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Feel-good Everton win masks the same old tactical issues

Carlo Ancelotti got a win, but he doesn’t appear any closer to helping Everton reach its full potential

Watford FC v Everton FC - Premier League Photo by Catherine Ivill/Getty Images

There’s a lot of good to be taken from Everton’s 3-2 victory over Watford on Saturday.

To see the Toffees — perennially weak away from home and unable to come from behind — get a win from 2-0 down at Vicarage Road, says a huge amount about the improvement in club mentality since Duncan Ferguson, then Carlo Ancelotti took over. That it came in the first match after the late capitulation against Newcastle United is all the more impressive.

Mentality wasn’t the only thing on display — this match was also a good reminder that this Everton squad has pockets of legitimate talent.

Mason Holgate was immense once again, both in midfield and defense. Morgan Schneiderlin came in off the bench and put in a solid shift with Everton down to ten men following Fabian Delph’s sending off. (No really, how good was that pair in the center of midfield in the ol’ 4-4-1 — take a look at how little Watford generated in the period after Delph was sent off.)

Yerry Mina showed his class at both ends of the pitch, Djibril Sidibe continued his fine form, and Everton managed three goals in a match that didn’t see the best from either Dominic Calvert-Lewin or Richarlison — a strike partnership that has 18 goals this season alone. Hell, Bernard has been one of Everton’s best players over the last month, and he didn’t even get onto the field (thanks Fabian).

And mercifully, Theo Walcott finally got on the board, sliding home the match-winner.

Mentality and talent are obviously two huge contributors to a team’s success, but the third is tactics — and this is where I remain a little skeptical.

Let me open by saying that I acknowledge Ancelotti is handicapped by the situation in the center of midfield. Jean-Philippe Gbamin is probably done for the season, and Andre Gomes seemingly miraculous recovery still hasn’t quite got him back in the first team picture.

Fabian Delph has been anywhere from middling to downright bad in an Everton shirt, with the latter certainly being the case this weekend. Morgan Schneiderlin and Tom Davies have both had bright moments, but plenty of sour ones too.

So I get that we aren’t looking at a finished Ancelotti product by any stretch of the imagination, but I just haven’t seen anything that indicates to me he has a plan to solve the major Everton problem — how does this team score outside of set pieces, crosses, and counter-attacks?

This is the same problem that doomed Marco Silva (well, outside of set piece defending), and Ancelotti’s early returns aren’t significantly better.

The Italian has tried to force a little central creativity into his side by playing a 4-4-2 in which the left wing drifts centrally into a faux No. 10 role. In recent weeks, that role had been filled by Bernard, but Saturday it was the returning Alex Iwobi who got the call. Check out his heatmap from the match.

More of the same from the left wing, but you wouldn’t exactly say he got into dangerous positions in the center of the pitch — just that he happened to get some touches in the central channel.

In fact, hardly any Everton players got touches in dangerous central areas — take a look at the overall team heatmap.

The semi-circle of sadness (the area just outside the box in the central channel) took on a slightly different shape this week, but it’s most certainly still present.

If Everton is going to play a possession-based game, which early signs seem to point to, players need to be getting onto the ball in that area — and it just isn’t happening right now.

Now, the 4-4-2 isn’t a formation exactly conducive to chance generation from that area. It doesn’t take a rocket scientist to figure out that if you don’t have a player who specific role it is to occupy that space (as you would in a 4-2-3-1 or 4-3-3), it’s going to be difficult to generate chances from there.

That’s why I’m a little surprised Ancelotti has insisted on playing out of the back with regularity, especially before the return of Alex Iwobi and Gylfi Sigurdsson from injury. At that point, a 4-4-2 was an injury-enforced necessity, but that’s no longer the case.

Yet neither player was deployed in a true No. 10 role against Watford, and Everton’s possession-based attack sputtered as a result. It created corners, which created goals thanks to the physical largeness of one Yerry Mina, but it didn’t create many direct chances of its own accord.

And frankly, I’m not sure what the solution is. Neither Iwobi nor Sigurdsson have grasped that No. 10 position particularly firmly, and Bernard hasn’t really had any meaningful experience at the position. With Cenk Tosun gone, there isn’t a striker in the Everton corps who can drop deep into that space and facilitate between the lines — not a strength of Dominic Calvert-Lewin, Richarlison, or Moise Kean’s game.

So despite this win — an important and largely deserved one, mind — Carlo Ancelotti is eventually going to have to make some difficult tactical decisions. Does he have a plan for helping his team to create open-play chances that don’t rely solely on crossing the ball into the box? And if not, will he relinquish his desire to play a possession-based style, and let quicker, riskier build-up play occur in a continued 4-4-2 setting?

He’s understandably been caught in between these two decisions given the injuries to this point — but the time of being neither here nor there must come to an end soon.