In Mason Holgate, do Everton have a natural replacement for John Stones?
Championship side Barnsley hit the jackpot last month after academy graduate John Stones moved from Everton to Mancester City. In January 2013, Stones left his hometown club to join Everton for a fee reported to be close to £3 million and, as part of the deal, the Yorkshire side insisted on a 15 per cent sell on fee. Three-and-a-half years on and this shrewd move has paid dividends, with the centre-back’s £47.5 million move to the Etihad Stadium netting the Tykes a £7 million windfall.
The South Yorkshire club’s Category Two status academy is rarely seen one of English football’s hotbeds of talent, but it may also be responsible for providing Everton’s replacement for Stones. 12 months ago, with the England international heavily linked with a move to Chelsea, the Toffees were forced to think about a future without their star defender. It was to Oakwell that they turned to yet again, this time swooping to sign 18-year-old Mason Holgate for a reported £2 million. The Doncaster-born defender had clearly shown enough, in the 22 appearances that he made for Barnsley, to suggest that he had the potential to follow in the footsteps of Stones.
Holgate may not have featured for the first team during his first season on Merseyside, but the reports were that he was making good progress as part of David Unsworth’s Under-21 side. It looked as though he would be forced to even longer for his debut as, following Stones’s eventual departure this summer, new manager Ronald Koeman was expected to bring in two centre-backs in order to strengthen a defence which possessed the joint-sixth worst record in the Premier League last term. Swansea City’s Ashley Williams was signed almost immediately after the Blues had announced the sale of Stones, but the Welshman’s lack of fitness combined with the failure to recruit another centre-back meant that Holgate was awarded his debut in the season opener at home to Tottenham Hotspur.
It was an impressive debut for the youngster, with his calmness and stylish, ball-playing style immediately eliciting comparisons with his fellow Yorkshireman. The 19-year-old has not looked back since, starting in all four of Everton’s Premier League games so far, and the comparisons have only become more frequent with every passing week. Holgate’s temperament has been complimented on by those that have worked with him, and a call up to the England Under 21 squad for last week’s game with Norway was a fitting reward for the fine start to the season that he has made.
Although Holgate began the season on the right side of a three man defence, he featured at right-back in Everton’s 1-0 victory over Stoke City prior to the international break, and looked equally comfortable in that position. His technical qualities mean that he is capable of carrying out a number of positions but it is in central defence where he is expected to ultimately end up.
Comparisons can often be a hinderance to young footballers, and Holgate has already insisted that he is keen to forge his own career path, but there are definitely similarities between the two players. Everton supporters will hope that he can soften the blow of losing Stones, and Holgate’s performances so far suggest that he has a big future at Goodison Park. His man of the match display against Stoke, in which he dealt admirably with the threat posed by Marko Arnautovic, was praised by his manager, who spoke of how impressed he was with Holgate’s recent development as well as claiming that the youngster has “big quality”.
Alongside two of the most experienced defenders in the Premier League, in Williams and Phil Jagielka, Holgate has a fantastic opportunity to flourish this campaign, and his preference to play out from the back will offer another dimension to the more physical and direct approaches of the aforementioned duo. Of course, he is far from the complete package and will undoubtedly make mistakes over the course of the season but the key attributes are there. This season he will also have the priceless experience of working alongside one of the game’s best ever defenders in Koeman, who clearly has a lot of faith in the youngster.
Everton’s transfer dealings, or lack of, may have been a source of much disappointment for many supporters, but if Holgate can continue his progress then they may at least be sorted defensively. To fully replicate the trajectory of Stones, one of the world’s most promising defenders, is a huge ask, but if his performances so far are anything to go by then the Toffees may well have found themselves another gem.
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