English Premier League

The Italian Job

How Carlo Ancelotti needed only a year to dramatically change Everton’s fortunes, and where they go from here…

On Christmas Day 2019, Everton Football Club found themselves in 15th. A few weeks prior, they had sacked manager Marco Silva, the fourth permanent manager to be removed by the Merseyside club since David Moyes’ departure in 2013, after the club once again found themselves in the relegation zone following an embarrassing 5-2 defeat in the Merseyside Derby at Anfield. Club legend Duncan Ferguson was appointed as caretaker manager and was able to squeeze five points out of three matches against Chelsea, Manchester United, and Arsenal, which would lift the Toffees out of the bottom three, but the situation at the club was still dire. I mean, who would seriously take the Everton job? A squad that was not good enough while being tied down by high wages and Financial Fair Play issues, led by a board and sporting director that seemingly did not see eye to eye, and dealing with the pressure from one of the most passionate-but-demanding fanbases in England. Who wanted to be known as the manager that took Everton down from the English top flight for the first time in nearly 70 years?

The list of candidates was not all that appealing. Sam Allardyce, the famous relegation firefighter, would most likely not return to the club that sacked him a few years prior. Then-Bournemouth manager and noted boyhood Evertonian Eddie Howe was seemingly the top choice, hailed for how he led an overachieving Bournemouth side to the Premier League. The fans reacted negatively to this rumor, which seemed to die on its own, as Howe reaffirmed his commitment to Bournemouth in the press. Former Everton midfielder and then-Manchester City assistant manager Mikel Arteta was among the names considered, but he was too closely linked to the Arsenal vacancy to be considered for the Everton job. The signs seemed to point to one man, an old friend, some might say. Former Everton manager David Moyes was also out of work, and this seemed to be the moment where the stars would align and lead to a heroic return for the Scotsman. This did not please Everton fans, who still have a bitter taste in their mouths from the end of Moyes’ previous tenure on Merseyside. The Scottish manager was fairly successful at Everton, doing much with very little in financial backing and resources, but he left quite unceremoniously when he was tabbed to replace Sir Alex Ferguson at Manchester United. Not only did he depart without warning, but Moyes tried very hard to poach Tim Cahill, Marouane Fellaini, and Leighton Baines from Everton upon his arrival in Manchester. Evertonians were not much in favor of a Moyes apology reunion tour, and one fan made his thoughts very clear. Spray-painted onto a wall outside of Goodison Park one evening were the messages “No Hughes, Moyes, Howe”, “SILVA OUT”, and “F**k Moyes”. Despite the very vocal objections, it seemed to be nearly decided, and even if it was not, there did not seem to be anyone better who would actually consider the Everton job. Fans clung onto hope that former Bayern Munich and Eintracht Frankfurt manager Niko Kovač would want the job, and excitement built up after the Croatian was spotted in attendance at Goodison Park for the Chelsea game, but that too went nowhere. There seemed to be no one else. ESPN FC’s senior writer Mark Ogden summed the situation up fairly well: “Everton need a reality check: Moyes is the best they can get”.

Around the same time, 1,500 miles away from Merseyside, Napoli sacked manager Carlo Ancelotti after only 16 months in charge. Despite qualifying for the knockout stages of the Champions League and taking four points from two matches against reigning European champions Liverpool, Ancelotti could not get Napoli on track to contend for the league title and was sacked with the Partenopei sitting in 7th, quite a distance behind league leaders Juventus. Ancelotti is a legendary manager, widely regarded as one of the best of his era, if not of all time, but times had been tough for the Italian recently. A rocky end to his successful time in Madrid was followed by an even more tumultuous spell at Bayern Munich, which ended with seemingly the entire dressing room turning on the Italian after a difficult start to his second season in 2017. He then took the Napoli job following the departure of Maurizio Sarri, and despite a successful first season, he was once again sacked following struggles in his second season. His successes in Milan, Paris, and Madrid, his three Champions League titles, everything that made him a legendary manager, it all seemed so far away from the Italian. Was Ancelotti washed up? Should he stay in management? Is there a big club in the world that is willing to take a chance on him? Arsenal hardly gave him a chance, focusing instead on Arteta. He also did not seem to be near the top of the pecking order in case of a potential opening at Barcelona or Manchester United, either. It feels weird to say, but we did not know where the legendary Italian’s next job was going to be.

An instance of perfect timing, almost seemingly dictated by fate, has allowed Everton and Carlo Ancelotti’s paths to cross, each needing the other as much as the other needed them. On December 21st, 2019, Ancelotti was announced as the new Everton manager.

Today, the day I have begun writing this, is December 21st, 2020, exactly one year to the day of Ancelotti being hired. Everton are fourth.

Things were positive around Everton going into Ancelotti’s first full season, but going from a relegation scrap to being in the top four in 365 days is still beyond many people’s expectations, and league position by itself does not tell the whole story. The players that have been brought in, the positive transformations of players who Ancelotti inherited, the swagger and style of play, some of the results, all of it has combined to form a sense of true energy and positivity around a club that has not had much in the way of positivity over the years. For the first time in a while, it feels like there is a genuine plan at Everton, and there is a clear pathway forward for the club on the pitch.

And this really evolves around the man himself. There are very few cases in football where the arrival of the manager and the almost aura that it provides a club is able to change the club’s fortunes almost instantly, but the arrival of Ancelotti has seemingly evolved Everton overnight. He has provided some calmness to the team and some composure on the pitch. Most Everton teams have the reputation of falling apart when things go wrong, but Ancelotti has given the team a calmness about them, the ability for the players to keep pushing and change the plan when things go wrong instead of having their heads drop and things going from bad to worse. This composure also shows when Everton play away from Goodison Park. A team that was notoriously poor away from home under Marco Silva has now changed that reputation under Ancelotti, even winning away at Tottenham to start this season to break a 41-game winless streak away to “Big Six” teams. Ancelotti is famously a manager that does not restrict himself to one specific tactical set up, at least he has not done so since the beginning of his managerial career, which allows this Everton team to adapt when injuries or other issues arise. For example, Everton played against Chelsea, Leicester, and Arsenal without James Rodríguez, Seamus Coleman, and Lucas Digne. The change came with becoming for solid defensively and playing directly on the counter. Without Coleman and Digne, Ancelotti basically played four center backs at the back, with Ben Godfrey and Mason Holgate deputizing in place of the injured Digne and Coleman. What the English duo could not provide in attacking quality, they more than made up for in defensive resolve and grit. As the results showed, the system worked perfectly, with three wins from three in those games.

He has also gotten the most out of the players at his disposal. Not only has Dominic Calvert-Lewin begun his evolution into a superstar and Richarlison maintained his status as the best player in the team, but even the mid-level players, considered an afterthought by the fans, have played at a higher level. Michael Keane has become one of the most consistent center backs in the Premier League, with Holgate returning from injury to become a consistent role player in the team. Gylfi Sigurdsson and Alex Iwobi have been very useful when injuries hit the team, with Iwobi especially putting in a string of very good performances. When Ancelotti arrived at Everton, he inherited a team facing financial difficulties, and while they did make some moves in the transfer window, he has mostly had to make do with the pieces he has, which he has done very well. The often-maligned Tom Davies even came in against Leicester and Arsenal after Allan got injured and played fairly well. The players that underperformed under Koeman and Silva, the players Everton fans could not wait to get rid of, are now performing very well and becoming a part of Everton’s rise.

The biggest change at the club, however, has come off the pitch. The presence of Ancelotti has forced Everton to be more proactive when it comes to the long-term planning at the club. In working with sporting director Marcel Brands, Ancelotti has established the team and tactics, with a vision for how the team will evolve over the next few years. It is the first time in years that you can see how Everton are evolving, showing signs of clear forward thinking and planning. This, combined with increased funding from owner Farhad Moshiri, shows the club is backing the plan that Ancelotti and Brands have. This ties into Everton’s presence in the transfer market, where Ancelotti’s presence is able to elevate the level of player Everton are able to attract. Who in their right mind thought James Rodríguez would be playing for Everton? A star player whose insane social media following also increases Everton’s brand around the world, specifically throughout South America. Everton spawned fairly successful Spanish language social media accounts after signing the Colombian, a testament to the growth of their brand due to the signing. And James would have never considered a move to Everton without Ancelotti at the helm. Allan and Abdoulaye Doucouré both had a list of clubs vying for their signature but specifically chose moves to Everton. Younger players, such as Niels Nkounkou and Ben Godfrey, desired moves to Everton to be a part of the project. Even without the promise of European football, Everton are able to use Ancelotti’s pull to bring in quality players that improve the team. On their day, a midfield of James, Allan, and Doucouré is among the best in the league (though two of those three players are now injured). Nkounkou has not featured recently, but he has shown enough in short stints to have fans believe he will be the eventual replacement for Lucas Digne. Ben Godfrey has seemingly started evolving into a cult hero figure among Everton fans and he has not even played at his natural center back position yet. The upcoming January transfer window could potentially see Everton make moves for the likes of Isco or Dele Alli, players who never would have been on the club’s radar before now. It is all a bit mind-boggling, especially considering where Everton were as a club just a few years prior.

All of this has combined into results, the obvious reason why Everton find themselves in the Champions League places. While they did hit slight dip in form this season, they have still gotten wins against Arsenal, Leicester, Chelsea, and Tottenham, as well as a draw against Liverpool. The win against Spurs not only ended a 41-game winless run away to “Big Six” sides, but it was also the Toffees’ first league victory over Spurs since 2012. The win against Arsenal, while the Gunners are struggling, was only their third win over the North London side in the league in the last six years. On the pitch, they are a team of talented players that are assured in how they are going to play and manage a game. They are a talented attacking team, with players like James and Iwobi and Sigurdsson who are able to create chances for the prolific forwards. They are more resolute in defense, with the likes of Allan and Godfrey being hailed by fans for showing the tenacity and grit that plays well with Evertonians. That all combines to form, quite simply, a very talented and well-managed team. The wins over Chelsea, Leicester, and Spurs, who are all incredibly talented teams in their own right, seemed almost routine. It was not luck or fortune, as some big Everton wins have been in the past, it was execution of the plan by talented players. Now, it is not always perfect. The team left much to be desired in the loss to Leeds and draw to Burnley, for instance, but it is the general upward trend that is starting to become noticeable. Everton may not be contending for a title, they may not even be truly able to finish in the top four, but they are going in the right direction.

What happens next? Well, that partially depends on where they finish this season. I imagine Everton finishing in the top six is realistic, with the Europa League looking like the more likely destination. Should Everton add European football to their offer, they will become an even more attractive destination for transfers. They look ready to resist any offers for Digne, Richarlison, or Calvert-Lewin, so I imagine the focus of the transfer market will be upgrading around the already-established core. They were linked previously with moves for Leverkusen’s Leon Bailey and Real Betis right back Emerson. I imagine those links might re-emerge next summer, though with Bailey’s red-hot form for Leverkusen this season, I imagine any move for him would be much more costly and likely require the allure of European football. Right back and right wing seem to be the positions in need of upgrade, as Seamus Coleman is not getting any younger and the team might function better with James playing through the middle. Goalkeeper is also in question, as Jordan Pickford’s future still remains in doubt. I doubt there are any major moves that happen with this team in January, as the lack of available top talent may not convince them to make a move. Brands has always disliked the January window anyway, as he (correctly) noted the rarity of good moves available for teams in this window. All eyes look to the next summer window, and, should Everton finish the season well, they should be able to make some interesting moves, and now, under Brands and Ancelotti, there is a clear vision of what the team is going to look like and where and how the team needs to strengthen.

Ultimately, it is just another step in the process of building this team up. They have made great progress under Ancelotti, but this is not an instant thing. The old saying “Rome was not built in a day” applies just as much to football clubs as it does to ancient empires. It takes a few years for even top managers to get things right with teams, and this will be the same at Everton. But for the first time in ages, it actually does feel like there is a responsible plan being undertaken at the club, ran by people who know what they are doing. As if dictated by fate, Ancelotti and Everton were brought together. Ancelotti has given Everton the managerial nous and allure needed to begin restoring one of the biggest clubs in English football to their former glory, and Everton have given Ancelotti the platform to demonstrate that, despite some struggles the last few years, he’s still got it, and he is still a special manager. Now, we may be seeing the sleeping giant of the English game being awoken by the sleeping giant of the managerial world.

As it turns out, David Moyes was not the best that Everton could get.

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