The Youthful Core Powering An Everton Resurgence Under Sam Allardyce
Wayne Rooney and Sam Allardyce may be taking the majority of the plaudits for an exceptional turnaround in form that has seen Everton banish relegation fears and swiftly move up the table, but it is perhaps the form of the Blues' youthful core of Mason Holgate, Jonjoe Kenny and Dominic Calvert-Lewin that should be giving supporters of the Goodison Park outfit most cause for optimism ahead of the new year.
For while Allardyce has steadied what appeared to be a sinking ship, and the likes of Rooney and Sigurdsson have helped turn one point into three with increasing regularity, Everton's recent success has been predicated on the aforementioned trio of youngsters stepping up to push the Blues forward in several important parts of the pitch.
From the 32-year-old Rooney, who has enjoyed a storied career in the game, through to 20-year-old focal point Calvert-Lewin, the blend of old campaigners with youthful exuberance has allowed the Toffees to collect 13 points from their last 15; scoring 11 and conceding just two in the process. A marked difference from the slump that saw Everton's defence breached 14 times in three games during the Koeman-Unsworth transition.
In truth, the upturn in form simply would not have been possible without the considerable talents of three of the country's top young players.
Finishing Monday evening's 3-1 victory over Swansea City with a team averaging just 23.8 years in age, Allardyce has placed considerable faith in Holgate and Co to help dig Everton out of the mess they found themselves in after initially creating a solid structure in which they were able to thrive. As with all gifted youngsters, the opportunity has to be there for a sustained run of games in the side during which time they also feel that total faith has been placed in them by the manager. Since Allardyce has come to the club, Holgate, in particular, has markedly improved due to regular game-time in his preferred position of centre-back.
At times, ex-Barnsley man Holgate has appeared to be the senior figure in a defence also containing Wales captain Ashley Williams. A vocal presence in the backline, the 21-year-old has grown in authority both in the tackle and in the air and brings a balance to an otherwise one-paced rearguard due to his pace and technical ability. With Holgate in the side, Everton are considerably better equipped to negate any high-press from the opposition and are also much less likely to concede from fast transitions. As such, there is an argument to be made now that rotation, if it is to happen, should be around Holgate, with Williams, Keane or Jagielka competing for the role of stopper alongside the Yorkshireman.
Alongside Holgate, Under-20 World Cup winner Jonjoe Kenny has also developed into a consistent Premier League performer. Profiting from the long-term injury to usual first-choice right-back Seamus Coleman, the Finch Farm academy graduate now finally exudes the confidence of a player who knows he's good enough to play at this level after what was a tentative start. Guided through his first couple of games by Aaron Lennon, the 20-year-old has since eschewed tentative displays in favour of front-foot performances that showcase the type of attacking thrust regular viewers of Everton age-group sides always knew he was capable of providing. Comfortable defending crosses at the back-post, playing one-on-one, and going on the overlap in attack, Kenny has also found an unlikely advocate in former Liverpool player Jamie Carragher.
"I was screaming for him to get a chance under Koeman,” Carragher told Sky's Monday Night Football Show. "He was excellent at the other end of the field today [in attack]. It’s all what he deserved. He’s come into the side and has got his chance. He’s associated with being a touch-tackling defender, but he’s helped them get a goal."
Now a right-back capable of influencing at both ends of the pitch, Kenny's progression as part of a back four that has shipped just two goals in their last six games across all competitions means that Coleman need not be rushed back into action too soon. Instead, time can be taken to ensure the Ireland skipper is fully fit for a return- and even then, there is a question to ask with regards to whether he comes straight into the side. Indeed, the Kenny-Lennon axis is developing into one of Everton's best partnerships of recent years, and functions as one of the strengths of a team that had previously lacked width and penetration on the flanks.
The final member of the trio, Calvert-Lewin, has led the line superbly in the absence of last season's top scorer Romelu Lukaku. There is still work to be done on his finishing- he still snatches at too many chances- but the ex-Sheffield United striker has pushed on from scoring the winning goal in last summer's World Cup to serve as a constant nuisance for opposition defenders. Not only has he played a part in 11 goals so far this season, but he has also hustled, harried and provided the dual function of taking the ball into his chest and stretching the game in behind. It leaves defenders at a loss over whether to get touch-tight or stand off and allow him time to bring others into the game.
Overall, foundations for the trio's improvement were laid by caretaker David Unsworth, with Allardyce inheriting the club's most exciting crop of youngsters since 1998. Yet under the tutelage of the former, all three have kicked on further. The collective experience of staying in the team during lean periods and still coming out stronger should have reinforced their sense of belonging at Premier League level- and provide a platform for continued development.
Simplified roles and intelligent man-management have also seen Allardyce challenge myths about his own reluctance to blood youth. "Holgate and Kenny look outstanding young talents,” Allardyce recently told the assembled press. “I think Jonjoe is an outstanding young man at full-back, I think his choice of ball possession is first-class for a young man, his defending is excellent, and you look at our defending today from our back four and goalkeeper and they’ve given us the platform to win the game.”
It is no surprise, then, after such glowing praise, that Kenny, Holgate and Calvert-Lewin look perfectly at home in Allardyce's setup- and could even be described as important cogs in the new manager's system. Add in the likes of Tom Davies, Ademola Lookman, Nikola Vlasic and the glut of Under-23 players starring on loan in the Championship, and the future appears to be incredibly bright for a club still at a crossroads as far as its own strategy is concerned.
Under Ronald Koeman, it often felt as though there was a disconnect between short and long-term philosophies at Goodison Park. Investment came in to quickly propel Everton towards the top six, but in doing so, Everton moved further away from what makes them stand out as a club. Now, with their place in the Premier League seemingly secured- they are, after all, 10 points clear of the bottom three at the time of writing- a decision will have to be made both in January and the summer with regards to recruitment. Should youth be privileged, or can Farhad Moshiri's vision only be carried out by big-name signings?
Whatever happens on that front, though, the progress of Kenny, Holgate and Calvert-Lewin shows that supporters of a blue persuasion can feel safe in the knowledge that the foundations are there for future success. Everton's youngsters are once again the envy of the rest of the Premier League.