Everton shrewd in deal to sign left-back Lucas Digne from Barcelona
Spending at Everton has accelerated at such a rate that the past two years have seen them splash more than £300 million on new signings. But the £18 million signing of Barcelona left-back Lucas Digne at least hints at a level of astuteness absent in several recent transfers.
The 25-year-old defender is approaching his peak years, and his arrival strengthens a position in desperate need of additional depth and quality. Digne has a chance to push for the regular first-team football he was missing out on at Barcelona, while Everton finally recruit much-needed competition for 33-year-old Leighton Baines, who has stood as the only recognised left-back in the squad since understudy Bryan Oviedo moved to Sunderland in January 2017.
Failure to address the left-back situation has seen Baines overworked and Everton one injury away from a crisis, which became a reality last season when Baines missed 18 successive matches through injury and third-choice right-back Cuco Martina was pushed into an emergency left-back role. It is impractical to expect a 33-year-old to emerge unscathed through an entire season in a demanding league. This same lack of care and attention toward defensive recruitment has seen central defence fall into a similar state of disrepair.
Digne, meanwhile, will want to recapture the form he showed during a productive loan spell at Roma in 2015-16, as high-profile moves to Paris Saint-Germain and Barcelona provided more frustration than football. In the four seasons either side of his solitary campaign in Rome, Digne did not start more than 15 league games in a season. His two years at Barcelona amounted to just 22 league starts.
Inevitable excitement at a new signing often leads to a clamour to thrust the player straight into the team, but it is too easy to overlook those already in place. Baines has shown remarkable consistency despite nobody suffering more than him for Everton's failure to replace Steven Pienaar on the left side of midfield. (New £40 million signing Richarlison has shown early promise as the latest proposed solution in the role.) Age may have gradually slowed the marauding Baines of old, but the continued absence of an intelligent midfielder to work alongside has hurt his game just as much as the effects of time.
His longevity at this level is especially impressive under the circumstances and helps explain his status as the only defender to reach 50 Premier League assists (53). Baines has also demonstrated refreshing loyalty in a modern game short on it, never pushing for an exit despite persistent interest over the years from clubs able to offer more money and silverware.
In fact there were times under former manager David Moyes when Baines carried Everton, and this was never more apparent than the 2012-13 season. Mikel Arteta and Pienaar had left the season before, depriving Everton of their two most creative players and leaving the squad desperately short on guile and creativity. Baines took up the creative mantle in spectacular fashion and ended the season as the only outfield player to play every minute of every league game on his way to creating a league-high 116 chances.
Pienaar eventually returned in the January transfer window, Baines seamlessly continued his excellent form and the pair resumed their productive partnership on the left. Baines alone accounted for 24 percent of the chances created by the entire Everton squad that season, culminating in a place in the PFA Premier League Team of the Year and Everton's Player of the Season and Players' Player of the Season awards.
Baines accomplished all of that from the left-back position. To put that into context, the list of players ending subsequent Premier League seasons as the most creative consists exclusively of attacking midfielders: Eden Hazard (twice), Mesut Ozil, Christian Eriksen and Kevin De Bruyne. Of those, only Ozil bettered the 116 chances created by Baines in 2012-13.
Baines may not be capable of such exceptional exploits at this stage of his career, but the experienced left-back is unlikely to concede his starting place to Digne without resistance. This competitiveness is welcome progress as Everton switch from a team with only one recognised left-back for the past 18 months to a side with two viable starting options as manager Marco Silva continues to rebuild a broken squad.
The respective ages of the two players and the time taken to convince Digne to swap the Camp Nou for Goodison Park rightly suggest the 25-year-old France international is the future for Everton in this position. Whether this changing of the guard at left-back is immediate or gradual, one thing is certain: Digne has one hell of an act to follow as Baines' successor.