In just two months in charge, Carlo Ancelotti has implemented a particular style of play at Everton.
It’s impressive not only the speed with which he’s gotten players to buy into his system, but the clarity with which players seem to be performing their roles. There looks to be a genuine understanding of each player’s duties on a match-to-match basis.
That remained the case when Everton took on Arsenal on Sunday — a 3-2 loss that easily could have seen the Toffees take one or three points on another day.
I don’t want to take too much time going over the specifics of his setup — I took an in-depth look during the winter break, and basically everything I said there still holds true.
This week, it was Gylfi Sigurdsson sliding into the left midfield / No. 10 hybrid role, with Fabian Delph and Morgan Schneiderlin making up the central midfield pairing, presumably to bring a little more defensive stability to an Arsenal team with quite a bit of firepower.
They did a reasonable job of limiting Arsenal’s chances — the Gunners wound up with 1.35 expected goals (xG) per Understat. That’s basically right at their season average in terms of chance creation.
But some individual defending errors and top-class finishing by Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang earned Arsenal three goals — while Dominic Calvert-Lewin missed two glorious chances at the other end in the second half.
If the finishing pixies sprinkled their magic dust slightly differently, it could have been a very different match. Alas, it was what it was — and Ancelotti and the Toffees shouldn’t be particularly discouraged by the display.
Because the tactics were largely the same as they have been, I want to focus more closely on three things I noticed from this match — and their implications going forward.
Richarlison the Creator?
The one significant flaw in Richarlison’s game since coming to England has been his creativity. The Brazilian has consistently shown an ability to score goals in a variety of ways from a variety of positions, but has been sub-par at best when trying to create chances for others.
At least, that had been the case before Carlo Ancelotti took over.
Ancelotti’s use of Richarlison has been a little difficult to define — it’s part striker, part deep-lying striker, and part left wing. His role hinges on his connection with the hybrid left midfielder / No. 10 and the left-back.
For whatever reason, he’s thriving creatively in that role in a way that we’ve never seen before.
Last season, in 2700 Premier League minutes, Richarlison generated a measly 1.96 expected assists (xA). In just his last six matches, he’s generated 3.19 xA.
That includes a whopping 1.17 xA from the Arsenal match — he created both of the quality chances spurned by Calvert-Lewin in the second half.
Is this creative output sustainable? Honestly, I’m not sure. Six matches is a small sample size, but the output is so excessively improved over the pre-Ancelotti days that I think even the most ardent skeptic has to admit that something new and different is going on here. If Richarlison can maintain even close to this creative output going forward while continuing to score at the same rate, he could legitimately become one of the best players in the world.
I’m Holding Out for a Theo at the End of the Night
Theo Walcott missed Sunday’s match with a knee injury, and Everton missed him on the right wing. Alex Iwobi wasn’t bad, but he just isn’t the type of player the Toffees need on that side of the pitch.
With so much of the creative impetus coming down the left, the Toffees need a true off-ball, goalscoring winger to play on that right side. Walcott’s finishing has been suspect this season, but he’s consistently found himself in the right places since Ancelotti took over, and did score the winner against Watford a few weeks ago.
Walcott’s pace and directness unsettles off-ball defenders, plain and simple. He creates space for Calvert-Lewin in the center of the pitch, and is excellent at finding space for himself in the half-spaces and on the touchline.
Now none of that is to say the soon-to-be 31-year-old winger is the long-term answer at right wing. He isn’t. But for right now, he’s the best fit for the system at that position, and Iwobi really belongs as Bernard’s understudy in the left-sided role.
As such, don’t be surprised if the Toffees spend a fair bit of money this summer looking to add a player who profiles similar to Walcott.
The Return of Andre Gomes
First of all, let’s just take a moment to collectively marvel at the fact that Andre returned so quickly. I spent the last two weeks yelling “I SAW HIS ANKLE POINTING THE WRONG WAY” at my computer screen whenever news of his upcoming return surfaced, and yet there he was on Sunday.
Given the success the team had without him under Ancelotti, it was a bit of an open question as to how he might fit into the picture upon his first-team return. We got a glimpse of the answer in his 30 minutes on Sunday.
At first glance, it looks like Gomes will change little in terms of how Everton plays — his passmap and heatmap were both very similar to Morgan Schneiderlin’s, who he replaced. He’s simply a better version of Schneiderlin and Fabian Delph — more comfortable on the ball, more mobile, a better dribbler, and better at progressing the ball.
But his return — at least against Arsenal — didn’t lead to any increase in Everton working the attack through the central channel. He primarily looked to ping diagonal balls out to the full-backs, keeping the gameplan largely the same.
I’m not particularly surprised by this, as there’s little reason to change up something that’s largely been working for the Toffees. That said, I do look forward to his enhanced ability to get the ball forward with speed, and to protect the back four against mobile opponents.
He looked quite comfortable for a man who’d been out 100+ days, and I’m confident there’s more good to come from him before this season draws to a close.