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

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.

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