Michael Keane’s accomplished post-lockdown displays were prompted by the defender’s renewed focus on fine-tuning his agility during the unforeseen break in the 2019/20 season.
Centre-back Keane had already resolved to refine his game following the Premier League’s coronavirus-enforced suspension in March when an opportune phone call from old Manchester United mentor Paul McGuinness led to rounds of sessions on the player’s turn of foot.
Keane is maintaining his additional mobility work with Everton Sports Scientist and Data Analyst Luca Guerra and will leave no box unticked in his efforts to become a complete defender.
The 27-year-old, who started his 100th Everton game in this month’s meeting with Aston Villa, returned from football’s fallow period with man-of-the-match displays in games against Liverpool and Norwich City in June.
He played every minute of his side’s final nine matches, the England international’s assured form epitomised in a gargantuan performance to shutout Sheffield United in Everton’s final away game of the season.
“It is important to focus on one or two things at a time and not try to improve everything in one go,” Keane told evertonfc.com.
“I know I can pass and head the ball.
“The important thing is maintaining continuity with the footwork and movements you would make in a game.
“Not just keeping fit by running in straight lines, because as a centre-half you very rarely do that.
“It is about sharp footwork and twisting and turning, staying with runners and blocking crosses.
“There are certain ways to work on those things.
“It was a long period away from the Club and you can do more than just tick over across that length of time.
“It was a chance work on things I wanted to improve, like my physique and agility.
“That is what I did and using Paul [McGuinness] was a big thing for me.”
The teenage Keane was handed only a part-time scholarship at Manchester United and studied for A-levels at sixth-form college.
He nevertheless factored one-on-one training with former United academy coach McGuinness into his days and points to those sessions as decisive in his career ultimately taking off.
McGuinness has been National Coach Developer for the FA since October 2017.
“Paul called me out the blue [during lockdown],” explained Keane, who has been regularly targeted for praise by manager Carlo Ancleotti in the past two months.
“Someone stepping up to a higher level of coaching at United called him for advice and he was letting me know he used the one-on-one work he did with me when I was younger, and the improvement I made, as an example of how to approach the job.
“I told him I was working on certain areas of my game and had been looking at clips from my matches for ways I could improve.
“From one conversation, when he told me to send him the clips and I asked if he could help with some drills, it evolved into four or five Zoom calls for an hour or so each time.
“I’d record my drills and send them to him, then we’d study them together, going into a lot detail on my footwork and him telling me what I needed to do to improve.
“It was a big help. I am still in contact with him and hope to be for a long time.
“I have been working with one of the staff [Guerra] at the training ground two or three times a week [after the players resumed training in May following 10 weeks away] on maintaining quick feet and my change of direction.
“With the manager we have and his coaching staff you are learning every day.”
Keane has latterly been paired with 18-year-old newcomer Jarrad Branthwaite in the middle of Everton’s defence and also partnered Yerry Mina, who is 25, and 23-year-old Mason Holgate during 2019/20.
The senior figure in a quartet whose average age is 23, Keane is nevertheless entering what are commonly viewed as a centre-half’s peak years.
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EVERTON TRIO DISCUSS FAMILY, FOOD AND FOOTBALL
His appetite for defending was summed up in that single-goal win at Sheffield United.
Keane completed 13 clearances – eight more than any other player – and won all 10 of his aerial duels.
Across the campaign, he made 91 headed clearances – fifth highest in the Premier League – and was in the top 10 defenders for aerial battles won with 130.
Keane made 1,447 passes and had 1,803 touches of the ball.
And with the fundamentals of his game in good order, the player, who joined Everton form Burnley in 2017 after three years at Turf Moor, insists the oldest dog in Everton’s backline can continue learning new tricks.
“Every centre-half – especially tall centre-halves – should have a routine to practice footwork, to keep on top of it and make sure it stays sharp,” continued Keane.
“Concentrating on that has definitely helped me and is something I will continue to do.
“I am not saying I am going to be perfect but it is a work in progress and, hopefully, over time I can continue to improve and show that improvement to everybody.”