With the goalkeepers done (read here), it’s on to the centre backs. Everton need at least one new centre back, there’s no debating that. At 34, Phil Jagielka’s best years are far behind him, Ramiro Funes Mori just isn’t good enough (it comes to something when a professional centre back is more adept at barbecuing meat than he is at passing a football) and Ashley Williams has been a more than underwhelming addition. With the seemingly never-ending poor defensive displays throughout this season, Everton’s defensive recruitment could be their most important. However, the difficulty that Everton will have is that top defenders will be in demand this summer, so they will need to look further than the obvious names to find centre backs capable of taking the side to the next level. So here are five options that could do just that:
1) Harry Maguire
With Michael Keane reportedly set to return to Manchester United, it seems that Everton may have to look elsewhere if they are to sign a centre back with Premier League experience. At first glance, Maguire may seem like a very basic, ‘no nonsense’ centre back. However, cast your mind back to Everton’s 2-2 draw with Hull in December. At 1-1, Maguire brings the ball down in his own half, comfortably dribbles through Everton’s midfield and then wins the free kick from which Robert Snodgrass scored Hull’s second goal, with some help from Joel Robels, to be fair. In the return fixture, until Hull were reduced to ten men, Maguire comfortably dealt with the threat of Romelu Lukaku, more than can be said for Michael Keane. As well as being comfortable on the ball, Maguire has won 69% of his aerial challenges this season, the most on this list of options. Maguire has also developed into something of an important figure of leadership within the Hull dressing room during the season, becoming one of the main figures associated with the ultimately misplaced belief that the club could perform the great escape. With only one year left on his deal, as well as his public desire to leave after Hull’s relegation, Everton would be well placed to sign Maguire for a reasonable price. While he may not be the marquee signing that some want to see, Maguire would by no means be a signing that should be sniffed at and would be a significant defensive improvement.
2) Ramy Bensebaini
During loan spells with Belgian side Lierse and then Montpellier in Ligue 1, the 22 year old Algerian showed promise, albeit not on a consistent basis. His qualities were enough to convince Stade Rennais to offer him a long-term contract last summer and such faith has been greatly rewarded. It has been this season with Rennais that Bensebaini has shown the consistency that was previously lacking from his game. Performances against Lyon and Monaco aside, the Algerian has flourished at Rennais and become one of the strongest performers at centre back in Ligue 1. Despite initially struggling to hold down a place in the starting eleven, over the course of the season his partnership with Joris Gnagnon has become a mainstay of the Rennais side. At 6’ 2”, the Algerian has the height to make the adjustment to the Premier League easier, but he is also no slouch. A pass completion rate of 83% shows a centre back with good distribution, while 1.76 tackles won per game and a 67% success rate when it comes to aerial duels show his competency when it comes to the more traditional role of a defender. With the patterns of scouting that Steve Walsh has followed, it would not be a surprise to find the Stade Rennais centre half on his shortlist. Although Bensebaini is still slightly rough around the edges, a defensive education from Ronald Koeman could ensure that the Algerian international fulfils the potential that he has set out for himself this season.
3) Nathan Ake
After a breakthrough season on loan at Watford, Ake announced himself as an established Premier League player this season while at Bournemouth. Until his inexplicable and unnecessary recall to Chelsea in January, the Dutchman was one of the key reasons for the good form of Eddie Howe’s side. Although Ake did not get a real run in the Bournemouth side until November, his inclusion coincided with The Cherries’ best run of form of the season. Without Ake in the Bournemouth side, the difference was startling. Before his recall to Stamford Bridge, Bournemouth won 4 of their 8 games with him in the side, while after his recall they won just 3 of their next 16 games. A pass completion rate of 88% shows just how well Ake adapted to Howe’s system. In his 10 Premier League games with Bournemouth, he made no errors leading to goals, an impressive stat for a 21 year old defender. With rumours that Chelsea are looking to bring another central defender to Stamford Bridge in the summer, it seems that the Dutchman will not be afforded much first team football when he returns from Germany. While rumours of an £18m bid from Bournemouth, an offer that allegedly was not instantly rebuffed by Chelsea, do suggest that Ake’s parent side would not be against the idea of listening to offers for the versatile young defender. With the ability to play at left back, centre back and as a defensive midfielder, Ake would provide the type of versatility that Everton would really benefit from, especially considering a return to European football next season. He would also be a vast improvement on the central defenders that currently occupy the first team at Goodison Park.
4) Andreas Christensen
Another young centre back that may struggle for game time at Stamford Bridge, the Dane has had a very impressive season at Borussia Monchengladbach. With comparisons to Matts Hummells after his two year loan in the Bundesliga, the 21 year old is now an established name in German football and would be more than capable of playing for a top seven side in the Premier League. A pass completion rate of 91% this season highlights a productive level of distribution, something Everton have lacked from their centre backs. Similarly to Toby Alderweireld, Christensen timing in the tackle is evident, he has completed a significant number of tackles this season (36) and has given away few fouls (18) and only received one yellow card in the Bundesliga. Similarly to Ake, first team football may be difficult to come by for the Dane if he is to stay at Chelsea. When asked about his future, while in Germany, he has intimated that he would not be against leaving the English Champions to secure playing time in a year that Denmark can still qualify for the World Cup next summer. If that is the case, the Dane is a defender that Everton should definitely move for.
5) Yeray Alvarez
While Aymeric Laporte is again being linked with moves to Champions League clubs, it is his defensive partner at Athletic Bilbao who has impressed during this La Liga season. Despite being diagnosed and then treated for testicular cancer in December, Yeray Alvarez, known as Yeray, has performed excellently during his first season in La Liga. Describing him as a ‘budget Laporte’ would be unkind to the Spaniard, his 1.81 successful tackles per game is the highest of the five names suggested. Similarly to Mauricio Lemos, Yeray has been tentatively linked to Barcelona at times this season. It must be noted that with former Athletic Bilbao manager Ernesto Valverde being named as the next Barcelona manager, the Catalan interest in Yeray may become much more concrete. While he has shown notable defensive skills, such as bringing the ball out from the back and an impressive record in one-on-one situations, Yeray does have his weaknesses. The Spaniard may not be the most imposing aerial presence, winning just 57% of his aerial duels this season. The reported £25 million release clause would seem a reasonable amount for a player who is already playing at a high standard, with the potential to improve much further. With a large number of teams undoubtedly interested in Yeray, Everton would have to move quickly to convince the Spaniard that Goodison Park would be a good choice to continue his development. Perhaps this is one signing that the influence of Ronald Koeman could pay dividends, with his history as one of Barcelona’s most celebrated defenders. It would be something of a coup if Everton could pull it off, as they would definitely have a player capable of taking the side to the next level.