Keane’s Emergence from his Comfort Zone One of Ancelotti’s Early Everton Triumphs

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.

Matt Jones 21/10/2020 41comments  |  Jump to last

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.

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Reader Comments (41)

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Christy Ring
1 Posted 21/10/2020 at 17:25:13
Keane was outstanding again on Saturday, I have defended him on this site, Steve & co, who said he was too slow, a liability, doesn't it remind you of all the comments about Calvert-Lewin?
Brent Stephens
2 Posted 21/10/2020 at 17:30:50
And what about some of those long passes out of defence.
Tony Abrahams
3 Posted 21/10/2020 at 17:34:45
He's really improved, and can hopefully improve a lot more, now that he finally looks like he's got a lot of confidence in himself.
John Pierce
4 Posted 21/10/2020 at 17:56:43
Matt, just to add to my comment on Twitter, Keane's evolution has astonished me. The article outlines some key changes in his game I simply thought based on his performances to date he wasn't capable of.


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 he's realized he can step out. It really is a funny thing watching him do it. It's 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? I've 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 it's 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?

James Flynn
5 Posted 21/10/2020 at 17:58:04
Good to see Keane receiving some positive notice. He's earned it.

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.

Dale Self
6 Posted 21/10/2020 at 17:58:15
Good work here, one of the true revelations this season. I suspect we will also see a 2nd coming of the Siggy. Did it for Iceland didn't he?
Derek Knox
7 Posted 21/10/2020 at 18:51:37
Yes, Michael Keane has had something of a renaissance, when it looked ever more likely that we had overpaid for another expensive misfit. Got to give it to Michael he hasn't let it totally get him down, although reportedly he did suffer some mental issues.

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.

Colin Metcalfe
8 Posted 21/10/2020 at 19:18:11
I will hold my hand up and admit he has been outstanding since the start of the season and I can't remember him putting a foot wrong in the 8 games he's played.
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.
Stan Schofield
9 Posted 21/10/2020 at 19:22:41
Matt, great article. I don't wish to overstate anything, but this season Keane has reminded me of Franz Bechenbaur, especially with his confidence on the ball and assurance going forward. That long ball to DCL is a perfect example (and DCL's control from one foot to the other, and goal, was world class).

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.

Jay Wood

10 Posted 21/10/2020 at 19:25:03
Personally, I think Matt's opening post and some of the responses are fundamentally wrong in their assessment of Michael Keane.

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.

Kieran Kinsella
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?

Derek Moore
12 Posted 21/10/2020 at 19:33:01
In an Everton team that has started a season as well or better than at any time in over a hundred years, Michael Keane has been one of our best.
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.

Jerome Shields
13 Posted 21/10/2020 at 19:35:33
Keane has always had the ability, carrying a injury, in a badly coached defence, which did affect his confidence and performance. But all has changed and he is blossoming into the player he always was in a well coached defence.
Robert Tressell
14 Posted 21/10/2020 at 19:44:24
Really pleased for Keane. It did look as though Ancelotti wanted Holgate and Gabriel Maghaeles as our CB pairing, but fair play to Keane in particular for stepping up, being dominant in both boxes and pinging the ball around very adeptly. In fairness you could write the same sort of article about Coleman who I thought was finished as an attacking force.

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.

Mike Gaynes
15 Posted 21/10/2020 at 19:52:38
JP #4:

"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?

John Pierce
16 Posted 21/10/2020 at 20:10:24
Mike! How is giving the ball away straight to the attacker not poor with the ball? 😭 He has improved, acknowledged by myself in the comment. I mean I thought it was over for him, so kudos, a big improvement.

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 ain't 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 can't 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 ain't the answer if we are to step up. Let's be fair against an agile forward in an open system he's toast.

Let's not go overboard, improved yes, better than Mina, yes, durable, hell yes. If we are going places just a squad player for me.

Robert Tressell
17 Posted 21/10/2020 at 20:30:53
John @16, the good news is we don't play an open system. Keane would be exposed if we did (as he has been with us) - but so would a lot of classy CBs. Thiago Silva (past his best but excellent last season) looks pretty awful in Frank (the new Tim Sherwood) Lampard's Chelsea. Maguire is gradually transitioning to the new Phil Jones under Solskjaer. There's very few like, say, Ferdinand who were so good and with such physical attributes that you can trust them to shine in an open game.
Mike Gaynes
18 Posted 21/10/2020 at 20:33:14
JP, sorry, no, he is definitely not better than Mina. He is playing better at the moment, but overall Mina is the superior player.
Darren Hind
19 Posted 21/10/2020 at 20:44:32
Not sure he has been taken out of his comfort zone. I can think of at least 10 Prem teams who play a higher line than us.

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.

Paul Birmingham
20 Posted 21/10/2020 at 20:54:27
Agreed Darren, @19, the club must be ruthless, in drive on to get the best players we ca,

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.

John Raftery
21 Posted 21/10/2020 at 21:08:21
Without question Michael Keane has improved. Defensively he has been very strong while he has made a very positive impact in the opposition penalty area. All credit to him.

Some credit must also go to Ancelotti in recognising the player's 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?

Barry Rathbone
22 Posted 21/10/2020 at 21:31:31
The lack of crowds has done wonders for his confidence
Dave Abrahams
23 Posted 21/10/2020 at 21:33:52
John (21),Yes John, Ben Godfrey, I think we have got a real player here, one who can play in any system and organise the defence physically and not afraid to shout at his team mates and get them in line, I think he had a word or two to say to James on Saturday when he thought he had made the wrong pass.

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.

John Pierce
24 Posted 21/10/2020 at 21:50:15
Barcelona specs Mike. 😎
Jamie Crowley
25 Posted 21/10/2020 at 22:43:40
The ball he played over the top in the West ham game to DCL just says it all.

This is a kid who's transformed. He's playing rock-solid and with a confidence we've not seen from him ever before.

Don Alexander
26 Posted 21/10/2020 at 23:43:19
I've previously paid tribute to his stoicism in getting through a season, without a murmur of complaint, on one leg. That sort of passion matches Labby's.

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!

Don Alexander
27 Posted 22/10/2020 at 00:31:52
The Devil's advocate may just ask whether the dream-team of Walsh/Koeman deserve credit for signing Michael?

Just asking..........for a blind friend.

Lester Yip
28 Posted 22/10/2020 at 00:38:55
#5 James, well said. The first thing that come to mind is his character.

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.

Nicholas Howard
29 Posted 22/10/2020 at 02:44:34
Keane & co resurgence coincides with new midfield Allan & Decoure
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...

Stan Schofield
30 Posted 22/10/2020 at 10:36:35
Don@27: Of course the answer is yes. The reality is that the Koeman/Walsh time had positives despite not being acceptable overall. Some folks will paint it as a disaster, when in fact it was neither a disaster nor a roaring success. They also signed Gana for an absolute bargain, and brought DCL into the fold. Apart from that, what did the Romans ever do for us?
Andrew Ellams
31 Posted 22/10/2020 at 11:03:23
I think Keane is very much a confidence player and we are seeing the best of him whilst those around him are also doing well.

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.

Patrick McFarlane
32 Posted 22/10/2020 at 13:15:10
I think that Michael Keane and his defensive partners will have their work cut out on Sunday, due to the absence of Richarlison (suspended) plus James and Coleman (injured) I can't see any creativity in the side without those three and would expect a backs- to- the- wall rearguard action for most of the game at St Mary's.

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 it's not because I'm 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?

Peter Gorman
33 Posted 22/10/2020 at 15:45:24
Jose is either a moron or a RS troll.
Paul Hughes
34 Posted 22/10/2020 at 18:30:13
Keane has benefited, IMHO, enormously from the lack of crowds. It was noticeable, even amongst the dross at the end of last season, that he was more confident on the ball, and willing to try adventurous forward passes, without 35,000 people screaming at him if it goes awry.
It is to hoped, when and if we actually get back into Goodison again, that his confidence doesn't desert him.
Darren Hind
35 Posted 22/10/2020 at 19:12:03
Koeman and Walsh have been rightly slaughtered for their stint here, but if they are going to be slaughtered for their disasters. They should take credit for their successes.

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.


Jerome Shields
36 Posted 23/10/2020 at 14:29:28
Darren the difference is a winning team with a winning manager. If the Manager knows what he is doing and it results in progress, potential players want to join. If not players signed become easy targets in a poor performing team and potential players start to wonder about better career moves. . The better players tend emerge again with a better Manager, glad to get back near their original valuation.
Thomas Roberts
37 Posted 23/10/2020 at 17:39:59
For me, Michael Keane has been our best player so far this season. I also think that he's been the outstanding centre back in the Premier League this season. The improvement in his passing and obviously his goals have been a bonus. Defensively he has been a towering presence.

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.
Derek Moore
38 Posted 23/10/2020 at 21:52:22
It might indeed be time to revisit previous era of reruitment? In this last week, off the top of my head, Moise hit the bar on his debut for PSG in the league and then made his champions league debut from the bench. Klaasen hit the post against the RS in the champions league. Big Rom netted twice for Inter in the same competition.
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.
Jeff Armstrong
39 Posted 24/10/2020 at 10:08:24
Derek 38, which of that lot would you still have here?

For me, Lukaku and maybe Vlasic. Problem was, big Rom didn't want to be here.

Steve Shave
40 Posted 24/10/2020 at 10:46:42
Really pleased for Keane getting lots of praise currently. He will need to be on point against Ings this weekend though.
Martin Berry
41 Posted 25/10/2020 at 08:09:49
The combination of the player admitting he has worked on his game by identifying weaknesses ( his own admission that he needed to be quicker on the turn etc) and having Carlo as coach, has provided a platform for him to improve.
The benefits are deserved for him and Everton as a team are reaping the reward.

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