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Everton weakness Mason Holgate needs to address for Lucas Digne advantage

Over the years, Everton have built a reputation of being a club that brings through promising prospects and beds them into the first-team.

Whether that be academy graduates, such as Tom Davies, or recruited talents reared in the U23’s before making the step up to the senior side, such as Mason Holgate.

Holgate signed for the Blues way back in 2015 and has enjoyed a promising career so far. He initially featured for David Unsworth’s reserves before making his Premier League debut a year later in a 1-1 draw with Tottenham Hotspur.

He went onto make over 30 appearances for Everton before being sent on loan to West Bromich Albion in the second half of the 2018/19 campaign. It was a key part of the former Barnsley defender’s development. He returned for the start of the last season and went onto make a solid 27 Premier League appearances under both Marco Silva and Carlo Ancelotti.

Holgate is clearly a player Ancelotti was fond of from the outset and the Italian boss was quoted last season in response to reports linking him away from the club: “I think it’s a rumour, but if it’s not a rumour I can say Mason Holgate is an important part of the future of Everton”.

While he’s clearly in the long term plans of the Everton manager, he has been restricted to just seven league appearances so far this season, predominantly as a result of a toe injury which saw him miss the start of the season and not return until early November.

Yet, the form of Michael Keane and Yerry Mina in his absence has made his task of breaking back into the side when fit again that bit tougher. He has still played in seven of Everton’s ten competitive matches since returning, however, only four of those appearances saw him playing at centre-back.

His performances without the ball in this period since his return have been more than adequate, with several strong defensive displays, particularly in victories against Chelsea and Leicester City.

However, there has been a slight inefficiency in one aspect of his possession play that has caused Everton issues when building out from defence and it could be one reason why at present, he seems to be the second choice behind Keane.

On occasion, particularly when playing as a left-centre back, it seems that Holgate has shown a reluctance to play the ball out to his left-back, whoever it may be on the day.

Instead, he seems to opt to chop back onto his favoured right-foot and play balls either to his centre-back or back to the keeper.

This issue was most prominent in the Blues defeat to West Ham at Goodison Park last weekend, when Holgate was played in place of Keane who was rested.

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Heading into the game, Everton had been in good form and overcome some top sides to secure impressive victories. Yet, the Hammers posed a different challenge. Unlike the more expansive and attack-minded teams Ancelotti’s men had faced in the weeks prior, Moyes’ men sat in a solid defensive shape for large parts of the game and presented the Toffees with possession of the ball, challenging them to break through their compact shape.

This meant that Everton’s two centre-back’s saw plenty of the ball and were often tasked with commencing attacking sequences. Key in doing so successfully however is moving the ball quickly and progressing it forward when opportunities present themselves.

This could mean playing the ball through central passing avenues into midfielders or feeding the ball out wide to build down the flank. However, the latter was often ignored by Holgate, as we see in some of the examples below.

In this first shot, the ball is played across from the right to Holgate in a central position. West Ham players had just been pressing the right side of the pitch and are therefore now in the process of shuffling over.

The Everton defender takes a good first touch and should be looking to play the ball quickly out to Ben Godfrey just out of shot on the far left.

Holgate receives the ball into feet and takes a good first touch
Holgate receives the ball into feet and takes a good first touch

Holgate doesn’t make this pass, and instead holds onto the ball for six seconds and he walks it forward. This allows the likes of West Ham’s Jarrod Bowen time to shuffle over and close down passing options on this side of the pitch. Eventually, Holgate turns away and plays the ball back to Mina.

After holding onto the ball, Holgate opts to turn back to Mina who is faced with a number of West Ham players
After holding onto the ball, Holgate opts to turn back to Mina who is faced with a number of West Ham players

A similar situation plays out again here. Everton have progressed up the pitch and the ball is played into the feet of Holgate. The bulk of West Ham’s defending players are on the opposite side of the pitch.

Bowen looks to start cutting out the passing angle to Godfrey, however, Gylfi Sigurdsson cleverly slows him down by blocking his run. This provides Holgate with a perfect opportunity to quickly feed the ball out wide to where both Godfrey and Bernard are positioned.

Holgate is presented with a good passing lane to Godfrey just out of shot
Holgate is presented with a good passing lane to Godfrey just out of shot

Instead though, Holgate’s first touch is to flick the ball back onto his right foot and turn back to the direction in which the pass originally came from before passing back to Mina.

Holgate's first touch is to cut back onto his right-foot
Holgate’s first touch is to cut back onto his right-foot

With the ball going back towards the most congested area of the pitch, Mina struggles to progress it forward and is eventually forced to turn away and play the ball all the way back to Jordan Pickford.

After receiving the pass back from Holgate, Mina is eventually forced to go back to Pickford
After receiving the pass back from Holgate, Mina is eventually forced to go back to Pickford

This reluctance to play into the left-back area could be as a result of the instructions given to Holgate from Ancelotti, after all, team tactics can so often impact an individual’s on the pitch behaviours.

Perhaps there could be some concerns about putting Godfrey, a centre-back by trade, under pressure in possession. However, it’s worth noting that Holgate’s reluctance to pass out to his left has been apparent in each of his appearances as a left centre-back this season, with different teammates playing as left-back alongside him.

The 24-year-old has played with each of Lucas Digne, Fabian Delph, Alex Iwobi and Godfrey at various stages during his time as a left centre-back so far this season. Interestingly, across each appearance – Manchester United (league), Leeds United, Sheffield United (25 minutes) and West Ham – he’s played just 15 passes to the left-back on the day.

For comparison, across roughly the same number of minutes in the same position with similar players next to him, Keane has played 26 passes to his left-back. Additionally, the former Burnley man does seem to exhibit more comfort in playing passes with his weaker foot when compared to Holgate.

Season 2020/21
Season 2020/21

It’s not clear whether this is a development need of Holgate’s, or whether it’s unfair to judge him too harshly on this point given that he is, after all, a right-footed player being played in a left-sided role.

However, as things stand, the Blues don’t possess any senior left-footed centre-back. This means the onus is on someone from the current group to play in that position and do an adequate job not only defensively but also in possession.

Everton’s play can become predictable and easily nullified if there is an efficiency like the one highlighted here, and it could be a contributory factor behind their struggles in breaking down West Ham last weekend.

With Lucas Digne making his return from injury against Rotherham United in the FA Cup, there is an increased demand in shifting the ball to that left side position.

After all, Digne is one of the most creative players for Ancelotti and has been missed – Holgate will need to be comfortable passing the ball to him more often than not.

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