The Premier League can be a hostile environment for young footballers. For every prospect filled with hope, the first step is simply getting in and around the senior squad. However, once there, it is easy for a youngster’s developing talents to be crowded out by the sheer quantity and quality of more established players. And, in a league where money is far from scarce, there is always a potential new signing on the horizon, ready-made to go straight into the starting lineup.
Even if the prospect does make it to the fringes of the first team, the next step will always be fraught with risk, at least as far as Premier League managers are concerned. Missing out on the Champions League, or missing out on Europe, or being relegated to the Championship, are all real threats that are often taken into account ahead of every league fixture. In a competitive division where the rewards are so great, almost every single match has serious consequences.
And, even if the prospect does impress the manager enough to earn a starting spot, the frenetic back-and-forth and occasionally brutal physicality of the top level, as well as the relentless nature of the schedule, makes regular game time all the more difficult.
Some Premier League teams have taken the risk, however. Tottenham are the best example of a club with long term aims and a willingness to allow youth, such as Harry Kane, Dele Alli and Eric Dier, room to grow. Southampton have done similar things in recent years, cherishing and utilising an exceptional academy. And Everton look set to join them, bringing through, signing and nurturing some of the best young players in the country.
Last Saturday, the Toffees took to the pitch with the joint-eighth youngest starting lineup fielded by any Premier League team so far this season. As far as statements of intent go, this one went under the radar. But this lineup, with an average age of 25.9 years, evidenced a club with a number of reasons to be excited about the future.
Two of those reasons have been present for quite some time. Ross Barkley and Romelu Lukaku have been regulars for Everton since the 2013-14 campaign. That season was Roberto Martinez’s first at the helm after taking over from David Moyes, and the Spanish manager clearly wanted to freshen up his squad. Barkley, who had been left on the substitute’s bench while on loan at Leeds, broke out emphatically, with his fast forward forays and lung-bursting runs added some much-needed dynamism and energy to the team’s midfield, while Lukaku, with his raw power, brought an explosive cutting edge in attack.
Martinez has since gone, but Barkley and Lukaku remain. Both remain vital, too, having scored 50 per cent of Everton’s 40 Premier League goals this term. The former has endured bouts of poor form, while the latter has been persistently linked with moves away, but as it stands this duet of promising 23-year-old’s with experience belying their age continue to progress at Goodison Park.
Barkley and Lukaku are perhaps the stars of the show on the pitch, but the biggest move of last summer came off the field, when Everton announced the appointment of Ronald Koeman as manager. The Dutchman, who steered Southampton to consistently improved league positions while at the same time giving attention to their youth academy graduates, was brought in to do exactly the same at Everton. And, just over half a season in to his reign, it appears likely that he will live up to expectations.
One of Koeman’s first decisions was to introduce Mason Holgate to the team. On the opening day of the season, Holgate took to the field on the right of a back three as Everton drew 1-1 with title challengers Tottenham. The team performance wavered, with a good start followed by a rocky finish, but the 20-year-old defender looked completely at ease.
Signed from Barnsley for £2 million in 2015, comparison to John Stones were inevitable. But, while Holgate possesses the same proclivity for venturing forward and fits Koeman’s short-passing style, he also lacks the wanderlust and positional inattentiveness of his Evertonian predecessor. In his debut campaign he has won more tackles per 90 minutes than any of his more grizzled team-mates, Ashley Williams, Phil Jagielka and Ramiro Funes Mori. And, showing his offensive capability, Holgate has also won more take-ons and created more chances.
Koeman built on his introduction of Holgate by gradually bringing Tom Davies into the fold. An 18-year-old midfielder who joined Everton at the age of 11, Davies made his first appearance under the new manager against Stoke last August before setting up his first goal of the campaign against Koeman’s old club, Southampton, in January. He then kept his starting place for the welcoming of Pep Guardiola’s Manchester City, a game that could be described as his breakout performance.
In a major upset, Everton won 4-0 and Davies, with a delicate chipped finish, scored the third goal. His overall display was arguably just as impressive, showing the creativity and composure of a midfielder of much more experience. Ironically the move that led to his victory-sealing goal began with a well-timed Holgate tackle.
The fourth goal in that win was scored by another teenager, Ademola Lookman, who weeks previously had signed from League One side Charlton Atheltic for a deal that included an initial transfer fee of £7.5 million.
The intelligent defending and distribution of Holgate, the low-socked elegance and technique of Davies, and the pace and vigour of Lookman were all on show in what was undoubtedly the defining win of Koeman’s time as Everton manager thus far. And, as a consequence, Koeman’s reign has been aligned with a delightful youthful exuberance and a feeling that, even if results are inconsistent for the time being, the years to come should prove more fruitful.
There are others, too. Midfielder Kieran Dowell is highly rated at Goodison Park, as is striker Dominic Calvert-Lewin, who was signed for over £1 million last summer. Meanwhile, Jonjoe Kenny impressed during a loan spell at Oxford and has already made his Premier League bow. All of the above three are 19 years of age. Elsewhere, both Gethin Jones (21) and Callum Connolly (19) are impressing on loan in the Championship with Barnsley and Wigan respectively, while Brendan Galloway (20) has promise despite failing to assert himself upon Tony Pulis’s West Brom.
The futures of Lukaku and Barkley are uncertain both in terms of how far they will go and whether they will remain with the club. But, despite that uncertainty, under Koeman Everton are becoming the Premier League’s most exciting young team.