We need a centre-back. We don’t need a centre-back. We need a centre-back again. Everton are signing a centre-back. That goes some way to portraying the way the club’s transfer window has gone in terms of attempting to bolster Carlo Ancelotti’s defence this summer. Links to Gabriel, Jean-Clair Todibo and Fikayo Tomori have come and gone, for the club to eventually decide on 22-year-old Ben Godfrey “after the Blues made it clear the Norwich City defender is their first-choice target” – of course he was.
As I’ve commended previously this summer, with Allan signing from Napoli following rejection from Pierre-Emile Hojbjerg, there is a much-welcomed sense of coherence in Everton’s transfer planning from Brands and Ancelotti. Whilst the Director of Football and Manager/Head Coach may be spinning plates, simultaneously building for the short and long term of the club, the proof is there that for once, the club might actually know what they want.
The beforementioned centre-back targets, Gabriel, Todibo and Tomori, and now Godfrey, all have a similarities not just in position, but in age, style of play, comfortability on the ball, recovery speed and most importantly, potential. Though it wasn’t always certain whether Everton actually wanted a centre-back this summer or not, it was fairly obvious what type of defender they wanted.
It doesn’t take a lot (explains why I’ve written over 4,000 words on the topic) to describe who Ben Godfrey is, and what he could grow to be. His key attributes are already so prominent despite his age, and the same goes for his flaws. The England u21 international is very much what you’d expect from a former-midfielder-turned-defender. But what are Everton actually getting? What does he bring straight away? What needs working on? And how far can he go under Carlo Ancelotti?
Player ID –
It only takes a short look at the former Norwich defender to understand what you’re going to get; he isn’t the tallest but is generally fine in the air, he’s surprisingly quick considering his stature, he comes across as a significant leader in a side that on the whole, is or at least was, fairly inexperienced, he’s tremendous on the ball, as seen below, his switches of play with his right peg are some sort-of trademark. But like noted, he is only 22, an although there are some big positives that come with that, he does at times show signs of naivety, whether it be making the wrong pass or turn, or choosing to overplay rather than clearing danger, or switching off when you’d rather he didn’t.
I previously name-checked Godfrey in my centre-back piece back in June, whilst he wasn’t among my top picks, he was good enough to be seen as an alternative having particularly impressed me during 18/19, in Norwich’s championship winning season, before a relatively sound debut campaign in the Premier League. It’s in that write-up that I mention Godfrey’s history as a midfielder, in which he played there for both York City and Shrewsbury Town as he grew in the lower leagues. It was under Paul Hurst, and in midfield, for Shrewsbury that he first started to make a name for himself among the ‘twitter scouts’, Godfrey was an integral part to their promotion push (reaching the League One play-off final) as he played predominantly as their main defensive-midfielder. He played just twice at the back that season, accumulating 30 minutes of game-time across the two games – as opposed to the 3,511 mins in midfield.
Following his return to Norwich, it was Daniel Farke who adjusted his role, with Godfrey instead pushing back into defence to play another key role in another promotion charge. And you’d think, that’s what Everton are buying, Ben Godfrey, the defender. But versatility is massive – Ancelotti has already proven in his 10 months in charge that he’s willing to alter systems during games, whether it be tactically or structurally, and quite simply, the more players you have who are capable in more than one position, the better.
Short-term at least, I’d expect Godfrey to be seen as a centre-back for the Toffees (or even a right-back), but with Mina & Keane playing arguably their best football for the club, whilst Holgate, Branthwaite and Gibson still exist too, there is a definitely a possibility that Godfrey slowly moves into midfield overtime, especially if JP Gbamin never returns to the player we actually bought.
When watching Godfrey in games from both the Championship and Premier League, it’s obvious as to why he could play both positions fairly comfortably. The two biggest assets the former York man has, is his ability on the ball and his general physique. What was most notable from Norwich last season was their confidence and determination to continue with their possession-based style, even against the better, high-pressing sides. This did lead to both impressive and horrific periods of play, but it demonstrated the type of belief and fearlessness with the ball that Godfrey will bring, though the Park Enders may not appreciate, it will more than certainly be the type of attribute that attracted both Brands and Ancelotti.
His ball-playing skills will be the go-to thing when describing the defender, rightly so, but his physique is just as imperative and will be arguably a lot more significant to the current Everton side. With both Mason Holgate and Jarrad Branthwaite starting the season with injuries, Everton’s starting defensive pair has been Michael Keane and Yerry Mina, and let’s be honest, they’ve been superb. If it weren’t for the melon behind them, Everton’s defence would be getting a lot more praise than it actually is – lowest xGA in the league so far, 3rd lowest shots conceded, only 4 big chances conceded. Keane and Mina have been really good, but neither are blessed with pace, neither are perfect at covering space in-behind, and neither are good enough when isolated on their own at the back (see West Brom’s first goal). Ben Godfrey though, will be a nice addition when it comes to dealing with the above.
Norwich’s defending was turd last season, that was obvious, but take Godfrey’s recovery speed and his ability to single-handedly cover the gaping holes around him, then the defence would have been a lot worse. Though you’d expect Everton to be a lot stronger defensively in contrast to a side just relegated, there are some interesting similarities in style between the two teams. The side won’t be camped on its own box for large periods, Lucas Digne, like Jamal Lewis, is a full-back who spends his time more so in the opposition half than besides the left centre-back, and Keane, Mina and Holgate still have their problems when it comes to “smelling danger” so he won’t be besides any world-class partners to drag him through games. There are reasons to be cautious, and though Godfrey will take time to develop under Ancelotti & co, there’s still every reason to believe he could still make a positive impact pretty quickly.
When doing these reports this summer, one of the crucial aspects that I’ve attempted to portray is the personality/characteristic aspect that is often overlooked. For obvious reasons, I can’t go and meet the lad and find out what type of bloke he is, but you’ll probably be surprised about what you can find out from reading a few articles, watching a few interviews, and of course, watching football matches. Like, did you know he gets a “half chicken, medium spice” when he goes to Nando’s? It means absolutely nothing, but it’s nice (not really) to know…
On a more serious note, watching Godfrey’s first interview since signing is a must (obviously after you’ve read this piece), it offers a nice insight into the type of player and person we’re getting, coming across as a hard-working, humble, ambitious lad who sees his move to Everton as his big break. Of course, his performances on the pitch are what matters most, his capabilities on the ball, his awareness off it, but still, Evertonians demand a certain type of character, and for me, Godfrey fits our football club like a glove. He’s the type of signing we’d see very often under David Moyes – though prices are now far more inflated – he is a gamble (albeit not a big one), he’s someone who has worked himself up through the lower leagues, he’s also arguably got something to prove following Norwich’s dismal performance last year, and importantly, he seems absolutely delighted to join Everton.
Data Analysis –
With Godfrey, it’s fairly difficult to gauge from the data how good (or bad) the defender actually is considering the type of side he played for last season. I do personally find when it comes to measuring defenders in general, that delving into full matches or clips focusing on certain parts of his game can be far more useful then seeing how he measures up to others through the likes of tackles, interceptions etc – they won’t necessarily lead to a conclusion on his quality, or whether he should be bought or not, but they will create a decent picture into the type of player you’re going to get.
What strikes you instantly with the data-visual is how lopsided his metrics actually are, good with the ball, not so great at the actual defending part – is potentially the conclusion some would make here. He is pretty good with the ball, as already pointed out, whether it be playing through the opposition press or attacking open space through his progressive carries – he’s both comfortable and effective. The lack of defensive contribution is a slight worry, you’d possibly expect someone playing for a side who are doing more defending than others, to then have inflated numbers, Godfrey is the opposite. He does read the game fairly well, and his positioning is sound for someone largely left exposed, but there is a sense that he lacks the type of aggression that you would have got from someone like Gabriel or Tomori. Often choosing to back-off and concede ground rather than showing a bit more assertiveness in his approach, this is probably a consequence of growing up as a midfielder more than anything.
His defensive metrics aren’t the greatest but they’re also not the worst either, as proven by the MrktInsight visual as well, relatively his out-put defensively is around average and considering it’s unlikely he’s being brought in as an instant upgrade in comparison to Keane, Mina and Holgate, that’s fine. The visual particularly picks up on Godfrey’s effectiveness with the ball, especially In terms of how he can be used as a key progressor of the ball – defenders capable of finding your threatening players with pinpointing passes is a lot more efficient than someone launching into the channels and hoping something comes from it. His progressive runs (0.98 in 19/20 and 1.66 in 18/19) is definitely something to keep an eye on too, defender who don’t push on and carry the ball to exploit the space in front of them will forever be a personal pet peeve.
The defensive side of his game is definitely an area that needs developing if he is to become a regular centre-half for the Blues, and let’s be honest him being around average considering the system around him, that’s not too bad. What’s key though, is that it’s obvious he has the tools, he at least gives the club something to work with, he’s so far only shown glimpses of his ability at the top-level, and with the coaching and know-how of Carlo Ancelotti, I’m quite excited to see how far he could go.
For some reading, the numbers and metrics pinpointed so far won’t exactly portray a great deal in working out the quality of Godfrey. I’d be one of those, like yes, he averages 2.45 aerial duels won p90 but what does that exactly mean? Is that good? How does that actually compare? (Ake/BG comparison is an interesting one) In fact, a focus on aerial duels is actually a solid representation of the type of defender Godfrey is, and how that relates to how he could be used, and who besides.
Godfrey’s 2.45 aerials won last season had him in the 45th percentile compared to centre-backs across Europe’s top 5 leagues, so ahead of Mason Holgate who won just 1.84 p90 (22nd percentile, not great). This would worry me if we saw Holgate and Godfrey as a pair, which I reckon a few are suspecting is the long-term plan. My issue is (as seen below) both defenders thrive in the same areas, they’re ball-playing defenders who are fine at defending but aren’t top-level. This is another reason which leads me down the “Godfrey could return to his midfield days” route. Everton haven’t penned Holgate down to a new contract for no reason, Ancelotti seems like a huge fan, and him becoming a key part of Everton’s defence for the next five years would be a massive success story. But them two, as a pair? Together? In the Premier League? Not entirely convinced.
As you can probably infer from the above, Holgate and Godfrey are fairly similar, which is promising considering how highly-rated Mason has become over the past 10 months. Holgate is a probably just better than Godfrey currently, albeit I’d go with saying the former Norwich man has a higher ceiling, but you can see where the two defenders struggle, and opposition teams would target that unless one got considerably better in the air, and more aggressive in their defensive duels.
It’s a good job then, that we also have Michael Keane and Yerry Mina, as both complement Godfrey and Holgate perfectly. The two centre-backs are in the high-end percentile regions when it comes to winning aerial duels – Keane (4.68) and Mina (4.41) – which is a big positive, and as proven so far this season, both are really strong defenders who “love to defend”. If I’m Ancelotti (I wish), I’m splitting the four defenders in half, so they don’t play together as pairs, but you pick the best performing individuals – your best main defender, and your best ball-player. So, Mina and Holgate or Keane and Godfrey, you get the picture.
The signs are promising when it comes to the data for Godfrey, as displayed, things aren’t perfect and there is some fine-tuning needed but overall, the numbers fill me with confidence and although he isn’t as well-rounded as he could be, the potential is there. And that’s the key, it’s about him developing, it’s about Everton taking a good player from a poor side and making him better, and under Ancelotti, there’s no reason why he can’t grow considerably.
The Eye Test –
I’ve noted already in this piece that when it comes to judging centre-backs, I personally find it ‘easier’ to make conclusions through watching them. It doesn’t mean the data isn’t as important, it is, the judgements I make practically concur with his metrics anyway, I just perceive the context to those numbers as a tad more important in comparison to other positions.
As suggested with the data though, it’s the defensive side of Godfrey’s game that is probably the most concerning or at least the area that needs developing first. He isn’t the most proactive of defenders albeit his anticipation and awareness is fine for someone who isn’t naturally a defender, he reads play well but like stated, usually prefers to step off rather than being more assertive.
The above is a good example of this; he initially reads the game well, tracks the run of Calvert-Lewin (nice example of his recovery speed too) and matches up to him 1v1. Then instead of forcing Dom wide, or attempting to nip the ball away from him, he sits off and opens the space for Calvert-Lewin to get his shot away. It’s not the worst example of decision making in fairness, Calvert-Lewin is a fairly poor long-range finisher anyway, and by not engaging he makes time for his defensive partners to get back. But you see my point.
For Godfrey to improve though, the clip from the away fixture at Leeds in 18/19 is a solid example of what I’d want to see more of. He follows his man, aware of the space and bodies around him, and intercepts the ball when he sees an opportunity to do so. For me, it’s all about Godfrey’s confidence in his ability and belief in those around him. We’ve seen first-hand the impact that changing partnerships or weak midfields can have on individual defenders, Michael Keane the prime example of that over the last few years.
It’s plausible though, that these flaws come from his history as a midfielder, and it’s why moving him back there sometime in the future could be an option for the Toffees. Similar to Holgate, he’s guilty of switching off and losing track of runners in-behind, or just failing to act quick enough when dealing with clever movement from opposition strikers.
This is maybe a harsh example, Sergio Aguero is an elite mover in the penalty area, constantly scanning, constantly a nuisance for defenders. Godfrey, who I’ve praised already for his physique and his ability to cover ground in-behind, he’ll massively benefit Ancelotti’s attempts to play a high-line, but he can come unstuck in tight spaces. Like most have commented on social media since the move, he’s a unit, which is great, but it also means that when he’s caught flat-footed, he can come across a bit useless.
Again though, the signs are there that with the right coaching, and once certain things are ironed out, then Everton will find themselves with a fairly competent defender. He’s raw, he’s still progressing and developing, and whilst Daniel Farke has generally worked wonders when it comes to the maturing of Norwich’s youngsters, I wouldn’t exactly say that he’s one of the best defensive coaches in the game. Ancelotti on the other hand…
In theory, the piece could finish at this point, I’ve mentioned already his prowess on the ball, he generally has the skillset Ancelotti supposedly wants, he definitely fits the bracket the club wanted when compared to Gabriel and Tomori, I’ve also mentioned his defensive frailties too and his (sort-of) shortcomings when it comes to statistical out-put. That seems to sum up what Everton are getting pretty well. But it felt like poor form if I didn’t mention his delicious switches of play, and his magnificent ball-carrying ability in full.
Some people like their defenders to primarily be good defenders, me too, but I’m not convinced your defensive set-up is at its peak until you’ve got yourself a centre-back that can consistently hit perfect ‘diags’ in aesthetically pleasing ways.
There is more to it then just the joys of what it looks like on the eye, even if the aesthetics are tough to look beyond, a defender that can effectively and consistently switch play or carve through opposition teams with his passing range is a huge asset to have. The two clips below, against Leicester and QPR are nice portrayals as to why.
The Leicester clip represents how integral these switches of play can be in relation to breaking through high-pressing sides (granted, Leicester’s press here is fairly weak). Godfrey’s pressured by James Maddison, not in the hope that he’ll directly win the ball back, but by forcing a poor pass that will indirectly lead to Norwich turning over possession. A defender without his vision or passing range, instead lays it off to A. Tettey next to him, then forcing a more intensive pressing trigger from Leicester or plays square to K. McLean. Instead, Godfrey opens up and switches to Max Aarons, cuts out half the Leicester side, and creates an offensive situation from nothing – fairly sure Norwich score from this too.
The QPR clip is fairly similar, though the opposition have no intention of pressing Godfrey, he chooses against the simple pass and pre-assists another goal.
An extra layer to this is if Godfrey plays from the left, his diagonals will be directed straight to the side’s most important player, James Rodriguez. It’s not often the Colombian is left in space, and as the season continues the likelihood is more sides will tag-team, man-mark him, you name it. One way around this is to force the press on one side, attract the opposition to the left, before quickly spreading out-wide to the right. Pep Guardiola himself has spoken on this topic and the importance of switching the play, theoretically you “invite the opponent to press. You have the ball on one side, to finish on the other”.
One of the strengths of Godfrey is his passing range, that’s obvious, he’s often composed and evidently knows when to be more adventurous with his passing and when to just rotate or retain possession, but he also trusts himself to carry into dangerous territory when other options are poor. At Shrewsbury and when in midfield, Godfrey often displayed how press resistant he was, evading one player before taking on another. His defensive reliance was key in League One, but his progressive ability was something that really stood out even at that level.
Fortunately, it’s an attribute that hasn’t depreciated since his move to midfield, in fact his number of progressive runs p90 has increased to 0.98 and 1.66 in his two seasons at centre-back, compared to 0.73 times p90 whilst at Shrewsbury. As pinpointed already, centre-backs that don’t push up into open space when in-possession is something that personally grinds on me.
Godfrey, meanwhile, is both an effective ball progressor and carrier, bettering all of Everton’s centre-backs in terms of ‘yards progressed’ and passes into final 3rd p90 (425 yards and 2.59 passes). Below is the type of progressive characteristics that you can expect from the defender:
With Norwich playing out from the back, Godfrey is pressed onto his left-foot (almost to deny him the possibility of a long switch with his right peg), the centre-half sort-of improvises. Rather than playing safe or forcing the ball long, he pushes forward, carries it beyond the pressing Leeds player and carries possession into the middle third. In isolation, this may only seem small, but Everton need their centre-backs (and goalkeeper) to be clever with possession, against certain sides the midfield (who act as connectors in getting the ball to James & Richy) will be cut-off, and it’ll be up to them to force the ball into dangerous areas.
As conveyed throughout this piece, it’s Godfrey’s passing and progressive ability that is most appealing, it will always be the most eye-catching part of his skillset. It will get better too, there are still periods of bad decision-making and times of mindless, over-playing, but with better teammates he’ll also find that the same type of passes that he made at Norwich will now become far more effective simply because the level around him has stepped-up.
Having spent that last week or so watching games from the Championship and Premier League, I’d like to think I’ve created a decent picture in relation to what Ben Godfrey actually is. His core strengths are well-defined, which is a big positive, but so are his flaws. His has some way to go to reaching his peak and considering the buzz around Finch Farm at the moment, you’d like to think he’ll hit the ground running.
In general, the overriding feeling towards this transfer should be fairly positive, and in theory is one that I’d like to see Everton make more off. There will be no transition period to the league, he’s only 22, the price is decent when you compare it to the £50m price-tag that was being pushed around last summer, and as mentioned, he comes across as a lad who seems proud to be a new Everton player, rather than a last-big-payday-type.
For me, this is a proper 7-8/10 type transfer, right now the defender is decent, he could potentially get a lot better and the signs are there that that could happen pretty quickly. At best, Godfrey goes on to explode and his price tag triples within the next 2/3 years, or at worst, he stays around the level he’s currently at, which would most likely be fine.
Evertonians will love BG, and I hope BG turns out to love us too, even if he doesn’t entirely fulfil or maximise his ceiling here, there’s every possibility he becomes a fan favourite at the club, similar to another midfielder-turned-defender that we signed from a relegated team.