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Carlo Ancelotti

Everton, 2019–

In Carlo Ancelotti, Everton hired one of the world’s leading managers to 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 2019, 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 once left a competition in which Sir Alex Ferguson, Arsène Wenger, Harry Redknapp, Kenny Dalglish and Roberto Mancini represented his leading managerial rivals, he returned 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. “In the short amount of time that the manager has been there he’s been able to put his philosophy into the club already,” said Theo Walcott, who also played under Wenger, Sven Göran-Eriksson and Fabio Capello, upon his departure on loan from Everton to Southampton. “There’s no shying away from it. (They’re) playing very attractive football so it’s very exciting for the future.”

Playing style
Everton’s encouraging start to 2020/21 provided the latest demonstration of Ancelotti’s ability to adapt. If at AC Milan he often favoured a four-diamond-two, at PSG he largely used a 4-3-3, and then at Real a 4-2-3-1 that converted into a 4-4-2. At Napoli, having inherited a team so impressive under Maurizio Sarri in a fluid, possession-based 4-3-3, he imposed himself by successfully reorganising them into an attacking 4-4-2, a system he also again first used at Everton, even if during lengthier spells of build-up Everton’s 4-4-2 reorganised to form a back three.

Seamus Coleman, a natural full-back, often overlapped Djibril Sidibé at wing-back from his role as their right-sided central defender, through Ancelotti demanding an increased presence in central areas when attacking. Regardless of their shape, often through positioning several players in the three central lanes ahead of the ball, Richarlison operated as a withdrawing striker if not moving infield to support from the left. The Brazilian also provided a direct link towards two further strikers.

Although Everton’s attack then showed greater variety, it came at the risk of those moving parts and rotations requiring longer to recover back into their defensive positions. There also existed a risk that the left side of their structure was particularly vulnerable to counter-attacks.

A further rotation from that 4-4-2 involved a central midfielder withdrawing into central defence, ensuring a single pivot instead of a double, both full-backs advancing, and their left-sided midfielder again drifting infield – ultimately providing an additional player in central areas between the lines (below). When a similar approach had been used, but with greater caution from their full-backs and therefore at the expense of more width in the final third, Everton’s shape resembled a 4-2-2-2, and involved increased numbers beyond their opposition’s midfield, often between the lines.

That shaped has since evolved again, most recently into a 4-3-3 and featuring significantly more quality between the lines behind Dominic Calvert-Lewin, Richarlison, and both advancing full-backs. James Rodríguez attacking from towards the right has increased their ability to find the spaces behind opposing defences; he drifts infield, plays as a withdrawn number 10, and provides their leading link between midfield and attack, whether through the centre or the right inside channel. From the left of that front three, Richarlison drifts infield and offers a penetrative run behind Calvert-Lewin (below), their number nine, where he once would have moved towards and demanded possession. Richarlison’s potential during transitions, when he most commonly makes runs through the left inside channel, is also often influential in drawing the attention of the defending right-back.

The stability that exists in central midfield encourages Everton’s full-backs to advance, and is complemented by sufficient quality that they can build play via shorter passes. Allan and Abdoulaye Doucouré have joined André Gomes there for 2020/21, covering spaces behind the movements of Coleman and Lucas Digne, with Doucouré moving like Gomes to occupy the spaces in the inside channel but remaining willing to provide a further number in central defence. The improved service that is being directed towards Calvert-Lewin, from both open play and set-pieces, has contributed to his transformation into a prolific goalscorer, and the figure they have lacked since Romelu Lukaku’s departure to Manchester United in 2017. His aerial threat and movements beyond defences are consistent features in those Ancelotti favours in the final third.

Pressing and defending
Ancelotti inherited a team that was conceding regularly at set-pieces, largely because of their zonal-marking approach, and which too often struggled to recover from conceding the first goal. That mentality has since significantly changed. There is a growing resilience, as was demonstrated by them recovering from two goals down to beat Watford 3-2 in 2019/20, further recoveries from losing positions in 2020/21 and, in their victory at Tottenham, a rare win at one of the division’s leading teams.

In the same way that their in-possession shape has evolved, Ancelotti’s team has gone from defending with a back four or five to, in 2020/21, a 4-3-3 that means them defending with a 4-1-4-1 mid-block. The recruitment of Allan and Doucouré meant that Idrissa Gueye was finally replaced, so where combinations in inside channels were a weakness, and too many spaces existed, they are far better prepared should they encounter lengthy periods without the ball; Allan’s positioning between defence and midfield, particularly, has proved a strength. Their defensive pressure has been most effective in the middle third, where most of their tackles are won. Of the regains made in the final third, over half have come in the inside channels because of their positioning when attacking a lower block, and their full-backs and number eights, complemented by Allan, blocking access inside and working to prevent quick switches of play.

Their number eights’ and Allan’s defensive support has contributed to regains being made and their wide players’ advanced positions becoming exposed, particularly given their full-backs work to press from behind the ball carrier when an opponent has been forced into a deep block. It is regardless in the wider areas that they need to continue to improve. Though those in central midfield work to cover the spaces left by their full-backs’ attacking runs, through Richarlison and Digne advancing high and wide towards the left – and Richarlison’s positioning regularly leaving Digne short of cover – and Rodríguez drifting infield, Everton can still be vulnerable against switches of play. If those in central midfield have moved to cover those full-backs, spaces are vacated in the centre that Liverpool have been among those to exploit.

When their 4-1-4-1 block is established (above), and their wide forwards have taken more routine defensive positions, Everton are noticeably stronger. Richarlison, Rodríguez and Calvert-Lewin lead what is often their man-oriented press by Richarlison and Rodríguez prioritising the opposing full-backs, and Calvert-Lewin the opposing central defenders; Allan is similarly influential from the base of midfield. Their two leading transitional threats are then temporarily sacrificed, however, and it is that balance that Ancelotti will need to focus on if they are to become established in the top six.

Carlo Ancelotti

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