Have a look at what you would’ve won. When recalling the media frenzy that enshrouded Everton’s search for Marco Silva’s successor 12 months ago, it’s tempting to imagine Farhad Moshiri being rushed off by Jim Bowen to hurriedly reveal the star prize he missed out on. No speedboat or fashion spree tonight, but the serial trophy hoarder that is Carlo Ancelotti.
This would have been the case, of course, had Moshiri decided not to gamble. Widely (and in some cases, fairly) lambasted for haemorrhaging nine-figure sums on retrograde steps in almost five years as an Everton shareholder, and with his own credibility taking a thumping after the demise of Silva, a manager he personally sounded out on several occasions, this felt his most defining, make-or-break appointment at Goodison Park. In the end, he bagged a fair bit more than his bus fare home.
Because, now a year into Ancelotti’s Everton reign, at long last Moshiri looks like reaping for the rewards for such grandiose show of ambition. It’s not been spotless by any means, and even one of the game’s most eminent tacticians has shown he occasionally still gets it wrong. But while the outside world has burned at every turn in 2020, the Italian’s first full calendar year at Goodison has offered vignettes of relief, and nascent signs of an Everton team once again capable of competing at the top.
For starters, the absolute base level of gauging the success of any managerial appointment should be if he transpired as an improvement on his predecessor. In that sense, obvious as it may seem, Ancelotti has upgraded countless facets of Everton’s game from when Silva departed. That much is probably reflected in the fact that, 15 league matches in 2020-21, Everton sit in the top four on 29 points - at the same stage last year (Silva’s final game in charge), they languished in the bottom three with 14 points, less than half of this term’s total.
But delve deeper than mere points tallies and the evidence is even more conclusive. Set-pieces often felt like Silva’s Kryptonite, whether instructing Everton to repel them using zonal or man-to-man marking. In his 53 league games, they let in 23 goals from them, including a league-high 16 in 2018-19, his only full season in charge. In Ancelotti’s 34 league matches, Everton have conceded just ten - including only two so far this campaign.
And at the other end, Everton have honed their own dead-ball skills, too. Eight of their 11 league goals from set-plays last term came under Ancelotti, while a further eight in this season’s 15 games is a league-joint-high. Meanwhile, Yerry Mina and Michael Keane - both central defenders - have netted four each since Ancelotti’s arrival, all of which came from set-pieces.
Half of those four Mina goals came in February’s frenetic 3-2 victory at Watford, where Everton recovered from a wretched beginning to fight back from 2-0 down and steal three points in injury time. In doing so, Ancelotti oversaw his first comeback victory just six weeks into the job. Silva did not manage this once in the Premier League home or away, and collected just five points from losing positions, compared to 11 under Ancelotti in 19 fewer league games.
Indeed, Everton’s record on the road is another showing vast improvement under Ancelotti, who has amassed a 29-point haul from 18 away league games. Silva, by comparison, managed 23 from 27 away matches. Of course, this has been a more systemic issue which long predates even Silva’s arrival, and Ancelotti’s nine away wins in the Premier League surpasses not only that achieved by Silva (six in 27), but also Sam Allardyce (three in 12) and Ronald Koeman (four in 23). He needs just one more away victory to ensure Everton end the season with more than five for the first time since 2013-14, meanwhile.
And for probably the first time since that riveting if illusory first year under Roberto Martinez, Everton have the feel of a wholly united club, even if with almost all fans in absentia since March due to coronavirus. Miley Cyrus can attest to this - it was she who lost top spot in the iTunes download charts in September to Kinsley Music’s 1984 hit ‘Spirit of the Blues’, which went viral after Everton’s perfect start to the season. Look also at how the lucky 2,000 able to attend recent home wins over Chelsea and Arsenal roared on their wearied heroes to three vital points, rendering choruses of boos at an apathetic Goodison a distant memory.
That also says as much about the growing likeability of both Ancelotti and the squad he is moulding and improving. For years, there has been undercurrent of enmity between fans and a contingent of players, many of whom Evertonians could not wait to see shown the exit door. Think Morgan Schneiderlin being booed on as a substitute, or the chants of ‘F*** off, Sam Allardyce’ towards the end of Allardyce’s brief if ill-fated spell.
Now, whether through the carefree dancing of Yerry Mina or Richarlison, the relentless tenacity of Allan, Abdoulaye Doucouré or Ben Godfrey, the devastating end product from Lucas Digne or Dominic Calvert-Lewin or the moments of wizardry from James Rodriguez, supporters have players they can resonate with and revel in. Many of these, not least the newly-prolific Calvert-Lewin and the rejuvenated Digne, have seen their individual performances taken to another level under Ancelotti, another testament to the Italian’s unmatched man-management skills.
And unlike his predecessors, who perhaps felt locked in a race against time to prove themselves and justify their position, Ancelotti’s CV can speak for itself in that regard. Rather, he appears totally at ease in the job; never inebriated on misplaced optimism in victory, never fearing the worst in defeat. He has rarely, if ever, bemoaned lack of help from elsewhere, such as refereeing displays or fixture congestion, and has got on with trying to adapt with his talismanic figures sidelined. The way Everton battened down the hatches to record four wins and three clean sheets in four - the most recent of which without Digne, Allan, Rodriguez and Richarlison - suggests as much, anyway.
There is a certain caricature of an Everton manager swimming in vain against the tide - the dishevelled, dead-behind-the-eyes look, the ungroomed tufts of facial hair emerging, the perennially furrowed brow. Perhaps, then, the fact that Ancelotti still bears his fine head of silver hair with a steely grin on his clean-shaven face is as great an indication as any that 2020 - even if only on the pitch - has gone as well as expected for him and Everton.
And while this may seem like boy crying wolf to some - Everton had fleeting glimpses of a brighter future under Martinez, Koeman and even Silva, after all - it feels more sustainable this time, and so it should after their best points return from 15 games since 2005. Indeed, this feels an Everton side and manager you can place more trust in to dig in to their deepest recesses and plunder three hard-earned points from Sheffield United, for instance, as they did on Boxing Day.
That win at Bramall Lane marked the second time this season Everton have won four straight league games. The last time they achieved that feat was 1986-87, when they went on to become First Division champions. History may not repeat itself in 2021, but in truth, it doesn’t have to to keep that flame of belief burning.
For while they have still been infuriating and quintessentially ‘Everton’ on occasion this year, those moments of shattering bewilderment feel increasingly sporadic as more time passes. Indeed, among the myriad mental travails 2020 has thrown our way, Ancelotti’s Everton have taken on an almost balm-like quality at times; certainly in an unbeaten December, anyway.
Perhaps, then, if anything will define the ‘new normal’, it will be an Everton side that you can finally rely on to deliver. 2020 has certainly felt the start of something under Ancelotti, even if it is only a start.