What promised to be a transformative season for Everton ended up petering out into one that fits more easily into the disappointing category. They would stumble to 59 points and 10th in the league (I am told the highest points total for 10th that there has been in Premier League era) and missed out on the key objective of European qualification. In truth it is a season where they can only have themselves to blame, one where they did the complicated very well but the simple very badly. One where they won as many away games than at any time since the last title successes but were very close to having the worst home record in the clubs history. A lack of fans at Goodison undoubtedly hurt the club in a way that no other top division team can really claim (and gives some reasons for optimism for the future as fans begin to return next season) but it shouldn’t be allowed to paper over the cracks of some more fundamental questions. Fundamental questions and analysis is what this column has always tried to do. To move the dial away from disappointment and hype towards a more evidence based set of conclusions that may provoke debate but also aims to give as accurate an analysis as possible. While the emotion around a season fading away mustn’t be forgotten we also have to at least acknowledge there are some positives to take out from the season, but also contrast them with some more worrying underlying numbers.
In its most simple form, a Premier League is team is evaluated by its position and the points it accrues. As a measure I prefer the points per season as it can indicate trend as it gives a more consistent measure that league position (which can become inflated or deflated based on the vagaries of a given season). 59 points is an improvement on the season before in anyone’s estimation. It shows progress going at over 20% and while it’s unlikely a 20% year on year (YOY) can be maintained, as a baseline figure it is positive. In one summer under Ancelotti the club has made tangible progress, and more tangible progress than at any time since Koeman took over in his first season (where the club jumped from 48-61 points).
When evaluating the numbers, that is about as good as it gets and the more context you attach to the season, the more underwhelming the numbers become. If we evaluate the season previously, while Everton ended on 49 points they achieved 30 in 20 games under Ancelotti and 35 in 23 post Marco Silva. When extrapolated across a season, it gives a 38 game return of 57 & 58 points respectively. So while 59 points is slightly higher, it is not demonstrably higher. What is also indicated is the biggest section of improvement under Ancelotti came when he first arrived, with anywhere from 80-90% of the gains being made immediately after arrival and the following season really only showing moderate improvements. This is especially disappointing given the signings that were made in the summer do not see to have made a demonstrably positive impact on what had gone before.
The final set of numbers I’ll offer on this season offer the most pessimistic viewing. While we can pay about with time frames on the 2018/19 season and see where most of the 49 points were acquired, we can do the same with the 2019/20 season. 2 key data points stick out to me. The first is that we won our first 4 game but only picked up 47 from the remaining 34 fixtures. The 2nd is that we achieved 33 points from the first half of the season and 26 from the second half of the season. If you equate those numbers across a 38 games season, excluding the first 4 games we would be running to a return of around 52 points, which matches perfectly with the 2nd half performance of 52 points return. While these numbers are above the 2018/19 points total of 49 they are actually worse than the Ancelotti numbers from the season before (57 points across the season). The increase in points total is really down to the first half of the season, and more specifically the first 4 games of last season. That does raise some concerns.
That is about as clearer analysis that I can offer with the numbers. As with all numbers, which ones you want to plug in will give you a different conclusion. If I were to generalise, it would be that progress has been made under Ancelotti, most of it was made when he initially arrived and that the team is showing alarming signs of flat lining as the season drew to a close.
The question of why such a pattern has occurred is perhaps the harder one to reconcile. Before I go into any deeper analysis if tactics or longer term questions I do think Everton were very unfortunate with injuries through the season. While city rivals Liverpool were given almost weekly dispensation in the media for the injuries they were carrying, little was made of the fact that Everton had suffered a greater number of injuries and a greater number of players out injured. I make it that 19 players in the first team squad were injured for a period of time, and some of them had multiple lay offs. The squad at times was threadbare, with often only 1 senior outfield option on the bench. Even within the context of a shortened season, delayed due to the desire to play what amounted to little more than a summer circus in the months that were usually designated for rest, it is hard to comprehend the severity of injury crisis Everton suffered. With each wave of injuries that came less confidence, and Ancelotti was unfortunate that little regularity in team and shape could be built upon. There is a reasonable hope that there should be less injuries next season and within reason, the team can hope to put more points on the point as a result.
Notwithstanding the injuries there does need to be some evaluation of the manager. The majority of the criticism aimed towards him seems to be that there is little discernible style and that we have been a bit fortunate given the underlying metrics (particularly Xg). I’ll try to deal with each criticism on it’s merits.
Ancelotti is clearly not a philosophy manager. There is clearly no singular way of playing he looks to adopt, but instead he is pragmatic and adopts a differing approach depending upon opponents. However whilst there is no obvious formation or approach he is working towards, it would be foolish to say that is the single answer. Roberto Martinez had a clear style he was working towards. Marco Silva had a clear style he was working towards. Neither manager covered themselves in glory and by the end, what was once seen as principles and clarity of thinking soon became inflexibility, pig-headedness and dogmatism in the face overwhelming evidence. This is partially the problem with such managers- when you win it is great but when you are not winning ewing the same players, playing the same way becomes extremely frustrating.
Much is made of Klopp and Pep who have implemented a very bespoke approach to the game. But both managers have resources beyond most other sides in the league and indeed most other sides in the world. They currently sit 2nd and 3rd in wages spent in world football (sitting just below Barcelona and above PSG). With that level of spend, you are able to confidently plan on the basis of if you implement your plan A to the best of your ability it doesn’t matter what your opponent does, so it makes sense to focus entirely on this. If you have a wage bill that is around 60% of this value you do run the risk of losing at both ends- with a game plan that can be overpowered from those clubs with more resources, and easily planned for for those clubs with lesser resources. It’s a conundrum that is often not debated when people eulogize the work of the likes of Klopp, Tuchel or Pep. Of course they have performed very well, but is it transferable for clubs with lesser resources?
To a degree Brendan Rodgers is the counter to this. His Leicester side, with less resources than 6 sides above them have finished above a number of them and won a domestic trophy. So the debate is not a simple and I’m not saying having a consistent approach can never work, but only that there are challenges involved and that when it has been tried at Everton it hasn’t worked yet.
The other counter I would put to this, is that when people think of a style they want, often what people mean is they want a style that emulates either Klopp’s Liverpool or Pep’s City. It’s a noble aim, but again with the above, unless you have a roster in the top 3 of world football in terms of pay it would seem unlikely you can emulate that by just copying them. I would suggest that Simeone’s Atletico Madrid who have just won their 2nd league title (to go alongside, 2 CL final appearances, 2 supercups, 2 Europa leagues and a Spanish cup) against 2 behemoths of the world game are a better example to follow. Their approach is not about trying to do either Real Madrid or Barcelona better than they do Real Madrid and Barcelona but to cultivate an alternative way which they thrive under and do better than anyone. Atletico are awkward to play against, powerful, organised, aggressive and prioritise defensive stability over flair and a possession based game. It’s functionality over aesthetics. Nobody is going to come up with a hipster nickname for it (like heavy metal football or tica taca) but it makes the football no less effective.
I felt for a period of this season, we were beginning to cultivate a style that was beginning to resemble the early foundation blocks of what Atletico try to do. I never felt the early season free flowing football could last, but the latter run of positive results with 4 cb’s playing across defense seemed a unique contrast to the orthodoxies of the modern game (that fullbacks had to be wingers). What you learn when you study history, is that those who are innovative and successful are able to challenge prevailing orthodoxies having seen a small chink in the process. To me the biggest disappointment of the season (and one which I have written about previously) is that we moved away from this approach. Of all of the criticisms of Ancelotti this would be the one I would hold most firmly at his door. He overestimated the ability and professionalism of a limited squad who ultimately let him down.
This seemed to be summed up perfectly by Gary Neville on the final day of the season who said words to the effect that he was frustrated with Everton as they try to be something they are not, they try to play through the midfield rather than being more direct and utilising the power and pace of their front 2, and often it breaks down. For anyone who has watched the team, those words must have an echo. Sometimes you have to embrace what you are and what you are good at.
To me with the 4 at the back we actually had an identity and an effective way of playing, but for many who claim to want an identity what they really mean is they want an identity that looks something like what Klopp or Pep do. There was a clear identity with the 4cb’s. We were difficult to play and score against, we have 2 giants in the centre and 2 CB’s to compliment their size. We also had one of the best aerial threats at CF and Richarlison who is a lethal finisher with his head as well as sometimes possessing both Doucoure and Gomes who are 6 ft plus in the team. We then have 3 set ball specialists in the squad- in James-Sigurdsson & Digne while only really needing 1 on the pitch. When the 4 CB’s played together we averaged 2 points per game, and conceded less than 1 goal in every 2 matches. Unfortunately the 4 were only played together on 9 occasions. Some of that was down to injuries, but there were periods where Ancelotti could have named all 4 and didn’, which I still find a little bemusing and his biggest mistake of this season.
As a concluding point (and a slightly overlapping one about the back 4) to me we should try to keep Yerry Mina at the club and fit as a sense of priority. Of all the players who played 20 games last season, he has the best points per game (we average 1.95 points per game with him and under 1 without him). Playing next to Michael Keane they have only conceded 18 goals in 17 games as a 2. I have seen reports of him being linked away, but to me he would be a player I would be loathed to lose.
So in conclusion the frustrations around the season-particularly the end of the season are entirely valid, but there are also some grounds for optimism if viewed from a bit further a field. All of the summer recruits the season before fitted in well and added something to the squad. We need another 4 players to come into the squad to help push the team forward. If we can get that and the team does not suffer the league’s worst injury crisis there is reasonable evidence to suggest the club can push not just for Europa league next season but also potentially for champions league football.