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 0comments  |  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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