Should Ancelotti Stick with the 4-4-2?

“When I was starting out, I was wedded to 4-4-2. I have now learned to be more flexible although I still believe that 4-4-2 is the outstanding defensive system. You have the best coverage of the pitch, it is simpler to press forward and press high, with coverage behind the pressing players.”

An excerpt from Ancelotti’s book ‘Quiet Leadership: Winning hearts, minds and matches’ clearly indicates his love for the 4-4-2 formation; a romance which has blossomed since his days as a midfielder. During a time where three-at-the-back systems and catenaccio reigned supreme in Italy, Arrigo Sacchi’s Milan broke traditions, winning the 1987/88 Serie A title, conceding as little as fourteen goals in the process.

The 28-year-old Ancelotti was a crucial component in this team, both as an architect in the buildup and an organiser in both attacking and defensive phases. Across the twenty-five years he has spent as a manager, the Italian boss has shown his adaptability to suit his squad’s credentials, but the 4-4-2 formation will always be an option in his tactical notebook.

Marco Silva had established Everton as a high-pressing, high-intensity team, using the 4-4-2 system. However, this posed horrendous problems once the first line was played through, severely lacking in organization nor the compactness to stop the opposition from playing through. Silva was booted, whilst Ferguson took the reins in another search for a new boss.

A 3-1 win at home to Chelsea bought the Everton board more time, as Ancelotti’s situation at Napoli had regressed. Conflicts off the field played a major part in his dismissal, and less than two weeks later, Everton announced the Italian as their new boss.

Though the COVID-19 crisis has temporarily put football on hold, we’ve still had a good look of how Everton are going to operate under one of the world’s most successful football managers. His biggest challenge is to provide solidity to a defence which has been performing weak numbers since the Roberto Martínez days. Has Carlo Ancelotti supplied such solidity and should the 4-4-2 formation be Everton’s go-to?

Are Everton pressing less?

The tactical framework installed by the new boss has drawn comparison towards Ancelotti’s time at Parma, and it’s easy to see why. The 4-4-2 formation was in place, with high pressing and intensity, not to dissimilar to Sacchi. Although, to compare the squads of both late-90’s Parma and current Everton, there is an unmatchable difference in class. Gianluigi Buffon and Fabio Cannavaro emerging talents, in a team containing Hernán Crespo, Lilian Thuram and Dino Baggio to name a few.

Marco Silva’s 4-4-2 pressing system was a crucial transition in the team’s shape. Winning high turnovers and playing the ball quickly, whilst the opposition were out of the defensive shape, was our most efficient way of scoring goals. This explains the improvement of performances against the likes of Man United, Arsenal and Chelsea, and defeats against teams when we have dominated the ball.

Gylfi Sigurdsson pushed from his second striker role into the forward line, whist our wingers dropped into the midfield. This was rather successful, Everton’s PPDA (Passes per Defensive Action) was at 9.4 during the 2018/19 campaign, which only Manchester City recorded a lower number in the Premier League.

This season, Everton were pressing even higher at points, recording lower PPDA during the first six games.

Everton’s PPDA throughout the 2019/20 season, game-by-game.

Looking at our PPDA, game-by-game, you can see we have allowed opposition teams to build from the back more as the season has progressed. Pre-Ancelotti, Everton were recording an average of 10.74 PPDA per game, though the match at home against Manchester City heavily inflated this number (excluding the City match, this takes Everton down to 9.39 per game.)

Since Ancelotti came in, Everton have produced 10.87 PPDA per match, an increase which now ranks us 8th in comparison to the rest of the Premier League. Under the Italian manager, we are pressing less than we were, but this change in intensity is understandable.

Silva’s Everton were ridiculously high up the field, but the lack of compactness made them an easy team to play through. Away to Aston Villa, Dean Smith’s team constantly won and took quick free-kicks, catching us out of shape before flooding players between the lines. Against Bournemouth, Lewis Cook and Philip Billing dropped into the defensive line, creating a back three which made building up easier against a two-man frontline. There are many different examples of how easy Everton were to play through when setting up so high and the consequences that came with it.

Conceding good quality shots

As a result of a poor pressing structure, Everton started to concede better quality of shots, both in location and where the shot was aimed. As Silva’s tenure continued, The Toffees rapidly increased both their Expected Goals Conceded and Post-Shot Expected Goals. PSxG is a metric that is based on the fact that the shot is on target. Prior to the Burnley game, Everton’s average PSxG sat a 1.35 per 90, whilst their xGA (excluding penalties) was at 1.21 per 90.

Everton’s average PSxG and npxGA as the season progressed.

Since then, Everton are yet to reduce these numbers. Their PSxG now sits at 1.37 per 90, whilst non-penalty xGA is now at 1.24 per 90. Everton’s eleven games under Ancelotti have included the likes of Manchester United, Arsenal and Chelsea as opponents, but they also include the likes of Watford and Newcastle United, who we produced poor defensive numbers against.

Making instant impacts at clubs are a rarity for new managers, especially with the lack of versatile players in this Everton squad. It doesn’t come as a surprise that these numbers haven’t improved, especially when a very similar defensive structure has replaced the old one.

In terms of shot location, Everton are performing numbers above their current league position. The 1.27 Expected Goals they concede ranks them eighth when compared to other Premier League teams. They rank even higher when conceding shots from open play situations, just 0.83 Expected Goals allowed from open play is the joint-sixth best in England’s topflight.

What has proven to be a problem is the quality of these shots towards goal. Everton’s total PSxG numbers (39.9 PSxG) ranks them in tenth position, whilst their PSxG per Shot on Target (0.33) ranks them in fifteenth place. Jordan Pickford faces a lot of good quality shots but isn’t the greatest shot-stopper either. It is a problem in desperate need of resolving.

Lacking compactness and pressing dilemmas

Arguably the most important component in your 4-4-2 defensive block is your compactness – especially between the defensive and midfield lines. Not only does this stop moves being developed between your lines, but it completely shuts off the central zones of the field, where the most dangerous passes will be played.

Everton have rarely shown such compactness, especially when the opposition is building in the middle third of the field. These scenarios leave the players in the midfield line with a dilemma, press further forward and you create space behind you, but dropping deeper and you give the opposition space to pick a better pass. A number of defensive phases away to Chelsea showcased this problem.

Buildup to Chelsea’s first goal.

The buildup to Chelsea’s first raises a number of concerns. Although Billy Gilmour is well occupied, he still has the time and space to receive possession and pick passes without pressure. Tom Davies and André Gomes both have moments where they either drop off, but when they do press, a huge space opens up directly behind up. Chelsea play backwards to go forwards, encouraging the Everton midfield line to move up, before the pass is played into Mason Mount, which creates an overload down that channel.

Away to Arsenal also showcased such problems. Although Everton impressed on the ball, they struggled to deal with Arsenal in possession. They built up in a 4-2-3-1 structure, Granit Xhaka constantly shifting over to the left half space when receiving the ball, whilst Edward Nketiah pinned Yerry Mina and Mason Holgate deeper in attacking transitions.

The positioning of the midfield line caused Everton problems once more. Morgan Schneiderlin and Fabian Delph have more positional awareness, but the positioning of both wingers gave Arsenal creative freedom. Alex Iwobi was often caught too close to Djibril Sidibé, whilst Gylfi Sigurdsson was far too narrow to the central midfield in defensive transitions.

Arsenal’s first goal.

Because Alex Iwobi isn’t pushed forward, Granit Xhaka has space to run into and time to pick his pass. Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang’s presence draws Everton defenders near to him, which creates space for Xhaka to make a channel pass into Bukayo Saka.

The 4-4-2 formation relies on compactness, which is why team that deploy low blocks tend to use the formation. The number of players in the defensive third discourages the opposition from playing short, vertical passes into central zones, forcing an opponent into a cross towards the goalkeeper can be seen as a victory. Everton lack the compactness because the urge to press the opponent remains, covering space for another player (without exploiting your own) is very difficult because your team’s structure only has three lines. The 4-4-2 system can be effective but being stuck between a medium to high block, without the organisation, makes your job more difficult.

Targeting the right

Since the lockdown, Everton had just one clean sheet to their name since the turn of the year, two under Ancelotti in total. Chelsea (1.95xG), Man United (1.26xG), Arsenal (1.10xG) and Crystal Palace (1.70xG) had all scored and performed pretty well in their Expected Goals when facing Everton, according to Between the Posts data. A brief look at the some of the progressive passing plots, that the website offers, reveals an alarming pattern.

Teams love to target our right side of the field and there are a number of occasions where they’ve isolated the right-back or found space in that area. Arsenal constantly pumped balls down the left channel and positioned players down the flanks to open the passing lane.

In this move, Dani Ceballos picks up the ball in open space and is enabled to move the ball forward with very limited pressure. Granit Xhaka has moved in the left half space, pinning Morgan Schneiderlin, whilst Sead Kolašinac remains as far towards the sideline as possible, to stretch the midfield line. Ceballos produces a fantastic line breaking pass as a result, Aubameyang moving out of Sidibé’s blind side to meet the through ball.

Everton clearly didn’t learn their lesson.

In the buildup to their second goal, David Luiz pushes up towards our midfield line without any pressure. Aubameyang rushes from the sideline, behind Sidibé’s line of sight, and meets the through ball. An attacking move identical to what was seen earlier in the game.

Without pressing the right channel, opposition teams are able to pin Sidibé/Coleman more central. The midfielder, who operates in the halfspace, can carry the ball unchallenged, and enable the fullback and winger to access space. When looking through chances that had been created throughout these games, this was a common theme when the opposition team were on the ball.

Arsenal exploited our defence effectively throughout the game by moving one of the double pivots into the defensive line. This gave Arsenal the numerical superiority to play through the first line of the defence. Calvert-Lewin is forced to change his attention onto David Luiz, whilst Ceballos gets into a better position without being occupied.

Ceballos receives the ball in space and able to push towards Everton’s right flank. Although Saka was pulled up for offside, it takes three passes for him to be in a position to cross the ball, and the three players involved all receive the ball in space.

Conclusion

In the same excerpt, Ancelotti discusses why the 4-3-3 formation is limited:

“With 4-3-3, for example, although you can press high because you have three strikers, it can expose limitations in midfield behind those forwards, especially on the flanks.

Also, if your forwards are not great at defending it can be easier for defenders to bypass them and get into the next line with superior numbers. This is less likely with 4-4-2, where you can bring in the wide players to bolster the midfield so that your central players are not overwhelmed.”

Though I agree with Ancelotti’s statement, it is subjective, and there are plenty of case studies of teams that press successfully with three forwards in the first line. There are teams that still play the 4-4-2 system very effectively, but Everton really lack the compactness and positioning to perform well in this structure. Recruitment can cover the cracks, but Ancelotti is a much more flexible and versatile manager than Everton have hired in recent memory.

We’ve already seen Ancelotti adapt his tactics on the ball, but it won’t surprise me if he adapts this structure when Everton face teams, that like to build with three in the first line. It’ll take time to adjust when football returns, but the common assumption amongst Evertonians is that Ancelotti will help deliver a much-needed resurgence up the table.

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One thought on “Should Ancelotti Stick with the 4-4-2?

  1. Wow great piece Joel!

    Not an Everton fan, well actually I’d put you towards the bottom of my list, but still read this piece purely for the tactical insight!

    Keep up the good work and stay safe mate 🙂

    Liked by 1 person

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