Carlo Ancelotti's record start could be hiding the reality of Everton's progress
The manager faces a proper test with Arsenal, Manchester United, Chelsea and Liverpool in the next four games
Rewind 10 weeks to when managerial vacancies appeared at Arsenal and Everton. It scarcely seemed outlandish that Carlo Ancelotti and Mikel Arteta would fill them. The shock was that the triple Champions League winner was hired at Goodison Park and the rookie parachuted into the Emirates Stadium, and that Arsenal never approached Ancelotti.
Each had a watching brief when Everton and Arsenal, under caretakers Duncan Ferguson and Freddie Ljungberg, drew in the dullest of December stalemates. Each has now had eight league games at the helm. Arteta has earned plenty of plaudits but only two wins. Ancelotti has five victories and a total of 17 points that, over those eight games, only Liverpool bettered.
The Ancelotti era table makes for pleasant reading at Goodison Park. If it could speak to the alchemy of a Galactico manager, it may also be deceptive.
The most memorable game of his brief tenure was painful: the loss of nerve and a missed opportunity in an FA Cup defeat to Liverpool’s reserves. The lone league loss came to Manchester City, the only elite team Everton have faced in the competition. Now they have Arsenal, Manchester United, Chelsea and Liverpool in four games.
It is a truer barometer of progress for a team who have beaten the lesser lights; even then, however, letting a 2-0 lead slip away in injury time against Newcastle shows their record could have been better. This is nevertheless statistically the best start by any Everton manager.
And yet there is scope for improvement. Ancelotti has derived more satisfaction from results than performances. He is accustomed to dealing with more gifted groups of players. There has been spirit, but also scrappy displays.
Everton’s strength has perhaps contributed to their weakness. Ancelotti’s renewed fondness for 4-4-2 can feel an anachronism but the strike duo in question have been, along with Mason Holgate, the outstanding players of his reign. Dominic Calvert-Lewin has six goals for Ancelotti and is in the most prolific season of his career, a worker being transformed into a scorer. The catalytic Richarlison has three.
Yet a corollary has been that Everton can be short-staffed in the middle of midfield in an era when most teams deploy three players there. Ancelotti does in a way, using two banks of four as a defensive structure and looking to get Bernard to drift infield into the No. 10 position, but the diminutive Brazilian generally only starts home games.
He has struggled to find a central duo, trying five combinations so far. Gylfi Sigurdsson has been the closest thing to a constant but it is a curiosity that the club record buy arrived in a summer when Everton overloaded with No 10s, recruiting three, and now field a shape without any; it is a damning example of heavy spending seeming to lack a plan. The £45 million man can seem miscast as a central midfielder. It is increasingly hard to see what Sigurdsson offers now besides set-piece expertise, but Everton have four goals from corners in as many games.
In their various managers’ defences, they have lacked arguably the premier duo. Jean-Philippe Gbamin was signed to fill the sold Idrissa Gueye’s all-action role but he has not played since August and will not feature since April.
In contrast, Andre Gomes has made a swifter-than-expected return from a seemingly horrific ankle injury in November. His reputation has been elevated in his absence. His comeback will come today, potentially at Sigurdsson’s expense.
Everton’s need for someone to knit the team together, to add the style and smoothness previous Ancelotti sides have exhibited, mean he could be pivotal. Because of late none of Everton’s midfielders have displayed the class Arteta gave them in his playing days.
Updated: February 22, 2020 04:22 PM