Half-time at Goodison Park and you were left wondering what would have caused Carlo Ancelotti more bemusement. Probably that, just 11 games ago, an utterly incompetent Everton languished in the bottom three and in dire straits shortly before his appointment. Either that or Djibril Sidibé’s mysteriously missing sock, anyway.
Here we were midway through chapter nine of Everton’s Italian job, the Blues purring, deservedly leading Crystal Palace through Bernard’s sumptuous finish, playing with - whisper it - just a hint of flair to boot. Only another 45 minutes to navigate at home to pretty inoffensive opposition and they would be seventh, within a point of fifth and five off fourth. Just what was all the fuss about in the first place?
Er, well, now that you mention it, here’s the start of the second half for your viewing displeasure, Carlo. Everton have delivered similarly bipolar showings already under the Italian - that chastening Newcastle draw, no less - but the repetition of it here is what will likely prove most irksome. From toying with Palace before the interval like a puppeteer with his strings to gaping, vacant stretches of green which the men in black were all too ready to occupy while those in the royal blue disappeared.
A better team would have punished Everton more sternly. Suddenly, Palace were out of neutral, clicking uncompromisingly through the gears, swarming the Blues’ midfield, whose axis of Morgan Schneiderlin and Gylfi Sigurðsson was forced to look as slow in practice as it does in theory. Within minutes, the ties which had coalesced each of Ancelotti’s component parts so beautifully for the first 45 were severed. The pessimist, or Evertonian as otherwise known, called it only a matter of time.
And indeed it was, albeit only through the sort of calamity that surely only Everton could fashion. Never mind doubling up; at least five, arguably seven of Ancelotti’s men were in close proximity of Wilfried Zaha when he laid the ball on for Christian Benteke. Lucas Digne made a valiant effort, but needn’t have bothered, in truth. It was a pea-roller from the Belgian and nothing more. Standard fare for England’s number one, you’d think. At which point: enter Jordan Pickford.
In a season where Pickford has been one of Everton’s biggest repeat offenders, to inexplicably wave the ball on through his squirming body and into the Gwladys Street net represented a new low even for him. Cue audible howls of sheer disbelief, butchering the atmosphere in an instant. And cue Benteke’s enrolment in the ever-growing group of strikers who can’t buy a goal until the benevolent Blues roll up. Welcome to the club, Christian. Your first in ten months, is it? Kelechi Iheanacho, Roberto Soldado, Jon Stead and the others will be delighted to meet you.
Even then the pressure didn’t subside. Zaha continued to weave his way through Everton’s back line, and one Palace corner caused particular unease as Patrick van Aanholt’s delivery pinballed around Pickford’s six-yard box. But perhaps what will please Ancelotti most from this gritty, resolute victory is how, where previously they may have surrendered, here they found a second wind and regained their composure.
And how Everton’s second goal epitomised much of what has been great about them during his short reign, from the long-ball pumped with precision from the much-improved Schneiderlin, to the astute flick-on from Dominic Calvert-Lewin, to the sight of Richarlison gliding by Gary Cahill like a paper leaf in the crisp winter wind, before finishing with aplomb past Vicente Guaita. Most impressive here, as was so often amiss under Marco Silva, was simply their drive - no time to waste, no superfluous passes to play; rather, a match to win.
Credit where it’s due to Pickford, also, who went some way to atoning for his error by denying Benteke from point-blank range moments later. It’s as if, in these two instances, Everton just remembered that they are a better team and have better footballers than Palace, and by the time Calvert-Lewin slotted in Everton’s third on 88 minutes, it was just reward for the better side on the day, too.
For a little while, at least, there is plenty to be cheerful about. With his sixth goal under Ancelotti’s tutelage, Calvert-Lewin is finally shedding the tag of striker who doesn’t strike. The masterstroke of deploying Richarlison alongside him, to which much credit is owed to Duncan Ferguson, is paying dividends in the Brazilian’s own game, too. Mason Holgate, though rested here, is arguably Everton’s best current option in central defence and midfield. And finally, for the most part, anyway, there appears to be some cohesion, some fluidity, about Everton’s game, where formerly there was little of it.
Then there’s Ancelotti himself, the man who has now made the best start to life as Everton manager since William Barclay in 1888. He is no magic bullet, and probably can’t elongate Pickford’s arms, but perhaps the best compliment you could pay him is he is getting results where Silva conceivably wouldn’t, or didn’t. If nothing else, his arrival has just restored a much-needed sense of calm to proceedings. He doesn’t have to prove himself, like his predecessors may have. His CV speaks for itself in that regard.
And while some describe Ancelotti as so laid back as to paint him as some Zen-like figure who must take training in a tie-dyed poncho while smoking a joint, to do so would be hugely understating his tactical acumen. Sure, he may prefer to disarm with charm, but there is an underlying steeliness and a flexibility in this regard that has already reaped rewards. Just look at how he is eking every last drop out of these players, how nobody seems in two minds about their precise role in the team, how the ghosts of managers past have been laid to rest by outlawing the dreary act of passing for passing’s sake.
But by the same token, as Ancelotti will know full well, there is much still to do. Pickford, for instance, now has only two clean sheets during his tenure, and Benteke’s goal on Saturday was the fifth successive shot on target he has failed to keep out. Though the much-maligned Schneiderlin deserves great credit for his tenacious performance on Saturday, there cannot surely be anything sustainable about that midfield partnership. The style of play has improved immeasurably, but has only been showcased in spurts. A hangover from previous regimes still lingers, and not the sort you can wear off easily with a hearty breakfast and big dose of fresh air.
Indeed, the reality is that, even if Everton achieve what would have been an total fallacy two months ago and achieve European football, some players’ fates should already be sealed. This summer may be better-served by an act of fine-tuning rather than another overhaul, and lessons from the disastrous 2017 window should be heeded in that sense, but a startling upturn in form should not kid anyone that certain members of this crop deserve an umpteenth bite of the cherry.
It is, of course, a work in progress, and Evertonians are fine with that, because for once they have a manager whom it would be ridiculous to question. In that respect, this second half of the season, and games like the Palace victory in particular, are critical in offering Ancelotti a cross-section of just what he has inherited; their assets, their pitfalls, their potential, their dead wood.
But for now, as a bleak midwinter melts away into a spring of quiet, renewed hope, there is at least something to invest yourself in with Everton past January once again. That in itself, considering the last few barren years, makes for a welcome break from tradition.