Firstly - Unsy playing a defensive system with the U23's and Brands having to instruct them to play the same system as the senior team. I mean, this is stuff that is basic.
The fact Unsworth has to even be told this is depressing, but the fact that Brands hasn't had this conversation before with him is telling.
If I were a decent young kid, there is no way I would go to our setup, there just doesn't appear to be enough basic professionalism around setting up a pathway to the first team.
Lewis Dobbin’s timing could hardly have been better.
With injuries and suspensions biting at first-team level, the young forward tormented Brighton Under-23s on Monday evening, scoring a superb individual goal and creating several good openings for team-mates in a 2-1 Everton win.
It was Dobbin’s best performance of the season and a timely reminder for the watching Marcel Brands and Duncan Ferguson of what he is capable of when everything clicks.
From his position on the right of the attack, he surged forward with pace, poise and confidence, regularly threatening the Brighton goal. For 45 minutes, he was the best player on the pitch and practically untouchable.
The standout display came at the opportune moment for the 18-year-old. He is set to be out of contract next July, with talks yet to resume since Everton’s initial offer made earlier this season.
As things stand, the impasse means Dobbin would be free to negotiate a pre-contract agreement with clubs in continental Europe from January 1. Failing that, he would be able to move to a fellow English club when his deal expires this summer.
Losing him would represent a blow for Everton, even if they would be due some form of compensation in both cases.
While the club recently tied up a three-year deal for another of their promising forwards, 20-year-old Ellis Simms, retaining Dobbin’s services was always likely to be more complicated.
A standout at Finch Farm coming through the ranks and a regular with England’s age-group sides, his progress has been tracked by scouts at home and abroad for some time.
He has featured twice for Rafa Benitez’s senior side off the bench and made his England Under-19s debut in October. Shortly after his debut against Norwich City in September, he was praised by Benitez for the impact he was having in training. “Dobbin is someone you notice when he is there,” the Spaniard remarked.
The problem for Everton is that such developments have only served to amplify the noise around a player who has long been touted as one to watch. Equally, his opportunities have started to dry up.
Dobbin’s last appearance came as a late substitute against Manchester United on October 2. In recent weeks, he has failed to even make the bench despite the long-term injury absence of England striker Dominic Calvert-Lewin. Although Dobbin has trained with the first team on occasion, he has also often been put back into the under-23 set-up.
Everton’s task — a considerable one at the moment — will be to try to retain Dobbin in light of interest from clubs in England and, notably, Germany. They will hope he does not follow the path taken by Thierry Small, a former Everton team-mate who left for Southampton in August.
Retaining their best academy products is now an ongoing concern for the club.
As well as Small, France Under-21 winger Mohamed-Ali Cho and Irish goalkeeper Daniel Rose have left in recent years, joining French club Angers and Schalke of Germany.
In an attempt to stop the exodus, the picture is starting to change at under-23s level.
There was frustration at results and performances as David Unsworth’s young side struggled in the early part of this season. With his team filled with prospects aged just 17 and 18, and short in certain areas, Unsworth initially pivoted to a defensive-minded system featuring three central defenders and wing-backs.
Playing that way proved a thankless task for Dobbin and the other forwards. They spent long spells of games without the ball, chasing opponents and attempting to shut down their attacks. The gap between Everton’s midfield and front men was often particularly pronounced.
The last few months, though, have been significantly better.
Key players, such as midfielder Tyler Onyango, have returned, while others have started to find their feet at under-23 level. This is still a young, albeit promising side, still learning their trade. And match results in isolation are not the be-all and end-all, in any case.
Brands’ intervention has also been key to the revival.
It is understood that the club’s Dutch director of football has instructed the under-23s to switch to a 4-2-3-1 formation to mirror the system being played by Benitez’s first team. Also on his say-so, there has been more focus on playing out from the back, utilising the technical quality of 18-year-old England Under-20 centre-back Reece Welch and increasingly influential holding midfielder Lewis Warrington, 19. Welch, in particular, has caught the eye of Brands.
Everton Under-23s have now won three and drawn one of their last five matches, beating their Manchester City and Leeds United counterparts in the process. The noises out of the camp are altogether more positive, and the first-half performance against high-flying Brighton on Monday was particularly impressive.
With first-team fringe players Jarrad Branthwaite, Simms and Onyango, who made his senior debut against Manchester City the previous afternoon, dropping down to get game time, Unsworth’s side dominated at Goodison Park and should have been out of sight by half-time. Dobbin alone could have had a hat-trick before the interval, thwarted only by a series of smart saves from Tom McGill.
“I thought we played some great stuff in the first half,” Unsworth said. “Brighton are a really good team – one of the best in the league, I believe – but we played the way I want us to play and scored two great goals. We could and should have had a couple more too.”
Months on from a below-par start to the season, the picture is starting to look rosier.
Whether or not it will be enough for the club to hang onto Dobbin, though, remains to be seen.
The forward is likely to want to see evidence that he is going to be able to fulfil his first-team aspirations at Everton, should those contract talks resume. It is thought that he and his camp will prioritise a quick route to first-team minutes somewhere, with a loan move not completely out of the question either.
With Calvert-Lewin still out, Richarlison suspended for Sunday’s trip to Brentford and Demarai Gray being assessed after sustaining a groin injury in the 3-0 loss away to champions City, Dobbin will hope Monday’s display in front of Brands and assistant manager Ferguson leads to another breakthrough.
Similar conversations will happen soon with others who are approaching the final 12-18 months of their deals, including the highly-rated pair of Welch and 18-year-old midfielder Isaac Price.
Whatever happens, the next couple of months feel pivotal for Dobbin and Everton with the direction of travel going a long way to determining whether Small and company end up being the exception or the new rule as far as the club’s retention of their top prospects is concerned.