The Season So Far
Once again, Everton started the season with grand designs on a Champions League push. As ever, they thought they had all the ingredients in place, with a hot-shot new manager, a truckload of expensive new signings and a firm conviction that they had corrected the errors that had held them back up until now. However, it was yet another false dawn.
As Roberto Martínez and his signings weren’t the answer, as Ronald Koeman and his signings weren’t the answer and as Sam Allardyce and his signings weren’t the answer (that one was less of a surprise), it turned out Marco Silva and his signings weren’t quite the silver bullet they had been sold. Silva’s reign saw Everton become a well-coached, defensively resilient but relatively toothless side, and as the belief among the squad visibly drained away, big-spending owner Farhad Moshiri was left, yet again, with only one option: sack the manager and start again.
Whereas Everton had previously been hiring young, progressive ‘Next Big Thing’ coaches (emergency option Allardyce aside), each of whom promised vibrant attacking football and a marked rise in status in the game, the bombshell that Carlo Ancelotti was coming in meant that, suddenly, Everton had a manager who has been there and done it all.
While there were doubts about Ancelotti’s relevance in 2020 — the other great managers of his generation are all retired or seeing their legacies shredded by abject failure — we can’t ignore how much Everton needed to appoint a manager, and a man, of his calibre. After seeing so many managers at the start of their careers promise so much and fail to deliver, Everton fans and players needed to be able to trust that their manager isn’t full of hot air. Appointing Ancelotti removed the sense that they were embarking on yet another fool’s folly: how can anyone doubt the pedigree of a triple Champions League winner, who has also won the Premier League, Serie A, Ligue 1, the Bundesliga, etc?
It will come as no surprise to Chelsea fans that everyone involved with Everton has spoken of the impact Ancelotti has had at Finch Farm, commanding instant respect and imposing authority while remaining irresistibly likeable and friendly. He has even been spotted walking the streets of Liverpool, soaking up the atmosphere, and reportedly finding the kind of family atmosphere that he found lacking at the superclubs where he won so many trophies.
On the pitch, the slow, ponderous and predictable football is gone, replaced by a fast, direct and vertical style of play that has transformed the fortunes of the side’s attackers. Dominic Calvert-Lewin is finally delivering on his rich promise, Richarlison is as dynamic and involved in seemingly every phase of play, while Bernard and Theo Walcott are infinitely more dangerous than they were despite being prominent in Marco Silva’s system. Everton have got their joie de vivre back.
The Season Ahead
Sucked into a relegation battle under Silva, Ancelotti’s easing of the pressure and reformatting of the side has propelled them into the mix for European places. So crowded is the Premier League this season that Everton are actually still in the bottom half of the table, but they’re only five points behind Man Utd in fifth, and their aim will be to get as close to them as possible.
Of their remaining games, only Liverpool, Wolves and Sheffield United are in anything like approaching good form, and they’ll go into every game believing they can win it.
The mix between 4-2-3-1 and 3-4-3 that Marco Silva wanted to play never quite fit at Everton. While they were always defensively sound, often ranking high in the underlying numbers for pressing and shots against, this often came at the cost of blunting their attack. Ancelotti, who began his managerial career fanatically using a Sacchian 4-4-2 and subsequently changed his ways having encountered Zinedine Zidane at Juventus, has gone back to his 90s playbook.
Everton are now extremely compact and defensively disciplined in a high-pressing 4-4-2. This gives them the chance to win the ball high up the pitch and the numbers to do damage once they do. They’re now among the Premier League’s most intense and direct sides, as the below graphic shows.
Hasenhuttl's done an excellent job getting Southampton to press high very well and move forward quickly. On the other hand, Newcastle have found relative success with a low, low block. pic.twitter.com/pBwzYhjxSn— Ashwin Raman (@AshwinRaman_) March 5, 2020
Everton’s intensity and directness will be especially concerning to Frank Lampard, who has seen his Chelsea side overpowered in the middle of the pitch on several occasions, none more memorably than in the damaging defeat to this Everton team at Goodison Park.
Strikers Calvert-Lewin and Richarlison are perfectly suited to Ancelotti’s system: excellent at harrying and pressing, while also being goalscorers with no obvious weaknesses in the final third. Even Calvert-Lewin’s goal last weekend, which would normally be classed as a fluke, came as a direct result of his selflessness, work-rate and willingness to try anything to put the opposition under pressure.
The rest of the side, while contributing, is still somewhat unsettled. Nonetheless, in Bernard, Andre Gomes and Gylfi Sigurdsson, they have real technical quality, and Mason Holgate is looking every bit the player John Stones was meant to be, having developed over several seasons under the radar.
Importantly, Everton are now a major threat from set plays. This should have been an obvious weapon in their armoury under Silva, with specialists like Digne and Sigurdsson as well as towering aerial presences like Calvert-Lewin, Yerry Mina and Michael Keane to aim at, yet for some reason they never exploited this advantage. Things are different now, however, and Chelsea will have to be alert whenever the big men come forward.
While much improved, Everton remain far from the finished article. Their build-up play in recent games against Arsenal and Man Utd has been stop-start — perhaps as a result of their increased verticality under Ancelotti — and surely has to improve if the Toffees are to pose a more varied threat to the Premier League’s best sides.
Their compact press has managed to keep them defensively solid, as previously stated, but if the forwards don’t put pressure on the ball then they can be vulnerable to simple balls in behind their defence. Arsenal’s first goal in the recent game at the Emirates, for example, saw David Luiz stride into midfield and slip Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang in for a simple one-on-one finish. If Chelsea can find similar passes for runners in behind, they have to make them.
We have to mention the form of Jordan Pickford, who has made more errors leading to goals than any other Premier League goalkeeper since the start of last season. The England keeper is capable of the sublime – his double save against Man Utd last weekend was incredible – but he has too often failed to perform the basics, and his total lack of composure was glaringly obvious when Newcastle staged a miraculous stoppage time comeback at Goodison Park a few weeks ago.
Expect a familiar XI from both sides.
It feels like Chelsea have finally achieved lift-off under Frank Lampard after a vibrant, flowing defeat of Liverpool midweek. This promises to be a far bittier, more exhausting game. Expect a score draw – if either side snatches it, it won’t be by more than the odd goal.