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Carlo Ancelotti

Everton, 2019–

In Carlo Ancelotti, Everton hired one of the world’s leading managers to succeed the sacked Marco Silva and oversee the pursuit of Champions League football that they have long wanted but failed to secure. The decorated Italian had recently left his position at Napoli when he returned to English football in December, having left Chelsea in May 2011. During that time outside of the Premier League he also managed Paris Saint-Germain, Real Madrid and Bayern Munich.

Where he left a competition in which Sir Alex Ferguson, Arsène Wenger, Harry Redknapp, Kenny Dalglish and Roberto Mancini represented his leading managerial rivals, he returns to one in which Ole Gunnar Solskjaer, Mikel Arteta, Jürgen Klopp, José Mourinho and Pep Guardiola have taken their places. One of his former players, Frank Lampard, has also since become one of his successors at Stamford Bridge.

“He is the perfect appointment for us,” said Everton’s director of football Marcel Brands. The Italian has so far inspired an improvement in results from what remains an unbalanced squad; after the departures, in relatively quick succession, of predecessors Roberto Martínez, Ronald Koeman, Sam Allardyce and Silva, Everton desperately need Ancelotti to succeed.

The challenge
If Ancelotti discovered an underperforming attack when he arrived at Everton, he also inherited a disorganised defence. They have long been particularly vulnerable when defending set-pieces – their total of 16 goals conceded from them during 2018/19 was the Premier League’s highest – and largely because of the zonal marking approach they previously employed.

Where they prioritised defending the edge of the six-yard box, opponents targeted beyond that, focusing on the back posts. Even if under Ancelotti their goalkeeper Jordan Pickford has been given more room to operate in, two late goals conceded at home to Newcastle demonstrated that their struggles are persisting.

They have conceded nine goals in their eight matches since the Italian’s appointment – and opponents Watford and Newcastle are among the division’s lowest scoring teams – and kept only two clean sheets. When their midfield is bypassed – the once-influential Idrissa Gueye, since of PSG, is yet to be replaced – combinations or individual plays through inside channels too often succeed against Everton’s defence; the spaces between their central defenders and full-backs, or between their central defenders when using a back three, remain too inviting (below).

Everton also need to improve their ability to defend from further forwards. Gaps have often existed within their midfield; when a central midfielder is drawn to challenge the ball carrier his teammates have struggled to adopt narrow positions to restrict passing options, and therefore to delay or even prevent possession being advanced.

If it has occasionally proven an over-simplification to suggest any successful team needs to be built on a strong defence, those that weren’t were regularly potent in front of goal. Everton are not. Their ability to penetrate through opponents’ shapes may be improving, but their deliveries into effective spaces remain poor.

During their recent defeat at Manchester City they lacked the movements that could have helped them beyond the pressure City were applying. Ancelotti’s team, potentially struggling to identify where spaces existed while under that pressure, instead played direct balls through central areas of the pitch, where City’s four-on-two overload regularly secured possession before stretching Everton’s shape. Similarly, in the fixture at West Ham a lack of penetration through the first line of pressure – against their hosts’ 4-4-2 – undermined their ability to attack; their decision making in those circumstances (below) needs to improve.

Playing style
Ancelotti has long proven a particularly adaptable coach. From often favouring a four-diamond-two at AC Milan, he largely used a 4-3-3 at PSG, and then a 4-2-3-1 that converted into a 4-4-2 at Real. At Napoli, having inherited a team so impressive under Maurizio Sarri in a fluid, possession-based 4-3-3, he impressed in successfully reorgansing them into an attacking 4-4-2. Making Everton a more versatile team should therefore be within his abilities.

So far with his new team he has largely favoured a back three (below) that becomes a back five through wing-backs Lucas Digne and Djibril Sidibé withdrawing into defence, or a 4-4-2. There have been occasions when Seamus Coleman, a natural full-back, has overlapped Sidibé at wing-back from his role as the right-sided central defender, and Ancelotti has also demanded a greater presence in central areas when attacking, regardless of their shape, often through positioning several numbers in the three central lanes ahead of the ball.

When experimenting with a 4-4-2 and with Richarlison penetrating towards a withdrawing striker or moving infield to support from the left – the Brazilian has operated as a direct link towards two strikers as well as supporting one – they have greater variety to their attack, though at the risk of those moving parts and rotations ensuring it requires longer to recover their defensive positions. There also exists the risk of that left side being particularly vulnerable to counter-attacks.

A further rotation from that 4-4-2 has involved a central midfielder withdrawing into central defence, ensuring a single pivot instead of a double, both full-backs advancing, and the left-sided midfielder drifting inside – ultimately ensuring an additional player between the lines in a central position (below). When a similar approach has been used, but with greater caution from their full-backs and therefore at the expense of more width in the final third, their shape has resembled a 4-2-2-2, and again involved increased numbers beyond their opposition’s midfield, often between the lines. The latter is capable of being particularly useful when possession is lost, because the many numbers they would have in central positions restrict opponents to building backwards, or out wide, immediately after regains.

Instant impact
There is little question that Ancelotti has already had a significant influence on Mason Holgate and Dominic Calvert-Lewin. The former has so far impressed as one of two central defenders, within a back three, or as one half of the double pivot at the base of midfield, from where he provided both stability and a link to transition into attack.

Calvert-Lewin is also providing his most consistent attacking threat, and from a position in which Everton have struggled for a regular goalscorer since Romelu Lukaku’s departure to Manchester United in 2017. His finishes have been important, most commonly being an equalising goal, or one to give them the lead. He represents a suitable striker for one of Ancelotti’s teams because of his ability to threaten in the air, when moving beyond a defensive line, or when linking with runners. With Everton also often favouring playing crosses into the penalty area, and their ability to overcome opposing defences showing signs of improvement, he can be expected to continue to excel.

Behind him, Richarlison, Bernard, Theo Walcott and Alex Iwobi are capable of contributing to that improving attack. Around Calvert-Lewin – or potentially Moise Kean – they offer their manager significant variety and pace, and to the extent that their attacking qualities when attacking one-on-one and between the lines, and their ability to create combinations, should increasingly lead to goals. What can also already be seen is a gradual change in Everton’s mentality. There exists a growing resilience that had been absent, and that was most obviously demonstrated when after falling two goals down at Watford they recovered to win 3-2, recording their first league victory from a losing position since 2017.

A further, short-term priority surrounds Sidibé’s future. Digne and Leighton Baines represent fine options from left wing-back, but Sidibé is only on loan from Monaco until the season’s end, unless they exercise their right to buy him permanently. With Digne and Baines so capable of attacking from left-back or left wing-back, if Everton are to truly achieve their ambitions, as has been seen with rivals Liverpool and in the modern era with City and Tottenham, a duel threat from both full-backs or wing-backs is something they are likely to need.

The preferred identity of his central midfielders similarly needs to be determined. Gylfi Sigurdsson, Fabian Delph and Tom Davies have so far been those most commonly used, but none are as effective at breaking down attacks as once was Gueye. If there is reasonable creativity between them, they have also occasionally been guilty of lethargic attempts to build play (above), and there remains a need for greater balance in front of their defence. Even if Morgan Schneiderlin is given more chances to impress, they will eventually require a superior defensive midfielder.

Carlo Ancelotti

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