Rejuvenated McNeil could be key for Everton next season

LIVERPOOL, ENGLAND - MAY 28: Dwight McNeil of Everton in action during the Premier League match between Everton FC and AFC Bournemouth at Goodison Park on May 28, 2023 in Liverpool, England. (Photo by Chris Brunskill/Fantasista/Getty Images)
LIVERPOOL, ENGLAND - MAY 28: Dwight McNeil of Everton in action during the Premier League match between Everton FC and AFC Bournemouth at Goodison Park on May 28, 2023 in Liverpool, England. (Photo by Chris Brunskill/Fantasista/Getty Images) /

After a strong second half to the Premier League campaign just finished in which he ended as top scorer for Everton, can Dwight McNeil kick on and improve again next season?

The former Burnley starlet wasn’t an obvious signing in the summer and many, including me, were not convinced he was worth the £20 million or so the Toffees were alledged to have paid for him.

Everton desperately needed goalscorers as the days went by in the transfer window. McNeil had struggled badly the previous year as Burnley went down and hadn’t managed a goal all season.

So, his arrival didn’t seem to make a lot of sense and certainly wasn’t likely to help resolve the pressing problem of how this Blues team was going to score enough goals in the coming season.

True, he could dribble and beat a defender, had a fine left foot and can certainly put good quality balls in from wide areas, but, he also wasn’t the quickest and his best position was uncertain too.

How would he fit into Frank Lampard’s 5-3-2 formation when he had spent most of his time at Burnley operating as a classic winger in a 4-4-2?

McNeil’s signing seemed to fit a trend that emerged during that window of Everton signing young players without seeming to have a clear idea exactly how they would fit in and contribute to the team.

As well as the former Burnley player, Lampard also brought in Amadou Onana and then late on James Garner, two other young midfielders.

Both Onana and Garner were very inexperienced and neither had played a minute of Premier League football. Meanwhile the need for goalscorers was still unresolved.

Finally, a forward was signed as Neal Maupay arrived from Brighton.

But absurdly his arrival was not in time to play in the season opener – which Dominic Calvert-Lewin was ruled out for – or the following match as well!

It was ridiculous to have left it so late and then to get just one more striker through the door, who hardly came with an outstanding goal record either.

As Maupay struggled to make any impact and with Calvert-Lewin out again for who knew how long, the Toffees staggered through the first few weeks and months of the campaign with a makeshift and anemic attack.

Meanwhile, McNeil was having a difficult time at his new club and couldn’t make much impact on the pitch, although there were occasional flashes of his talent, such as at Southampton when he scored the winner.

He was in and out of the side under Lampard and as results declined and the Blues slipped down the table, it looked more and more as though he was going to end up another busted flush of a signing.

Then something happened that saved his Everton career and proved key to keeping the club in the Premier League; the sacking of Lampard and his replacement by Sean Dyche.

The arrival of his former Burnley manager turned around McNeil’s fortunes and ultimately that of the team too.

There can be little doubt that had Lampard stayed in post, not only would McNeil probably have lost his way completely, but the club would also be playing Championship football next season.

Anyway, Dyche immediately brought his former charge back into the team, as he adopted a 4-5-1 formation with McNeil operating in his usual wide position.

And it worked, with Everton winning three of his first four home matches and starting to pick up points away from home regularly.

There were ups and down for sure, and some of the new managers’ team selections and in-game management were questionable – especially when he lost another contender for player-of-the-season, Abdoulaye Doucoure – who’s role was critical in that formation.

For his part, McNeil was now thriving under Dyche, putting to rest rumours that the two didn’t get along.

He was working very hard for the team, tracking back and tackling as well as delivering tremendous crosses and corners, while also popping up with goals every now and then.

One of them, the first-minute winner at Goodison Park against Brentford would prove crucial, securing a three points that were really needed.

Arguably, he had become the side’s most consistent and reliable performer over the second half of the season.

With points at a premium in the Toffees relegation fight, the highlight of the season run-in was of course, the 5-1 victory at the Amex Stadium.

Everton produced a near-flawless all-round team performance of a quality and at a level we haven’t seen for a very long time.

McNeil was outstanding, scoring twice that rain-soaked afternoon and underlining how central he had become to the Blues side.

Now with Everton having somehow survived, the question is can he continue and even up his performance levels when the new campaign kicks off in August?

Although he has played in a number of positions recently, I think he needs to operate in a more advanced attacking position all the time next season, perhaps in a three-man attack.

Obviously, the Toffees need to find a way to score more goals above all else and if McNeil could re-produce the form and rate of goals he showed after Dyche took over for a whole campaign, he could easily reach double figures.

While Everton must sign a couple of strikers in this transfer window, if McNeil was able to add ten or so goals at least, that would represent a real boost to the team and take some of the pressure off the new signings (assuming there are some!).

So, it certainly seems as though I was wrong about McNeil when I wrote him off last year. However, the real test will come next season.

If he can continue to perform at the level he has shown since January, then Evertonians will be able to have confidence his signing was an excellent one and that he can become a key player as the Blues re-build.

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