FootballPremier League

Ryan Baldi: “Demarai Gray could be the Toffees’ sweet surprise this term”

September 1, 2021January 7th, 2022

THE final weeks of the 2021 summer transfer window brought some of the most seismic signings the Premier League has seen – from Jack Grealish’s £100m British-record move to Manchester City to Romelu Lukaku’s big-money return to Chelsea to, of course, Cristiano Ronaldo’s earth-shaking switch back to Manchester United.

But few transfers this summer can match Everton’s shrewd signing of Demarai Gray from Bayer Leverkusen for just £1.7m for pure value.

And as the former England under-21 international burst through Brighton’s defence and into the penalty area before rifling a low shot into the bottom corner in Everton’s 2-0 win at the Amex Stadium last weekend, he could have been mistaken for a young Ronaldo from his first United stint – all pace, skill and directness.

That was Gray’s second goal in three Premier League outings so far for his new club. He has hit the ground running and will evidently be a key figure in the approach new manager Rafa Benitez has adopted since taking the reins at Goodison Park in June. The Spanish tactician prizes wide players with the ball-carrying ability, discipline and creativity to operate in a four-man midfield, and Gray’s ability to play on either flank or centrally behind the striker will prove valuable over the course of the season.

"The manager, with his ambition and what he has won in the past, is important and we’ll look to push forward and compete with the top clubs,” Gray said upon signing for the Toffees, clearly sold on Benitez’s project. “I think a club of this magnitude has all the potential to be right up there.

 

 

"Collectively with what Marcel and the manager have said to me, everything fits, including the club’s ambitions and goals. Everton are a very big club and the main objective is to be pushing and competing back up there in the table.

"I want to work hard on the training pitch and work my hardest for the club on the pitch."

Having arrived back in the Premier League for such a modest fee, it is easy to forget just how good Gray had been earlier in his career and how highly rated he once was. An unsatisfactory six months with Leverkusen, which yielded just five Bundesliga starts, led to him becoming something of a forgotten man, and he had fallen down the pecking order at the King Power Stadium before his switch to Germany.

But, signed halfway through their unlikely 2015-16 title-winning campaign, Gray averaged a respectable, productive average of between 1.9 and 3.1 successful dribbles per 90 minutes in each of his first three full seasons with Leicester, and his creativity peaked just two seasons ago, when he conjured 2.4 chances per 90 for colleagues.

He hasn’t ever, though, been a reliable goal threat, never scoring more than four goals in a single season for Leicester – despite shooting as much as 3.4 times per 90 is 2019-20, he scored only twice in 609 Premier League minutes; he has already matched that figure in just 247 minutes for Everton.

Consistency has always proved elusive in Gray’s career to date, and helping the Birmingham-born winger find a level of dependability is now Benitez’s task. But, still only 25, Gray has time to rediscover best form, find consistency and deliver on potential he showed earlier in his career.

 

 

And despite the promising start he has made at Goodison, his new manager isn’t letting him get carried away.

“I tell him so many times, he’s done nothing yet, he has to carry on training well, and if he does, he has the ability to influence games,” Benitez said after Gray’s stunning run and finish against Brighton.

“I was following him when he was at Leicester, and we knew what we could expect from him. He has the quality to make a difference, it is just to make sure that mentally he is strong enough to continue in the same way as he is now.

“He is working hard in training sessions. He is improving and has more confidence and is always pushing to play.

“If he keeps training well, he has the ability to make the difference in games.”

That ability has never been in doubt. And at just £1.7m, Gray has the potential to be a low-risk, high-reward, signing-of-the-season contender for Everton. The man who once played in the junior ranks of amateur side Cadbury Athletic could be the Toffees’ sweet surprise this term.