Two games in and the hallmarks of a Carlo Ancelotti side are already apparent, and so far, so good. Despite the two fixtures clustered in-between the heavy festive period, Carlo wasted no time in putting his stamp on the side with the two games so far portraying a team that vastly juxtaposes the tenure of Marco Silva. Albeit only against Burnley and Newcastle, we’ve been organised, both in and out of possession, both games have been controlled, man-management has been obvious, and we’ve stuck to our guns in terms of how we’ve wanted to play. When frustrated during our build-up, we’ve remained patient and continued to rotate the ball, pursuing other passing options rather than referring to hopeful balls down the channel. It’s been a nice change from the monotony of Marco’s Blues.
Unlike what most originally thought (me included), Ancelotti has set Everton out in a more fluid and flexible 3-4-3/3-4-2-1 rather than the rigid and restricting 4-4-2 that we saw under Duncan Ferguson before Ancelotti’s appointment. Albeit the meticulous nature of Carlo’s tactics seem obvious just in how the players swiftly and effectively switch between the 3-4-3 and the 4-4-2 in terms of the game-situation.
As someone who’s personally been championing and pushing forward the idea that Everton should switch to a back-3 structure, it was pleasing to see the formation used so efficiently and appropriately in accordance to the options we had available – albeit it wouldn’t be surprising to see the gaffer switch to a three-man midfield when the likes of Iwobi, Gbamin & Schneiderlin are all available again.
On Boxing Day though, Evertonians witnessed a type of ingenuity and creativity in terms of how we played in-possession, that had been missing since the first season of Roberto Martinez. There is a plan, intentions are obvious and subtle changes during build-up mean Everton can be more optimistic when breaking down teams that have constantly caused them trouble by simply sitting in a low-block and soaking up pressure.
The pass map above from the home game against Burnley clearly personifies all of that too; the structure is clear, the emphasis was on the wing-backs to be the main supply line while Ancelotti trusted the ball-playing abilities of Holgate & Mina to patiently build-up between themselves and Fabian Delph as the figureheads to break through Burnley’s tight defensive mould.
It’s a formation though, that in itself should get the best out of the current Everton crop and sits comfortably into what Ancelotti wants. Going forward, Calvert-Lewin is no longer the isolated, scapegoat that we saw under Koeman, Allardyce and Silva – he now has bodies around him and a creative, balanced base behind him – the onus isn’t just on him to create chances from nothing anymore. Just the 3 goals, 10 shots, 5 key passes and xG of 1.74 for Dom in the last two outings. The extra defensive position at the back too also offers room for one of Leighton Baines or Seamus Coleman – whether it be flying forward or tucking in alongside the midfield, Carlo’s talked up their influence and history with the club quite a bit already so sensibly, Carlo seems keen on giving the pair minutes.
BUILD UP PLAY
Building-up from the back between your defenders and central midfielders is usually one of the biggest indicators in modern football that demonstrates the impact a new manager is having on the training ground in his early days. Are new patterns being used? New angles being looked at? Is there a difference in confidence and composure on the ball? Little adjustments in these areas are usually key representations in how the side will play under the new manager in the long-term too. In terms of Marco Silva, our positional play and passing intentions were tedious if not deflating, under Big Dunc, the idea of passing football was practically non-existent.
Yet despite Ancelotti only having a matter of days on the training ground, there’s been quite a significant improvement in this department. Throughout the team, there’s a calmness, belief and for once a sense of coherence between the players. Possession wise, Everton have easily dominated in both games too. The 67% possession and 521 passes against Burnley was followed up by 58% and 434 passes away at Newcastle. Only 64 of the joint 955 passes have been long balls too, Calvert-Lewin for instance still used as a target man – but as someone who can fluently link-up the attacking moves rather than being used as a hopeless lamppost.
The winner itself at St. James’ Park on Saturday is the perfect portrayal of this newfound confidence and composure for Everton too.
The epitome of the goal clearly portrays the direction and philosophy that Ancelotti will likely want to implement at the club. Despite the high-pressing from Newcastle, trying to rush the Blues into a forced error – players simply just pick out simple passes, purposefully switch play to stretch the opposition before patiently breaking through Newcastle’s press.
While Dominic Calvert-Lewin remains a key figure at the head of the Everton attack, at the opposing side of the pitch, it’s another Everton youngster who’s growing increasingly stronger in Mason Holgate who despite playing alongside former Barcelona defender Yerry Mina, is being used as the main ball-playing central defender in Ancelotti’s system. At home, to Burnley, he had the 3rd highest amount of touches, while on Saturday his 75 was the 2nd highest. The previous pass map from Burnley game complies with this too, it being obvious that he was used as the glue that linked the defence and midfield.
The still above a good depiction of how Everton attempted to build-up through Holgate particularly. Holgate’s progressive dribbling ability is a big asset that gives Everton other options when attempting to bring the ball out from the back. The still though, shows a clear advantage of the system that Ancelotti has been using – the positioning of Lucas Digne coinciding with Holgate’s ball-use draws out the Burnley low-block and consequently opens them up further ahead. With the implementation of the 3-4-3, Everton are focusing more so on utilising the half-spaces with the arranging of the inverted forwards (Bernard & Richarlison) adding options further ahead that can be picked out through line-breaking passes.
Albeit it seems minimal, the ball-player here would more than likely have seen this pass hoofed down the channels, in which 9 times out of 10 gets swept up by sides such as Burnley.
As previously mentioned in my write-up of the advantages of the 3-4-3, the impact the system has offensively is more substantial than most would think considering the usual connotations of it being a largely defensive formation. The positioning of both Bernard and Richarlison slightly deeper than DCL meant that Everton had an effective link between the midfield and attack, that enables more bodies in the box while the wing-backs apply the width.
Not only did the pair behind Calvert-Lewin occupy the half-spaces well, but it was also their positioning in-between Burnley’s backline and midfield that caused them constant problems. On numerous occasions, passes into the pair left Burnley isolated in 3v2 situations, a counter-attacking threat that could pivotal as the Blues prepare to visit the Champions on New Year’s Day. The rotational movements & link-up play between the front three against both Burnley & Newcastle showed a differing and more direct approach compared to Marco Silva’s usual one-dimensional ideas.
The significance of the variation within the front 3 is conveyed here too, with both Kean & Richarlison sitting in-behind Newcastle’s midfield – the movement from Dom cleverly stretches their defence which therefore opens up the space behind them.
The positioning and consistent rotating of the front 3 not only causes problems through isolating the opponents’ backline, but simultaneously poses questions for their midfield too – movements of the trio can drag opponents out of position which then frees up our own midfield.
Another key feature of the supposed 3-4-3 is the importance and responsibility it takes from the midfield, an area in which the Blues are obviously struggling. Albeit it’s still vital that the midfield pairing remain disciplined and incisive, the additional defensive player reduces the importance in being a rock-solid base to protect the backline – it’s almost like changing the system was always the way forward following the departure of Idrissa Gana Gueye.
This for sure will more than likely become the big question for Ancelotti over the next month or so. You’d assume it’s almost a certainty that Everton will this time dip into the January transfer market for a new central midfielder, but what will that then mean for the structure of the rest of the team? A surge in quality in midfield would give the freedom for Ancelotti to then, in turn, be able to be more fluid and flexible in his formations, especially at home – this current 3-4-3/4-4-2 for me seems the perfect system for away fixtures though.
Here, for instance, with Everton set-up in the 4-4-2 that they occupied mainly at Newcastle when out-of-possession, it demonstrates a problem that for future reference, better teams could quite easily punish us. At Newcastle, the double-pivot of Sigurdsson & Davies, albeit competent and good enough to face off a side such as these, lacked the discipline and perseverance to create a balanced midfield pairing that could make do before the return of Gomes & Gbamin.
If Marcel or Carlo aren’t sure who to go for in January, there’s a big chance Amadou Haidara could be available on loan from RB Leipzig, while the likes of Boubakary Soumare or Ibrahim Sangare would surely be attracted by the possibility of playing under one of the most decorated managers in world football.
Ancelotti might not be the perfect choice, particularly long-term for the club, but for sure Everton have a manager who short-term absolutely knows what he’s doing. The league is that tight, and that inconsistent, that by just having a manager who simply gets his side doing the basics properly, instils a balanced structure, and simultaneously progresses individuals (Dom, Richy, Davies, Holgate, Kean) then you can launch yourselves up the table in no time.
Without any meticulous tactics or inventive ideas, Everton could find themselves in the European places come the end of January which arguably says more about the incompetence of Marco Silva and the underperformance under him than the ability of Carlo Ancelotti. This is a good team, a solid squad, with some excellent individuals, with a good age bracket – use it correctly and it’ll get results. Who would have thought it?
Up the L4 Azzuri!