It’s always darkest before the false dawn. And after years of being sucked back in by mirages of hope - the chimeric first Roberto Martinez season, the supermarket sweep under Ronald Koeman, the sporadic bursts of promise under Marco Silva - nobody knows that quite like Evertonians.
To that end, the hiring of Carlo Ancelotti as Silva’s replacement at Everton last December felt as much a statement of intent as it did a culture shift. A retreat from their well-trodden path of bright young bosses with projects, soundbites, dashing coats and diminishing returns. A lavish leap of faith in one of the wisest and most revered grandfathers of the game. About as close to a failsafe as Everton could wish for. And for Farhad Moshiri, his fourth and most defining managerial appointment yet.
Yet one of modern football’s worst tropes remains that you are only as good as your last game. Which is why Ancelotti was September’s flavour of the month, leading Everton to seven successive wins at the start of 2020-21. And equally why now, after Saturday’s defeat to Leeds marked their fourth loss in five, it’s become open season on firing all manner of criticisms at all manner of targets, including Ancelotti himself.
Which is the real Ancelotti at Everton, then? The one who presided over that blistering start, retooled a ghastly midfield and got Dominic Calvert-Lewin firing? Or the one who seemingly can’t organise a defence and has overseen the unravelling of another campaign which promised much but now threatens to again deliver little?
Honestly, the truth probably lies somewhere between the two. If anything, maybe Everton started this season a little too well, in that it inflated expectations in some quarters to disproportionate levels. Which can happen when starved of tangible success for more than a quarter of a century, in fairness.
Much of that winning streak revolved around the same group of players - nine of the 11 starters in their opening-day win at Tottenham also began all of their next three league games - all wins. Only now, as suspensions and injuries begin to chip away at that side, are we seeing what a paucity of quality Ancelotti has to play with beyond that. Which is why, in many Evertonians’ heads, the white flag went up against Leeds as early as confirmation of Lucas Digne’s two-month layoff on Thursday.
Yet the frenetic turnaround this summer hardly rendered this the opportune moment for a mass exodus. Beyond his best XI, Ancelotti may be burdened with flicking between the same overpaid underachievers on shuffle for another campaign, but attacking the transfer window with the same carefree attitude as Koeman in 2017 would likely have left the Italian in a similar predicament. Seven weeks elapsed between the final day of 2019-20 and that Spurs opener, which is simply no time for an overhaul, or indeed for gelling a fresh-faced squad together. It is, as Ancelotti said himself in July, about ‘evolution’; at least for now.
There are other mitigating factors, chiefly just how much of what we are watching is real. The invariable erosion of Premier League matches lately (when was the last decent second half you watched?) as football eats itself to saturation point in COVID season, the relentless wearing-down of soft tissues, the hollow emptiness of it all without the surge of electricity a full stadium can inject. True, it can feel too simplistic to exonerate Everton altogether for these extenuating circumstances, but this season more than ever feels like football being churned out behind the curtain as a contractual obligation, rather than for the frenzied rollercoaster of emotions we used to strap ourselves in for.
For it’s not that Ancelotti is infallible; nobody is. You’re well within your right to ponder why Anthony Gordon can’t even make the team-sheet, or why Alex Iwobi is deputising for Digne instead of Niels Nkounkou, or why three replica midfielders in Gylfi Sigurdsson, André Gomes and Fabian Delph all made the bench against Leeds. It’s just that now feels too premature to reel off the same old criticisms at yet another Everton manager, with all of those aforementioned caveats still at play. And despite his steely veneer, Ancelotti is very human, as he reminded us in his glassy-eyed expression during the touching Diego Maradona pre-match tribute. Humans will make mistakes, after all.
In many ways, this season feels akin to Koeman’s first year at Everton: an ailing squad initially re-energised, a lightning-fast start which then abruptly hit the buffers, but an improvement on the campaign that preceded it, aided by a dynamic, tenacious midfielder and a free-scoring lone striker. Koeman led Everton to seventh that year which, as it was then, would represent marked strides forward from the previous term were Ancelotti to achieve the same this year.
Which is why Ancelotti’s acid test will arrive in 12 months, when the onus will be on him to mould the entire squad, not just a cluster of stars, in his image. This is what did for Martinez, Koeman and Silva, who all curiously seemed to fare better with their predecessors’ players before they were given more free rein and, in the case of the latter two, handed keys to the war-chest at Goodison Park.
For now, though, while criticism of Ancelotti is perfectly valid in some cases, it should also be tempered carefully. Everton have still progressed on last season and, had they amassed 16 points from ten games in less extreme fashion, their start would likely make for more positive reading.
So, while Ancelotti isn’t immune from Evertonian examination, arm yourself with pinches of salt if you’re that way inclined already. At least during COVID season, with all of the strings attached to it. And at least until he’s truly left his mark on the squad as a whole; not just a starting XI which, while a real force when all present and correct and at full-throttle, still clunks and splutters without even one of its constituent parts.