It wasn’t supposed to end like this. When Gerard Deulofeu jinked through the Stevenage defence on an August evening in 2013, before picking his spot in the bottom corner and somehow squeezing the ball into it regardless of how many bodies were in the way, Goodison Park went wild with delight at the potential of this 19-year-old Catalan whose name they couldn’t yet spell or pronounce. However, three and a half years later, via Sevilla and back, the winger has had to leave to AC Milan on loan in search of playing time. If it wasn’t supposed to end like this, then what went wrong?
It certainly can’t have helped the player to have kicked off the 2016/17 season after spending the first summer months nursing knee ligament damage, while the replacing of Roberto Martinez – a coach he developed a special bond with – with Ronaldo Koeman was another challenge for him to get to grips with.
Yet his impressive performances in pre-season – some of them playing as a No.9 – suggested that the Catalan was set for a breakout year in 2016/17, what would be his second full season since being signed permanently from Barcelona in the summer of 2015 for a fee of around £4-5 million. That hasn’t happened, with the player providing just one assist and failing to score a single goal for the Toffees in the first half of the season, even if he netted a couple on Spain Under-21s duty.
Not only was he not scoring or assisting, but he was eventually hardly getting on the pitch and his playing time was gradually falling as the season marched on. He played 43 minutes on average across the matches in the month of August, a total that fell to 32 minutes in September, 24 minutes in October, and 16 minutes in November, while his average run-out in December was 19 minutes, a month in which he completed his only 90 minutes of the season, against Watford.
Although the Blues lost that Watford clash 3-2, he played very well and there was hope that the performance could spring him on to more regular playing time, but an average of 11 minutes per match in January and a complete absence from the derby squad list soon made it clear that he’d have to leave Merseyside, at least for the remainder of the season.
His failure to win over Koeman was not for the want of trying, as Deulofeu has been quite explicit in his love for Everton and his desire to do what it takes to make Goodison Park his footballing home. Yet the Dutchman wasn’t enchanted by the now-22-year-old’s silky skills, burst of pace and crossing ability, demanding more from his young talent.
It’s unfair, though, to label Deulofeu as a selfish player, a description often unfairly attached to him. He may have often failed to play a pass at the right time or dribbled past one extra defender before delivering a cross into the box, but those were generally errors in decision-making as his ultimate aim has always been to assist his teammates if he could not score himself, something Romulo Lukaku admitted on Twitter that he will miss. He has perhaps even been too inclined to pass to a teammate instead of shooting during his career, a criticism that led many in Seville to consider him over-Barcelona-ised. When you consider that the 19 assists of his Everton career are more double his goalscoring tally of eight, it is clear that Deulofeu was a team player in the sense of trying to create chances.
However, the problem may have been that this was all he tried to do. He may have been generous in working hard to tee up his attacking teammates, but few Evertonians will remember him for his exploits in the defensive phase. As Deulofeu himself said when asked by the Liverpool Echo, “I need to score goals and I need to make assists because if not then I am not Geri.”
He may be Geri if he focuses on scoring goals, but that attitude often ended with Geri sitting on the bench, with Koeman preferring players who would work even harder when out of possession. The Dutchman wasn’t asking Deulofeu to track back and guard the penalty area alongside Ashley Williams and Phil Jagielka when the ball was lost, but was simply demanding that his attacking players pressed opponents high up the pitch. “I like [creative players like Deulofeu and Mirallas], but they need to run more,” the Everton coach said on the matter. “They need to do more and they need to press more. It’s all about the work rate of the player. Sometimes it’s difficult because for that creative player you’re sometimes a little bit sloppier in that aspect of football.”
Looking to the future, there is still a chance that Deulofeu could save his Everton career and feature regularly from next season onwards, but that is only likely to happen if he returns from Milan with the defensive attributes Koeman is looking for. At the tender age of 22, it is certainly not too late for him to learn these skills. If he doesn’t, though, then the final chapter of the Deulofeu-Everton love story may have already been written.