Evertonians trudged out of the Emirates in their thousands last Sunday after witnessing their side’s latest agonising failure to secure a debut victory at a ground built in 2006, in the first of a series of incredibly challenging fixtures. Their mood could have been despondent, but it was not.
After all, they had seen yet another defeat away at one of the ‘Big Six’. The Toffees haven’t won at Liverpool, Chelsea or Arsenal this century, and this attempt saw an early lead squandered, three soft goals conceded, and Gary Neville succinctly tweeting that Everton are “crap in big matches” and “shrink in nearly every big game”.
I mean you haven’t won at arsenal for 24 years , you are crap in big matches ( and I actually don’t want you to be ) , your team shrink in nearly every big game I see and you ask me to talk you up!!— Gary Neville (@GNev2) February 24, 2020
Except that only tells half the story. The Blues’ record in big away games is pretty dismal, but their home form against major sides is far from it. Chelsea have lost their last two trips to Goodison Park at an aggregate of 5-1, Manchester United were thumped 4-0 last season and Arsenal were put to the sword too. The Gunners and Tottenham both failed to win on visits this campaign, when their hosts were at a noticeably lower ebb than at present. Even Liverpool, so often Everton’s kryptonite, dropped the last points of their knife-edge 2018/19 title race when they made the short trip across Stanley Park in March of last year.
That record will be a source of encouragement for fans as they look toward consecutive fixtures against United, Chelsea and Liverpool in the coming weeks, with Leicester and Spurs to follow shortly afterwards. That and one other enormous, unavoidable, still unbelievable, eyebrow-raising factor: Carlo Ancelotti.
Everton’s impressive form under the Italian has gone slightly under the radar. Admittedly, that hasn’t been helped by the calamitous loss in the FA Cup at Anfield, and the arguably even more farcical draw at home to Newcastle. But the fact remains that the Toffees have picked up the third-most points of any side in the league since Ancelotti’s appointment, behind only Manchester City and Liverpool. The same is true going even further back to Marco Silva’s dismissal on December 4. The only losses in the Premier League since then have come at the Etihad and Emirates, both by a one goal margin.
That represents more than a short-term ‘new manager bounce’ or a couple of lucky results. Ancelotti has not utterly revolutionised Everton’s football, but he has completely changed the feeling within the fanbase, and, apparently, the training ground. “He is with the players all the time and always smiling,” said Yerry Mina recently. “This is special because if you have any issues, you can tell Carlo. This is important for all the players. We are a good team and a family.”
Small adjustments have been made that make Ancelotti’s outfit a sturdier prospect than Silva’s, some of them instigated by Duncan Ferguson in his caretaker stint. Now 4-4-2 – Arrigo Sacchi’s formation of choice in the iconic AC Milan side that Ancelotti played in – is the go-to system and one that plays to Everton’s strengths. Ancelotti does not have the quality of midfielders available to patiently dictate play and pass teams to death, but does have two forwards in Dominic Calvert-Lewin and Richarlison that compliment each other’s games perfectly and are in a rich vein of form. Both have the aerial strength and pace to get on the end of long balls, whatever form they take, and threaten on the counter. Ancelotti has placed more emphasis on quality on the ball than Ferguson, finding a happy balance between the styles of the two coaches he succeeded.
Making Mason Holgate the cornerstone of his defence has been a wise and long overdue move too. Everton’s goals conceded per-game has decreased from 1.8 under Silva to 1.17 since the Portuguese’s sacking, and Holgate has been central to that improvement. The 23-year-old is a complete defender and should be in contention for Gareth Southgate’s next England squad.
Much of Ancelotti’s impact has been intangible. Players speak of an increase in calm, confidence and team unity, fuelled by the innate respect the 60-year-old three-time Champions League winner commands. Multiple reports have suggested squad members were tired of the intelligent but uncharismatic Silva’s lengthy, detailed sessions on the training ground and have found Ancelotti’s affable and considered words a welcome relief. Silva’s mentally fragile Everton were dogged by a chronic inability to recover from going behind - Ancelotti’s has already managed to win from 2-0 down, with ten men.
There are still gaping weaknesses in Everton’s team, carved open by years of transfer profligacy that are still slowly being reversed. Central midfield is a real issue, with recent results papering over those particular cracks remarkably. Andre Gomes’ return from his horror injury against Spurs couldn’t come soon enough. Jordan Pickford’s form is now a serious concern, while there’s an absence of quality options on the right of midfield. An injury to either of the first choice centre-backs or strikers could prove disastrous.
But despite last weekend’s loss and the imposing fixtures coming up, Evertonians will be looking up, rather than down, the highly congested Premier League table. Man City’s possible ban from UEFA competition could open up fifth place for Champions League qualification, which Everton are five points behind at present. United, the team occupying that spot, travel to Merseyside this Sunday.
Most rivals for that position remain in European competition, with United and Wolves likely to do so for months yet. Several are still in the FA Cup. Those sides will have to regularly play twice, sometimes three times, within a week, while Ancelotti’s men only have 11 fixtures to play across the next three months. That will leave them refreshed and with a singular focus for the rest of the campaign, a luxury the majority of their rivals don't have.
In truth, European qualification is no more likely to happen than not. This Premier League season is, for want of a better word, weird. A win at the Emirates would have seen Everton a solid option for the Champions League, a defeat saw them slip down to 11th, behind Burnley.
Whether Ancelotti can help his players rise to the challenge in their next three games, starting with United this weekend, will reveal a lot about just how much progress Everton have made under the Italian, and where their ambitions can realistically lie for the rest of the season.
If they can defy the pessimism of weary cynics in those matches, an encouraging start to life under Ancelotti could become something even greater. The acid test awaits, but Everton might just pass it.
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