Like any great western, the retiring sheriff or gunslinger aims for a peaceful conclusion, in the sunset of their careers. A comfortable chair to sit on, having seen it all and with close companions alongside them. However, as any story goes, a final ride must foretell; whether spearheaded by personal vendetta or a sense of fulfilment.
With his Stetson on and polished badge across the chest, Carlo Ancelotti was caught at the scene of the crossfire. Dealing with a rag-tag posse of an Everton squad, the demanding townsfolk still believed in his valuable reputation, whilst others began to wonder if his tactics had become outdated.
Now Ancelotti has left for a calmer Spanish swansong, his legacy at the club will leave supporters in great confusion for years to come. Judging by events on the field and an underwhelming 10th place finish, Ancelotti doesn’t feel like a great loss. That is until you realise the whacky race of names that will be thrown into the hat by the board, in order to replace him.
This article looks back at Everton’s only full season with Carlo Ancelotti in the dugout, the tactical trends throughout the season, the issues on the field, and grab a sense of where Everton could go from here.
To say the 2020/21 campaign peaked in September would be a logical observation. Ancelotti debuted his flash midfielders, within a 4-3-3 formation, not seen at Everton since the days of Koeman. The early days of the 4-3-3 system offered dynamism and an actual way of progression being established, all whilst sparking Dominic Calvert-Lewin into elite early season form.
The mechanics in the buildup were fairly basic; asymmetry in the midfield line and full-backs who remained deeper rather than pinning their opposite numbers. Although Everton was still moving the ball laterally, circulation was noticeably smoother and less one-dimensional… then James Rodríguez got on the ball.
The Colombian was given the license to move out of the forward line and drop into areas on the right side of the field. His neat touches and close control attracted opponents forward, followed by Rodríguez pumping the ball towards the opposite flank, with Lucas Digne and Richarlison in space. Ancelotti had blessed Everton with a proper ten and the effectiveness of this pattern showed as they produced excellent xG numbers.
Jamesdependencia was born and Everton genuinely looked like a team who could build an attack. Having said that, early warning signs were there. The third centre-midfielder, often Andre Gomes in these games, offered very little within the construction phase. Perhaps an addition of Alex Iwobi, or anyone who could carry the ball forwards for that matter, would provide more dynamism, rather than consistently going from right to left. As well as this, Seamus Coleman has never been a super overlapping right-back, 2013/14 aside and with James dropping, Everton offered no attack down the right side of the field.
If opponents had handled Everton’s first phase of the attack, then the second would offer little. This was due to suboptimal positioning between the lines without a Rodríguez presence, the three midfielders either sat asymmetrically towards the ball side or flat and poorly staggered. As a result, Everton got the best of Rodríguez in the middle of the field and only flashes of his elite arsenal in the penalty box.
Out of possession, Everton had also adapted to a new shape. When higher up the field, the 4-4-2 shape was still embodied, with Richarlison and Calvert-Lewin as the frontline and Gomes shifting to the left of the midfield. This was probably Everton’s most identifiable shape under Ancelotti, but exclusively off the ball and without the partnership between Richarlison and Calvert-Lewin being formed as regularly as last season.
When the ball was deeper, Everton transitioned into a 4-5-1/4-1-4-1 formation, Calvert-Lewin up front on his own, whilst Allan would screen the two midfielders just ahead of him. This block was effective at cutting off sequences centrally, as well as down the right of the opponent’s build, with Digne and Richarlison both being excellent in the defensive phase.
Down the left was a more complicated issue, with Rodríguez offering little defensive cover and wingers able to dribble past Coleman with little problems. When Rodríguez pressed higher or opponents tilted Everton’s shape towards the centre/opposite flank, space would drastically open towards the left and a route towards the final third was easily accessible.
Once this loophole had been discovered, teams started to build down Everton’s right a lot more consistently. After a trademark Liverpool pattern created separation and a two-versus-one on Coleman, Southampton threw a bulk of their offensive play down the same channel, against an uncoordinated Everton press and gave Ben Godfrey a tough time at right-back.
A 3-1 defeat at home to Manchester United was the breaking point. With Allan man-marking Bruno Fernandes, Luke Shaw and Marcus Rashford were able to create a two-versus-one against Coleman in passing sequences, with the two United players in constant rotation amongst them. The two goals that they scored, in quick succession, came from crosses in the left halfspace and distinctly similar patterns between them. After a winless four games, Ancelotti switched the shape.
Three-at-the-back and death of the buildup
The switch to a 3-4-2-1/3-4-3 formation didn’t come as a surprise, they had played in similar shapes in the season before, but the change of formation brought out the bad elements of Everton’s passing structure, rather than fix components that were missing in the 4-3-3 system.
This was most notable centrally, with Allan and Abdoulaye Doucouré being the two centre-midfielders, in the game against Fulham. With Calvert-Lewin pinning the centre-backs, disconnect between the double pivot and three attackers caused Everton’s build to be dysfunctional. Everton raced three goals in before half-time, which included neat sequences in the goals, but they had relied more upon Alex Iwobi’s ball-carrying ability at right wingback to get the ball forward from deep. Furthermore, Doucouré’s tendency to push further ahead into the final third led to them being exposed on the transition, on a more regular basis, with only Allan able to cover space behind.
From this point onwards, The Toffees produced a lot more defensive-focused performances. Leeds United, Chelsea, Leicester City and Arsenal were all played before Christmas, and all dominated the bulk of the possession. Out of these games, Leeds United brutally exposed Ancelotti’s team the best, a Bielsa side whose well-rehearsed patterns were streets ahead of a bad defensive approach.
Kalvin Phillips was given ultimate freedom in the middle to spray balls out wide, against the odd pairing of Tom Davies and Iwobi as wingbacks. Everton’s defensive lines were flat and unresponsive against fast Leeds attacks, who were given the room to exchange between the lines. Luke Ayling was constantly able to feed the rotating frontline, whose wall pass combinations put Jack Harrison/Raphina in advanced positions without turning.
After a draw away to Burnley, Everton won three games on the bounce with set-pieces and a plan B, to go direct to Calvert-Lewin, at the forefront. These matches followed very similar scripts: Everton took an early lead into the game, got to half-time before deploying the rest defence to see out the points.
Against the three teams, the poor buildup mechanics enabled Ancelotti’s team to sit out the match quite comfortably, rather than the defensive strength of a low block being the driving force. Everton’s low block was still comfortable to play through due to two elements; firstly, a winger would drop into the defensive line which opened space down that and secondly, the two centre-mids would be miles apart which created massive gaps between the lines.
Upon the return of Everton’s buildup, after Christmas, The Toffees had completely forgotten how to perform a basic passing structure, without the injured James from the team. Ancelotti had returned to the 4-3-3 formation, but with Doucouré and Sigurðsson as eights. Doucouré dropped in certain phases to help Tom Davies, who came in as the six after Allan’s injury away to Leicester, but not enough to compensate for Sigurðsson, whose avoidance of passing sequences is well-documented up to this point.
Injuries to both first-choice fullbacks did not help matters. Ben Godfrey and Mason Holgate were often deployed in these areas, although both quick and made runs forward, they were often doing this from much deeper areas. Everton failed to stretch opponents or offer any offensive threat from out wide as a result.
As a result, Everton’s pass maps from these games indicate just how dysfunctional their buildup patterns were. With limited offensive action from full-backs, little combinations from attacking players and a circuit between 3-5 players, they immensely struggled to break teams down.
The start of the new year saw Everton play their deepest blocks since the Moyes era, whilst also begin to perform the worst home record in the clubs’ modern history. Teams across the continent had sacrificed pressing highly in the COVID era of football, but Everton feels a lot more tactical-based than fitness-based thinking. Looking at Everton’s average pressures, according to FBref.com, Ancelotti’s team was playing the most conservatively that they had been in a number of seasons.
This style did produce results but at an incredibly fortunate rate. From the start of January to the end of February, Everton had a better xG than their opponent on one occasion, the 2-1 away win at Leeds United, in nine games.
In these games, Ancelotti changed the defensive shape on a number of occasions, but the same deficiencies within the low block were not fixed. Predetermined movements from Harvey Barnes enabled Leicester to skip through the 4-4-2 shape, whilst Newcastle’s switch to a diamond kept Steve Bruce’s team compact and put Callum Wilson into optimal positions on the transition.
Ancelotti drew up a diamond of his own away to Manchester United, to ultimately nullify Fernandes as much as possible with an extra midfielder. Everton cut off passing lanes towards the number ten, but United was able to get into three-versus-twos down the channels consistently and zero out ball led to United pressure. Remarkable how this ended 3-3.
He stuck to the diamond setup at home to Fulham, a performance which saw Scott Parker’s team utterly dominate and continuously get into optimal shooting positions, due to poor penalty box defending from both Holgate and Godfrey.
Away to Liverpool was the pinnacle of Everton’s season. Although the birth of Coleman’s role as a right-midfielder, he operated quite effectively by joining the backline, as Everton transitioned from a 4-2-3-1 shape higher up, into a 5-3-2/5-1-2-2 formation when defending in a deeper block. Against Liverpool, Ancelotti has always dropped his right-winger behind the midfield line, including in the games for Napoli in the Champions League, but not to the extent of the player actively part of the backline. Not only did this put an overload on Mane, but they were able to match Liverpool’s trademark 2-3-5 setup and Everton held to put their dreadful Anfield record into the Tombstone.
Switching Everton into a 5-3-2 defensive block was a smart move from Ancelotti, as it enables strong coverage in the centre, whilst often matching the opponents positioning down the channels. However, with midfielders who always look to engage higher up, Everton was still susceptible to wall pass combinations being formed and pulling through the defensive block.
Who else to highlight examples of this, other than Manchester City. Everton genuinely did a good job in prolonging City in the box, with the numbers committed deeply, to flood near the goal, but was incapable of dealing with a centre-back carrying the ball forward and a combination forming. In the league, Rodri was continuously able to receive the ball in the final third, without turning, whilst the same patterns formed down the left in the FA Cup a month later.
When Everton had more possession in games, their buildup remained at a consistently bad level. This was due to the bad staggering and lack of patterns that had been put in place, when Everton reached the halfway line, there was very little movement amongst the ball carrier to disrupt an opponent’s block. The ball would almost always move horizontally, back infield towards the centre-backs, before booting the ball towards the forwards, with very little penetration on the defensive line.
Even when Jamesdependencia 2.0 returned, towards the seasons’ showdown, the Colombian was having to drop deeper and deeper just to get the ball rolling. Away to Arsenal was perhaps James deepest role, almost a regista when receiving the ball, but without any sort of runner to playoff. With Richarlison to the right of this attack, and Sigurðsson being the man to aim for, it comes as little surprise that Everton failed to get out of their own half and relied upon free-kicks. In a match that clichéd both Arsenal and Everton’s seasons, a flukey own goal led to Everton taking three points.
From a tactical point of view, the new role for Coleman was the last and weirdest addition to Everton’s set-up. He remained in the right-midfield position, without actively dropping into the last line, whilst in possession, took up narrow positions without the corridors to play down. He operated as a free man in the buildup, but this had little to no asset as Everton’s form drastically declined, booted out of the European spots and humiliated at the Ethiad on the final day.
What is Everton’s style? The burning question that not many can answer. Not all of Everton’s problems were down to Ancelotti, but a manager on a ridiculous salary was supposed to steer the ship into calmer waters, Ancelotti took the helm after it had already hit the iceberg. A brief look at the underlying metrics will tell you that we are yet to see real signs of progression, yet a 10th-placed finish could still be deemed as flattering.
Whoever Everton appoints next, must come with coherent planning to drive the club forward, both in terms of framework and recruitment. The club can no longer look at clubs like Chelsea/Man City for answers when their budgets are indefinite, but at clubs like Leicester/Leeds/Brighton, who chose a style and built accordingly.
Ancelotti brought good, bad and mostly ugly performances. A three-time Champions League winner arrived at Goodison Park and left as he found them. It’s almost as if Everton need to do more as a club, rather than continuously change the head coach.