In his first match as Everton manager, Carlo Ancelotti faced two major challenges.
First, injuries have absolutely ravaged his squad, particularly at the positions of wing and central midfield. Alex Iwobi is now out, Theo Walcott was only fit enough for a place on the bench, and Andre Gomes, Jean-Philippe Gbamin, and Morgan Schneiderlin remain unavailable.
Second, Everton under Marco Silva struggled mightily to break down deep-lying, conservative opposition — and Burnley are the poster boys for that style of football. These are the sort of matches that tended to go sideways under Silva, and really were the biggest cause for his sacking from the club.
Ancelotti’s solution? A somewhat unconventional approach that managed to get Everton’s best players on the pitch together in a coherent, clearly-defined system.
Out of possession, Everton set up in a pretty standard 3-5-2.
Seamus Coleman slotted in as the right-sided center-back, with Djibril Sidibe playing as the wing-back ahead of him.
This selection showcased a basic understanding of the day’s opponent, Burnley, that we didn’t see frequently enough under Marco Silva. Against most Premier League opposition, a midfield three of Gylfi Sigurdsson, Bernard, and Fabian Delph would be suicidal.
But Burnley isn’t most Premier League opposition.
Sean Dyche’s side simply doesn’t want to have possession of the ball unless it’s in the final third with a numerical advantage (or en route to such a scenario) or a set-piece situation. They don’t look to build through the midfield essentially ever, and stylistically aren’t prepared to take advantage of an Everton midfield that plainly lacked athleticism.
In possession, Carlo got a little bit weird — but I liked it.
Arrows as far as the eye can see! Okay, let’s parse this out a little more clearly.
The most obvious attacking component of this setup was the freedom given to Seamus Coleman to get forward into the attack from his center-back position. Once Everton was comfortably in possession, Coleman essentially stepped forward to play the right-back position in attack, allowing Sidibe to play as more of a true winger.
The two frequently combined with Gylfi Sigurdsson, who played as the central midfielder on their side of the pitch. The majority of the danger all match came from that trio, and it was no surprise when Sigurdsson and Sidibe combined to set up Dominic Calvert-Lewin’s match-winning goal.
While those players created overload situations on the right side, Bernard drifted from his left-central starting position in the midfield to more of a No. 10 role, especially as the match went on. He displayed his ability to create danger from those areas quite clearly, as his passmap from the match shows.
He certainly wasn’t perfect, but he did create pretty regular danger from that position prior to being subbed off in the 77th minute. Many of us here at RBM, myself included, have been lukewarm at best toward the idea of Bernard playing as a No. 10, but this match may cause some re-thinking on that.
That said, Sigurdsson was even more impressive in his outside-the-norm role as a true central midfielder — take a look at his passmap from this one.
The Icelander missed on just six passes from open play (including crosses), and was more involved in the match than perhaps he ever was under Marco Silva. Part of that comes naturally from playing in a deeper role, but it’ll be interesting to see if an increased focus on involving Sigurdsson becomes a staple of Ancelotti’s tactics.
Even after the introduction of Moise Kean for Bernard, not much changed in practice for Everton.
It was a move to a more standard 4-4-2, but given that Coleman was operating essentially as a true right-back in the attack anyway, little changed in terms of the attack down the right wing. The same overload that Ancelotti targeted down that wing in the 3-5-2 created the goal from the 4-4-2.
Overall, Carlo brought an interesting dynamic to this match. Though there were definitely times where Everton struggled to move the ball against a well-drilled Burnley side, for the majority of the match, it felt like Everton would eventually find the winning goal — which Dominic Calvert-Lewin did in the 80th minute.
The Toffees predictably dominated possession (68%/32%) and got off 21 shots over the 90 minutes. Burnley failed to get a single shot on target, and their best chance, Chris Wood’s 34th minute set-piece header, almost certainly would have been called back by VAR for offside had he converted.
Take out that chance and Burnley generated a whopping 0.1 expected goals xG per Understat, while Everton generated 1.48. It was a dominant performance that just needed a goal to confirm the Toffees’ superiority — one that they got before the end.
Now, let me note that I don’t think that Ancelotti plans to use this system as his regular Everton plan going forward. The setup only really works in attack if you have both Bernard and Sigurdsson as the more advanced central midfielders, but against most Premier League teams, that setup is defensive suicide — not to mention the danger of throwing one of your center-backs forward with regularity as he did with Coleman.
Instead, I think Ancelotti simply looked at this match as a winnable one if his best players were on the pitch and given an opportunity to make plays. He put Sigurdsson, Bernard, and Sidibe — arguably his three best healthy creators at this point — all in positions to be heavily involved in the match against a defensive-minded opponent, and they rewarded that faith throughout the match.
Dominic Calvert-Lewin did what he’s done a fair bit of frequently — not a whole lot for 80ish minutes, then found a goal on a lovely cross from Sidibe — and it was enough to get Everton the win.
As I said, I don’t take a lot from this match tactically moving forward — except for that Ancelotti has quickly showcased his flexibility, quick thinking, and ability to get his players to buy into a system at record pace. Those are all positive signs that we’ve not seen from past Everton managers, and might just be early indicators that the big-name manager is the right man for the job.