When Carlo Ancelotti was first appointed Everton manager in December 2019 there was some concern the board had gone for glamour over substance, had been distracted by a big name when a hungrier and more modern head coach was needed.
After just eight weeks in the job any doubts have been firmly laid to rest. Everton may still be in the bottom half of the Premier League table and may have only won two of their last six matches, but close analysis of their performances under Ancelotti reveal huge tactical progress.
In many regards the changes have been subtle, perhaps explaining why the Toffees are not getting widespread attention just yet.
Ostensibly they remain in the 4-4-2 shape deployed by Duncan Ferguson during his caretaker stint, and indeed the positional tweaks are fairly small.
The midfielders are instructed to shuttle across in the gaps between the opposition lines with more frequency, for example, while the centre-backs are being instructed to take greater risks when distributing the ball.
Ancelotti wants fast and vertical build-up play that focuses on purposeful possession.
How Everton attack
Perhaps more visibly, when on the ball Everton’s 4-4-2 shifts into a 4-3-3 shape with the left winger tucking inside (to ensure they aren’t outnumbered in central midfield) and the right winger pushing on alongside the front two.
Alex Iwobi and Bernard have proved to be the perfect players to drift infield from the left, with Theo Walcott excelling on the right.
In recent weeks Iwobi replaced Walcott on that right side – ahead of the ex-Arsenal man's return against Manchester United – limiting Everton’s effectiveness at morphing into a front three, while Gylfi Sigurdsson has frequently played somewhat clumsily out on the left; however, they are a far more dangerous proposition from that flank than the right, stats obtained via Wyscout show.
Consequently Ancelotti’s system currently looked more like a 4-2-2-2, a temporary switch that should be resolved with Walcott back up to speed.
The other attacking tactic favoured by Ancelotti is overlapping full-backs, used primarily because Djibril Sidibe and Lucas Digne are two exceptional crossers of the ball.
Both find space on the outside of those tucking-in wingers, and both look to find Richarlison or Dominic Calvert-Lewin in the penalty area.
Calvert-Lewin and Richarlison partnership
In the attacking positions, Calvert-Lewin and Richarlison appear to be benefiting from in-depth tactical coaching, building a superb partnership that helps Everton counter-attack at speed.
Calvert-Lewin’s flick-ons seem to instinctively find Richarlison, while the Brazilian – leaning out to the left – has become adept at crossing for Everton's No.9.
If these two improve their chance conversion ratios, then Everton are serious Champions League contenders.
Then again, even in this regard Calvert-Lewin has significantly improved under Ancelotti, his superb overhead kick at Arsenal and third-minute strike against Man Utd bringing the 22-year-old to five goals in his last six.
Calvert-Lewin’s movement is sharper, a reflection of more detailed coaching, while his goal record may reflect the confidence boost that comes from being favoured by such a high-profile manager.
With Harry Kane and Marcus Rashford both injured, he may feature at Euro 2020.
Richarlison meanwhile is a versatile all-round forward, who both offers a goal threat and adapts to those around him. Under Ancelotti he drops into the No.10 position to help midfield, while also spinning wide to offer width.
Richarlison and Calvert-Lewin
Calvert-Lewin: 2.76 | Richarlison: 2.73
Expected goals (xG)
Calvert-Lewin: 0.61 | Richarlison: 0.29
Calvert-Lewin: 0.63 | Richarlison: 1.21
Touches in box
Calvert-Lewin: 4.16 | Richarlison: 4.1
Calvert-Lewin: 1.49 | Richarlison: 4.69
*Per 90 minutes – Premier League only
How Everton defend
When off the ball, Everton drop into a compressed 4-4-2 shape that aims to minimise space in between the lines of defence and attack, a system that requires diligent hard work from narrow wingers and the front two – who drop into attacking midfield positions.
The defensive line is relatively high, in a mid-block, while pressing is restricted to when the opposition enters the central midfield area.
It is by no means a high press, and yet Everton are nevertheless in a risky defensive shape. There is space in behind that can be exploited, as it was by Arsenal’s menacing through-balls beyond Sidibe in their recent 3-2 win.
The defensive model is perhaps most similar to Diego Simeone’s at Atletico Madrid. Everton do not sit high up the field and chase the ball down, but whereas many Premier League clubs will drop back Everton hold their ground, aiming to make it impossible to pass through such a narrow and compacted 4-4-2.
Where Everton can improve
The developing positional concerns since Walcott’s injury highlight the need for another attacking right winger, because on current viewing it looks as though Iwobi cannot drive down the flank with enough conviction.
But more pressingly, Everton need to sign one or two new central midfielders. Morgan Schneiderlin and Andre Gomes are not flexible, reactive, or technical enough to play with the sort of elasticity of movement that Ancelotti requires of a two-man midfield. Gomes, after recovering from his horror injury, may prove me wrong however between now and the end of the campaign.
Delph ought to have these attributes, but his safety-first performance at Arsenal a fortnight ago suggests age is catching up with him. Tom Davies, meanwhile remains too erratic for the time being.
To play assertive possession football, as well as intelligently shuttle between a 4-4-2 and 4-3-3 formation, Everton need more technically gifted players in the middle.
Jean-Philippe Gbamin may fill one of the positions when he returns from injury, but if so he must be complimented by a cultured, ball-playing midfielder in the Joao Moutinho mould.
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