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Everton: How did things go so wrong this season for the Toffees?

(Image credit: PA Images)

It was the heaviest defeat of Carlo Ancelotti’s coaching career and, indeed, the heaviest suffered by any manager with three European Cups in his trophy cabinet. 

The juxtaposition between Ancelotti’s past and his present has rarely felt as clear as during Manchester City 5 Everton 0. This time the silverware being celebrated on the pitch was not anything Ancelotti won. His side had the carrot of European football - but were thrashed by a team with nothing to play for and recorded his lowest league finish of any full season in charge anywhere.

The sight of Everton in 10th underlines the way this season was a missed opportunity and not merely because it is logical to assume that Liverpool and Chelsea will be stronger next season and thus the bar for a top-four finish will be set higher. 

Everton got historic wins away at Arsenal, Tottenham and Liverpool, triumphed at Leicester and West Ham for good measure and finished two places lower than they did under Sam Allardyce in 2018 and Marco Silva in 2019. Their four major signings – James Rodriguez, Allan, Abdoulaye Doucoure and Ben Godfrey – all succeeded to some extent but the season concluded without the tone-deaf Colombian tweeting pictures of himself on a plane bound for the Copa America when Everton’s destiny was still to be determined. “Tiredness” was an inadequate reason for missing important games.  

It was a campaign when even when Everton got some things right, others went horribly wrong. It is debateable, depending on points-per-game and the number of matches played, whether it was the worst season at Goodison Park in their history. What can be said is that the home defeat to relegated Sheffield United, with the goal scored by an unknown 17-year-old, that in effect ended Everton’s chances of European football was the season’s lowest point. It was both an outlier and an extension of a theme: Ancelotti’s team lost at Goodison to Fulham, Burnley and Newcastle and drew with Crystal Palace. Their meagre tally of 22 home points only needed to be 31 to put them ahead of Chelsea.

Everton ended the campaign without a regular system or a style of play. Ancelotti switched shape intelligently at times, adapting to the rotating cast on the treatment table, but it also betrayed Everton’s inability to find a settled 11. It felt damning that, in the end, they were better when they had less of the ball and when less was expected of them. “We are not a possession team,” Ancelotti said bluntly this month. It reflected a failure of Andre Gomes in particular.

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The division of responsibilities in the midfield Everton started the season seemed clear: Allan was the defensive presence, Doucoure the runner, Gomes the passer. Instead, Everton often lacked the ability to dictate a game, which helped explain their struggles at home. Rodriguez illuminated some, but the problems of basing a strategy around an oft-injured player were apparent. 

Quietly, Gylfi Sigurdsson had a respectable season. With a mere seven league goals, Richarlison had a disappointing one. Dominic Calvert-Lewin’s 16 league goals were the most by an Everton player not named Romelu Lukaku for a quarter of a century but they counted for too little as his team-mates only mustered 31 between them. Everton only scored 33 goals in their last 33 games.

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Everton were prisoners of their past, Ancelotti encumbered by previous poor signings like Alex Iwobi and Bernard, lumbered with an imbalanced squad that contained too many midfielders and yet, because of their injuries, too few at times, but they were also architects of their own failure. Too many games felt a failure of mentality, leading Ancelotti to use the word “unacceptable” after the Sheffield United game. Seamus Coleman was often more scathing; the captain may be in decline but his own attitude was invariably beyond reproach.

His frustration stemmed in part from the awareness he will not have many more chances to accomplish something seismic. Everton will not have many better ones. Ancelotti was brought in to elevate them to the next level, not to see them finish below a promoted club, plus their former manager David Moyes. He showed a sure touch in 2020. Yet Everton’s demoralising 2021 meant even an eminently amenable man seemed irritated. One of the season’s achievers ended up among its underachievers.

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