It’s going to take a while longer before everybody forgets Muhamed Basic’s first touch in English football. It was unfortunate yet understandable: the Bosnian wanted to make an impression late in a game which had already been lost and instead stumbled into the kind of comedic nightmare which lives long in the memory.
In his first season (15 PL starts, 8 sub appearances) he seemed to be a victim of Everton’s greater issues. Roberto Martinez’s side were never definitively one thing nor the other, playing neat, possession-based football but often in slow, limiting way. As loaded with flair and potential as they were, there were too many games during which they were reduced to a formulaic approach. They were the side of the high-percentage sideways pass rather than the cutting through-ball and at times it appeared as if they were afflicted by a terminal lack of confidence.
Besic performed reasonably during his first year. He’s a tenacious midfielder with a sharp bite, but in those first games he seemed to be fighting a battle between his impulse to effect games and his tactical responsibilities within them. He could do excellent things and he arrived in England as someone capable both of relentlessly tracking creative players and of efficiently recovering possession from them. Still, that value was diluted: Besic made mistakes in areas of the pitch in which they can’t be forgiven. A turnover here, a positioning mishap there.
But there’s a context which needs applying to this. Besic is young, he’s inexperienced, and 2014/15 was his first exposure to a fast-paced league in which decision-making is at a premium. Given his age and background, it was understandably predictable that there would be an adjustment period and a certain degree of trial-and-error. He was a good player who periodically struggled, rather than a bad one who was unfit for purpose.
On Sunday, the Bosnian made just his third league appearance of the current season, replacing Arouna Kone for the final thirty-one minutes of the 1-1 draw with Tottenham. What was striking about that half-an-hour - and what’s typically noticeable about Besic at his best - was the amount he contributed. The breadth of attributes he brought to the midfield in that game - resilience, distribution, energy, verticality - was partly responsible for breaking Spurs’ stranglehold on the game and by becoming his team’s extra man in both halves, Besic helped Everton build a momentum which could conceivably have led to them winning the game.
While Martinez presumably introduced him with the intention of restricting the impact of Eric Dier, Tom Carroll, and Dele Alli, he produced a very three-dimensional performance. Basic’s core strengths are his ball-winning and his ability to eliminate passing angles, but he’s also a very gifted technical footballer. His dipping volley from the edge of the Tottenham box was a vivid example of that, but his general play is littered with little touches which cast him as far more than just a ball-winner. Sometimes that leads him to cross the line marked “overindulgence”, but often it means that he’s capable of being a viable playmaker and of contributing usefully to his side’s attacking phases. His passing range is fairly eclectic and accurate, but he’s also equipped with the necessary skill to step out of tackles and create space.
If Tottenham was a cameo, his role in last night’s win over Manchester City was the broader sample - Besic was outstanding. That wasn’t particularly surprising, but yet it was in the sense that everything he did had an extra degree of assurance to it. He virtually eliminated David Silva from the game and did a generally excellent job of shielding John Stones and Ramiro Funes Mori, but also provided a continuously available out-ball for his teammates and was arguably the key component in the majority of moves constructed by the home team.
The key word, then, is balance. Besic has flashed his quality before, but rarely has it been as consistently visible throughout an entire game as it was last night. From a mental perspective, it’s always very encouraging to see a player learn from his mistakes and applying what he has learnt to become a better player, and the improvement here is indicative of someone who has all the emotional and physical tools to be an outstanding midfielder.