There he stands, freshly-trimmed, basking in the balmy, late-afternoon Norfolk sun, effortlessly resplendent with his suave new trendy-single-uncle look that would walk into Norwich’s own Alan Partridge’s ‘Sports Casual’ collection. Needless to say, Carlo Ancelotti will have the last laugh.
And indeed he did here at Carrow Road, but not without his Everton side exasperating him and reminding him just how dependent they are on him in equal measure. You could reel off a handful of Everton victories under Marco Silva which came about in spite of the manager, where players essentially shunned rigid edicts in favour of taking matters into their own hands. None of his successor’s six Blues victories so far fit that criteria, and certainly not this 1-0 victory that his side eventually plodded along to.
This may seem like the most backhanded of compliments, but essentially Everton are winging it, getting by on the bare minimum while a manager who could have done much better than end up here drags them single-handedly kicking and screaming up this clustered Premier League table. The improvement in all of this, though, is that they weren’t even managing that previously.
Think back to that maddening defeat at Burnley in early October, when a joyless, insipid Everton were deservedly beaten 1-0 on a weekend they would end in the relegation zone having just lost their fourth straight league game. Only two shots on target were mustered, yet Silva waited until after Jeff Hendrick’s late winner to introduce his first attack-minded substitute in Moise Kean. Not until 84 minutes did André Gomes break up the insipid, one-dimensional midfield partnership of Morgan Schneiderlin and Fabian Delph. Warnings were not heeded, lessons not learnt.
Here, mercifully, not so much. Everton were truly awful in a first half shaded by the slightly less awful Norwich, as Project Restart lumped us with another opening period devoid of a pulse, never mind a goal. Quite what Ancelotti, a manager whose greatest hits include midfield maestros like Kaka, Andrea Pirlo and Frank Lampard, made of Tom Davies and Gomes stuttering along like a car well overdue its service is anyone’s guess. Either way, he was not to dither.
Davies was deservedly hooked at the interval, and while labelling the introduction of a player similarly passive for much of this season in Gylfi Sigurðsson a game-changer may be a stretch, a shift in momentum in Everton’s favour duly arrived after the break. Bernard, though far from his best again on the road, began to sashay away from his befuddled counterparts. Alex Iwobi and Dominic Calvert-Lewin busied themselves, often in tandem. Even Sigurðsson, for whom these glorified friendly-tempo matches may suit more than most, had a grip on proceedings.
Sure enough, the greater pressure told. Once Michael Keane had rose to prod home Lucas Digne’s corner on 55 minutes, you never really sensed Everton were in real danger of relinquishing their lead. Norwich were undoubtedly hampered by the absence of a crowd and ingenuity - one shot on target from the Premier League’s lowest scorers and bottom club tells its own story in that regard. Yet whereas a 1-0 away lead would have made for tetchy, jittery viewing for Evertonians previously, here they seemed calm, composed, controlled; the on-pitch embodiment of their manager’s own self-assured mantra, perhaps.
That’s not to say it was sparkling. It certainly wasn’t, again. Indeed, this was the fifth of Ancelotti’s six wins secured by a one-goal margin, and we are yet to see an Everton performance glisten like the first 93 minutes of Newcastle at home in January (before the Blues’ brisk reversion to type). Elsewhere, it’s been fits and starts, even if a marked improvement on the last days of Silva, and even if results have still taken a significant and satisfying upturn.
But that’s fine for now, at least. Not only because Ancelotti is gradually piecing together the constituent parts of this squad that are worth persevering with and harnessing their potential all the while, but also because it’s quite hard to win football matches when your midfield is essentially bypassed week on week.
The performances will come under Ancelotti. There’s too much flair in Digne’s left foot, too much intuition in Richarlison’s brain, too much gold in Calvert-Lewin’s boots for that not to be the case. But the Italian’s willingness to rip up his best-laid plans at the first signs of bother will help Everton secure sufficient results in the meantime.
Victories like that at Norwich will never be aesthetically pleasing, but they offer the Everton hierarchy further vindication that they eventually landed on the right call, and offer Evertonians a further indication that great if incremental progress is being made.