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How Has Everton Turned It Around?

Everton looks like a drastically different team than it did two months ago, which is to say that Everton looks exactly as it has for much of its time in the Premier League — aspirational, but hardly among the league’s elite. Since legendary Italian manager Carlo Ancelotti took the reins after Christmas, the Toffees have played well enough to get within sniffing distance of the top five league places, which are reserved for automatic European Cup qualification. Everton currently sits in ninth place, just 4 points from fifth and 8 points from fourth.

Everton’s form under Ancelotti is a minor miracle considering how it performed under the stewardship of former manager Marco Silva. After 15 matches played this season with Silva at the helm, Everton had won four, drawn two and lost nine. It had conceded 11 more goals than it had scored; it had scored fewer goals than 16 of the division’s 20 teams. Everton was playing like a club hamstrung by financial difficulties, not one that spent more than $100 million in the most recent summer transfer window.

All of that mediocre-to-miserable form came to a head on Dec. 4 in a 5-2 Merseyside derby thrashing by cross-city rival Liverpool. The club hit a low it had rarely reached in its modern era — it dropped into the Premier League’s relegation zone, the first time it’s done so after playing 15 or more league matches since the 1998-99 season. The embarrassment at Anfield precipitated — and no doubt exacerbated — the Toffees’ misery, and it came as a shock to no one when Everton’s board decided to sack Silva a day later.

The move was a no-brainer, and it’s paid off so far: In the 10 matches since Silva’s dismissal — the first three of which were managed by interim boss Duncan Ferguson — Everton has won five, drawn four and lost just one. Ancelotti has given Evertonians something to believe in. So what precisely is Everton doing differently (and better) since Ancelotti arrived?

For starters, the Toffees are creating more chances — 11 per 90 minutes under Ancelotti, versus 10 under Silva. Everton is also making more key passes per 90 minutes under Ancelotti, which has resulted in more big chances created, too. Indeed, Everton trail only league-leaders Liverpool in big chances created since Ancelotti took over. By contrast, Everton was the league’s sixth-best team at creating big chances under Silva.

Under Ancelotti, Everton has set up with two forwards leading the attack. Rather than isolating Dominic Calvert-Lewin or Richarlison as lone strikers at the tip of the attack as Silva often did, Ancelotti has decided to play them (and sometimes Moise Kean) beside each other.

Everton has mostly set up as a 4-4-2 in defense, which then transforms in attacking situations into a version of a 3-4-1-2 where a winger (mostly Bernard or Alex Iwobi so far) drops into space behind the forwards and slightly in front of the midfielders to play as a playmaker. This allows Calvert-Lewin, Richarlison and Kean to work to create shooting opportunities. It also gives Everton’s midfielders and defenders — especially its fullbacks, who move up and down the wings and function as much as creators as they do defenders — more than one passing option in the middle of the attacking third, which suits Ancelotti’s quick, direct approach.

That’s not to say that Ancelotti’s Everton doesn’t also like to play the ball out from the back at times and control the game with longer passing sequences — the Toffees make nine or more passes in a sequence more frequently under Ancelotti’s leadership than Silva’s. Ancelotti’s Everton still isn’t Manchester City or Liverpool or Chelsea (all three average 20 or more such sequences per 90 minutes) but they’re not Burnley (which averages fewer than five such sequences per 90 minutes) either.

Everton is also enjoying more of the ball under Ancelotti than it did under Silva — 52.4 percent possession versus 51.6 percent — and it’s scoring more expected goals (xG) and more actual goals. In 2019, Ancelotti told Football Italia that he thinks “possession is important to control a game, but it has to lead to something,” and asked, “How many times do you score after 20 passes?” It was a not-so-subtle dig at former Napoli manager Maurizio Sarri,1 whose teams are notorious for bossing possession and passing the ball around a lot, but not for winning championships.

Under Silva, Everton scored 1.07 goals per 90 minutes and had an expected goals tally of 1.61 per 90. Those numbers have soared under Ancelotti, to 1.57 and 2.22, respectively. Everton was an average-to-bad team in terms of goals and xG under Silva; under Ancelotti, Everton has transformed into a good-to-great team in terms of goals and xG.

Everton has also been much better at the back in the six weeks since Ancelotti arrived on Merseyside — the Toffees are conceding an astonishing 0.66 fewer goals per 90 minutes than they had been under Silva. One reason for that has been the improved form of goalkeeper Jordan Pickford. Pickford owned the Premier League’s worst save percentage through matchweek 15 and ranked 15th out of 24 in goals prevented above average. Pickford hasn’t suddenly turned into a world-beater under Ancelotti, but he’s performed just about at the level of an average Premier League goalkeeper. Pickford in his current form isn’t going to win many games for Everton, but he’s not going to cost them many games, either.2

Perhaps most compelling isn’t what has changed under Ancelotti, but what has not. Everton isn’t bossing the middle of the pitch any more or less under Ancelotti than it did under Silva; it’s making roughly the same number of passes in the attacking third, and completing those passes at roughly the same rate; it’s winning balls back at roughly the same rate, too.

It’s too early to tell if Everton’s early success under Ancelotti will continue for the rest of the season, or if it’s just due to the “new manager bounce.” Either way, the Toffees are playing well enough at the moment to aspire to European Cup qualification. And now that it’s no longer involved in a relegation scrap, Everton’s season isn’t likely to be defined by its position in the league table anyway. Everton’s season — and its future — will be defined by its decision to hire a manager with a pedigree like Ancelotti’s.

Footnotes

  1. Ancelotti took over as Napoli manager in May 2018, after the club sacked Sarri.

  2. These massive gaffes notwithstanding.

Terrence Doyle is a writer based in Boston, where he obsesses over pizza and hockey.

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