Youth development has long been a vital part of the Everton setup, but last season saw an unsustainable over-reliance on some of the younger members of the squad. Instead of allowing young prospects to develop at their own pace, the continued underperformance of experienced players left youngsters trying to survive in the chaos of a floundering team.
Inexplicably selling Romelu Lukaku to Manchester United without replacing him forced Dominic Calvert-Lewin into 44 appearances in all competitions last season, the most by any Everton outfield player last term. Second to Calvert-Lewin on the list was midfielder Tom Davies, racking up 43 appearances in all.
Yet while Calvert-Lewin performed admirably in a tough situation before the eventual January arrival of Cenk Tosun eased the burden on him, Davies saw his development stall. Despite his number of games, Davies failed to nail down a role in the team or regular starting berth and 17 of his appearances were as substitute. In and out of the starting XI, Davies often found himself forced to play in various and unfamiliar positions when eventually called upon.
The then-19-year-old ended a trying season looking physically and mentally exhausted, but it was hardly a surprise after a disjointed campaign for the player and Everton in general. It is also easy to forget how quickly Davies progressed through the ranks, a plateau of some sort felt inevitable after rising from a young prospect to making more than 70 first-team appearances in little over two years.
This loss of form and confidence led to Davies losing his way on the pitch, slow to move the ball, conceding possession much too often at this level. The constant shuffling around within the team certainly did not help as Davies appeared in every conceivable midfield position and even popped up at right-back or in a wing-back role on occasion.
But new regimes offer a fresh start and a chance to reset, and as Everton continue to trim the rough edges and reduce the squad to a more practical size, Davies will be among those hoping to profit under new manager Marco Silva. After replacing the injured Morgan Schneiderlin in the 2-1 win against Southampton at Goodison Park on Saturday, a first start of the season looms for Davies when Everton visit Bournemouth this weekend.
Davies was a steady presence in the Southampton win, not hugely influential but certainly effective. The only attack-minded player not dispossessed or conceding possession through poor control, his 88 percent pass accuracy was second only to the player he replaced. It offers hope that Davies has learnt from his struggles last season, as there were no unnecessary risks and the speed at which he recycled possession seemed noticeably quicker.
Davies needs a clearly defined role, something former managers Ronald Koeman and Sam Allardyce failed to provide, though the early signs under Silva are encouraging.
"The way the manager plays suits me and the way he wants me to play is how I like to play and see the game," Davies told the club website. "It's high tempo. He wants me to press, get forward, be a box-to-box midfielder. That's how I want to play, really, so it's good to have that sort of freedom and role in the team."
Adept at pressing the ball and capable of playing quick intricate passes, while also possessing underrated vision in the final third, Davies finally has the platform to succeed. With Silva adopting a possession-based outlook with the ball and a more aggressive pressing style without it, Davies should be at home in this new setup. Getting the 20-year-old midfielder enjoying his football again seems half the battle.
Davies attracted a lot of criticism last season, much of it unnecessary, and it is worth noting that it was not all that long ago that he scored his first goal for the club while orchestrating the heaviest league defeat of Pep Guardiola's illustrious managerial career. It was January 2017 when Davies masterminded a 4-0 dismantling of Manchester City, and that was a performance born from having the licence to push forward. His man-of-the-match display on the day included his first goal for the club, with the trickery, direct running and deft finish highlighting his main attributes.
There is enough evidence prior to his struggles in the latter stages of last season to suggest Davies has the qualities to succeed at this level, those attributes merely need unlocking on a consistent basis, and Silva and his forward-thinking style of play could be just the answer.
The youngster can hopefully use the disappointment of last season as a learning curve, as this now appears the ideal environment to help him rediscover his form and live up to the potential evident during his breakthrough season in 2016-17.