If memory serves, I did a pretty good job rating the players Leicester City acquired last summer:
- James Maddison - I expected him to do well, and he did quite well indeed.
- Ricardo Pereira - I expected he would be the right back that Claude Puel needed and, after a couple of iffy early performances, he was.
- Rachid Ghezzal - I expected him to struggle and he certainly lived up that billing.
- Danny Ward - I expected he would not play during any league matches and I think that was spot-on.
- Jonny Evans - I expected him to be a mediocre squad player who would be taking time from our exciting young centre-halfs like Filip Benković and Çağlar Söyüncü.
Yeah, about that last one...
Evans was coming off a disappointing season for relegated West Bromwich Albion. Now, a relegated defender isn’t always a bad thing, but, from a statistical standpoint, Evans looked to be a player in decline:
A deeper dive into the numbers supported this conclusion:
His tackles were down, his interceptions were down, and he wasn’t blocking shots either. To my untrained eye, I just didn’t see what he would add to the squad.
It didn’t help that Evans got off to a rough start. Wes Morgan managed to get himself sent off twice in the early going, forcing Evans into the starting lineup before he’d truly settled in. Playing further forward than he was accustomed to, he looked out of sorts and struggled to balance his defensive duties with Puel’s requirement that he be a ball-playing centre-half. I wasn’t especially happy about it, but it looked like I was being proven right about Evans.
You may have to turn up the contrast to see Evans’ heatmap against Arsenal early in the season. He is, quite literally, all over the place. He’s seldom touching the ball, and when he is, he’s either near the centre circle or on the opposite side of the box from where you’d expect him. The early returns from this signing were not looking good.
As it turns out, that wasn’t the real Jonny Evans. Starting around 1 December, Evans was in the side on a fairly regular basis. As he grew more comfortable with the side and the system, he began to show us what made him a mainstay and a fan favorite at West Brom.
That’s more like it. Even though we lost to Man City, it was a brilliant defense performance and Evans was a big part of it. Importantly, most of his touches were in areas where you would want him to be. There are rather a lot of them because it turns out that Man City are a pretty good side and keep the pressure on the defense, but Evans was up to the challenge.
If that heatmap brings to mind an old-school centre-half who stays in his area and puts defense first, I think think you have the right idea. From a statistical standpoint, there’s one thing that Evans does better than anyone else in the Leicester side: he clears the ball to safety.
Evans averages over six clearances per match, by far the best of any Leicester player. That puts him in the top ten in the Premier League. Maybe I’m showing my age here (when are you not showing your age, Jake?), but I find a defender who will hoof the ball clear of danger refreshing. I know managers want centre-halfs who will play the ball out of defense, but nothing frustrates me more than seeing a defender caught in possession when he tries to be clever on the ball.
With Evans:— LCFCFoxes.com (@LCFCFoxes_com) May 16, 2019
11 Clean sheets
28 Goals conceded in 2,355 minutes played (A goal conceded every 84 minutes)
2 Clean sheets
23 Goals conceded in 1,515 minutes (A goal conceded every 66 minutes)
£3.5 million. Bargain of the season! #LCFC pic.twitter.com/bNMaXle8uJ
Evans isn’t poor on the ball by any stretch of the imagination, but he’s at his best when he plays within himself. Let him set up shop in his own half and he’s a quality defender. He is, in fact, a much better defender than I originally thought. I was unimpressed when we signed him; now he’s one of my favorite players to watch. He just doesn’t make mistakes and, more importantly, he doesn’t put himself into a position to make a mistake.
So, let me own up to this one: I was dead wrong when it came to signing Jonny Evans. I thought he was, at best, a squad player. He’s much, much more than that. He’s a fine, old-school defender who is at home at the highest levels of the game. Jonny, I’m sorry I doubted you.