When Tom Davies was 18, expectations were sky-high. The Everton academy graduate burst onto the scene with flying colors when he scored his first goal in January of 2017.
Playing against Pep Guardiola’s Manchester City, Davies picked up the ball well within his own half. The teenager turned and surged forward, crossing midfield before finding himself trapped by two City defenders. With startling decisiveness, Davies chopped the ball infield, splitting Yaya Touré and Gaël Clichy and freeing himself in the process. Davies continued his run, eventually receiving a pass from Ross Barkley that invited him into the penalty area. Perhaps with the help of a slight deflection, Davies finished the move with a delightful chip. Even Romelu Lukaku’s unsuccessful attempt to nick the goal did little to diminish the moment.
After Everton wrapped up a 4-0 victory, the BBC named Davies as the man of the match. At the conclusion of the campaign, Davies shone yet again at Everton’s end of season awards ceremony. The Liverpool native was named Everton’s Young Player of the Year. He was honored with Performance of the Year and Goal of the Year as well for his outing against Manchester City.
In 2018, Davies became the youngest ever player to captain Everton, doing so at the age of 20 years and 60 days. To cap off his year, Davies became one of 20 players nominated for Tuttosport’s Golden Boy award, a prize for Europe’s top U21 player.
It has not always been smooth sailing since for Davies. The 22-year-old has made 12 appearances for Everton this season, starting six times in the process. At various times over the past few seasons he has been singled out by fans and pundits alike for not offering enough when he does play. This trend has reared its head again in the aftermath of a disappointing New Year’s Day defeat to West Ham, a game in which Davies started and went the full 90 minutes.
Is the criticism of Davies justified? Is it wise to call for his departure amidst Everton’s obvious struggles with depth?
Because Davies broke into the first team at such a young age, it can be easy to forget that he is still only 22 years old.
At the age of 21, Dominic Calvert-Lewin was written off by some as not contributing enough and not being good enough for the Premier League. Two years later, Calvert-Lewin has scored 11 times in 16 Premier League appearances. He currently sits tied for second in the list of league-wide goal leaders. Are the past critiques of Calvert-Lewin not extremely similar to the ones currently being leveraged against Davies?
Room to Grow
For context, let us examine what Everton’s other midfielders were up to during their age 22 seasons (FBref.com).
Fabian Delph made 24 appearances for an Aston Villa team that finished 15th in the Premier League. Allan appeared 33 times for Udinese, who finished 13th in Serie A. André Gomes played 30 times for La Liga’s 12th placed side, Valencia. Abdoulaye Doucouré made just 16 appearances for Rennes, who finished 8th in Ligue 1. Gylfi Sigurdsson had the best season of the bunch, playing 33 times for Tottenham en route to a fifth place finish in the Premier League.
This much is clear: none of Everton’s other midfielders were the same players they are now when they were 22 years old. Delph, Allan and Gomes all played for teams who were not particularly good in comparison to domestic opposition. Doucouré struggled for regular game time. Sigurdsson surpassed his goal total as a 22 year old for the next six seasons.
Delph, Allan, Gomes, Doucouré and Sigurdsson all developed and improved after turning 22. Why is Davies not being afforded the same opportunity?
Davies has played just eight times in the Premier League this season. Despite that, he has a higher xG assisted/90 than Allan, Gomes and Doucouré, all of whom have seen more game time.
It seems unfair to harp on Davies for struggling to create when more senior players who were brought in to fill that specific role are also coming up short.
Additionally, it is not as if Davies’s numbers show a lack of growth.
Davies is attempting and completing more passes/90 than he did in three previous seasons. As a result, Davies’s progressive passing distance/90 has improved for the third straight year. At the moment, Davies has passed the ball forward for an average of 197.4 yards gained per 90 minutes played. For comparison, Abdoulaye Doucouré’s progressive passing distance/90 is currently sitting at 168.3.
With the ball at his feet, Davies has also made notable strides. Davies’s percentage of dribbles completed successfully has risen considerably. His average over the previous seasons was 57.2%, but this season he is converting at a rate of 77.8%. Davies has also improved the progressive distance that he has carried the ball per 90 minutes played. In the prior three seasons, he carried the ball forward for an average of 93.2 yards gained/90. This season, he is doing so at an average rate of 123.2 yards/90.
From a defensive standpoint, Davies is winning more tackles/90 than he ever has in the Premier League. In the 2020-21 Premier League season, Davies has won 2.13 tackles per 90 minutes played. His previous high of 1.19 came in 2018-19. Davies has been asked to shoulder a larger burden in the defensive third (1.06 tackles/90 compared to an average of 0.72 in the previous three seasons). He has done so fairly well. Again for comparison, Doucouré has won 1.52 tackles/90 while attempting 1.26 tackles/90 in the defensive third.
At his best, Davies is an energetic midfielder who can progress the ball successfully by passing it or running with it at his feet. The stats reflect this, but they also reflect that Davies has made improvements in those areas this season.
Davies is a player who requires confidence around his game to perform well. He needs to trust his ability to pass forward and carry the ball in order to do so with regularity. When he does, the results can be excellent.
Take, for example, Davies’s performance against Sheffield United at the end of December.
Davies excelled in that game, passing and carrying the ball for a combined 395 progressive yards. He was rightfully recognized for his performance, just missing out on the man of the match honors to Gylfi Sigurdsson.
With Allan out injured, Davies had earned the opportunity to continue to start alongside Doucouré in central midfield.
At the age of 22, Davies should not be expected to fix Everton’s midfield problems. He should be expected to improve skills important to his style of play, while rounding out other areas of his game.
A closer look at his performance would suggest that he is doing exactly that.
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