In the early stages of last season, Everton's defence was on the brink of breakdown. Jordan Pickford, after a bright first campaign at Goodison and his summer heroics at the World Cup, suddenly looked nervy – the start of a long wobbly spell that would culminate with his last-gasp howler in the Merseyside derby.
Seamus Coleman’s decline appeared to be continuing inexorably, the Irishman nothing like the attacking presence of years past and seeing his place come under threat from the unremarkable Jonjoe Kenny. Michael Keane was at last playing with a semblance of authority after a traumatic first campaign, but the centre-backs competing to play beside him were varying shades of hopeless: Yerry Mina was unfit, Mason Holgate unfit for purpose and Kurt Zouma left chasing shadows by a less-than-spritely Marko Arnautovic in West Ham’s three-goal rout on Merseyside. Phil Jagielka, sent off before half-time in the opening game, would start just three more matches for the club.
Funny, then, that nine months later, Everton had finished the season with the joint-best defensive record outside of the top four, keeping more clean sheets than anyone bar the untouchable top two, and ending the campaign with a run of six shutouts in seven games. The last time they conceded at Goodison Park? February 6, against Manchester City.
Their run has continued into this campaign. Two games in, Everton are the only team whose defence is yet to have been breached, with only Pep Guardiola’s champions having allowed fewer shots on their goal. This, despite a summer in which Jagielka and Zouma – who improved enormously after his initial flounderings – left the club, while defensive reinforcements were limited to the loan arrival of right-back Djibril Sidibe (who is yet to make his debut). Last-minute interest in Marcos Rojo did little to allay fears for Everton's backline at the end of a transfer window in which the team’s defensive shield and all-action firefighter, Idrissa Gueye, had also been sold to PSG.
The underrated Gueye executed more tackles per game than any Premier League player last season, but concerns that his departure might cause Everton’s house of cards to tumble have so far proven unfounded; his ostensible replacement, the 23-year-old Jean-Philippe Gbamin, looked adept on his full debut last weekend and certainly has plenty of his predecessor’s buzzing athleticism. Morgan Schneiderlin and the newly signed Fabian Delph are the other options in deep midfield, but with the former a limited athlete and latter having not played regularly in midfield for six years, it’s Gbamin who looks best equipped to step into the breach. He was signed from Mainz for £22m, and it’s that sort of low-profile signing that sporting director Marcel Brands was hired for.
Certainly, Gbamin fits an emerging pattern of Marco Silva’s Everton, which is to stock the side with tireless labourers. Higher up the pitch, Gylfi Sigurdsson and Andre Gomes may be inventive but they are industrious, too – the pair featured in last season’s top 10 players for total distance covered and distance covered per game – while the incoming Alex Iwobi is a similarly scurrying breed of attacker. Dominic Calvert-Lewin, who established himself in the side late last season, may not be a prolific goalscorer but he is another ego-free workhorse who specialises in hounding and harrying. The silkier Moise Kean will likely lead the line eventually, but for now, Calvert-Lewin is proving that defence is the best form of attack.
Nowhere is this blend of craft and graft more apparent than in the superb Lucas Digne: the left-back brought in as a Barcelona cast-off was rightly voted last season's best performer by Everton's fans and players.
With his well-tailored suits and cosmopolitan CV, Silva may appear the archetypal modern coach, but his Everton side are founded on decidedly old-fashioned principles: patience, hard work and defensive resilience. The chronic leakiness that befell his Hull and Watford teams is nowhere to be seen, while players labouring under the pressure of big price tags have been afforded the time to play their way back into form. Encouragingly for a manager who was in danger of being written off as a man who talks a good game but delivers only a short-term hit, his imprint at Everton thus far has been one of slow, steady improvement.
This is welcome change for a club whose progress in three-and-a-half years under Farhad Moshiri – an owner on whom much hope has been placed – could generously be described as fitful. Moshiri's Everton tenure has hardly been a disaster, but the overall tone has been inconsistency and incohesion: four managers, two directors of football and an alarming number of journeyman players – many on eye-watering wages.
Yet, cast under the admittedly flattering light of recent results, Everton now look suspiciously like a club with a clear sense of what it's trying to do. A coach with a distinct way of playing; a squad of players that fit the system; a transfer strategy that finds room for both protracted mega-deals and cut-price swoops. Could this be… a plan coming together?
If so it's good news for Silva, a manager on whom the jury has been out since his time at Watford reached its unedifying end. They haven’t quite come back with a verdict yet – but he’s mounting a pretty decent case for the defence.
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