Seventeen points from eight league games, relegation fears banished, European hopes revived. It is fair to say the Carlo Ancelotti era has got off to as good a start as anybody could ever imagine.
While the Toffees’ rapid rise up the table says much about the relatively weak standard of teams in the division this year, no-one should discount the progress made in such a short space of time under the Italian’s stewardship.
Credit, of course, has to go to Duncan Ferguson for reinvigorating the club and reminding us all why we love Everton in the first place. That injection of raw passion was just what we needed. But like most bursts of energy it was only ever gong to be temporary. Ferguson himself admitted he was not the man to take the job in the long-term, but was there for the club in its hour of need and will never be forgotten. It also made Ancelotti’s job easier as it neutralised the feeling of imminent crisis and created a platform for him to build on.
Most managers enjoy a honeymoon period of course, but Everton’s consistent level of performance suggests there is greater substance to their revival aside from just a ‘new manager bounce’.
What makes it more impressive (or perhaps more galling for Marco Silva) is that Ancelotti has resisted the urge to make wholesale changes, with just minor tweaks having significant impact (Adam’s excellent tactical breakdown explains this in more detail).
Everton have actually played poorly at times but key individuals, playing in a tactical framework designed to suit their attributes, have been able to provide moments of magic to drag the team through.
His vast experience is most noticeable during matches, with his astute in-game management helping the side discover a spirit and resilience lost under Silva.
The win at Watford FC was the first time in 35 matches the team has conceded the first goal yet gone on to win, while they also recovered from conceding second-half equalisers away at Newcastle and at home to Crystal Palace to re-take the lead and win the game.
That new-found resilience remains brittle in places, the home clash with Newcastle featured a comical injury-time meltdown while the Anfield loss to a weakened Liverpool will go down in infamy.
But that is where Ancelotti’s calm approach has proven most critical.
While Evertonians, tired of frequent disappointments, tend to lose the plot after each setback, Ancelotti remains unruffled.
Speaking after the Newcastle game he said:
“We have to stay on the game for 90 minutes but I’m not saying anything to my players. They played well and it can happen. It’s just unlucky for this game.”
Ancelotti instantly took the heat out of a potentially explosive situation by reminding us, quite rightly, that the performance for much of the game was good.
Everton went on to win their next two matches.
That light touch is what has defined Ancelotti’s career. In his book ‘Quiet Leadership’ he talks about how he rarely loses his temper with his players, often restricting himself to a few angry words in his native Italian. But when he does, it is usually short and to the point, before moving on. He looks to build up a close relationship with his players, developing a level of trust akin to that of a family member.
Many see that as the key to his success when dealing with superstar players and their equally superstar egos. He became known as the ’diva whisperer’ at Real Madrid as he managed to heal dressing room rifts and mould all the Galacticos into a winning unit. That approach also worked upwards, with Ancelotti dealing with some of the game’s most infamously difficult owners.
That is not always the case of course. There were rumours the Bayern Munich players organised secret high-intensity training sessions behind Ancelotti’s back as they felt his approach was too relaxed. While at Napoli, president Aurelio de Laurentiis went behind Ancelotti’s back to order the players into ritiro - a training camp - in mid-season as the team faltered, with the subsequent player mutiny spelling the beginning of the end of Ancelotti’s time in Naples.
It highlights the one flaw to Ancelotti’s methods, namely that it relies on mutual trust. Once that goes, a break-up is inevitable. But such a break-up at Everton looks a long way off, with the trust placed in Ancelotti by the players, boardroom and fans absolute.
Rarely has a managerial arrival been greeted with such enthusiasm and united a club so rapidly. The club had lost its way under Silva, who was seemingly one game away from the sack throughout most of the autumn. While a weary fanbase was growing ever more disconnected after enduring one false down after the other. That connection has begun to be restored.
There are likely to be further disappointments along the way, this is Everton of course. But there is also genuine belief that they will be merely bumps in the road that leads to bigger and better things.