A year is a long time in football. I’ve always felt that. Even in your lowest moments of watching football I have always held the belief that you’re never as far away from being back on track as you like to think. A year or so back, watching Everton lose heavily at Anfield they dropped into the bottom 3 after 18 games. Even at that point it was obvious that Liverpool would win the league. At that point they were 29 points ahead of Everton through just 15 games. It looked a gap that might take years to get close to breaching. A year or so on, having won the game in hand at Wolves Everton moved up to 4th and the gap between ourselves and Liverpool was just a single point. While I doubt it stays as close come the end of the season, it has been some turnaround.
A lot of that has been down to Liverpool- amongst others coming back to the pack (more on that in the article). But Ancelotti has taken a side that languishing in the bottom 3 under the previous manager to one that occupies 3rd-5th (depending on how many additional games other sides play). Last season we were averaging less than a point per game when Silva left (14 from 15) we now average just under 2 points per game (32 from 17). It is close to a 100% improvement in the space of 12 months and in truth beyond even the most optimistic Everton fans expectations how quickly Ancelotti has turned fortunes around.
It goes without saying the obvious and central reason for the turnaround really centres around the manager- he is the “independent variable” across the two seasons performance, but before we analyse some of the changes he has made it is worth considering some of the wider context. Unlike in 2017 when it fell apart for Koeman you do get a sense that there was some under achievement from the previous manager. The squad itself was more balanced than the 2017 vintage, had been put together in a clearer way and what was lacking was not necessarily a major overhaul but an attitudinal shift on the pitch and some better tactical management. There were good players in the squad, and in fairness to Silva you could see potential and improvement on the training ground, but it was a side that found ways to lose games when ahead, and rarely had the resilience to turn games around from behind. I always sensed we had to play really well to win a match, whereas increasingly now I can see a team that can be below par and find a way to win.
What the team desperately needed last year was a manager with strong tactical nous, experience, in game flexibility and one who prioritised the art of winning over more abstract ideas of a “philosophy”. Whether it was good fortune or exceptional planning they landed on 60 year old Ancelotti and almost immediately he moved us away from any threat of relegation trouble, to a commendable 12th place (given what he inherited). While the squad is not yet a “top 6” squad it was a lot more coherent and balanced than in 2017 and Ancelotti benefitted from this. He was very much the right man at the right time, an experienced, well respected, astute tactician able to impart his own wisdom and experience to a quite naive group of players. He did have some raw materials to work with though.
In Calvert Lewin and Richarlison (both 22) they were in prime position to make a big jump forward in terms of performance level. In truth Richarlison has underwhelmed this season, but it’s only a matter of time until the goals start to come again, while Calvert Lewin has been arguably the most prolific goal scorer in open play since Ancelotti arrived. It was akin to having 2 new players, particularly with Ancelotti getting Calvert Lewin to focus on being more of a clinical 9 than a channel running team man. Last season Mason Holgate (having just turned 23) put together his most consistent run as an Everton player and as the season wore on the same could be said of Michael Keane. In essence without having to sign anybody Everton had gained 4 starters who dramatically improved the first 11.
Solutions from within the squad have continued this season. Like Holgate and Keane before him last season, Yerry Mina’s form has been as good as we have seen since his arrival to the club. He looks physically ready to handle the league and is playing regularly now without breaking down. On the right hand side, Alex Iwobi seems to be getting better each week he plays and there are even early signs that Davies is learning the defensive midfield role. All of these players were available to Marco Silva, and ultimately outside of Richarlison it’s hard to say he got the best out of any of them. Ancelotti benefited from having a squad that was quite expensively assembled, but underperforming. In an era where expectations tend to be that all solutions have to come singularly from recruitment it is worth noting that Ancelotti has probably added 5-7 new players to our 11 from improving what we already had.
The big jump alongside this has come from who we have brought in. James, Allan, Doucoure and Godfrey have all massively improved the first team. While Allan and James will have to be managed carefully given their ages, the experience and knowhow they have brought to the team has been invaluable. It is striking that really the 3 or 4 attacking moves we made against Wolves, in a tight-drab game all came from James. He has a level of quality that is not only rare for our team, but in truth is rare in the league itself. Doucoure looks to be a leader on the pitch, and Godfrey has been extremely consistent across a number of positions. While getting more from the previous squad for a manager of Ancelotti’s experience and capability was a relatively quick/easy win it is pleasing that some of the “hard yards” associated with continuing this momentum have been seen in the summer recruitment.
The players mentioned above get us anywhere from 9-11 players where we have seen the necessary improvements to play to the level we want them too- which ultimately correlates to us being in a comfortably top 6 position approaching the half way mark. This is no longer a fluke, or no longer just a good start. We are a long way into the season, and while there remain limitations in the squad, these are at least partially covered by having an outstanding manager who makes a different in most of the games we play. It intuitively feels right too, in December 2019, it really only looked like Richarlison was at the level required to play for a top 6 team. The big thing we have done is get a number of players to that level in a year. All props to Ancelotti for this, as most may have felt this would take at least 3 years to achieve this sort of turnaround.
Outside of the players aforementioned we have a couple more bookending the squad.The manager seems to like Gylfi Sigurdsson and whatever has gone on before, it’s hard not to say there hasn’t been an improvement in his play (though in fairness to SIlva not to the level he showed in Silva’s 2nd season here). I have excluded him from the above list as I’m not sure at 31 he has a medium term future here though his contributions have been important in certain games. There are also other “good eggs” with experience such as Olsen and Coleman who have shown their worth in sporadic games. At the other end, there are a group of promising younger players building. Messrs Brainthwaite, Nkounkou & Gordon are 3 players who have tasted first team football, shown real promise in the games they’ve played and who’s aim should be to get to where Godfrey has been this season, or Holgate/Calvert Lewin/Richarlison got to last year where all 3 made that big jump up from being good prospects to first team stalwarts. These will all strengthen the first team squad and give some hope for continued improvement as we move towards the medium term.
The league itself is as open as any in Premier League history. At the time of writing, after 17 games, the gap between 1st to 5th, 8th (I used points per game with Aston Villa) and 10th has never been rarely been closer. If you use all 3 measurements together, in 1 season in the last 30 (2001/2) you have 1 of the barometers closer, 1 the same and 1 further apart. In another you have 2 the same and one further apart. In no season have the gap between the above ever been closer than 2 of the 3 categories. In the 30 seasons, of the 3 examples (so 90 eventualities) on 83 occasions the gap has been wider. What we are witnessing is extremely rare.
For Everton we actually have one of those occasions where the gap was closer. In 2013/14 we were within 2 points of top sitting in 5th (it was 4 points this season). In 2004/5 we were 4 points off the top after 17 games the same as this season. So in terms of the Premier League era, and for those fans of my age, this is really only the 3rd serious push we have seen for league honours in that time. As a team, this side feels something of a cross between the swashbuckling side of 2013/14 and the resilient battlers of 2004/5. However as a club it does feel there is more sustainability in what we are doing, from the manager, to the age profile of the players and ultimately the commitment of the owner.
In 2004/5 Chelsea were just beginning a spell of dominance that would then be superseded by Manchester United. The top teams pushed further ahead of the rest like Everton. In 2014 there was some turbulence at the top end, but by 2017 the arrival of Guardiola and Klopp and the centrality of the top 6 made it hard for Everton. 2021 gives Everton a better opportunity. Most of the big 6 are currently trending downwards. Arsenal & Chelsea have been slipping downwards for a period of time (and will arguably finish below Everton) and there is a case that Tottenham are doing so when compared to their peak of 80+ points under Pochettino. Next season they are into Mourinho’s infamous third season, with a 175m loan payable to the BOE due to be paid back. Albeit from a much higher height, Manchester City and Liverpool have also fallen back drastically to the “pack” though they remain very much part of the “big 6” furniture given the high base they have slipped from. Manchester United are enjoying a renaissance under Solskjaer so it would be unfair to say they are trending downwards but it has been a volatile journey under Solskjaer and we may need to wait until the end of the season before proclaiming they are gong one way or the other.
None of this automatically means Everton storm into the top 6, or the above sides will not make efforts to restore the natural order, but it means there is an opportunity for Everton to capitalise on what has been a positive 12 months in a way they probably couldn’t in 2004 and 2014. A lot of the trends we have seen were in place well before the pandemic, but it’s also worth pointing out that the pandemic has hit the top teams disproportionately harder than the rest (with losses really focussed on sponsorship deals, merchandising income and stadium revenues). We also haven’t really seen the negative impact of said pandemic on clubs, who only announce financial results up to June 2020 over the coming period. They will be bad, and the following years the results will be much worse.
For clubs such as Arsenal, such a period of poor results, alongside losing European football could have very damaging consequences, and open up opportunities to smarter clubs who are more in tune with working in the new financial theatre of engagement. Whether Everton can be one such club who prosper is to be seen, but DOF Marcel Brands does appear to be at least be aware of some of the challenges that are coming.
The big key for the squad now, is that momentum we have gained up to this point is not ultimately squandered in the 2nd half of the season. There is almost a perfect storm building. We are now directly competing with opponents who will be playing in 1-2 domestic cup competitions but also potentially European competitions which will be particularly prohibitive with complications and restrictions that are going to coming in through the spring. Arsenal are already teetering and Chelsea look like they might be getting close to doing the same. Opportunities such as the one facing Everton do not come around very often. As we have discussed we have probably had only 2 akin to this in the last 15 years and taking it- and by that I mean finishing at least in the top 6, and ideally in the top 4 will be an enormously valuable achievement as we look to move forward. That we are even in the conversation for this, around 38 games after we slipped into the relegation zone is testament to a significant upturn we have been on.