It’s difficult to grasp many salient takeaways after under-21 international matches, but in the case of Everton’s Gerard Deulofeu, whose hat trick and pair of assists in Spain’s 5-1 win against Georgia were followed by a brace in Croatia five days later, a pair of glittering showings were indicative of his very recent rise.
As one of the most experienced players in this bright La Rojita squad, Deulofeu shouldered responsibility. He wanted the ball and used it wisely, driving at opposition defenders and setting a strong example to his younger, more capricious counterparts. Donning the captain’s armband, these were mature displays from a player previously accused of shirking his collective duties.
“He is playing very well,” said under-21s boss Albert Celades in the aftermath of the Georgia win. “He is captain and takes on that responsibility. We want to keep going like this in attack, where he stands out, and also in defence where he is improving.”
Deulofeu’s growth has come a lot quicker than many expected. Cast aside by Sevilla boss Unai Emery with accusations of a poor attitude ringing in his ear, the previous term was one to forget for the former Barcelona man. So he headed back to Goodison Park, where he had previously shown flashes of potential in a loan spell, on a mission to salvage his previously stellar reputation.
Moments of magic were anticipated by Everton fans, laced with an inevitable degree of frustration which accompanies any young player, especially wingers. But since making a scintillating substitute display in the League Cup against Barnsley, helping Everton recover from a two-goal deficit at halftime, the former Barcelona man has blossomed.
Already this season, Deulofeu has bettered the assists return from his first stint at the club, nabbed a couple of key goals and has provided the Toffees with an incisive edge which was so scarce last season. Indeed, the winger has registered more league assists than any player 21 or under in Europe’s top five leagues this season, despite only playing 441 minutes of league soccer.
His refinements extend beyond bolstered figures, though. As is the case with any 21-year-old, managers will seek tangible signs of improvement, rather than a player contented with their lot. Deulofeu has done exactly that, adding a regular end product to the darts down the flank that would either finish with a gasp of amazement or annoyance from the crown.
His crossing has been magnificent this season. Wary of his pace, perhaps, Premier League defenders have been happy to drop off Deulofeu, trying to negate his sharp turn of foot. Where he’d once be enticed into contest with the fullback, the former La Masia golden boy is now happy to lift his head up and fizz crosses into a dangerous area instead.
Everton’s comeback win at Barnsley was down to a couple of dazzling Deulofeu crosses, as was their recovery from two goals down against West Bromwich Albion earlier in the campaign. They’re pacy, devilish and accurate deliveries; again, something that has given the Toffees a refreshed attacking outlet.
Deulofeu’s sudden propensity for arrowing driven through balls into the path of his teammate had provided another refreshing element. It was something on show with the pass to Ross Barkley, who scored Everton’s goal in the 2-1 loss at the Emirates Stadium, and in the previous couple of games before the international break, he’d produced stunning passes to release Romelu Lukaku to score.
These sorts of attributes will ultimately set Deulofeu apart from a bread and butter wide player. Not only does it give the Spanish international an array of skills to call upon when the ball at his feet, but it creates doubts in the mind of opposition defenders. Get tight, he’ll knock it past you. Stand off, and Deulofeu has shown he can thrive with time and space.
It’s an indecision in the opposition which will enrich his teammates’ qualities, too. Lukaku and Barkley are both at their best when isolating defenders and bursting into space. Deulofeu, who has had players doubling up on him in recent weeks, can help facilitate that by drawing men across. So perhaps it’s no surprise that Deulofeu-Lukaku is the most common assist-goal combination in the Premier League this season (five times); no wonder the Belgian striker branded his teammate as “the supplier” on Twitter recently.
Naturally, there are improvements which can still be made. Defensively, the former Barcelona man can be a little bit lazy, while his penchant for going to ground easy doesn’t sit well with a lot of soccer romantics. He also needs to become a little more composed in front of goal, making his strikes for Spain under-21s all the more encouraging. Consistency is also key, especially with the Toffees set to embark on a favourable run of fixtures.
Signs are overwhelmingly positive, though. It can be tough for players who leave Barcelona to develop elsewhere, especially those who have been molded in the La Masia way. Deulofeu’s decision to embark on a new challenge this summer is not one a lot of the club’s young players would have taken, and although there’s a long road ahead, it’s a bold choice looking increasingly likely to be vindicated.
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