When Carlo Ancelotti signed on as Everton manager less than a year ago, one of the main assumptions of Everton fans was that his previous work with world-class players would bring at least one of them to the club.
Little did we know then that some of the players’ loyalties who do run deep to the Italian manager included both Napoli central midfielder Allan and Real Madrid playmaker James Rodriguez. When their names were bandied about as possible Everton targets, along with long-term Marcel Brand target Watford FC’s Abdoulaye Doucouré. it was assumed only one and possibly two of the highly-coveted midfielders would be on Merseyside in the new season.
Well that was then, and this is now.
With the Blues wrapping up deals for all three midfielders this week, Everton fans have found themselves trying to envision how all of the new pieces will fit together. With the Blues having been less than imposing in midfield in the centre of the park last season, the arrivals of hard-tackling Allan, who played for Ancelotti at Napoli, and hard-running Doucouré in the centre of the Everton midfield will bring something entirely different than the Blues have seen before.
Add in Colombian playmaker Rodriguez (who was with Ancelotti at Madrid and Bayern Munich) providing vision and service in the form of a number ten Ronald Koeman could only dream of bringing to Everton in his time, and the Everton attack will look entirely new as well.
So, now that the acquisitions are wrapping up and with the season fast approaching, Everton fans are excited to see how Ancelotti will deploy his restructured squad.
In that light, I took at Ancelotti’s history with Allan and Rodriguez, plugged in Doucouré’s talents that we have seen in the Premier league the last few seasons, and meshed it together with the rest of Everton’s squad to give a glimpse at what I think we will see on the pitch once all the pieces are signed, fit and ready to go.
The Primary Lineup
Since taking over at Everton, Ancelotti has shown a preference for a 4-4-2. This suits much of the Blues talents, including both the strike partnership of Dominic Calvert-Lewin and Richarlison, and Lucas Digne’s attacking abilities.
Without anything resembling a true holding midfielder, last season’s midfield rotation of Gylfi Sigurdsson, Tom Davies and André Gomes were continually exploited in a midfield that offered no protection for the centre-backs, who often found themselves having to both step into the midfield, while also defending the long ball. Jean-Philippe Gbamin was supposed to solve this, but injuries have kept him off the field.
This left them seemingly out of position and chasing back, when in reality they had no confidence that the central midfield would offer them any protection. With Sigurdsson an aged-out number ten, Gomes a less-than-physically-imposing number eight and Davies a whirling dervish, there was no pairing that would allow Ancelotti to see the rest of the squad reach their potential.
Now that has changed. Here is how Ancelotti could deploy his 4-4-2.
The back five won’t change much, as Yerry Mina will have to fight off Jarrad Branthwaite and Michael Keane for time alongside Mason Holgate in central defence.
Digne is a locked in starter, while Seamus Coleman will probably get the nod over Jonjoe Kenny, who has obviously not shown Ancelotti what he hoped to see as the Toffees have been shopping for right-backs (more on that later).
In the midfield, Doucouré and Allan would pair together with Rodriguez starting in a wide-right position. On the left, Anthony Gordon will battle with Bernard and Alex Iwobi for playing time, but I think his physical abilities on both sides of the ball will see him get first try at making the position his own.
Up top, Calevrt-Lewin and Richarlison will pair together as usual with Moise Kean offering the team a third option.
With Rodriguez obviously not a natural right midfielder/winger in the same sense as Theo Walcott, the Everton adjust will be slightly imbalanced as the Colombian will come in on his preferred left foot and allow Richarlison and Calvert-Lewin to make runs to one of three places: in behind, to the vacated right wing to isolate themselves, or towards Rodriguez to draw centre-backs out of position for the other forward to make runs in behind.
In the midfield, Doucouré will be the link who will be asked to make late runs into the box as well as make early tackles to break up opposition transition opportunities. This a job that Gomes can also do since he would be paired with a holding midfielder like Allan.
Gordon will offer a threat both down the line as well as being able to make central runs into space vacated by forwards making the aforementioned runs towards Rodriguez or into the corners.
Finally, Allan will offer protection for the centre-backs while playing slightly skewed to the right to cover for the very forward-thinking Rodriguez and with the faith that Doucouré will cover his left.
Digne will overlap Gordon, as well as offer a threat with his patented deep crosses. When he overlaps, he should find Rodriguez willing to play past the forwards and tucking in Gordon to find Digne for deep-threatening crosses.
Mina and Holgate will be much more comfortable with Allan offering a security blanket in front of them. They should find themselves doing far less emergency defending on the transition with both Allan and Doucouré contributing to the defensive transition efforts better than Sigurdsson, Gomes, or Davies ever could.
On the other flank, it will be imperative that whoever Ancelotti chooses to go with offers a constant threat as overlapping Rodriguez will ensure the Colombian can’t be doubled by the opposition midfielder and full-back.
This is why I think we have seen Everton in the market for an aggressive overlapping right-back like Atletico Madrid’s Santiago Arias or Lille’s Zeki Celik, whose skill set would fit the new Everton right-back profile perfectly with his much more consistent offerings in the attacking end.
Until that happens, however, I believe Ancelotti will lean towards Coleman’s consistency as Kenny has shown his defensive naivety in his time back with the Blues.
The Other Option
Of course, even the most optimistic of Evertonians would never imagine that Ancelotti will be able to play his preferred tactics against every team.
Forcing Calvert-Lewin or Richarlison to drop in as a number ten defensively doesn’t suit their abilities and stifles the Blues in transition with their two most forward players often central at the same time and unable to work off each other.
Enter a 4-3-3, with Rodriguez playing more as a true ten to offer more bodies in the centre of the park, Richarlison can slide left and play from out wide, which he has shown an ability to do for a number of managers. Calvert-Lewin or Kean will spearhead the attack.
Doucouré will offer the same balance in midfield alongside Allan, who will sit a little deeper against sides with more dangerous possession.
Walcott or Iwobi would come in wide on the right to offer better defensive help on the right than Rodriguez would have in this formation.
The back five stays the same.
In this lineup, the tilt of the back line would shift slightly as Digne would be asked to offer a more consistent threat overlapping Richarlison than Coleman or Kenny would with Walcott or Iwobi working to the flanks themselves.
Doucouré would also venture forward slightly less than in the 4-4-2 as Rodriguez would assume much of his central attacking responsibilities.
Rodriguez would offer support back to make sure the other team’s deepest midfielder isn’t dictating play, while also attacking the centre-backs to create space for Richarlison and the central strikers to make runs behind.
When the back line collapses, Rodriguez will find Digne a willing runner, with Doucouré offering more protection on the left side to allow the Frenchman to get forward without fear of being exposed.
The centre-backs will stay in a balanced triangle with Allan, while the right-back will have a more muted impact on the attack with their overlapping responsibilities lessened by the introduction of Walcott or Iwobi.
This formation will offer a stouter midfield to break down, while also keeping Richarlison an active part of the attack from both wide and central positions.
While nobody can know for certain how Ancelotti will deploy his new acquisitions, I believe what I’ve just presented is the most likely scenario once every player is in the door and signed.
I look forward to seeing the new-look Blues in action.
In a 4-4-2.