There is perhaps no better microcosm of the absurdity of the world at present than the Premier League season thus far.
Leicester City trouncing Manchester City 5-2 before losing 3-0 to a West Ham side widely tipped for relegation. A Tottenham Hotspur team burdened by fixture congestion humiliating the purportedly resurgent Manchester United 6-1. Last year’s relegation survivors Aston Villa demolishing current champions Liverpool 7-2.
One could argue, though, that none of these individual matches are as surprising as the sensational form of Everton. Carlo Ancelotti’s side came into the season with exciting signings such as Allan, Abdoulaye Doucouré, and James Rodriguez, but few would have expected them to be top of the Premier League table before the first international break. The consistency of their results -and the manner in which they’ve achieved them – has brought renewed vigour and hope to the blue half of Merseyside.
When Ancelotti was first appointed at Everton, he implemented a fairly standard 4-4-2, with the front pairing of Richarlison and Dominic Calvert-Lewin serving as the bedrock of the team. The shape gave them a degree of defensive solidity and made them effective in attacking transitions when the strikers, Theo Walcott, Bernard, and Lucas Digne had space to drive into.
However, the team was clearly hampered by a lack of suitable options for a midfield double-pivot. Andre Gomes, Tom Davies, Morgan Schneiderlin, and Gylfi Sigurdsson are by no means bad players, but none complemented each other particularly well and they all failed to provide the Toffees with the combination of ball progression and defensive protection they required
This led to Everton occasionally lacking vertical compactness when pressing, allowing teams to pass through them easily, while also stymieing their build-up play and forcing them to bypass the midfield altogether with long balls to Calvert-Lewin.
Ancelotti is famously adaptable, though, ever willing to alter his tactical setups to best suit his squad. With Rodriguez coming into the club, it was clear that he would no longer persist with the 4-4-2 and instead look to best accommodate the mercurial Columbian. So it has proved, as the Italian has now implemented a highly fluid 4-3-3 with an excellently balanced midfield trio of Gomes, Doucoure, and Allan sitting behind the mesmeric front three of Calvert Lewin, Richarlison, and Rodriguez.
This is a great achievement for this month. I have to share this recognition with my team because they started the season well.
We want to continue and win this award again.
— Carlo Ancelotti (@MrAncelotti) October 9, 2020
During build-up play, Everton are now more inclined to build patiently from the back. Allan tends to drop just ahead of the centre-backs to provide a short-passing option and allow the fullbacks to push higher. The Brazilian is content to shift possession horizontally to allow his teammates to take up more advanced positions but is also capable of carrying the ball through pressure himself.
Gomes is also important in this phase, dropping from his nominal position from the left side of the midfield three to provide a more creative passing option. With the defensive support of Allan and the creative presence of Rodriguez higher up the pitch, Gomes has found a role that best suits his qualities and allows him to use his vision and passing range from a deeper role.
Doucoure plays the most advanced of the midfield trio but primarily does so with the defensive purpose of covering the space vacated by the marauding runs of Seamus Coleman and Rodriguez. The Frenchman also provides a short passing option for Rodriguez and attracts opposition markers towards him, creating space for the former Real Madrid playmaker to influence the game.
Rodriguez has been instrumental in Everton’s style of play. His ability to cut inside on to his stronger left foot and switch the play to find Richarlison or the dynamic Digne has been one of their prime methods of chance creation.
With the Doucoure-Coleman-Rodriguez axis on the right-hand side and Gomes dropping deeper on the left, the inclination for opposition defences is to push towards Everton’s right flank. The result is that dangerous attacking threats such as Digne and Richarlison are left in space, safe in the knowledge that they can be consistently found by a Rodriguez pass.
From there, Digne can supply crosses to find Calvert-Lewin or a late run from Doucoure while Richarlison can isolate his opposite man and move into the box. The 28-year-old creator can also supply the likes of Calvert-Lewin or Richarlison moving infield with looping crosses or through-balls along the ground, something the opposition must always be wary of.
“I’m convinced Ancelotti is at the perfect club. He’s happy about many things at Everton, so I’m really excited.
“You see happy guys, happy manager, happy board.
“When you have this kind of magic in the club, you can do important things.” pic.twitter.com/baFTnxDuGj
— The Everton Way (@Everton_Way) October 15, 2020
Everton are also extremely fluid in their structure while attacking. Sometimes Doucoure and Coleman may switch positions, Rodriguez may find space on the left, Doucoure can drop in line with the centre-backs to give Allan more freedom to push up, and Calvert-Lewin may loiter in the right-half space and create room in the box for Richarlison to move into. These positional rotations unsettle opposition defences and allow the Toffees to create overloads in specific areas of the pitch which facilitate chance creation.
It’s also worth noting that for all their neat passing play and fluid movement, Everton are still extremely effective when attacking on the counter, from set-pieces, or from direct balls from the back. Their new personnel may have provided a different dimension to their attack, but Ancelotti has still enabled his side to retain many of the more functional elements of their playing style as well, ensuring that they can hurt opposition teams in a variety of ways.
Defensively, Everton still press in a 4-4-2 medium block, looking to compress the space with two solid banks of four. They have certainly been more solid than last season, but that’s probably due to having better individual players as opposed to tactical changes. In Doucoure and Allan, Ancelotti now has midfielders with the necessary energy, ball-winning ability, and positional awareness to provide better protection for the back four.
Yerry Mina and Michael Keane have done reasonably well so far, although new-signing Ben Godfrey and currently-injured Mason Holgate will likely be better suited to Everton’s high-line and ball-retention style. Neither are as dominant physically, but both are better on the ball, more mobile, and have a higher ceiling than both Keane and Mina. Jonjoe Kenny is also a promising prospect for the right-back position and could displace Coleman from the XI at some point.
If there is one reason to be concerned about Everton, it’s their goalkeeper. Jordan Pickford has done little to suggest that he can return to his 2018 World Cup form and has been at fault for the majority of the goals the Merseyside outfit have conceded thus far. Ancelotti will hope that the England number one can return to prominence sooner rather than later, but the early signs aren’t particularly promising.
Apart from that, though, Everton appear to be an excellent side who could push for European football this season. Ancelotti is an experienced and intelligent coach who can tweak his selections to counter opposition strengths both before and during a game, and he has implemented a system that maximizes the abilities of a talented squad.
They probably lack the squad depth and quality to sustain a title push or race for a Champions League position, but with question marks surrounding all the big six clubs and the likes of Leicester City and Wolves making mixed starts to the season, it’s difficult to rule Everton out completely. It certainly wouldn’t be the most outlandish occurrence of 2020.