Thanks largely to its boundless riches, the Premier League currently boasts what is probably the most impressive strength in depth in its history. Brendan Rodgers’ Leicester City, Chris Wilder’s Sheffield United and Nuno Espirito Santo’s Wolverhampton Wanderers are all giving the traditionally more successful clubs a run for their money, while even those scrapping it out to avoid relegation all look like good sides that would have probably been in the top half of the table just a few years ago. It’s very rare that you can look at a team adrift at the bottom of the league like Norwich City and see a watchable side rather than a collection of clowns.
Even with this level of competition, it was a shock to see Carlo Ancelotti rock up at Everton as they hovered above the relegation zone. Other teams in similar positions had done brilliantly to bring in the likes of Ralph Hasenhuttl: highly-rated young managers coming up in the world. Everton bringing in one of the most decorated coaches in the game, a three-time European Cup-winning manager (five if you include his playing days), was a level beyond this, likely to raise eyebrows just like the Italian.
It doesn’t feel so much like the step down Ancelotti’s record suggests it should be though. Having spent the majority of the last twenty years having to juggle the egos of stars – an artform he has made his own – the opportunity to ease some of the pressure and simply focus on coaching seems logical for a sexagenarian with nothing left to prove.
With this move to Everton, Ancelotti’s career feels like it has come full circle.
He started his coaching career as an assistant to Arrigo Sacchi, the coach he had won two European Cups under at AC Milan. Sacchi got rid of the man-marking and sweeper beloved by Italian football and replaced it with a zonal system, utilising an offside trap and pressing to great success.
“Sacchi never stopped,” Ancelotti recalls. “He constantly talked about work. He never quit thinking about ways to improve the national team and the work he was doing. He taught me how to be a coach: how you plan the program, how you schedule the training sessions, how you manage different periods of time and different players. Working alongside him was one of the most interesting things that happened to me.”
Even when Ancelotti left Sacchi to take the head job at Reggiana, he took the system with him. “In my experience, it was the only way to play football.” Pressing in a 4-4-2, Ancelotti got Reggiana promoted, then left for Parma, where he instilled the same system and qualified for the Champions League.
Ancelotti’s dedication to the flat 4-4-2 meant there was no room for Roberto Baggio – “I said, ‘No, you have to play striker.’ Baggio went to another club. That year Baggio scored 25 [actually 22] goals. For Bologna! I lost 25 goals! Big mistake” – or Gianfranco Zola – “Probably I made a mistake with him because I wanted to play 4-4-2 and I put the players in the right positions but he wanted to stay in the centre like a striker. In that period, when there was this discussion, Chelsea offered him a good contract and he decided to go. I think it was a mistake. It was my first experience in Serie A and I was not able to change the system. I preferred to maintain the system that I knew well.“
Ancelotti’s success earned him a move to one of Italy’s giants. At Juventus, he finally broke from his 4-4-2, switching to a 4-3-1-2 to accommodate Zinedine Zidane. “Zidane changed everything, because I placed the team around him. I tailor-made the side for Zizou. He changed my style of football. I owe everything to him.” Ancelotti would endure two trophyless years in Turin, getting sacked at half-time on the last day of the 2000-2001 season despite still being in the running to win Serie A.
Since then, Ancelotti has gone out of his way to adapt to his stars. He regularly lined up with Andrea Pirlo, Clarence Seedorf, Kaka and Manuel Rui Costa in his midfield at Milan, and Chelsea, Paris Saint-Germain and Real Madrid all looked to him when they needed someone to play horse-whisperer to their thoroughbreds.
Since winning Real Madrid the long-awaited La Décima – their tenth European Cup – Ancelotti has had less success though. After the intensity of Pep Guardiola, Bayern Munich brought in the Italian only for the players to decide they preferred the intensity to Ancelotti’s joviality.
His spell at Napoli was the first time he had ventured outside of the Palazzo of Italy since his stint at Parma nearly two decades before, yet even that came with its own expectations after their title challenge under Maurizio Sarri. Ancelotti’s dismissal by Napoli came at the perfect time for Everton, who were searching for a new manager after sacking Marco Silva.
In the meantime, caretaker Duncan Ferguson had tightened up the Toffees defensively with a 4-4-2 formation and Ancelotti continued with this base upon taking over. With no real stars to arrange his side around, Ancelotti has returned to that same outline he was using in the nineties, yet there are still glimpses of what he has learned in the decades since then, as Gylfi Sigurdsson has been moved back from an attacking midfield role into a deeper position.
“There is more than one way to play football,” Ancelotti says. “I like all styles. There is no winning system. If I have different players I could play a different system.
“Football has changed a lot—more intensity, more tactical knowledge and the rules. How many teams build up from the back now? Nearly everyone. If you want to play long balls and fight for the second ball, that is football. If you want to play catenaccio and counter-attack, it is football.
“There are some managers who organise the teams for themselves, not the players, so people can say, ‘Look how well he organises the team’.
“A team with a clear identity is a limited team. It means they can only play one way. But you must choose the right style by considering the quality and weakness of the opponent and the tradition of your club.
“If you become the manager of Madrid or Milan, they have a history which says play a particular style. Here there is a feeling if you can get it forward quickly and fight for the long ball, why not?
“They like the ball long and then to fight. This is important. I said this to the players before the Man United game, ‘Put in some long balls to fight, keep the crowd involved’. If you do that in the Nou Camp? No. Not possible. Here is different.
“At this moment we are not playing vertically, we are playing a lot of balls back instead of playing forward which is an area we can improve.
“We want to build up but when you have the possibility to play forward you must play forward. Quickly. If you are slow [passing] at the back you have less possibility to find space in the opponents’ half.
“Sometimes when you say to a player that we want possession football, they think possession is the target. The target is not possession. The target is always to score goals. Our idea is to do that through possession but we want to score goals.”
Thanks to Ferguson’s brief interim spell, Ancelotti was coming into the club on steadier ground than Silva left. Set up in a 4-4-2, they will drop off and take this shape in a mid-block, high enough so that they don’t simply let the opposition waltz forward but generally only pressing very high when the situation calls for it.
Just as they try to maintain balance between defending high and low, Everton will have their wingers tuck inside to limit space through the centre, but not so narrow that it’s difficult for them to rush out and close down the opposition full-backs. This makes it hard for the opposition to play through the centre, yet there are still gaps that are there to be exploited if the opposition are willing to take the risk. Positioning the wingers slightly wider allows them to close down the full-backs quicker though, making it more likely that Everton can win the ball back in the opposition half.
Dominic Calvert-Lewin and Richarlison will position themselves ahead of these two banks of four then look to press. It’s nearly always Calvert-Lewin who initiates the press, moving forward to close down the nearest centre-back. Generally this is done while blocking the pass into midfield, although occasionally Calvert-Lewin will curve his run to block the pass out to the full-back.
Alongside him, Richarlison will position himself to cut out the passing angle wide to the full-back on his side, while remaining close enough to the other centre-back to press him if he receives the ball.
If the ball is passed across to the other centre-back, Richarlison will step up to press; if the ball is passed back to the goalkeeper, then one of the pair will either run after the ball while curving their run to block the pass into the centre-back and force a long pass, or they will split and cover the centre-backs, while the wingers or centre-midfielder will push up in support of them to ensure the goalkeeper doesn’t have an easy short pass open. Everton will mix man-orientated and more zonal forms of pressing according to the situation.
Everton’s press has faltered if the opposition pass wide instead though. The forwards will press the centre-backs while blocking the passes into midfield, but the midfielders behind them rarely follow. This means that if the opposition can find an angle into the midfield, there’s typically a player in plenty of space, given the time to turn and spray a pass into attack through the gaps in the midfield.
The easiest way the opposition can find this free man in midfield tends to be by playing wide to the full-back then bouncing the ball back inside. Everton’s wingers may move out quickly to close down the opposition full-backs, but it’s generally not very difficult for them to position themselves far enough away so they can play a pass straight back into the space inside before Theo Walcott or Bernard can get on top of them.
Gabriel Jesus’s second goal for Manchester City against them was a good example. Fernandinho passed wide to Rodri and although Calvert-Lewin dropped back to cut out the pass back inside, Phil Foden dropped off to bounce a pass into the feet of Kevin De Bruyne. The Belgian slid a through ball between Everton’s centre midfielders back to Foden between the lines, who moved the ball on to Riyad Mahrez to feed Jesus for his brace.
All of Chelsea’s first three goals in their 4-0 thrashing of Everton showed this familiar pattern too. Everton’s forwards would press, Chelsea would play around them into midfield, then easily slice through the gaps in midfield to play into attack and score.
Part of this weakness is strategic – no one pushes up behind the forwards and the wingers are wide enough to leave gaps in midfield but not wide enough to immediately stop the full-backs from being able to pass inside – but there are also individual issues at play.
Calvert-Lewin seems to possess good defensive awareness, moving into positions to block the opposition from playing forward as soon as Everton lose the ball and curving his runs when pressing to cut off passing options.
Whoever he is paired with is a step down though. Richarlison and Moise Kean both show a willingness to defend, rushing after players to pressure. The Brazilian is often slow to react to danger though and doesn’t always block the passes into midfield effectively, whereas the Italian will immediately go chasing after an opponent as soon as Everton lose the ball, but has a tendency to overcommit, stretching to tackle as soon as he’s in range rather than maintaining the pressure.
The wingers are also a mixed bag. Theo Walcott will work hard to get back and his pace allows him to quickly get in the faces of his opponents, but he rarely dives into challenges, instead trying to collect the ball as they panic due to him getting so close. On the opposite flank, Bernard doesn’t make a great effort to track back and, even if he does, he’s not very imposing, more likely to chop at his opponent with his short legs than reclaim the ball.
The greater issue is perhaps in the centre though. Sigurdsson has been pulled back from an attacking midfield role and it’s clear that he’s not a naturally deeper player. He doesn’t take up good positions to block opposition passes into attack and he’s weak in challenges, while also not possessing the mobility to recover from these problems.
Tom Davies also has a tendency to look lost, although he is much more mobile than Sigurdsson. Despite being a little soft, him being light on his feet allows him to stick close to players, twisting and turning to stay on top of them as they try to wriggle away from him.
Fabian Delph can sometimes look like he’s simply going through the motions, only bursting into a sprint when he has to, but he’s the most defensively capable of Everton’s midfielders. He takes up good positions to both block passes into attack and cover for his less defensively able teammates. He’s also solid in challenges, staying goalside of his opponent rather than becoming so focussed on winning the ball that he tries to clamber around them, enabling the opponent to escape out the sidedoor, as Davies and Sigurdsson can sometimes be caught doing.
Morgan Schneiderlin has also provided defensive solidity in his few cameos, yet given his disgraceful lack of effort under previous managers few Everton supporters would be keen to see him given more opportunities.
Without a solid midfield ahead of them, a lot is asked of Everton’s backline.
Mason Holgate is the standout performer. The last time we looked at Everton, the young centre-back was very raw. Strong in challenges but overly aggressive, the former Barnsley man could be easily baited into flying into challenges he wouldn’t win. The opportunities afforded to him for senior football both at Everton and on loan at West Brom have seen him develop brilliantly though.
Like night and day from the player starting two years ago under Sam Allardyce, Holgate rarely attempts a challenge unless he’s either certain he will win the ball or he absolutely has to. Instead Holgate will generally put himself between the opponent and the goal, hold this position and wait on them to come to him. He’s become very good at reading the game, taking up the right positions to cover his teammates or limit space for an opponent to run into, while shaping his body to best prepare for the threat.
One thing that really aids Holgate in his defending is how he rarely commits his body weight in one direction. A speciality of Virgil van Dijk, this balancing act means that if an opponent sends him one direction then turns towards the other, he’s not throwing all his body weight towards one side then having to pull back on that momentum to head in the opposite direction.
As well as a test of his balance and footwork, it’s also a test of nerves. For example, players might dummy to shoot yet Holgate is confident enough not to fling his leg too far out in an attempt to block and lose balance, enabling him to readjust his feet and block the real shot. By positioning himself correctly to block the dummied shot, he isn’t rushed into a blind panic to make up for his initial mistake.
Even when he goes into challenges, he will often try not to throw his bodyweight in if he can avoid it, preferring to stay upright. This enables him to adjust mid-tackle or recover quickly if he is tricked.
This ability to cover teammates means Holgate partners up well with Yerry Mina. The former Barcelona man is huge, both tall and bulky, making him the perfect man to step up and compete for headers. Mina will push up and the other defenders will tuck in behind him to cover, although there’s rarely much of a chance of anyone winning an aerial duel against him.
His long legs also enable him to simply reach around his opponents as they try to hold him off and poke the ball away.
His large frame does make him look awkward when running, almost like he’s limping, but despite this he’s not slow.
Michael Keane, on the other hand, is slow. He also possesses horrible footwork that means even when he drops off to cover it up, playing everyone onside as a result, he can easily be turned inside and out. Keane’s time at Burnley showed he’s clearly a talented defender, but Sean Dyche’s system provided him with plenty of cover. Ancelotti’s doesn’t and it shows.
Another signing from Barcelona, Lucas Digne has impressed at left-back. He has showed good awareness and ability to change directions quickly, enabling him to stick very tight to his opponent without the risk of getting turned, giving them no room to breathe.
The right-back spot has been shared between Seamus Coleman and Djibril Sidibé. Coleman remains a good solid defender but heading into his thirties with years of injuries has taken its toll on his mobility. In a league full of quick and tricky wingers, it’s hardly surprising that many of them are able to find a yard of space to send in a cross or get past him.
Although he’s improved a little since Ancelotti took over, the Italian semi-frequently pushing Sidibé forward into midfield is a good indicator of how much he can trusted in defence. He’s quick and strong, allowing him to get to players quickly and bully them in tackles, and seems to have a good attitude, but that’s about where the positives end defensively.
He has no ability to read the game, meaning he’s always reacting to the unfolding danger rather than taking the proper measures to prevent the danger in the first place. Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang’s goal from their recent game is a perfect example: David Luiz is clearly shaping to pass in behind, yet Sidibé continues to face forward rather than turning side-on, meaning he’s unable to follow Aubameyang’s run in behind.
Behind the back four is Jordan Pickford in goal. England’s number one has been in terrible form, directly responsible for goals conceded against Manchester United, Crystal Palace and the two late goals that saw Everton drop two points against Newcastle.
Many jokes are made about his little arms, and his short reach does make it harder for him to claim crosses and cover his goal, however his problems don’t all come down to that. There have been issues with his footwork and, even before his mistakes led to goals, he was regularly dropping crosses, failing to see the ball into his hands or coming out so fast he couldn’t cushion it properly.
Early on under Ancelotti, Everton would try to build up in a 3-2-4-1 shape. Digne would bomb forward down the left, with Bernard tucking in between the lines next to Richarlison and the right midfielder, Walcott or Sidibé, maintained the width on the opposite flank, while Calvert-Lewin led the line.
The right-back, Coleman or Sidibé, would stay back alongside the centre-backs, with Holgate moving out towards the left to allow Everton to keep good width as they tried to work the ball out. With the two midfielders ahead of them, the idea was presumably to pass the ball up through the thirds into the attack. Once the ball was worked far enough forward, the right-back would usually move forward to support the attack.
In practice, this didn’t really work though. Sigurdsson and Davies are both talented in possession – the Icelander has a wonderful passing range and the local lad also has an eye for a good ball, while capable of carrying the ball forward with a dribble too – but the problem was getting the ball to them. Too often they would be in positions where they couldn’t receive the ball in space, or they would drop right back next to the centre-backs so that a pass into them wasn’t actually progressing the ball up the field.
Having just come from playing under Pep Guardiola, Delph is much better at staying open to receive the ball in midfield, however, unlike the other two, he’s not particularly creative when he receives it. Everton might be able to get the ball into midfield with Delph but his propensity for backward or sideways passes meant they still couldn’t progress the ball into attack easily.
Schneiderlin is much the same as Delph: positioning himself to receive passes into midfield but only ever playing simple short passes.
Luckily for Everton, their backline is good on the ball and were able to work the ball forward down the outside instead.
Holgate is the best of the bunch, whose play in possession we have already looked at in greater depth on the site. He’s confident enough to push forward on the ball if there is any space ahead of him. This helps to break through the opposition lines and creates new passing angles, while also frequently forcing opponents to close him down which opens up space for his teammates. If options still don’t open up, he won’t force the issue, instead turning around or offloading the ball to stay safe.
Given his size, it shouldn’t come as a shock that Mina doesn’t have the twinkle toes of Holgate, however he’s decent on the ball and unlikely to take risks that would get Everton into trouble.
Keane is a little inconsistent in possession. His first touch is pretty much always out of his feet and he’s capable of picking out some brilliant splitting passes, yet he can also misplace some simpler ones. As a general rule of thumb, his passes along the ground tend to be better than his aerial balls.
Rather than forcing a new style onto his players, Ancelotti rolled with the punches. They were struggling to work the ball through the centre, but they could manage it out wide, so Ancelotti adapted his system to this purpose after a few games.
Just like Digne on the left, the right-back now pushes forward to provide width, with Walcott moving into the centre. The back three was maintained for working the ball out though, with one of the midfielders dropping back to the side of the centre-backs, leaving only one in the centre. This adds an extra man to the attack, while taking a man out of the midfield that wasn’t even effective in the build-up anyway.
Everton are at their best when they can turn defence into attack quickly.
Calvert-Lewin is important to this. The young striker will roam along the frontline to keep open passes into him from deep. He’s always looking to receive the ball from a defender and lay it off to Bernard, Richarlison or Walcott behind him, or Walcott or the full-backs making runs down the outside.
He’s a little reminiscent of Edin Dzeko in that he’s tall and has a decent ability to hold up the ball, however he’s not quite strong enough to hold off the big bruisers that make up many Premier League defenders. Playing by himself, he wouldn’t make a good target man, as the opposition could barge him off the ball before his teammates get up in support. He often drops off to give himself more time before the centre-back is at his back, but if he’s forced into waiting too long to lay the ball off, the defender can usually outmuscle him.
In the 4-4-2 though, he pretty much always has someone close enough to him so that he can lay-off the ball quickly rather than having to hold off defenders.
Walcott’s pace is also a great asset. He can scare defenders into backing off, creating more space, and the threat of him running in behind the full-back is usually enough to win space for Sidibé to cross. Dropping off to receive the ball, a defender can often be tempted to follow to stop him from picking up the ball and turning, only for Walcott to then lay it off and burst into the gap he’s left.
His final ball can often be found lacking though. Walcott will get into great positions only to waste them by fluffing the cross.
Everton’s Brazilians add greater slickness to Everton’s play between the lines. Bernard possesses beautiful technique, able to pick down passes out of the sky with a deft touch, dribble at defenders, send them the wrong way with a effortless turn and slide a through ball towards the forwards.
With his ganglier frame, Richarlison doesn’t quite have the clean technique of Bernard, but he’s still able to dribble past defenders with his slightly less orthodox style, as he showed against Crystal Palace – ultimately beating a man is beating a man, whichever way you do it. He also seems to possess a bit more of a goal threat compared to his compatriot.
Digne’s crossing is generally good, while Sidibé’s is bizarrely inconsistent. The Frenchman either whips one in right on the button or overhits it by miles, with little in between.
Their assistance in attacking is somewhat limited due to the uninventive movement of the strikers they are aiming their crosses towards though.
Calvert-Lewin has scored a fair few goals under Ancelotti but they tend to be tap-ins from set-pieces. He’s not a prolific finisher and his movement offers little too, generally just standing on the blind-side of the defender. There’s no movement to create some space to attack for himself or attempts at dropping off to change the angle and give the full-backs the option of cutting the ball back when they get wide.
Kean is the same, so, when the two play together, Digne and Sidibé have little to aim at when they get forward.
Ancelotti has set Everton the target of getting into the Champions League but that seems very unlikely without a complete overhaul of the squad. The upgrades needed in goal, at right-back and midfield are obvious, but even those players who are performing well have their limits: players like Calvert-Lewin and Walcott have theirs uses but lack that extra bit of quality in attack, while the likes of Bernard and Richarlison are superb in attack but create more work for their teammates in defence. It’s a set of players who have the capability of being very good, but probably not great.
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