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Time for Everton to go back to basics

The last few weeks feel as if Carlo Ancelotti has over-complicated things. A return to more tried and trusted method may do his side good

Burnley v Everton - Premier League
Everton played their best football when reverting to their conventional 4-3-3 on Saturday at Burnley
Photo by Oli Scarff - Pool/Getty Images

It may have arrived exactly a year after Marco Silva’s Everton sacking but, at long last, here was the impact from Fabian Delph the Portuguese had been hoping for. In a roundabout way, Delph was the catalyst for his side’s mini-revival at Burnley on Saturday, in which Everton awoke from a slumberous beginning to salvage a point.

Yet it wasn’t a Herculean sliding tackle executed to perfection by Delph which changed Everton’s fortunes, nor the sort of galvanising rallying cry he delivered at Manchester City to leave Amazon Prime executives drooling. And no, he didn’t break his Everton goal duck, which would have equalled his number of red cards in royal blue, either.

Rather, Delph did what Delph does. For at least the fifth time in his 17-month, 27-match Everton career, he got injured. A pulled hamstring on the half-hour mark rather aptly spelt the end of an afternoon which had seen him deputising for Lucas Digne as an auxiliary left-wing-back. Yet ultimately, his departure, and Carlo Ancelotti’s subsequent change in tack, seemed to quietly liberate Everton.

Burnley v Everton - Premier League
Delph was forced off with injury after half an hour at Burnley
Photo by Oli Scarff - Pool/Getty Images

Until then, Allan’s slackness in possession saw Robbie Brady fire Burnley ahead from range, marking a second successive game in which Everton have conceded from outside the box, and a 12th consecutive match without a clean sheet. Nick Pope’s point-blank save from Dominic Calvert-Lewin’s one-touch strike was their only notable attacking endeavour. With Ancelotti again opting for 3-5-2, the defence looked jittery, the midfield stodgy, the attack peripheral.

You could arguably pinpoint Delph’s withdrawal, through, as the moment the tide began to turn. With André Gomes on in his place, Ancelotti reverted to a far more recognisable 4-3-3 - certainly far more akin that which served Everton so well in their seven-game winning run, anyway. Allan and Abdoulaye Doucouré looked far more at ease with the insurance of a third midfielder, while no longer were we left guessing as to where Richarlison and James Rodriguez were supposed to be playing. Even Alex Iwobi - save for wayward cross after wayward cross - and Ben Godfrey - who attempted no crosses at all - deputised admirably at right-back and left-back respectively.

Everton’s equaliser felt a telling reflection of this. Some dogged, gritty work in midfield from Allan saw him win back a loose ball, before guiding a perfectly-weighted pass into Richarlison’s path. His first-time cross was delivered on a plate for Calvert-Lewin, who tapped home as their telepathic partnership continued bearing fruit. Truthfully, this showcased Everton at their best - quick, incisive movement, killer balls, clinical finishing - everything which, you know, doesn’t involve too much time for deliberating.

Burnley v Everton - Premier League
Calvert-Lewin equalised for Everton after some quick, incisive play
Photo by Clive Brunskill/Getty Images

Truthfully, it’s felt for some weeks now that, while there is undeniable fragments of potential in Ancelotti’s side, the more bland and aimless their play becomes the longer they have to ponder their next move. And while the Italian has evidently presided over an on-pitch improvement in his first 12 months at the helm, he is not blameless, however decorated a coach he may be. To that end, within that tame first half-hour at Burnley, and indeed Everton’s resurgence after Delph’s departure, lay a cautionary tale for Ancelotti, who has perhaps been blinded by his own meticulousness ever since Richarlison’s red card against Liverpool on October 17.

From clustering five midfielders simultaneously on the pitch in November’s loss at Newcastle, to the apparent exiling of youngsters Anthony Gordon, Niels Nkounkou and Jonjoe Kenny, to the shoe-horning of players into a foreign 3-5-2 system since an edgy win at Fulham, it’s as if Ancelotti took the absences of Richarlison and later the injured Digne as a cue to rip up his blueprint and start again. In reality, you suspect like-for-like replacements, rather than some avant-garde overhaul, was all it would have taken to keep Everton ticking over.

Whether this is particularly telling about how Ancelotti rates his options below surface level is open to interpretation. But, ahead of a critical run of fixtures against Chelsea, Leicester, Arsenal and Manchester United, Everton’s best chance of improving a worrying run of one win in seven must surely be with 11 players deployed in a system they are most attuned to.

In the win over Fulham and defeat to Leeds, for instance, Everton’s back three faced six shots on target in each game from open play and counter attacks. None of their previous eight league opponents this season bettered that against Ancelotti’s back four, and only one equalled it - Liverpool. Burnley, though admittedly limited and profligate with only five goals from ten games this term, mustered only three at Turf Moor on Saturday - two of which came before Delph’s injury.

Burnley v Everton - Premier League
Will the final hour of Saturday’s game inspire Ancelotti to return to a back four?
Photo by Clive Brunskill/Getty Images

In some ways, Ancelotti has appeared the absolute antithesis to Silva in this regard. Whereas the Portuguese lived and died by an anaemic 4-2-3-1, from which he veered in favour of a back three just four times in 53 Premier League matches, the Italian has shown a proclivity for the pragmatic - to approach different games in a different, almost unique fashion. In the Italian’s 12 months on Merseyside, we’ve already seen 4-4-2, 4-3-3, 3-5-2, 3-4-3, as well as Tom Davies at right-wing-back, Seamus Coleman at centre-back and Iwobi in five different positions. Yet it would be unfair, and plain wrong, to claim there’s been no method in this apparent madness.

At least some of the time, though, Ancelotti has come unstuck, and more so recently. And having stumbled upon his best remedy at Burnley through Delph’s injury, he would be wise to persist with it for December’s relentless schedule. Even if, should Nkounkou and Gordon remain particularly conspicuous by their absences, he doesn’t always fit square pegs with square holes.