I admittedly wasn’t a huge fan of the Carlo Ancelotti signing when Everton first announced that the Italian would be taking over, but in addition to all his previous accolades, there was one component of his managerial career that I found encouraging — he wasn't married to one defined style of play.
So many managers in this era — both good ones and bad ones — come with a very specific mindset of how they want to play football. Jurgen Klopp will press you backwards, Pep Guardiola will pass you to death, Sam Allardyce will bore you silly, etc. Not so with Ancelotti, who has tended to find systems that get the best out of his players, rather than players who fit into some hypothetical system.
And thus, Everton didn’t spend a penny in the January transfer window. Instead, Carlo looked around at the significant talent he already had on the books, and got to work on developing a 4-4-2 system that has worked for long stretches in the past two months. Continued success of this volume could genuinely see the Toffees play themselves into a European place before season’s end.
So, what exactly is it that Carlo does? It sets up something like the following:
Let’s make some sense of all those arrows. The whole thing really pivots on the left midfielder — mostly Bernard, but we’ll see Alex Iwobi there at times too. Both players have the same general skillset — shifty with the ball in their feet, quick but not exceedingly fast, and capable of picking out difficult passes.
So, he has that player (who I’ll just call Bernard for now) pinch inside from the starting position on the left wing. As such, Bernard plays something of a hybrid No. 10 / left midfielder role when Everton is in attack.
As Bernard pinches centrally, Lucas Digne bombs down the left wing outside of him, generally finding room to whip in crosses or combine with teammates on that left wing. The Frenchman isn’t going to burn anyone with his pace either, but he is among the most technically-gifted full-backs in the world, and he’s capable of beating players off the dribble or via combination play regularly.
The third, and easily most intriguing, piece of the puzzle on the left is Richarlison. Prior to Ancelotti’s appointment, I had long held two beliefs about Richarlison to be true. I was convinced that the Brazilian was A) not a striker, and B) not a playmaker. All the evidence to that point suggested he was an elite goalscoring winger.
And yet in this two-striker system, Ancelotti has proven both of those suppositions to be false. Richarlison is most dangerous when he has space to operate away from the big, physical center-backs who tend to physically brutalize him — which is why I’d always preferred to see him out wide, quietly drifting into the center off of defenders’ shoulders.
But by pairing him with the physically dominant Dominic Calvert-Lewin — and dropping him a little deeper and to the left of the Englishman — he’s created space for him while allowing him to play as a striker.
In essence then, Bernard, Richarlison, and Digne form a free-flowing trio down the left wing, where Everton has spent around 40% of its attacking-third possession time since Carlo took charge. The plan is to use those three players as the creative hub of the team, making up for its lack of a regularly-producing No. 10.
And the numbers seem to suggest that it’s working. Take a look at the trio’s expected assists (xA) per 90 minutes since Ancelotti took over, according to Understat.
- Bernard: 0.23
- Digne: 0.23
- Richarlison: 0.34
That’s 0.8 expected assists per 90 minutes — nearly a full assist per match.
Most mindblowing is Richarlison’s xA production. Consider that last season, he put up just 0.07 xA per 90 — even this season before Ancelotti came on board, the Brazilian sat at just 0.18 xA per 90 minutes.
Initially, I was a little surprised when I noticed that, despite all this left-sided attack play, Gylfi Sigurdsson has usually occupied the right side of midfield. Sigurdsson has obviously had his detractors, but there’s no doubt he’s the most creative of Everton’s current midfield options, so I’d expected that he’d be a part of the more attack-minded wing.
In reality though, the more defensive-minded midfielder — either Morgan Schneiderlin or Fabian Delph — has played in the left-center midfield role. The reason, I suspect, is pretty simple.
Ancelotti wants a defensive-minded player in that space to pick up the pieces if an attack fails down the left wing. Both Schneiderlin and Delph are more defensively responsible, and able to cover for Digne if the full-back gets caught up the pitch on a counterattack.
Meanwhile, Sigurdsson does advance a little farther up the pitch when the Toffees are in possession, serving as a pivot point to move the ball from left to right when required.
Alongside him, Theo Walcott looks to make runs in behind opposing center-backs from the right wing. Walcott’s forward runs in possession have been less menacing over the last two matches, but he continues to pose potential threats to defenders from that position.
The major loser in this setup has been Djibril Sidibe, whose expected assists per 90 has dropped from 0.22 prior to Ancelotti’s hiring to just 0.08 after he took over. Sidibe isn’t playing any better or worse, his chances have simply dried up now that the majority of the attack is being driven down the left side.
Both Sidibe and Seamus Coleman have been reliable in defense when called upon though, as have all of Everton’s defenders since Ancelotti took over, really (save the final three minutes against Newcastle United).
Perhaps some of that is simply down to better man management by Ancelotti, but some of it is tactical too. Marco Silva’s high-pressing system put pressure on the defenders to deal with frequent balls over the top and quick counters — something Ancelotti’s system doesn’t force.
Instead, Everton have been content to drop off relatively deep when out of possession under the Italian. For all the moving parts that we see in attack, in defense, Everton sticks to the standard 4-4-2 alignment, keeping those two blocks of four relatively compact in front of Jordan Pickford.
This isn’t a Burnley deep block or anything crazy like that, but it’s pragmatic and limits the opponent’s chances without overly conceding possession. The upshot, of course, is that given the attacking system in place, the Toffees are more capable of keeping the ball once they win it — which makes it easier to tolerate long spells out of possession.
The longer Ancelotti uses this system, the more convinced I become that he sees it as his long-term plan for the club. And why not?
It’s most vital components are Richarlison (22), Calvert-Lewin (22), Bernard / Iwobi (27/23), and Digne (26) — players still with several years of their prime ahead of them. The positions where Everton’s future is less clear — central midfield and right wing — are positions that require less specific skillsets to fill.
Drop Andre Gomes into Sigurdsson’s spot, add a quick and true defensive midfielder ahead of Schneiderlin, and find a pacey winger to play ahead of Walcott, and you’re looking at a lineup that can genuinely challenge just about any squad in the Premier League.
It’ll be interesting to see how the current personnel fares in the weeks ahead though, with Arsenal, Manchester United, Chelsea, Liverpool, Leicester City, and Tottenham Hotspur making up six of Everton’s next seven matches. If this setup can pull out some results in those matches as well, it’ll be all but a lock that Ancelotti has found his permanent Everton system moving forward.