Thus far under Carlo Ancelotti, there have been three types of Everton matches, almost all of which were contested with Everton in a 4-4-2.
- Matches where Everton pressed its opponent to death
- Matches where Everton made use of the long ball and the counter to beat teams on the break.
- The Liverpool match in the FA Cup.
Categories 1 and 2 haven’t always resulted in positive results (see Newcastle, Arsenal), but they’ve generally resulted in positive attacking performances. On certain days, the Toffees made too many defensive errors or simply didn’t convert their chances effectively — but the chances were generated relatively effectively, and for long stretches, danger was kept away from Jordan Pickford’s goal.
Against Liverpool in the FA Cup — particularly in the second half — Ancelotti looked to play exclusively a possession-based style, building slowly and methodically out of the back. James Milner and a bunch of literal children were able to utterly disrupt that gameplan, find an admittedly remarkable goal, and prevent Everton from creating any danger at all.
Ancelotti rightly did away with the possession-based style after that match. He simply doesn’t have the personnel to play it right now — and he certainly didn’t then with Andre Gomes sidelined. Gomes is back now, which helps, but Tom Davies is not a possession-oriented player, and the 4-4-2 is not a possession-oriented formation.
So there’s absolutely no reason Ancelotti would go back to trying to play out of the back, right?
That’s the passmap of Michael Keane and Mason Holgate from the match against Chelsea on Sunday. It’s a lot of sideways passes to each other and the full-backs, but very little long and forward.
Now take a look at what Tom Davies, Andre Gomes, and Gylfi Sigurdsson combined to do on Sunday.
Holy sideways passes, Batman!
The trio hardly moved the ball forward at all, instead playing at some futile attempt to keep the ball in the midfield once they had it.
A 4-4-2 with a double pivot of Davies and Gomes, with the center-back pairing of Keane and Holgate just isn’t equipped to play a possession-based style. It didn’t work against a Liverpool youth side, so it sure as hell wasn’t going to work against a Chelsea senior side — even one that was missing 10 senior players on Sunday.
If you squint hard enough, you can almost see at least the theory behind Ancelotti’s tactics in this one. Chelsea were missing Mateo Kovacic, N’Golo Kante, and Jorginho — basically their best starting midfield. In their place was attack-minded Mason Mount, not-good Ross Barkley, and literal child Billy Gilmour.
There’s zero doubt that this midfield three was the weakest link of Chelsea’s lineup on Sunday, but Ancelotti’s got his own limitations in the center of midfield with Morgan Schneiderlin and Jean-Philippe Gbamin sidelined, and the rest of his central midfielders not named Andre simply being not very good at football.
That fact has ultimately powered the move to the 4-4-2. Ancelotti has determined he’d rather get more talented players on the pitch — players like Bernard and Alex Iwobi — than settle for a more structured midfield setup, but one that would include a player like Fabian Delph in the middle of a 4-2-3-1.
And that’s fine — there’s nothing inherently wrong with playing 4-4-2. But if you’re going up against a quality opponent that’s playing a midfield three, you damn well better have a plan to bypass that area of the pitch in the attack, because you sure as hell aren’t going to win it.
Via both the press and the counter, Ancelotti and the players have shown that they’re capable of making it happen. But for whatever reason, the Italian reverted back to the gameplan that got Everton knocked out of the FA Cup, and this time it got the Toffees likely removed from the race for European competition.
And that is even before we come to the indifferent effort put in by the players at Stamford Bridge.
Despite overall progress under Ancelotti, we should not lose sight of the fact that his tactics have tanked a limited Everton side (that he is still learning the limitations of) in two of the club’s most important matches of the season.