Pre season reflections – Young players to the fore
So we are three games in to the pre-season with many positives to take so far as we head into our first competitive match. Two good wins and what looks to have been appositive PR trip to Africa have been followed up by a very credible draw against a solid Genk side who are well ahead of us in preparation.
The only game I managed anything more than a cursory viewing of was the Genk game. It was a good workout and you can see why Sander Berge was being targeted by Steve Walsh as he showed maturity beyond his years from Centre Half. From our side it looks like Holgate and Sandro need some more mileage in their legs (which will come). I’d also like to see Gana fully settle into a more advanced role and look to emulate the consistency he showed in a singular deeper lying role in the first half of last season. There’s a lad in there who can assist, create and even get on the end of things with his engine but we are just waiting for it to click with himself and Schneiderlin in midfield, though if it does it’s a mouth watering prospect.
As for the positives, they can be summed up in two for me, namely Wayne Rooney and the emergence of the young players. I have already looked closely at Wayne so the majority of this piece will focus primarily on some background and impressions for the younger lads who’ve stepped up, particularly Kieran Dowell who I have kept a close eye on for some years now.
It would be unfair not to mention Wayne first though and I am left feeling that even Evertonians who have championed his abilities throughout his career (we after all saw him at 16) have even underestimated what a good footballer he is. His movement, hold up play, awareness and desire to score goals is remarkable. There are no sour grapes to Lukaku my end but watching Rooney play just a pre-season game immediately shows the flaws of Lukaku’s game ruthlessly. What I would give to have an 18 Wayne breaking through into this set up now! I genuinely believe he will have an impact as big as Barry has had on the football club- another player written off too quickly from a top Manchester Club as he slowed up a little and another player who’s football brain is streets ahead of many playing top level football. He too won Evertonians over very quickly with a strong debut.
Rooney is an academy graduate at one end of the scale yet what is equally exciting is at the other end there has been no shortage of young local lads being given an opportunity. 7 lads aged 21 or under (one still 18) have had playing time this trip. 4 of them are local scouse lads and have been at the club for many years. I don’t think it’s an understatement to say no other Premier League club can come close to this level of exposure, especially when you discount players who are bought for hefty fees at 16+. It is a remarkable achievement and I will touch more upon the business opportunities and wider strategic advantages it has in a future article but it is worthwhile to give a bit of a closer lowdown on some of the newer faces fans have seen this pre-season.
On watching the Under 20’s World Cup it was striking that Steve Walsh said that all 5 who went were part of the long term plans of the club and that they would be involved with the first team squad in pre-season. In truth while I felt the rhetoric was encouraging and the right thing to say worried the cold reality would be different. Adding another 5 young players to a squad that already had Davies and Holgate, as well as Barkley, Pickford and Keane would be unrealistic. I felt Kenny would get game time and hoped Dowell and Lookman may. For all of the above to be included as well as young full back Callum Connolly means credit should go to Unsworth and Koeman for being brave enough to push them on.
Most know about Kenny who I hope starts at right back on Thursday, He is a tenacious right back with a fantastic engine and an ability to defend. Calvert-Lewin has impressed me this trip as he looks to have grown physically. Like Harry Kane before him, who looked out of sorts at the start of his career he seems to share a similar build, ability to link play and work rate. Like Kane those who work with him are enormously complimentary and I sense like Kane there is a maturity to his approach and willingness to learn. What Kane has demonstrated his a continued desire to improve as he gets older and a fantastic ability to finish opportunities which as yet Calvert Lewin needs to show. He is a long way off one of the bets number 9’s in European football but there’s an enormous potential there.
Connolly is the lad who’s come from left field. Much like Kenny he has had enormous exposure to mens football from a young age, regularly appearing for the under 23’s from the age of 16. Like Kenny he has had impressive loan spells and has an even greater flexibility as a footballer (Kenny has played all across the back four and in midfield in his youth career).
When I first saw Connolly play against Southampton you could tell he wasn’t quite ready. At that age body language makes such a big difference. While Davies strode onto the pitch without a fear in the world, Connolly played a little within himself. Having played fullback myself and started mens football as a teenager I may recognize the signs more easily and a couple shone through when Connolly first started. The two subtle things I picked up on were initially he was much too close to John Stones (who martialled him through the game very well) and secondly he unwilling to go and get tight to his opposing left winger (that day it was Sadio Mane) trying to pull the right midfielder back to help him do this. Aside from this you could see a talented young player, a willing runner up and down the flank and a lad who put a good ball into the box.
On seeing him again 12 months on it is striking just how much he has grown. As a 15 year old he was always a lot taller than the other players yet his growth stalled a little for the following 2-3 years. However he looks to have had a spurt over the last 12 months and seems around 6ft and to be filling out. Physically that helps any young man compete in the Premier League and mentally it leads to a far more confident approach. That has been shown in bundles in pre-season where he backs himself far more both defensively and moving forward. He looks like a lad who belongs and knows he belongs at that level, and I suspect Koeman may postpone the recruitment of a left back while being happy to use Connolly as a backup which would be a fantastic boost for him.
Connolly has impressed yet undoubtedly the emerging player this pre-season has probably been Keiran Dowell. He too had always played ahead of himself at youth level and when I first saw him for the under 18’s I did wonder what the fuss was about. At Everton if a lad plays up on himself it’s always worth noting as they think highly of them. He seemed little lightweight yet he was given enormous responsibility in that team. As time went on it was easy to see why, though slight he had a fantastic football brain and a wand of a left foot.
While the form and performances of Dowell’s good friend Tom Davies took the Premier League by storm last year what is quite odd is that most onlookers would have predicted the fortunes of both would have been the opposite if the question would have been asked18 months ago. Dowell was flying for the under 23’s, scoring for fun, at times hatricks of goals that would not look out of place in a goal of the season highlights reel. While Davies was a performing solidly he didn’t have the magic of Dowell and look like a lad who might need another 18 months before fully breaking through. The experiences of both are why predicting young players future remains an inexact science based on no small amount of good fortune at critical moments.
Last summer it was the hard-working and efficient Davies that caught the eye while Koeman seemed wary of Dowell who would quickly find himself back for the under 23’s. In truth his form was affected and while performances picked up towards the back end of the season he has yet to rekindle the scintillating form he showed at the back of the 15/16 season. I am as delighted as I am a surprised by Dowell’s re-emergence this pre-season and it is worth considering what may have sparked the change in tact from Koeman.
I would speculate there are 4 potential reasons for the turnaround in fortunes for Dowell. The first is that in terms of the pressing and workrate he has worked hard under Unsworth’s tutelage to play the sort of game Koeman wants. While this is not eye catching wonder goals it is as important to Koeman as doing that so the team can be drilled. Alternatively Koeman may have looked at the squad last season and felt a mercurial but ultimately luxury talent that is Dowell was not something he could easily bed into a squad where fitness and hard work needed to be upped sharply to move up the league. Allied to this there is that Koeman initally at least looked to be pragmatic over young players, seemingly wanting to give all the senior players an opportunity first and perhaps wanted to avoid having Dowell being played and left as part of a potential cull we have seen. Finally there is the chance that Dowell is yet another young player who prospers in pre-season yet when the serious action comes will fade off our radar.
For those unfamiliar with Dowell I would caution against expecting him to play like Davies or even Barkley. In previous threads on young players I have always contrasted his style to Barkley’s-who’s is reliant on power and strength whereas Dowell’s relies more on intelligence and guile. The goal he scored against Twente (the pick of his goals for me) was everything Dowell is good at. He beat a man with a subtle body movement, before shimmying to shoot twice to make an angle, before whipping the ball into the bottom corner with a low back lift and a remarkable power. The gap between the shimmy and the shot was mini-seconds and was a stunning goal.
Where Barkley powers past players Dowell glides with the ball, as a young player always looking far closer to an Ozil or Wiltshire than Ross. While you sense Ross enjoys being in the blood and thunder of a game and will drop deep to get touches of the ball, Dowell enjoys being on the fringes of the game, finding space and often limiting his touches to one as he sees passes others don’t. I remember seeing one video clip of a goal he scored, and while the strike was fantastic if you rewind it back, look at where he picks the ball up, often you will see he will have done placed in the middle of 3/4/5 opposing players such is his appreciation for space.
Against Genk you saw the good and the bad from Dowell. The consensus seemed to be it was a disappointing performance from him yet he was centrally involved in Everton’s 3 best chances. The first, when he had the ball 25 yards out from goal rather than panic or shoot he clip an almost inch perfect ball onto the head of Rooney who should have scored. In the second half he dribbled and put through another great through ball for the on-running Rooney. Finally the goal we scored came from him running at the back line before choosing the right pass and executing it perfectly to allow Sandro to get a great assist for goalscorer Rooney. All of the above, particularly the later may sound straightforward yet when was the last time Everton had a player who could carry the ball with his head up and pick the right pass? I would also ask is this something that Barkley continues to be criticized for (his inability to pick the right pass at the right moment). While Dowell gave the ball away at moments (albeit all in the right place the opponents final third) his job is to create opportunities for others which he showed he is more than capable of.
As I indicated earlier in the post making bold claims of who will or won’t make it is an inexact science. With the exception of Rooney who was the complete footballer at 16 never mind 20 there has been no young player I have seen at Everton where you could say with any certainty they would make it. However you are looking for improvements to be made and confidence when they step onto the pitch. You can see both of these things occurring with all of the young players and I’m convinced they are giving Koeman lot’s to think about as we head into a long season. One thing is certaint though- the opportunity for another 2-3 lads to emulate what Davies, Calvert Lewin and Holgate did last season should be of enormous pride to Evertonians.