In the bleak midwinter, Carlo’s teams made moan.
Amid this disturbing run of one win in seven, the temptation has been to wonder whether there’s method in this perceived madness; whether Carlo Ancelotti merely changed for change’s sake. Like fielding Alex Iwobi, Tom Davies and Ben Godfrey as full-backs. Or in the case of Chelsea’s visit to Goodison Park on Saturday, cramming four centre-halves into your back line, with whipping boy Gylfi Sigurdsson ahead of them. How those keyboards rattled when that team-sheet surfaced.
And yet. Perhaps we shouldn’t be overly surprised at what transpired; Everton have long had a touch of the undefinable, of the insoluble, about them. This is a team whose brittle defence has been breached by every side they’ve faced this term, bar two of the league’s top three, both in the table and in the scoring charts. Even more curious was how this 1-0 victory over Chelsea, a side previously unbeaten since September, was secured with grit and steel in abundance, and without no fewer than three key attacking outlets.
One of whom was James Rodriguez, a footballer you feel may have been appreciated more by the wider world in a bygone era, rather than today’s culture defined by absolutes and split-second judgements. Rewind two months and the Colombian, with three goals and assists in his first five Premier League games, was earning plaudits from all and sundry. Having failed to add to either tally since, suddenly he’s everything he wasn’t in October - yesterday’s man, a busted flush, no longer Everton’s fulcrum, a sub-standard return in the charts that count and a sub-standard work ethic to boot.
At this point, it’s worth debunking this myth that Rodriguez is Everton’s latest garish commodity carried by his team-mates for the last three months. Prior to the Chelsea victory, no Everton player had attempted more tackles in the Premier League this term than Rodriguez with 36, besides Allan’s 62. Only four Everton players have taken more touches than his 692, with the 73 in last weekend’s draw at Burnley his highest for an individual match.
And as Ancelotti rightly pointed out on Friday, Rodriguez was not signed to defend. To recruit such an elegant footballer, who can make games spin on his axis and dance to his tune, only to charge him with busting lungs up and down the pitch simply feels counter-intuitive, and a waste of Rodriguez’s mercurial talent. Surely that’s what the likes of midfield wrecking balls, Allan and Abdoulaye Doucouré, were brought in in the summer for - not the man renowned for carving parabolas on the pitch.
But now, for the first time since Rodriguez’s September arrival from Real Madrid, Everton have won a league game in his absence, leaving Ancelotti with a potential headache upon his return from a minor calf knock. Everton evidently remain a more enchanting watch with Rodriguez on the pitch and at full flight, but after weeks of rummaging around for a remedy, Ancelotti might be best-served sticking with the winning formula he landed on against Chelsea.
There is, of course, a shelf life to this particular game plan. Godfrey and Mason Holgate acquitted themselves perfectly at left-back and right-back respectively, but against poorer opposition than Chelsea, greater onus will be placed on Everton’s full-backs to venture forward. Iwobi, Rodriguez’s direct right-wing replacement, showed commendable industry but his end product still pales in comparison to that of the Colombian and requires fine-tuning. Sigurdsson needs a succession of midfield performances of this quality to shed his pariah tag and prove he isn’t a spent force.
But given Everton may be similarly hemmed in as they were at times against Chelsea when they face Leicester City, Arsenal, Manchester United and Manchester City, and Arsenal before January, they may be able to get by with their backs against the wall for a little while longer yet. Which, in turn, may mean Ancelotti can afford to use Rodriguez more sparingly over a gruelling festive period.
For it’s not that Rodriguez shouldn’t be rushed back from injury due to a perceived laziness or loss of form; rather, it’s to alleviate the risk of one of Everton’s brightest stars burning out too soon. After a blow to the nether regions earlier this term, this is already a second niggle of the campaign for a player who has suffered 17 injuries since the start of 2016-17. Essentially, while Rodriguez may be one of Everton’s most prized possessions, he is also somewhat of a festive glass ornament perched high up on the Christmas tree.
Add to that the mere 123 minutes of football he played for Real Madrid between the start of February and his departure in September, the truncated pre-season spent in solitude in Portugal and his tendency to blow up just as he appears to be taking off. There is a supreme footballer in Rodriguez, not least under Ancelotti, under whom he has managed 17 goals and assists each in 44 league games. He just needs a certain amount of care and conditioning in order to coax the best out of.
Rodriguez certainly should still feature in this taxing run of games - he is one of Everton’s best players and if they appear bereft of creativity, he could well be the man to pick the lock. His virtuoso display on his debut against Tottenham Hotspur, for instance, saw him glisten in a side who imposed their game on the current league leaders and limited them to few openings in their own back yard. And the side that beat Chelsea will be hard-pressed to repeat that level of performance and intensity in each of Everton’s next five games, all within the next two weeks. Fatigue will inevitably kick in in that regard.
But Ancelotti doesn’t appear the type of manager to impetuously meddle with winning combinations, and with Everton likely to soon face similar tests as that which they passed stoically against Chelsea, now seems the opportune moment to allow Rodriguez to get back up to speed in his own time.