Michael Keane is proving his leadership credentials at the heart of Everton’s back four – and the “commanding” centre-half will continue to flourish under the guidance of Marco Silva.
That is the view of Graham Stuart, the former Everton attacker who has witnessed Keane establish himself as a cornerstone of Silva’s ambitious team.
Keane has formed a solid defensive alliance with Kurt Zouma, the duo teaming up to help Everton win four of their past five Premier League matches and record two clean sheets in the process.
Zouma will miss out against parent club Chelsea on Sunday but Stuart insists whoever steps into the Frenchman’s shoes will be aided by the assured presence of Keane beside them.
The 25-year-old has won 53 aerial duels this season – the fourth most of any Premier League defender despite missing two matches injured.
It is a measure of the intrepid football encouraged by manager Silva that Keane is averaging 49 passes per match this term – nine more than he was making on average in games last season.
In Everton’s 3-1 victory over Brighton & Hove Albion on Saturday – when Keane kept in-form striker Glenn Murray on a tight leash – the former Manchester United player struck 12 passes into the final third of the pitch, a tally bettered by only six players across the weekend’s 10 top-flight fixtures.
“Michael was very impressive against Brighton; Richarlison and Idrissa Gana Gueye received a lot of the plaudits but there were good performances all over the pitch and Michael’s was one of the best,” Stuart told evertonfc.com.
“He is showing all the Evertonians what a really good defender he is – and in some respects he has a lot of room to develop even further because he is a relatively young man.
“He looks very comfortable at the Club now. I think the consistency of personnel in the back four has helped and he has developed a strong partnership with Kurt Zouma. But Michael being in such commanding form will make it easier for whoever gets the nod to come in for Kurt at Chelsea.
“Michael was playing alongside strong personalities in his first season at the Club but he is showing now that he is a leader at the back. His confidence is high, which is a result of being settled and consistently playing well.”
Keane is hitting the mark with nearly 82 per cent of his passes this term – up more than four per cent from his 2017-18 figure – and against Brighton completed 82.5 per cent of his 63 passes.
He is mixing up his distribution, too, and in the victory over Crystal Palace last month it was Keane’s ball over the top which sent Cenk Tosun streaking through to wrap up the three points for his side.
“In an ideal world, you want the ball played on the floor," said Stuart, an FA Cup winner with Everton in 1995 and scorer of 31 goals in 161 appearances after joining from Chelsea in 1993.
"It is the modern way to build from the back and play nice, intricate football. It is far easier as a midfielder or forward to receive the ball on the floor. But you also have to play balls down the middle and into the channels to vary your game and prevent the team from becoming predictable.
“Michael is very good at making the right decisions and picking the right pass at the right time.
“If we can play from the back and produce attractive football, then that is great – but there is also a time when you have to smash it in Row Z, so your decision making has to be correct.”
Keane joined Everton from Burnley in summer 2017 and played 30 Premier League matches in his debut Goodison Park campaign.
He started this season strongly and was on the scoresheet at Bournemouth, where late in the match he sustained a hairline fracture of the skull in an accidental collision with midfielder Gana.
Keane recovered in quick time and was back in Everton's side for the trip to Arsenal four weeks after being hurt.
He has been on the winning team in 56 per cent of his Premier League matches under Silva – an improvement of 26 per cent on his success rate last term.
The centre-back is proving a danger in opposing penalty areas, too. He has aimed 15 efforts at goal this season – only wing-back pair Matt Doherty of Wolves and Chelsea's Marcos Alonso among Premier League defenders have taken more shots this season.
“Everton have some very powerful players in the air and Michael is one of them,” said Stuart. “If we have good delivery from wide areas, especially from set-pieces, we carry a real attacking threat in those situations.
“I think Michael can get half-a-dozen goals this season which would be great for a centre-half.
“It was vital for him to have a good pre-season and it is almost inevitable as a defender you will pick up an injury somewhere along the line.
“But his core fitness was there – and it is credit to the staff at Everton that the team looks exceptionally fit and strong.
“The manager works the players hard and they are aware of what is expected from them.
“That is ideal as a player – you don’t want any grey areas, you just want to know exactly what is expected from you.”
Keane won the last of his four England caps in a World Cup qualifying match in Lithuania in October last year.
Three Lions boss Gareth Southgate was at Goodison to watch Everton beat Brighton ahead of naming his latest squad this week for forthcoming matches against USA and Croatia.
Keane won 14 of his 16 England Under-21 caps with Southgate as manager, while all four of his England appearances have come under the current boss.
“Gareth has been at Goodison on a fairly regular basis and I am certain he will be monitoring Michael’s form,” added Stuart.
“He knows what Michael is all about and will recognise he is playing consistently well.
“It is a difficult squad to get into, especially in Michael’s position, where there is such a good pool of young players.
“But Kyle Walker has played as a third centre-half and if I was Michael Keane, I’d be looking at that and thinking there could be an opening if I keep playing so well on a consistent basis.
“If he doesn’t make it into this squad, he just has to keep doing what he is doing, continue working hard and force his way into the next one.”