It didn't always look as though Michael Keane would become one of the first names on the Everton team sheet but the England international is emerging as a consistent and dependable presence in Carlo Ancelotti's defence.
In Everton’s last home match before lockdown, a 1-1 draw against Manchester United, there are a load of moments that stand out.
Dominic Calvert-Lewin closing down David De Gea early on to score. Lovely.
Jordan Pickford letting a long-range Bruno Fernandes shot squirm under his body for United to equalise. Eurgh.
And a controversial VAR call dashing Everton’s hopes of a win deep into injury time. Grim.
The reaction from supporters pre-game when Michael Keane was named in the starting lineup also sticks in the mind, with Yerry Mina and Mason Holgate enjoying a previously prosperous partnership.
In March, Keane was out of favour and out of form, with memories of a substitute appearance against Arsenal and a comical shanked pass into stands still vivid. He looked like he’d gone.
After doing well against United, concerns about his suitability returned in a 4-0 loss against Chelsea the following week. It was a performance that hauled Keane’s biggest weaknesses under the microscope; too slow, not good enough on the ball and not aggressive.
These days? While Calvert-Lewin is still scoring, Pickford is still chucking them in and VAR is costing teams dramatic late wins at Goodison Park (sniggers), Keane has been able to alter the status quo in a major way. He’s been a pillar of strength at the base of Ancelotti’s side.
When football was halted earlier in the year and Everton looked set to sign Gabriel, there was a feeling the former Burnley man would fall down to fourth in the centre-back pecking order. A summer sale didn’t feel out of the question.
Instead, he’s blossomed into Everton’s defensive rock; the only player to have featured in all eight of the team’s competitive matches this season. Keane has dominated in both boxes, knitting together the back four and getting on the end of some pinpoint deliveries to score three times; he also conjured a delightful assist for Calvert-Lewin in the League Cup against West Ham.
Confidence is pulsing through him at the moment, leaving him bristling with an inner belief that many doubted he possessed. Yet perhaps the most encouraging facet of Keane’s surge is that he’s performed in an imperfect Everton setup for his attributes.
In recent weeks he’s had to cope with a rotating cast of midfielders ahead of him due to injuries and as Saturday’s clash indicated, behind him he has the most erratic goalkeeper in the division at the moment.
Stylistically, Everton have made changes that shouldn’t really suit Keane either. This term there’s been a noticeable shift towards expansive football from the Toffees, putting extra emphasis on a defender’s distribution and ability to win one-on-one battles. In the past, the 27-year-old has been ruthlessly exploited in these areas.
This confident stride outside his comfort zone is exciting, as his previous purple patches came in a model that suited him. When there was an elite defensive midfielder ahead of him in Idrissa Gueye and one of the most dynamic defenders in the division alongside him in Kurt Zouma. He was snug between lads who could do his running, pressing and passing for him.
It didn’t look like Keane would be able to thrive without those safety blankets, whereas now there are different dimensions to his centre-back play. He said himself back in July those flaws are something he worked on during the break.
“It is about sharp footwork and twisting and turning, staying with runners and blocking crosses,” Keane revealed. “There are certain ways to work on those things. It was a long period away from the Club and you can do more than just tick over across that length of time. It was a chance work on things I wanted to improve, like my physique and agility.”
The manager clearly saw something in Keane too. Perhaps that’s why he was willing to give him opportunities pre-lockdown when others were ready to go all in on the Holgate-Mina axis. A new five-year contract in August would not have come without Ancelotti’s blessing either.
In the long-term, Everton’s centre-back spot will trigger a lot of debate. A returning Holgate, one of the club’s stars in a forgettable 2019-20, and summer signing Ben Godfrey will both fancy their chances of forcing their way into the team. Yerry Mina has enjoyed a strong start to the season too.
In the past, Keane felt like a footballer who would potentially wilt under that sort of environment. Maybe one who’d be content with being in the frame for starts rather than being one of the first names in XI.
Now? He looks a like a much tougher lad to shift, for Ancelotti, his rivals in the squad and opposition attackers.
Matt Jones is a contributor to World Soccer Talk and a host on both Team Talk Radio and The Blue Room, the Internet’s most listened-to Everton-related podcast. Subscribe today where you download podcasts and check out The Blue Room Extra on Patreon for even more content.
Reader Comments (41)
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1 Posted 21/10/2020 at 17:25:13
2 Posted 21/10/2020 at 17:30:50
3 Posted 21/10/2020 at 17:34:45
4 Posted 21/10/2020 at 17:56:43
He still is poor with the ball, nothing will change that but he has tried to use it more productively and because we are dominating games I think hes realized he can step out. It really is a funny thing watching him do it. Its a proper cartoon double take!
His goal prowess is remarkable and totally out of nowhere. Is it James dropping it on his head, perhaps, but that desire to score was never evidence, say like Lescott who just rampaged his way to goals. Possibly that we simply are making more chances, because Mina has kinda seen a lesser but similar evolution. They both look better with the new guys in the team.
The test of course is when we have a set back will he shrink back? He is a player who thrives on continuity and a settled surrounding. Does he have the strength of character to stay the course? Ive gone from a nope to a maybe.
I still believe we will evolve to a Holgate/Godfrey partnership, with Keane used for a more defensive game plan. However its a good story and worth the plaudits.
One Yerry Mina should be looking nervously over his shoulder. He looks like the odd man out when the music stops. Will bring James minder be enough to keep him in the side?
5 Posted 21/10/2020 at 17:58:04
Cannot agree with some of Matt's observations.
"one of the most dynamic defenders in the division alongside him in Kurt Zouma". Oh boy!
"He was snug between lads who could do his running, pressing and passing for him." Indrissa and Zouma doing his passing for him? Of the three of them he was always a better passer.
"when others were ready to go all in on the Holgate-Mina axis" Hmmm, can't recall too many of those "others" on ToffeeWeb.
What I think is missing here is some reference to Michael's character. His playing with that still-injured foot and taking pain-killers. Getting slaughtered for his poor play, which it was, and not a a peep out of him until the next season when his foot was completely healed. His getting concussed on a head collision and when coming back immediately throwing his body and head at anything he could reach.
Character to burn.
A good lad. A good player. And good for us. And good for him getting some positive play in the press. He's earned it.
6 Posted 21/10/2020 at 17:58:15
7 Posted 21/10/2020 at 18:51:37
You can see his confidence has grown, as he is chipping in with goals again as well as doing a decent job at the other end, where he is expected to.
Carlo obviously sees and knows a lot more than we do, and I say the same for Southgate who has stuck by him. It was noticeable in the recent Internationals when he wasn't played, just hoiw much he was missed.
8 Posted 21/10/2020 at 19:18:11
I was never quite convinced about Keane and always thought he was not quite up to the task of stepping up from Burnley but he has really impressed me this season.
9 Posted 21/10/2020 at 19:22:41
I'm not really bothered about England generally, but it's a mystery why he wasn't a regular in the recent internationals, since he's head and shoulders above any other centre-back choice for England at the moment.
10 Posted 21/10/2020 at 19:25:03
He is not only now showing the qualities they praise. He has always displayed them. It just appears some have been slower, or reluctant, to see and acknowledge them.
When he first joined the club he was a constant 7-8-9 out of 10 player. Then as the season unravelled under Koeman, Michael's form fell off a cliff and he looked a 3-4-5 out of 10 player.
It wasn't until well into the following season that we discovered the considerable mitigating circumstances as to why that was the case. He continued to play with a serious foot wound. Indeed, he almost lost his foot, damn it!
In Silva's first season, Michael again excelled until fracturing his skull and needing time out. On recall, there was no flinching, no hesitation. He continued to put his head and body on the line. No one can question his commitment or bravery, then.
Much is made of his lack of speed, being slow on the turn and not tracking a man. His positioning and astuteness in cutting off the running lines of attackers often compensates for the first two. Of goals attributed to his 'failings' on the third, oft times it is much more about the quality of the delivery than something directly attributable to Michael.
He has ALWAYS been excellent on the ball, with the gift to carry the ball out of defence and play an incisive ball forward. I'm astonished that Blue watchers are only acknowledging that now.
He has consistently been the best defensive header and blocker during his time at the club.
He should have scored more from the positions he has been in from corners and free kicks in the opposition area. He seems to be addressing that this season.
People have bandied around buzz phrases about him being exposed in a 'high block' game (one we've used very effectively this season), believing him to be more suited to a 'low block' game.
He has shown he is more than capable of playing both. And recently in his run out for England he was possibly the best central defender of all Southgate played in the 3 games.
Michael Keane is back to being a solid 7-8-9 out of 10 player and he will not be the first centre back to be switched out if Carlo wants to shuffle the pack.
He is the standard the club's other centre backs have to better to make the starting XI.
11 Posted 21/10/2020 at 19:28:44
I disagree on just one point: "prosperous partnership" between Mina and Holgate. I would say, Mina, Holgate, and of course Keane have all had games and spells where they have done really well. But I don't think we've ever seen the forming of a great partnership between any two of the three. It's usually one of them plays a blinder while the other is OK, then next week it's the reverse. But in terms of cohesion, understanding, communication etc I don't think we've seen a really good pairing among these guys yet. Partly, injuries have hindered that, as have managerial changes. I wonder now who among these three plus Godfrey will form the primary pairing?
12 Posted 21/10/2020 at 19:33:01
To improve in the table it was clear we needed goals. Lots more goals. Often unremarked upon here is Keanes contribution at that end of the pitch. Keanes towering headed equalizer in the derby means he's already scored three times this campaign - as many as he managed in the last two seasons combined.
His confidence has spread to all parts of his game and he's been an absolute rock at the back for almost all of this season. Fair play to the lad, he looks like a vastly different and more improved player. He turns 28 in January so about to enter the traditional prime of a centre back as well.
There's obviously a variety of factors at play - fitness, external pressures, etc - that influence players individual performances. But at the most basic level, he looks like he's put the work in and is finally backing his own ability against the very best.
I pointed out on TW a while ago that Keane has at his core, absolute steel and granite. The mental resilience he has shown in the face of serious injury, for example, is really quite remarkable. Obviously, challenges large and small lie ahead for this team but I no longer doubt Keane ability to meet them. I'm really looking forward to watching him for the rest of the season.
13 Posted 21/10/2020 at 19:35:33
14 Posted 21/10/2020 at 19:44:24
Could see us ending the season with a back 4 of Holgate, Keane, Godfrey and Digne.
Despite my love for Seamus we do need to transition to a new model and Holgate is no stranger to the RB slot. Looks like it won't happen for JJK.
And I'm excited about Godfrey.
Not a fan of Mina.
15 Posted 21/10/2020 at 19:52:38
"He still is poor with the ball, nothing will change that..."
I strongly disagree. He certainly isn't a fancy dribbler, but he is competent on the ball and, more to the point, he is capable of some truly superior passing. He has startled me repeatedly with beautifully crafted and weighted balls with both feet this season.
He does have the unfortunate habit of giving away one horrendous pass per game, straight to an attacker. THAT needs work. But given how much he has improved, who's to say the improvement won't continue?
16 Posted 21/10/2020 at 20:10:24
However his ability to control it, kill it and move smoothly amongst the back line is poor. He often treats regular passes as grenades. He aint alone though.
Passing makes up a fraction of his ball skills. It dictates how quickly we play and recycle the ball. We often need to start again because he cant do it. Look Mina and Coleman all have the same problem, yet we have Digne who exemplifies what a modern defender in a team who has the ball the majority of time needs to have in his locker.
He has improved no doubt but he aint the answer if we are to step up. Lets be fair against an agile forward in an open system hes toast.
Lets not go overboard, improved yes, better than Mina, yes, durable, hell yes. If we are going places just a squad player for me.
17 Posted 21/10/2020 at 20:30:53
18 Posted 21/10/2020 at 20:33:14
19 Posted 21/10/2020 at 20:44:32
I was convinced Ancelotti would want his team playing a high line, but it seems to be working as it is and he doesnt seem in a hurry to fix what isn't broke. If Kean is more comfortable defending deep then why make him push up ?
I think he has looked better under Ancelotti, which is more than can be said for Mina.
Miracles apparently take a little longer. If we are to progress and become a top side, We need to replace Mina and Pickford.
20 Posted 21/10/2020 at 20:54:27
The Barcodes, and United will soon come up, after Soton, so collectively the squads for these games must keep working hard for each over.
On to the next game and Everton move on from the hysteria of the one sided media perspective of the match last Saturday.
Soton will be as tough as the RS, but I'm looking forward to this match.
All stay safe and well.
21 Posted 21/10/2020 at 21:08:21
Some credit must also go to Ancelotti in recognising the players limitations and organising around them. Our back line sits five to ten yards deeper than is ideal partly because Keane lacks pace. That leaves the two central midfielders with more ground to cover but fortunately Allan and Doucouré have the wherewithal to do that. A problem arises when we face the stronger sides who are more effective at exploiting space through midfield. We saw that at times last Saturday.
What we really need is a speedier defender alongside Keane, someone who can mop up behind him. That would allow Keane and the team to push up and reduce the workload for Allan and Doucouré. Ben Godfrey, perhaps?
22 Posted 21/10/2020 at 21:31:31
23 Posted 21/10/2020 at 21:33:52
He looks like he is versatile as well,but I think it will be in the centre of defence where he will make his mark for the Blues.
24 Posted 21/10/2020 at 21:50:15
25 Posted 21/10/2020 at 22:43:40
This is a kid who's transformed. He's playing rock-solid and with a confidence we've not seen from him ever before.
26 Posted 21/10/2020 at 23:43:19
That said, I hope he's on an upward curve because as welcome as it is his form is it's still short of greatness in my humble opinion. Carry on Keano though, you make have become a great by May!
27 Posted 22/10/2020 at 00:31:52
Just asking..........for a blind friend.
28 Posted 22/10/2020 at 00:38:55
Keane is steady and reliable. You know what you can get from him when he's on the pitch. Mina maybe faster with better strength but tends to do erratic moves like "diving block" or "heel flick clearance".
Happy with Keane and I think he should have displaced McGuire in the England team.
29 Posted 22/10/2020 at 02:44:34
That's one cohesive unit with defensive strength. Last season, other teams midfield just went through our central midfield like sunday stroll in the park this year...we all know the answer.
Also JR to establish another right side route to reach DCL while Richie from the left DCL blossoms...
Bravo.. Carlo & Brand addressed defense & midfield & attack woes with three signings...
30 Posted 22/10/2020 at 10:36:35
31 Posted 22/10/2020 at 11:03:23
What I have not seen in him since he joined the club is that he is the sort of player who can step up and help drag the team out of a rut. If we see that at some point this season then we really will know that Ancelotti dragging the entire squad up by their bootstraps.
As for Mina, I think he'll be replaced next summer along with Pickford.
32 Posted 22/10/2020 at 13:15:10
If we manage to take anything down there on Sunday, it will be a bonus, because I can't see Iwobi et al doing anything much going forward.
On another note, Jose Enriquez a former Newcastle and Liverpool player says “I still believe Newcastle is a top-six team. Look, Everton is there, and its not because Im a Liverpool fan, but Newcastle is bigger than Everton for history, for everything. It should be a top-six team. I believe that.
Really Jose? On what basis has he made that flawed judgement?
33 Posted 22/10/2020 at 15:45:24
34 Posted 22/10/2020 at 18:30:13
It is to hoped, when and if we actually get back into Goodison again, that his confidence doesn't desert him.
35 Posted 22/10/2020 at 19:12:03
They landed these men because they were prepared to offer more than anybody else.
Just as Silva did when he was signing his former player.
Its the time honoured tradition. Big Joe paid more for Big Dunc and Kanchelskis and landed them. Catterick paid the big bucks for Bally and he came too.
Still happening today, only a new term was invented for it in the summer. Its called pulling power now.
36 Posted 23/10/2020 at 14:29:28
37 Posted 23/10/2020 at 17:39:59
Playing alongside Mina and Pickford cannot be easy but he seems unflustered right now and I agree that the lack of crowds may have something to do with this. I also think that Godfrey will be his partner before the season's end.
Sunday will be tough but I'm going for a 2-1 win if James plays and Keane to score again. Enjoy your weekend, blues.
38 Posted 23/10/2020 at 21:52:22
Ademola Lookman started and scored a stunning equalizer in the league for Fulham. Ross Barkley scored the only goal of the game, his second in two games, with a spectacular strike against Leicester. Sandro Ramirez grabbed a goal within seconds on his debut for his new club! Nikola Vlasic started and played 78 minutes in his teams 3-1 win over Dynamo Moscow, his teams fifth league win from six games. Theo Walcott helped set up the equalizer in his debut for Southampton in a thrilling draw!
Kevin Mirallas got sent off in under half an hour on his debut in Turkey. You can't get them all right though.
39 Posted 24/10/2020 at 10:08:24
For me, Lukaku and maybe Vlasic. Problem was, big Rom didn't want to be here.
40 Posted 24/10/2020 at 10:46:42
41 Posted 25/10/2020 at 08:09:49
The benefits are deserved for him and Everton as a team are reaping the reward.
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