Monday marks a year to the day since Carlo Ancelotti was appointed Everton manager on a four-and-a-half-year contract, and the Italian’s desire to bring success back to the club still burns brightly.
As fate would have it, the 61-year-old was handed a watching brief in the stands the last time Arsenal visited Goodison Park a year ago this very weekend. That stalemate in many ways highlighted the work ahead for both himself and Mikel Arteta, who was due to take over at the Gunners.
The pair’s paths have fluctuated over the past 12 months, but ahead of their meeting this weekend, live on Sky Sports, it is clear which manager is currently enjoying the greater ascent.
Saturday 19th December 5:00pm
Kick off 5:30pm
The victory at Leicester on Wednesday was a statement win for Ancelotti and Everton, not least because it laid to rest the Ghost of Christmas Past.
It was at the King Power Stadium where the wheels came off for Marco Silva last December. The manner of that defeat floored the Portuguese as Kelechi Iheanacho’s stoppage-time winner was originally disallowed for offside only for VAR to intervene in Leicester’s favour.
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Marco Silva watches on as Everton were beaten in cruel fashion at Leicester
Silva stood motionless as an eighth Premier League defeat of the season was confirmed, and the 5-2 thrashing against Liverpool three days later proved the final nail in the coffin as Farhad Moshiri cut the club’s losses on the Silva project.
The billionaire majority shareholder had to that point seen little return on his investment in players of well over £400m – and the recruitment and sacking of three managers. Everton still appeared to require a major overhaul.
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Taking inspiration from Ferguson
Duncan Ferguson's impressive reign as caretaker manager guided Ancelotti
With Silva departed, caretaker manager Duncan Ferguson inspired Everton to a 3-1 victory over Chelsea at a bouncing Goodison, picking up ball boys, wearing a watch owned by Howard Kendall as well as donning his old sweatband.
Ferguson deserves great credit in buying the board time to make the right appointment, with the team remaining unbeaten during his four-match stint at the helm – and Ancelotti leaned on the Scot’s template to make a fast start once his appointment was confirmed.
Following a 1-0 victory over Burnley in his opening match last Boxing Day, Ancelotti reverted to Ferguson’s trusted 4-4-2 formation and ran with it, garnering 18 points from 11 league games.
Carlo Ancelotti's first starting XI in charge of Everton in December 2019
The Italian’s considerable skills transformed Dominic Calvert-Lewin into a lethal finisher and proved invaluable in guiding the Toffees away from the threat of relegation which had loomed over predecessor Silva in the four months before his sacking.
The only real blip from his first six months at the club was the embarrassing 1-0 defeat to a Liverpool reserve team that ensured Everton’s wait for silverware would surpass a 25th anniversary since the FA Cup success in 1995.
Notable milestones have been reached, however. In early February, Everton won a Premier League game after conceding the first goal for the first time since December 2017 – a run of 35 matches.
FREE TO WATCH: Highlights from Everton’s win at Leicester in the Premier League
Under his predecessor Silva, the Toffees went behind 28 times and never fought back to win – but that changed against Watford. The 3-2 win at Vicarage Road was the first time the Merseysiders had won from two goals behind away from home in the Premier League since September 2015 having lost the previous 25 in a row.
Ancelotti’s preference in deploying a 4-4-2 system hit a roadblock in that final game in front of supporters back in March as Chelsea showcased how it can be overcome – and the underwhelming results upon the restart in June confirmed to the manager what needed to change over the summer.
Chelsea played through Everton's rigid 4-4-2 formation too easily last March
The three-time Champions League-winning coach is not used to seeing 12th-placed finishes – Everton’s worst since 2004 – and after criticising the players’ lacklustre attitude in the 3-1 defeat to relegated Bournemouth on the final day, which inflicted his first home league loss, Ancelotti sent his players away with a clear message of wanting to see more ambition as he sought to reset the club’s targets.
Choice words were needed, and Ancelotti said back in July: “The players that stay I said to them ‘Come back with more motivation and more ambition’. The key thing is ambition. Everyone has to play his part but the club can have more ambition, I can have more ambition.
“I would like to see a better team next season and we are going to see a better team next season for sure. This season was affected by the start, which was not so good and they had some problems. With a better start the team can have a better season.”
Addressing the midfield problem
Allan has been integral in addressing Everton's midfield issues from last season
Most obvious was the need to address a powder-puff midfield, with Abdoulaye Doucoure and Allan signed along with the marquee arrival of James Rodriguez. A summer of sound recruitment has had the desired effect.
Whereas at times previously, Everton were frequently missing out their midfield in building attacks, Ancelotti has got the team playing through the thirds once more with the defence more comfortable playing into the feet of Allan and Doucoure.
Under the previous regime, Everton were more inclined to win possession higher up the pitch, but the midfield would become exposed when the high press was beaten.
Everton now have a higher concentration of passes centrally in their own half
Increased fatigue as a result of the condensed fixture schedule has undoubtedly played its part in shifting the instructions out of possession but in bolstering the midfield options, Everton are growing in confidence in this department.
Tottenham, Chelsea and Leicester – three sides with a rich pool of midfield options – have all come off second best, so Allan’s hamstring setback in midweek comes as a significant blow heading into the festive programme.
Seeking the perfect system
Calvert-Lewin’s meteoric rise has been well-documented as a stand-out feature of Everton’s progress since Ancelotti’s arrival, with the Sheffield-born striker having scored a quarter of his entire career goals this season for club and country.
His 11 league strikes account for 48 per cent of the team’s overall goals in the Premier League this term, while his minutes-per-goal ratio has halved under the current manager, from one every 309 minutes to one every 156.
His relationship with Richarlison in shouldering the attacking burden looks set to only improve given their age, but it is the new-found defensive solidity in recent outings which suggests Ancelotti has embraced his vaunted catenaccio roots in order to find a better balance to his team.
James Rodriguez has brought added panache to Everton's attack line
Everton’s attacking blueprint which brought four straight victories at the start of the campaign was disbanded by enforced changes in personnel. Ancelotti sought solutions, first in rotating his goalkeeper Jordan Pickford for Robin Olsen, and then through changing the system.
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The 3-2 victory at Fulham last month could not mask the defensive issues; it meant Everton had conceded two or more goals in six consecutive Premier League games for the first time since October 2008.
But the absence of captain Seamus Coleman through the recurrence of a hamstring problem in addition to Lucas Digne suffering an ankle ligament injury in training left Ancelotti needing to think of another route to make Everton solid again.
Abdoulaye Doucoure has brought energy and steel to Everton's engine room
A run of one win in seven games in all competitions checked Everton’s progress, but the manner of two morale-boosting victories over sides with top-four aspirations of their own have renewed belief among supporters that the team is on the right track.
Michael Keane, an ever-present this term, is playing the best football of his career while the return to full fitness of Mason Holgate and versatility of Ben Godfrey has provided a viable alternative to the use of natural full-backs.
Impressively, neither Chelsea nor Leicester managed to register a shot on target during the second halves of those encounters.
Having not kept a clean sheet since beating Tottenham during the opening weekend, Everton have not conceded in consecutive league matches for the first time since April 2019.
‘We are where we want to be’
Former Everton striker Kevin Campbell believes Richarlison is ‘world class’ and is the ‘key’ player for Carlo Ancelotti’s side after he scored in their 2-0 win at Leicester
Everton sit a point outside the top four after 13 games but if they are to cement their European credentials in the new year, continuity is needed.
Ancelotti has not spent more than two years at any club since the eight seasons he was at AC Milan, but he has spoken at regular intervals of his motivation to bring trophies to Goodison.
“We are where we want to be,” Ancelotti said following the win at Leicester. “If the season finishes today we will be satisfied.
“Unfortunately the season is so long and we have to keep fighting to stay in this position. We were able to repeat the same performance we did against Chelsea. We were solid defensively and when we had the opportunity we scored.
“We were well organised and it is an important result. We were comfortable defensively, they had more of the ball but they didn’t have opportunities to score. The back four are working well together, compact, solid and we don’t push a lot with the full-backs so it’s difficult for them to find us out of balance.”
Ancelotti adapting well to the unpredictable
Everton boss Carlo Ancelotti says it is a ‘long season’ and his side must keep fighting if they are to finish within the top four in the Premier League, following their 2-0 victory at Leicester
Next week sees Manchester United visit Goodison in the Carabao Cup quarter-finals, live on Sky Sports, and the recent wins have provided a route to success against top-six opposition. Under the lights and in front of 2,000 supporters, next Wednesday represents a chance to take a huge stride towards ending Everton’s 25-year trophy drought.
Reaching the last eight of a domestic competition also brings back into focus Ancelotti’s very first press conference when he spoke of the club’s tradition and ambition being key factors in his decision to take on the job. There were some who questioned the fit, but creating a demanding dressing-room culture requires patience.
Placing someone with a winning mentality ingrained in his DNA at the heart of the process was essential for Everton to achieve sustained success, and in this most volatile of seasons, no ceiling should be placed on the team’s ambitions.
A manager of Ancelotti’s standing in the game had nothing to prove, but in taking on a position that had become something of a poisoned chalice, the adaptable Italian has brought much-needed harmony among the players, supporters and the board.
Twelve months into his reign, he has brought renewed vigour and hope to the blue half of Merseyside. The challenges will continue to arise, but Ancelotti has shown himself to be up to the task.
Analysis: ‘Everton fans delighted to have Ancelotti’
Sky Sports News reporter Alan Myers on the Pitch to Post Preview Podcast:
“Everton fans are just delighted they have a manager with such a rich history and track record Ancelotti has.
“I remember a few months into the tenure of both of the managers a national journalist rang me up and he said in hindsight, with Everton going through a bit of a rough patch and Mikel Arteta on a good run, would you have swapped?
“Both of these managers for very different reasons – although some other reasons the same – need to be given the time at their respective clubs, you can’t look after a year and say it was the right choice.
Ancelotti boasts a better record than Arteta from their first 33 league games
“When you look at what Ancelotti has to do and many other ways what Arteta has to do, there has to be a transformation at both clubs. I think both clubs have suffered over the last few years from repairing things, changing managers and thinking that was going to be it. And what both clubs need is a sustained period when a manager can put his ethos on the club, build what he wants to build, a mentality there.
“Ancelotti has turned around the mentality of the club so far. But I think there will be bumps in the road, as we are seeing now with Arteta. Carlo will still have them until he can get the squad he wants. But the Evertonians can see a change and see things happening.”
How to follow Everton vs Arsenal
Everton vs Arsenal will be broadcast live on Sky Sports Premier League from 5pm on Saturday Night Football; kick-off at 5.30pm.
Sky Sports customers can watch in-game clips in the live match blog on the Sky Sports website and app.
Highlights will also be published on the Sky Sports digital platforms and the Sky Sports Football YouTube channel shortly after the final whistle.
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