By Matt Jones
There was spell during Leighton Baines’ Everton career that every time he stood over a dead ball, there was an accompanying sense of expectation.
When Everton faced West Ham United at Upton Park in 2013, the left-back bent two set pieces beyond Jussi Jaaskelainen in the second half. “It’s in, this” I remember saying aloud as Baines strode up to the second of the two, before he arched a strike over the wall to level the match. The Toffees went on to secure a 3-2 triumph.
It’s been a while since there was that sense of inevitability emanating from an Everton player stood over a free-kick. Certainly not on Sunday at Goodison Park, as Romelu Lukaku and Ross Barkley both tried their luck against Chelsea.
But earlier in the day the feeling was back, although it wasn’t triggered by a man in royal blue.
I was reporting on Manchester United’s showdown with Swansea City at Old Trafford and the visitors were awarded a free-kick with 11 minutes left. Gylfi Sigurdsson stepped up, clipped a pinpoint effort over the wall and earned his side a crucial point. The ball may as well have been on invisible rails toward the top corner.
It was a clutch moment from a player that’s assumed a talismanic role for Swansea this season.
Although his form has tailed off slightly in 2017, with their backs against the wall in a battle to stay afloat in the Premier League, the Icelandic has rallied. He set up Fernando Llorente for the opening goal in the win against Stoke City and produced that at Old Trafford.
And all eyes will be on him again on Saturday when the Toffees roll into town, with speculation linking the 27-year-old with a move to Goodison Park gathering pace.
That’s no surprise, as Sigurdsson fits the bill. Manager Ronald Koeman essentially said as much ahead of the loss to Chelsea.
“Our second top scorer is Kevin [Mirallas] or Ross [Barkley] on four or five goals, we have nobody from midfield scoring 10 goals,” he said recently. “We need more players scoring goals other than strikers. We talk about players who are really more productive than we have, that’s important.”
With nine goals and 12 assists laid on for team-mates this season coupled with a haul of 11 Premier League goals from 2015-16, Sigurdsson is a man of said esteem.
Some supporters with big ambitions for the summer may not be content with the club potentially picking off players from relegated sides. But the Icelandic international has displayed a guile in the final third the Blues have lacked since the regression of Steven Pienaar.
In similar style to the South African, Sigurdsson can operate in any position behind the front three and, as he did to great effect at Goodison Park earlier in the campaign, has also led the line for Swansea.
Regardless of where he’s deployed, he’s been a focal point. Sigurdsson gets hold of possession in tight positions, ties attacks together with intelligence and is razor-sharp in his one-touch passing. That’s in addition to his set-piece potency.
There’s also a grittiness to his game that’s unheralded. Tottenham Hotspur manager Mauricio Pochettino suggested earlier this term the midfielder would have been “perfect” for the way his side play had he not moved from White Hart Lane to the Liberty Stadium in 2014. Needless to say, he’s a relentless worker.
As was the case with the January acquisition of Morgan Schneiderlin, this potential signing makes spades of sense for Everton.
Like the former Manchester United man, the Iceland star is the right stylistic fit for Koeman’s blueprint, is in the peak years of his career and is attuned to the demands of the Premier League.
He may feel ready for a new challenge too, especially if Swansea are to suffer relegation. While Schneiderlin’s test was to reestablish his reputation after a stint on the fringes at Old Trafford, Sigurdsson’s would be to further enhance his stature with a team playing in Europe. It’s something he never quite cracked at Spurs.
Of course, if Swansea do stay up, there’ll be a determination to keep their prize asset, especially after he penned a new long-term deal last summer. But Everton must be bullish in their pursuit of this type of footballer. Because they’re in need of one.
A player with the potential to turn a couple of hard-earned draws—like the ones away at West Ham United, Middlesborough, Stoke City and even Manchester United—into vital wins.
Someone who can slalom around a couple of challenges and thread a delicate pass into a forward. Someone who can pick out a team-mate with a devilish set-piece delivery. Someone who can leave a goalkeeper of David De Gea’s stature rooted to the spot with perfect free-kick execution. Sigurdsson.