When Everton travel to Old Trafford in nine days, Rafa Benitez is expected to name a starting XI that will give some insight into his thinking ahead of the season opener.
The line-up against Manchester United in the Blues’ last pre-season friendly on August 7 is expected to be quite close to the one facing Southampton at Goodison seven days later.
So what did the two-game tour of the United States offer us in terms of clues?
When Jordan Pickford and Dominic Calvert-Lewin return from their breaks after Euro 2020, they will be in Benitez’s lineup, but the game with United could still come too soon for the pair.
With Everton looking for a new right-back and Seamus Coleman enjoying a full pre-season in the tank, the club captain is expected to start at Old Trafford.
Next to him? It seems to be winning. While Ben Godfrey and Lucas Digne have started both games in Florida, it looks like Benitez has yet to decide which of Michael Keane and Mason Holgate to start.
The makeup of Everton’s midfielder is also unclear. Assuming Benitez opts for a 4-2-3-1 formation, Allan and Abdoulaye Doucoure would be the favorites but Jean-Philippe Gbamin is in good shape and has impressed this summer.
Off wide, newcomer Andros Townsend started against Millonarios and Pumas, so it looks good to be in the lineup against United a week on Saturday and, therefore, against Southampton.
Alex Iwobi has also started both US matches and must be on Benitez’s thoughts for the opener – especially with Richarlison still out on international duty – while newcomer Demarai Gray stood out, both on the bench and from the start.
But then what about James Rodriguez? Can Everton afford not to pitch him against Southampton, assuming he’s still with the club?
Nathan Broadhead and Anthony Gordon both looked lively during their second half cameos in the USA and hopefully Benitez will find room for both in the Southampton squad.
Ah, make decisions.
Moise Kean may not want to be at Everton, but if the club’s showdown with Paris Saint Germain continues, he will still be a Blues player when the window closes.
And that being a distinct possibility, it was encouraging to see the 21-year-old find the back of the net against the Pumas last night.
Kean’s confidence visibly grew behind the goal.
Of course, you’d expect him to finish Gray’s deep ball for the first time – and the dud won’t do much to change the minds of his skeptics – but the ball kindly squeezed in. under the goalie and allowed Kean to tap into an empty net.
Sometimes strikers need a stroke of luck.
The Italian striker, who missed a great opportunity in the match with Millonarios on Sunday, suddenly had a spring in his step. He connected with a cross with an acrobatic volley that was blocked by the outstretched arm of a defender. No sanction was pronounced. Had had it, so Kean is sure he stepped up to take it.
Kean was also showing his ability to tie the game up. His best job is when the ball is in front of him, when he is allowed to run through the channels and stretch the defenses, but he also showed a skillful touch to play Iwobi in the space in the surface.
How much we see Kean in an Everton shirt remains to be seen, but if he is to stay – which could well happen – then it’s important that the 21-year-old is confident.
It might just have been a tap-in, but any goal works wonders for a center-forward.
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Formation alternative ?
The belief is that Benitez’s favorite formation is 4-2-3-1, but in the second half the new boss changed things.
Allan, Doucure and Gbamin came off the bench and Everton entered a 4-3-3 system.
Allan, largely, anchored the midfielder which allowed Doucouré and Gbamin to push further.
The midfielder looked solid and with Doucoure and Gbamin’s athleticism, the Blues looked threatening as they advanced and were able to bring in and around the box more body than they had done.
Carlo Ancelotti’s favorite formation was 4-3-3, but the lingering issue for the Italian was who to play alongside Allan and Doucoure, while Marco Silva’s second season was hampered by injuries in this area which left him with a repaired engine room.
But Gbamin is now – knock on the wood – in shape and looks stronger and more impressive with every presentation. If it stays that way, maybe Benitez can use a system Silva wanted and Ancelotti did a lot less than he wanted.
It was never confirmed, only inferred, that Ancelotti and Iwobi had this conversation about his favorite position.
But after the manager read Iwobi’s cryptic social media post last season, he played him in a No.10 role against Burnley in the next game.
The assumption is that this is where he wants to play.
It did not work. Iwobi was poor, as were Everton, but Ancelotti blamed the system around the player, not the player himself.
But the problem did not go away and Benitez inherited the Iwobi conundrum.
Word from Finch Farm, ahead of the US tour, was that the 25-year-old impressed Benitez, but will the new manager like what he saw in the US?
Against Millonarios, Iwobi wasn’t in the game for his 70+ minutes on the wing, but his 45-minute appearance – as a No.10 – against Pumas was better, but he was still very calm.
In training he has attracted attention, but on the pitch he looks like a player who is always looking, not only for a position of his own, but also for confidence.
Iwobi remains a player who has yet to convince many Evertonians while Benitez may be starting to realize that he is somewhat of a conundrum.