Football Features

“He’s seen it all before” – Ancelotti’s Everton staking a claim to become Merseyside’s new mentality monsters?

By CJ Smith

Published: 17:03, 12 February 2021

If you were to judge purely by Carlo Ancelotti’s reaction, you’d be forgiven for thinking Bernard’s strike against Tottenham Hotspur on Wednesday night was nothing more than a mere consolation goal.

After all, while the rest of the Everton bench was up in arms around him, the much-travelled Italian tactician could instead be seen turning his back on proceedings, blowing on a hot beverage (was it Bovril, or was it coffee?!) and helping himself to a sip.

Of course, Bernard’s third goal of the season, and just his eighth in an Everton shirt, was far more than a consolation. It was the final say in an absolutely remarkable game of football, sealing a 5-4 extra-time win over Tottenham Hotspur to send the Toffees into the quarter-finals at the FA Cup.

The back and forth nature of the game, the attacking brilliance, the apparent lack of defensive cohesion. Wednesday’s encounter at Goodison Park was a true classic but throughout the storm, Ancelotti stood calmly on the sideline, a stoic figure among a sea of madness.

“He has seen it all before, hasn’t he?” Everton legend and assistant manager Duncan Ferguson joked after the game. Indeed, three Champions League medals and league titles in Italy, England, France and Germany (and that’s just as a manager) suggest Ancelotti has seen it all. And yet, here he is, toiling away to restore Everton back to England’s elite, somewhere they haven’t been since the 1980s. If recent form is anything to go by, the decorated coach is doing one hell of a job, too.

Never say die

Following Everton’s shock 2-0 defeat at home to Newcastle at the end of January, Ancelotti was quick to hold his players to account, calling them “lazy” and accusing them of lacking “spirit”.

“Without spirit, there is no quality,” he said. “Today we were lazy, we were slow. We were not focused. We didn’t win duels and second balls.

“We didn’t avoid corners or throw-ins. I said exactly that to players in the dressing-room, no secrets.”

Often, this sort of public criticism is perceived as a manager losing his cool, or even the dressing room. Not with Ancelotti. Since then, his words have triggered a reaction, with Everton putting in a mammoth defensive effort to beat Leeds 2-1 before Dominic Calvert-Lewin’s last-gasp goal sealed a memorable 3-3 draw with Manchester United at Old Trafford. Those Premier League results have, of course, been backed up by that FA Cup classic against Spurs.

Alex Iwobi summed up the Ancelotti effect best after the Leeds game. “People even broke their personal bests for the amount of distance they covered,” he said. “Everyone was running, sacrificing and doing their best for the team.

“That little message he gave us after Newcastle definitely worked.”

Despite scoring nine goals and conceding eight, the biggest standout characteristic across Everton’s last three games has been their mental resolve. After taking a 2-0 lead against Leeds, the Whites pulled a goal back and put the Toffees under immense pressure in the second half. They bent, but they did not break.

After fighting back from 2-0 down to level at 2-2, Evertonian heads could have easily dropped as Scott McTominay put Man Utd back in front at Old Trafford. But the Toffees had an answer, even if they did leave it late.

And against Spurs, take your pick. Going 1-0 down early, seeing their 3-1 lead chopped down, losing Calvert-Lewin to injury and letting in an 83rd-minute goal to make 4-4. Still, Everton had something left in the tank.

Ask any Evertonian and they’ll tell you that under previous managers, their side would have folded long before the thought of digging in or pulling off a comeback even crossed their minds.

Under Marco Silva, for example, Everton gained just five points from losing positions during his 53 Premier League games in charge. Only Aston Villa (4), Huddersfield Town (3) and Norwich City (0) managed fewer than the Toffees. Meanwhile, Silva’s side conspired to drop a massive 20 points from winning positions, the fifth-highest amount during his managerial reign.

Under Ancelotti, the picture couldn’t be more contrasting. In his 42 Premier League games in charge, Everton have won 12 points from losing positions, the seventh-highest amount in the division, while dropping just 12 points from winning positions — the second-lowest amount of any side ever-present during his time at the club and the fifth-lowest overall.

Former Manchester United defender Rio Ferdinand, who won 14 trophies during his time at Old Trafford, believes winning the FA Cup could “elevate Everton to the next stage”. He also believes we’re witnessing a “trickle-down” effect with Ancelotti’s experience and winning mentality coursing the squad.

“There’s belief, a genuine belief, and I think that’s instilled from the manager,” he told BT Sport on Wednesday. “I think his experience, what he’s done, I think the players are very aware of that, and that trickles down. There’s a trickle-down effect definitely to the players.

“They can lean on him from his experiences, he can feed that into the players and what it means, and how you can get over the line to win trophies.

“None of them have done it, really, not in this country, so he’s the person they look to to lead them. You need a leader, you need someone with experience of how to win trophies. He has that in abundance.”

Plugging the gaps

Few games illustrated just how much the entire Everton squad are pulling together for Ancelotti — or, indeed, his tactical acumen — better than the FA Cup win over Spurs.

With Allan still sidelined with a hamstring injury sustained in December, James Rodriguez out with a calf problem and Andre Gomes not being risked, Ancelotti had to stitch together a midfield including academy graduate Tom Davies who, for a time looked to be losing his way, Gylfi Sigurdsson, who has never fully reached his potential at Goodison Park, and Abdoulaye Doucoure, arguably the only automatic starter of the three.

But this conglomerate midfield rose to the occasion superbly, with Sigurdsson dispatching a penalty and providing no fewer than three assists, including a beautiful chip to set up Bernard for the winner. And providing the screen for Everton’s defence, Davies and Doucoure were colossal, making a combined seven tackles, six clearances and three interceptions while winning seven aerial duels. The latter, especially, never stopped running, popping up across the pitch to make a vital block or drive Everton forward and out of trouble. Doucoure’s commitment to putting in the hard yards was matched only by club captain Seamus Coleman, who appeared to be on a one-man mission to drag the Toffees into the quarter-finals after replacing Calvert-Lewin from the bench.

Then, of course, there was Everton’s run of three consecutive wins over Chelsea, Arsenal and Leicester just prior to Christmas where Ancelotti, who has proved an excellent problem-solver, dealt brilliantly with the absences of starting full-backs Coleman and Lucas Digne, fielding a back-four entirely made up of centre-backs. Yerry Mina and Michael Keane partnered up in the middle, while Mason Holgate shifted to right-back and Ben Godfrey covered at left-back. While the Toffees weren’t as creative during this period, they were certainly functional and extremely solid.

As Ancelotti himself has suggested, the return of Allan will restore “balance” to Everton’s midfield, making them even more robust while also injecting some pace and precision into their passing. And should Rodriguez return for the Premier League clash with Fulham at the weekend, there’s no doubt he is capable of emulating Sigurdsson’s creative output. That said, the fact Ancelotti is able to inspire his side to such results without, arguably, is two best players, against teams armed with the likes of Harry Kane and Bruno Fernandes is absolutely astounding.

For a long time, much has been made of Jurgen Klopp’s “mentality monsters” across Stanley Park at Liverpool. It looks like Ancelotti is now staking his own claim to steal that title from Everton’s arch-rivals.