there was inevitable uncertainty and trepidation in the wake of the awful 2017-18 season and with the onset of a new managerial era following the appointment of Marco Silva, it was perhaps magnified during pre-season last summer.

As Everton struggled through a couple of unsettling friendly defeats to Blackburn and Stade Rennais, where they conceded seven goals, there was growing alarm at the Blues’ defensive frailties that echoed those which had seen them fall to hefty defeats in the prior campaign to the likes of Arsenal, Atalanta and Tottenham.

The much-vaunted acquisition of Yerry Mina was yet to be completed and both Mason Holgate and Michael Keane appeared to be struggling in what was, again, a worryingly familiar manner with the new season just a couple of weeks away.

Keane, in particular, was close to being written off in some quarters as another expensive but ultimately inadequate signing from the Steve Walsh era. A player who had looked so impressive at Burnley and reportedly attracted the interest of his former club, Manchester United before Everton bought him in 2017 had looked utterly at sea at times during the last days of Ronald Koeman’s time as manager and his form under the interim tenures of David Unsworth and Sam Allardyce didn't inspire much more confidence. Indeed, there were rumours in January 2018 that Allardyce was considering offloading him just months into his Goodison career.

Put simply, Keane looked a shadow of the dominant centre half who could chip in with valuable goals that Evertonians thought the club had acquired but, like the team as a whole, once the 2018-19 campaign kicked off, things seemed to fall into place for the Stockport-born defender. By season’s end, he was being hailed as one half of an impressive central-defensive partnership with Kurt Zouma, one that would help the team finish the season with five successive clean sheets at home and just one defeat in their last eight matches. Keane’s transformation from Little Boy Lost and a £25m flop to “Big Mick Kegger”, defensive rock and destroyer of Liverpool’s title dreams was complete. (He apparently hates being called Mick!)

As it turned out that there were some significant mitigating circumstances behind his uncomfortable start to life at Goodison Park, over and above the fact that he was adjusting to a new club and environment during what was a chaotic season. Foremost among them was the nasty gash he suffered to the top of his foot during a League Cup tie against Sunderland in September 2017.

He had played on despite the pain and finished the match before receiving eight stitches afterward to close the wound. It needed time to heal but Koeman needed his new signing — that cup win over Sunderland had arrested a four-match losing streak in all competitions but Everton were in 18th place in the Premier League with two important Europa League group matches to come over the next month and both Ramiro Funes Mori and Phil Jagielka would be ruled out of the next game against Bournemouth.

Keane played on through pain barely eased by pills and with a boot two sizes too big to accommodate the bandages on his injured foot, but the impact on his form was both unsurprising and inevitable. By the end of October, the defender was in hospital and, it would later emerge, suffering from an infection so severe that he was close to requiring that his foot be amputated to save the rest of his leg.

Despite the close call, Keane was pressed back into action within a week of leaving hospital with Unsworth desperate to steady the ship following Koeman’s sacking. Still playing in an outsized boot and under the influence of painkillers, Keane’s form — together with his image in the eyes of the fans — hit its nadir in a league game at Southampton which Everton lost 4-1, a result that, in tandem with a 5-1 home reverse against Atalanta, paved the way for Allardyce’s unpalatable appointment as Farhad Moshiri turned to desperate measures to avoid outright disaster.

Keane was all over that place as a poor Saints side ran the Blues ragged and, without the context of the severity of his injury, supporters were reaching the end of their collective tether over the new signing. In hindsight, given his explanation of that afternoon, it all makes perfect sense.

“I think that the pills I was taking were making me very drowsy,” Keane said in an interview with The Times last year. “I felt that I couldn’t concentrate. It was weird for me. I’ve always been one who’s really focused and to be in a game and find concentration hard... I was trying to follow Charlie Austin and couldn’t. I was seeing things and not reacting.”

Keane came off the pills after that appearance, one that lasted until the 75th minute, by which point he couldn't play on any longer and though he would get a break from action, he ruptured the old wound once more in a New Year's Day clash with Manchester United when Anthony Martial accidentally trod on the site of the injury. It wasn't until later in the season, by which time Everton were heading for safety from any relegation concerns, that Keane was able to stabilise his form.

With Allardyce gone and a new man in charge, the stage was set for Keane to make a fresh start but those pre-season performances last summer didn't inspire much confidence. There was, however, an element of “it’ll be alright on the night” about both Michael and the Everton team as a whole once the serious business of the Premier League kicked off at Wolves. And were it not for another of those infuriating refereeing decisions over which we all knew there would never be much consistency over the course of the campaign — namely, Jagielka’s red card — the Blues might well have won their opening fixture.

Keane was already looking a more settled and composed defender in those early weeks of the campaign but Silva’s predilection for zonal marking was the source of much confusion and the cause of a number of opposition goals before it was gradually refined and the issues ironed out over the course of his first season in charge. Nevertheless, Everton conceded far too many goals from set-pieces, with the low point coming in the fourth round of the FA Cup at Millwall where the League One side targeted this very obvious weakness to score three times from set-pieces and dump the Toffees out of the competition.

Despite what was a concerningly prolonged defensive issue, Keane’s stock was rising thanks to an increasingly solid understanding with Zouma and that duo was unquestionably Everton’s best central-defensive pairing by season’s end. With the Frenchman the quicker, more agile of the two and Keane displaying good reading of game and aerial ability, their respective attributes made for a complimentary partnership which is why securing Zouma has become the club’s next priority now that André Gomes has been signed.

While he is by no means the finished article and there are still areas of his game that need to improve, it's not to say that Keane would be lost without the current Chelsea man — on the contrary, he looks more and more like Jagielka’s natural successor — but there is less certainty that the more cavalier and seemingly erratic Mina would be able to strike up quite the same rapport, although the Englishman would undoubtedly be a more conservative foil for the Colombian should they be required to play together on a regular basis next term.

In today’s Internet-driven world and what can be the scourge of social media, there’s almost no question that Keane would have been aware of the criticism of his performances last season and the doubts expressed by Evertonians at his suitability as a long-term, first choice central defender at Goodison Park.

It’s testament to his character and self-belief, therefore, that he was able to settle down and make one of those automatic spots in front of Jordan Pickford his own. As a consequence, his international career is once again on the up and he has now earned seven caps, has scored his first England goal and is on course to be part of his country’s squad at next year’s European Championships and, on current evidence, at the 2022 World Cup beyond.

In the meantime, Evertonians hope that alongside whoever becomes his regular parter at the back next season, Michael Keane’s star continues to rise in tandem with that of Silva’s team as a whole.

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Reader Comments (37)

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Paul Tran
1 Posted 03/07/2019 at 07:46:56
That's a cracking piece, Lyndon. Shows Keane's character and resilience. A good reminder for those quick to pile on the latest scapegoat that there are often mitigating circumstances causing poor form in a good player.

I was at Burnley FC yesterday and someone asked me about Keane. He had no idea about that injury.

Tony Abrahams
2 Posted 03/07/2019 at 08:05:06
That last paragraph Lyndon. I speak to Evertonians every week who still see Michael Keane as a weak link.

I hope he keeps on improving but he's a centre-half who can be bullied, a centre-half who teams constantly try and isolate, so the jury is still very much out on Keane for many.

This is a big season for most of our players, and I hope they go from strength to strength, but you don't become a top player until you start competing at the top end of the table, imo, and that's got to be the challenge for every Everton player this coming season.

Danny Broderick
3 Posted 03/07/2019 at 08:29:33
We can be a tough crowd to please sometimes, and I recall Dave Watson and Phil Jagielka struggling at centre-half at the start of their careers with us. He was in with a shout for player of the season last year, for me. He's one of the first names on the team sheet now for me – if we sign Zouma, it will be Mina fighting for his place, not Keane.
Dave Abrahams
4 Posted 03/07/2019 at 09:27:47
Danny (3), You are right both Dave Watson and Phil Jagielka struggled when they first came to Everton, maybe Dave, as a former Red tried too hard to please but then again Dave never gave less than 100%, Phil was played as a midfielder by Moyes in a few games and when Phil had to think with the ball he was fucked, same as Tony Hibbert, but Watson and Jagielka both won the crowd over.

Michael Keane, a nice honest lad, just doesn't do it for me, the defence played better in the last few games of the season. I never saw a big difference in Keane's game to be honest and his complete lack of pace will let him down in my opinion. My blood pressure definitely goes up when I see Michael defending. I hope Zouma comes back and I bet Michael does.

Simon Smith
5 Posted 03/07/2019 at 10:09:27
I think Keane had a great second half of the season at least. Showed again he has great character after coming back from a fractured skull undeterred.

I believe his star will continue to rise next season. Especially if his defensive partner Zouma is acquired.

Let's hope our form picks up where it left off.

David Pearl
6 Posted 03/07/2019 at 10:17:01
He deserved the credit he got for last season. I think he can get turned a bit easily sometimes... and although he gets his head to a lot of corners they all seem to float gently to the keeper. He should score more than he does. He's coming good though, improving all the time.

You have to shake your head a bit over the way the club treated his injury. Mina has also got a lot to do to improve but the both of them have what it takes to form a very solid pairing for the next number of years. Even if we do get Zouma. I'm looking forward to a lot our players improving over the next couple of years.

Sam Hoare
7 Posted 03/07/2019 at 10:41:35
I had a lot of bad things to say about Keane in 2017-18. I thought there were basic deficiencies in his game that would not go away. Now I'm less sure.

Keane was undoubtedly much better last season. He looked more mobile and his positioning was better. His passing out of the back also impressed me on occasion. I hope he can keep that up and continue to prove me wrong.

However, I think the most improved player of the coming season will hopefully be Mina. I'm excited to see this lad once he has really settled. I believe that him and Zouma may be Silva's first choice pairing for the long-term future.

For now, though, Keane is the first centre-back on the teamsheet. If he can start the new season like he ended the last one, we will be in decent stead.

Gerard McKean
8 Posted 03/07/2019 at 11:31:16
Good article, Lyndon.

When I see clubs willing to pay £70m for Harry Maguire, I'm very happy that we have Michael Keane. I do take a different view on this lad than that of Dave and Tony Abrahams; I think he's just had a very good season; if he keeps improving at the rate he did over the last 12 months, he will become a fixture for Everton and England for years to come. After Seamus, Michael will be Everton's next captain.

Jim Bennings
9 Posted 03/07/2019 at 11:38:48
There were mitigating circumstances in Keane's first season here. During 2017-18, that injury sounded horrendous, and it didn't help that he was partner the likes of Williams and Holgate in some games, neither great defenders.

Zouma and Keane seem to really compliment eachother and one thing that's often overlooked is how good Keane is passing the ball out of defence, not saying he's quite John Stones standard but he's certainly a good distributor of the ball.

I believe over the next 3 years he can only get better.

John Keating
10 Posted 03/07/2019 at 11:44:49
I slagged Keane off as much as anyone after he joined.

I really like the lad as he comes across very genuine and articulate, however, I think everything depends on who plays alongside him.

If we get Zouma with his pace then Keanes deficiencies can be reduced.
If we go with Mina and Keane I think we could struggle against teams with pacy midfielders or forwards.

That being said, after his injury woes, he has changed my opinion of him.

Rob Dolby
11 Posted 03/07/2019 at 11:46:30
I don't see the jury out on Keane: he is the first choice. Partnerships and team work are vital at the back and we hit on something last year with Keane and Zouma. I wouldn't be surprised if Keane is made captain at some point.

The jury is very much out on Mina. He had a similar season to Keane's first season blighted with injury though in his case he wasn't rushed back as we didn't need him. If the Zouma transfer doesn't happen, then it will give Mina the opportunity to show us what he is made of or not.

Jim Bennings
12 Posted 03/07/2019 at 11:52:36
It's a big season for Mina. His signing from Barcelona last August was met with much enthusiasm and we thought he would be the one to be mainstay ahead of Zouma but it didn't happen like that.

I just hope Mina can actually stay fit so we can actually get a fair assessment on him over a season. That said if, (a very big IF) Zouma signs then Mina starts the campaign on the bench and there's no argument on that.

Mina did show some promise, the home and away games against Chelsea he was really solid and the Anfield derby he played a part in a defence that deserved to keep the clean sheet but for Pickford's juggling act.

Who knows how next season will shape up but we do need to add Zouma to this defence, it will be great for both Mina and Keane to have his presence there. Let's be honest he was imperious toward the end of last season, the big Frenchman.

Danny Broderick
13 Posted 03/07/2019 at 12:34:50
I’m not sure that Mina and Keane would make a good partnership. They seem very alike, with the obvious exception that Mina is left footed and Keane is right footed. Zouma seems to be the perfect compliment to both, because he is quick and he can sweep up. Zouma is a must buy for me.

Regarding Keane, he’s undoubtedly a good character and influence behind the scenes, as well as being a consistently good centre half (based on last season). You can’t have enough lads like him, Gomes, Coleman etc. These lads clearly fit in and are happy to be here. We have had our fingers burnt in the last 3 years, with players like Williams, Bolasie, Sandro, Schneiderlin all earning top dollar and producing very little. Keane goes under the radar because he just does his job, but he’ll be an important player for us in the next few years.

John G Davies
14 Posted 03/07/2019 at 12:52:51
I agree that Keane has no pace. Saying that, you can get away with that through reading the game correctly. Some really good centre-halves with no pace have had successful careers in the Premier League.
Bobby Mallon
15 Posted 03/07/2019 at 14:03:41
Mina is a sick note.
John Raftery
16 Posted 03/07/2019 at 14:05:10
Obviously there were mitigating circumstances for Keane's poor 17-18 season, not least his foot injury amid the chaos of a disorganised shambles of a squad and three different managers. His second season was much improved but he remained vulnerable when confronted by pace. He still had the occasional mistake in him: eg, Leicester at home on New Year's Day when his mistake paved the way for Vardy's goal.

On the plus side, he is a committed team player and, providing he has efficient midfield cover in front of him and a talented partner alongside him, he should prove to be a reliable centre-back, albeit one not quite at the very top level. I would like to see him score a couple more goals per season. Somehow his headers from set pieces always seem to clear the bar.

Fran Mitchell
18 Posted 03/07/2019 at 14:11:26
I had written him off and was calling for us to cut our losses. Happily, I was wrong.

Dependable, assured, a very consistent. Expect Mina to step up this season, and give us a very dominant center-back pairing. Both are big and powerful, and neither is a slouch.

Zouma, I assume will be unattainable, and expect us to sign another center-back, but most likely as a 3rd choice/competition - someone like Adam Webster would be ideal, maybe could offer Pennington or Matty Foulds in part-exchange, and/or loan Feeney or Gibson.

Jay Wood

23 Posted 03/07/2019 at 14:46:17
A timely piece, Lyndon. I was amongst those in his first season who thought we had been sold a pup. As I mentioned, he started off playing like a consistent 7-8 out of 10 player. Then his form fell off a cliff and he was a consistent 3-4 out of 10 player.

What we didn't know until well into his second season were the details of the foot injury that could have cost him his career. To that we can add the fractured skull he suffered at Bournemouth early last season. There was absolutely no hesitancy in his bravery or commitment to get back into the physical mix of things on his return.

Now I respect the opinions of the wise old sage that is Dave Abrahams and that difficult lad of his(!!!), but I have to disagree with them when they say that Keane continues to give them palpitations.

Nor do I agree with those clamouring for Zouma (who I also want back at the club on a permanent deal) who claim he was our best centre back last season. That award should go to Michael Keane.

Yes, he lacks some pace. Yes, when a clever forward is running at him he can be 'stood up', left flat-footed and be passed either side (but not always). But he is a very clean and consistent defender of the high ball (contrary to the claims of some), puts in great recovery tackles and for me is our best ball-playing centre-back.

Time and time again he is very composed on the ball, waits and reads the situation well before adjusting and opening up his body to make crisp accurate passing forward which quickly puts Everton on the front foot.

His form last season earned him a recall to the England where there is fierce competition for his position. Any and every time he played, he looked as if he belongs in the international set up.

I am more than optimistic that, like a fine wine, an injury-free Michael Keane will continue to mature and age well.

Mike Gaynes
26 Posted 03/07/2019 at 15:01:19
Fran #18-21, as always I love the passion of your views, and every one of those posts is spot on. ;-)

Lyndon, great article and an outstandingly detailed summary of Keane's 2017-18 injury nightmare and his unwillingness to either go public with it or sit out. No mention, however, of the skull fracture last season -- and his fearless deployment of that same skull when he returned. He never flinched on a contested header even as the fracture was still healing. I find his courage inspirational.

Yes, he can be turned -- we saw Lukaku do it to him when Burnley visited Goodison Park in early 2017 -- but he has improved in this area, and his passing has gotten much, much better. As John #16 said, I'd love to see his aerial strength produce a few more goals, and I do think his combination with Mina has the potential to be a consistent attacking weapon on set pieces.

Danny B #13, Mina is right-footed.

Gaute Lie
27 Posted 03/07/2019 at 17:35:45
A player is allowed to have bad games, as long as the attitude is okay. Keane has always played for the shirt, no complaining from him.

He is a really good player, and perhaps future captain? And still Young.

Rick Tarleton
28 Posted 03/07/2019 at 17:57:13
He was outstanding at Burnley where he was partnered by the vastly under-rated and left-sided Ben Mee. At Everton, Mina and Jagielka were right-sided central defenders. Zouma has become a left-sided defender and Keane has therefore become settled and effective.

He's good and generally a sound player. Brian Labone he ain't, but I'm possibly being too demanding.

Darren Hind
29 Posted 03/07/2019 at 18:38:26
I'm with Dave and Tony, you could almost feel the nerves when an awkward ball came to him... but it has to be said, once he found a decent level of fitness and played in a reasonably settled side, he came on in leaps and bounds.

Still turns slow enough to warrant the nickname "The Egremont", but footballers (the smart ones) learn to overcome their shortcomings. He isn't getting as tight as he used to and that makes it harder for forwards to turn him. He also started to play awkward balls into decent areas instead of trying to bring them down.

I'm not entirely in agreement with Lyndon's title but he is correct to point out there was significant improvement in Keane's all-round game.
He reads the game well. He is a fantastic blocker and when given time, the accuracy and weight of his passing is really quite decent. He can take as much credit as anybody for our improved form in the second half of last season.

I just hope he continues to improve. That`s all any of us can ask really.

Bill Gienapp
30 Posted 03/07/2019 at 20:01:26
I'm reasonably convinced that Silva had more or less written Keane off when he first arrived on the job and wanted an all-new centreback pairing - Mina was the first piece of the equation and Zouma-on-loan was the band-aid to carry us through to this summer. But Keane, to his credit, had other ideas.

If Zouma, by some stroke of fortune, were to return and Mina lives up to his potential, Keane could still end up the odd man out. But he's shown he'll definitely fight like hell for his place.

Martin Mason
31 Posted 03/07/2019 at 20:11:27
Kean is a fantastic centre back who cost us relatively little. The story of his foot and subsequent injuries diminishes our club and fans and makes him look better at every turn.
Jim Harrison
33 Posted 03/07/2019 at 22:41:56
The record in the closing stages of the season in terms of clean sheets/goals conceded speaks for itself. A settled back four were mighty impressive and that obviously includes Keane

Not the best centre back? No, of course not. He cost half of Stones (sorry to mention the player on here again Darren Hind) and a third of Virgil. But if he keeps up the level he raised his game to in the latter part of the season he will be well worth what was paid.

Bobby Mallon
34 Posted 03/07/2019 at 22:42:37
Well said Jay Wood. Keane is easily our best centre back
Andy Meighan
35 Posted 03/07/2019 at 22:43:16
Martin @31, When players are struggling, the paying customer goes only on what he sees. At the time of the injury, not one fan knew the extent of that foot problem. All we saw was a shit centre-half struggling in a shit team.

This season, up until Christmas, he was average – no more, no less – but granted he came through that and turned out to be one of our better players. Oh, and by the way, Martin he never cost us relatively little, I'm not sure, but I think he cost us £24 million – hardly a drop in the ocean was it, 2 years ago?? He's still got a way to go before he convinces me he'll be a Goodison Great.

Don Alexander
36 Posted 03/07/2019 at 00:55:48
I'm on record in paying tribute for the courage Michael showed during the season he was playing whilst disabled, unknown to all of us I suspect. That said, Maguire, playing for an upper mid-level team who've won zilch since he signed for them, is now attracting mega-rich clubs seemingly willing to pay the earth for/to him. So, Michael, assuming you're fully fit, next season seems to me to be the one where you owe it to yourself and us to consistently perform in a way that might attract rewards for you and us, commensurate pay-wise at least with centre-backs at trophy winning clubs.

Over to you.

Darren Hind
37 Posted 04/07/2019 at 05:09:55
Not sure why "His injury diminishes our fans" ?

Keane was poor before during and after his injuries and the fans had the right to say so. They judge a performance on what they see. They do not take unknown circumstances into consideration.

When a player performs badly he is criticised, if he improves dramatically it is generally recognised (Lyndon penning this article is testament to that)

The club should be criticised.
When we took that, much referred to, hammering Keane speaks about down at Southampton, many saw it as a watershed. The biggest victim was David Unsworth. Turns out his entire defence was ravaged with injury and because the club had allowed a situation to develop where we didnt have cover. the walking wounded were wheeled out. The club got what it deserved. . The fans most certainly didnt.

Jim Harrison

When I said I would not be discussing the Man City Center back any further. I was speaking for me, not anybody else.
Knock yourself out mate

Justin Doone
38 Posted 04/07/2019 at 14:13:57
Keane has definitely improved and I hope he finds another level as last season he was good but we need better.

Still makes silly rash decisions in coming out to challenge for balls he's never going to win, sloppy in possession and poor distribution.

I can see why Maguire is more highly rated but the money these days isn't a reflection on a players abilty it's more to do with agents, being popular (home country, international caps, positive media attention) and fitting in to a clubs style.

I'm sure we would ask for double the £30M we paid for Keane but IMO he's not as good as Zouma that we want to pay £25M for.

Frank Sheppard
39 Posted 04/07/2019 at 14:55:09
Good article that portrays an important player for us in a way fans need to know and appreciate. Keane deserves enormous credit for still playing when he was selected but not fit. Says a lot about him, & portrays our then management team and fitness team in a very poor light.
Alan Bodell
40 Posted 04/07/2019 at 18:14:33
I never slag out lads at the game, never have done, that is appalling but in the pub I do it all the time. I did it many times with Keane but now I am so happy to be given loads from his believers, him and Zouma and we are pretty solid back there.
Jim Potter
41 Posted 08/07/2019 at 00:31:13
When you consider the seriousness and longeivity of that foot injury then is it any wonder his form suffered? I salute his commitment and his stoicism for not bleating on to the press about it. Remarkable for a modern footballer, most of whom start whinging when their hair falls out of place.

He is obviously a man of strong character and a player who continues to impress. To boot, he appears a top bloke off the pitch.

Good luck Michael - you're what we need more of.

Jamie Sweet
42 Posted 08/07/2019 at 04:14:24
Big Mick Kegger put in THAT challenge on a marauding Mo Salah at Goodison that basically stopped our neighbours winning the title.

He would have to play a lot more games under the influence of those pain killers before I had anything but love for the man!

Charles Brewer
43 Posted 08/07/2019 at 15:35:22
Leaving aside all questions about his form, what the hell was the club doing letting him play when he had a hugely swollen and infected foot and was in such pain that he needed incapacitating painkillers? Having experienced the effects of fairly strong cocodamol after stomach surgery, I was certainly in no fit state to drive, let alone compete in any kind of competitive athletic event.

I do wonder about Everton sometimes.

Gavin Johnson
44 Posted 15/07/2019 at 01:31:33
Harry Maguire is a poor man's Michael Keane. I always felt Keane would come good after his shaky start. Definitely one of Steve Walsh's better buys. In fact I would only say Gana and Pickford are ahead of him.
Brian Wilkinson
45 Posted 08/08/2019 at 23:40:38
Tin helmet on but I thought our most improved player last season was Morgan Schnids, whenever he came in, he did a job, slated the guy the season before for lack of effort, but certainly did it last season for me.

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