Chelsea take on Everton this tomorrow, a chance to make up for one of last season’s worst results, the 3-1 defeat at Goodison. Chelsea have gotten better, but Everton have improved since then as well. Lately, the results have not been as a good — a classic Ancelotti “bad moment” — so we talked about that and more with Matthew Chandler of SB Nation’s Everton blog, Royal Blue Mersey. Be sure to check out the reverse edition of this Q&A on RBM, where we talk more Ancelotti, plus Mendy the save-iour and how Chelsea might approach this game.
WAGNH: Everton’s start to the season was historically good, but now it’s turned into something all too common. What happened and can it be salvaged still into at least a top-six challenge?
RBM: What happened is our best players have missed games (Richarlison through suspension, Lucas Digne through injury) and we aren’t strong enough as a squad yet to cope without one or two stand-outs. Nine of the same players started all of our first four league games, of which we won all four. Since then, through both a forced hand and some odd selections at times, Carlo Ancelotti has come a little unstuck.
WAGNH: Who’s this new Dominic Calvert-Lewin and what have you done with the old one? Or did Ancelotti just unlock something in the young man that’s always been there?
RBM: Not just Ancelotti, but also Duncan Ferguson. You’ll remember the Everton-Chelsea game last season, which was Ferguson’s first in caretaker charge after Marco Silva’s sacking two days earlier. Calvert-Lewin was played out of position under Ronald Koeman, while Silva couldn’t coax a goalscorer out of him for whatever reason. From the minute Ferguson took over, though, he made Calvert-Lewin his man, and Ancelotti has just continued that renaissance.
Calvert-Lewin has always possessed an admirable work rate and for a long time now his all-round game has been impressive for a young player. Now he’s started adding goals, it’s hard to see a weakness in his game.
WAGNH: Speaking of Ancelotti, what’s the verdict on his nearly one whole year in charge now? What are his prospects of a long-term stay and project at the club?
RBM: Quiet progress. We are a better team than when Silva was sacked — individuals have improved (Calvert-Lewin, Digne, Richarlison, Mason Holgate), the squad is stronger, we are more mentally resilient (we didn’t come from behind to win a single league game under Silva) and are far more of a threat from set-pieces now.
The slump recently has been concerning, and while Ancelotti has made mistakes, there are so many mitigating factors. The relentless COVID-enforced schedule, the absence of fans, and the fact that the squad still has a fair amount of dross all stand out, for instance. The best time to judge Ancelotti is in a year, when he will have had ample time to mould the club and the squad in his image.
We are ninth in the league currently which, to be honest, is probably about where we should be with the squad we have. Ancelotti is a great manager, but can only polish so many turds.
As for a long-term stay, Ancelotti signed a four-and-a-half-year deal last year, which is a big commitment, but I wouldn’t be surprised if he doesn’t see out his contract, just because Everton are such a difficult club and it wouldn’t shock me if he eventually decides, especially at his age, that this job is more trouble than it’s worth.
WAGNH: We’ve not won often at Goodison in the past decade or so. What’s the secret that Chelsea rarely seem able to crack?
RBM: We often play up for the bigger games, I suppose. There’s no real secret; and hopefully the return of 2,000 Evertonians to Goodison Park on Saturday can provide some inspiration for players who could certainly do with a lift after one win in seven.
WAGNH: How are Everton likely to approach this game? Play open and press high or sit back and counter? Perhaps something more complicated?
RBM: It’s hard to say because Ancelotti seems to tinker his approach game by game. Recently, he’s entertained a back three which neither plays to Everton’s defenders’ strengths nor helps Allan and Abdoulaye Doucouré in midfield, who have looked more exposed without the third midfielder they had beside them earlier in the season.
This is my one criticism of Ancelotti so far; a year in, I’m still not sure what kind of team we are. Though, after a difficult run, I think he would be best-served going back to the more fluid 4-3-3 which worked at the start of the season.
WAGNH: DCL is obviously an all-around threat, while neither James nor Richarlison need much of an introduction, but who are the other difference-makers we should be keeping an eye on?
RBM: Not sure, really. After those three, our next highest scorers are Michael Keane, a centre-back, with three, and Bernard, a bit-part player, with two.
Bernard is a player I like despite glaring inconsistency and lack of end product limiting his chances - should he make an appearance, look out for him. Keane is a threat from set-pieces, while hopes are high for left-back Niels Nkounkou, 20, and winger Anthony Gordon, 19, despite Ancelotti keeping them at arm’s length lately (much to fans’ confusion).
WAGNH: Pickford or Kepa: only one can be your goalkeeper for the next ten years, and he has to play every game. Who do you choose?
RBM: Kepa. Still a higher ceiling than Pickford in terms of potential and I’ve never seen Kepa try and brush off mistakes with grins and smirks like Pickford infuriatingly does (though I thought the way Kepa behaved in the EFL Cup final in 2019 was pretty shameful).
That said, Pickford took a barrage of personal abuse after his challenge on Virgil van Dijk in October, and dealt with that admirably. He has also been in slightly better form lately, even if he is without a clean sheet since September 13.
WAGNH: Bold prediction for Saturday night?
RBM: 2-2. Should be an open, exciting game.
A big thank you to Matthew for once again taking the time to chat! Be sure to give them a visit at Royal Blue Mersey.