Football Features

“He’s so like Rio it’s ridiculous” – The biggest winners of Ancelotti’s Everton reign so far

By Chris Smith

Published: 17:30, 22 February 2021

For the first time since 1999, Everton left Anfield victorious in a Merseyside derby, putting in a fine performance to beat Liverpool 2-0 on Sunday.

While Evertonians will understandably be celebrating a long-awaited victory over their neighbours, their first of any kind in this fixture since 2010, it’s also important to remember the Toffees are now level with Liverpool on 40 points, still well within reach of a Champions League qualification spot.

Furthermore, this takes the Toffees to seven points from three games on the road against members of the Premier League’s supposed “big six”, while they’ve also pulled off wins away at Leicester City and Wolves.

Everton aren’t perfect, of course, and that home form needs drastic improvement if they’re to become true challengers. But there’s something brewing on the blue half of Merseyside, and it’s being fuelled by Ancelotti’s ability to enact serious improvement from players who had previously looked to be hitting a rut in their careers, while others have thus far fulfilled their potential and more.

So, who are the biggest beneficiaries of Ancelotti’s mastery? Let’s take a look.

1. Dominic Calvert-Lewin

Best to start with the most obvious improvement. After notching Premier League goal tallies of one, four and six the seasons prior, Dominic Calvert-Lewin scored 13 times in the top-flight last term and ran up a total of 15 across all competitions. Even so, absolutely nobody would have expected him to hit the sorts of heights he has in 2020/21.

Already this season, the now-senior England international with two goals in five caps, has matched his Premier League total for the whole of last season, while his form across all competitions has seen him score 18 times in 26 appearances.

“I remember a performance from Calvert-Lewin when Manchester United lost 4-0 at Goodison, I’m not sure if he scored but his performance, working the channels and working the centre-backs, you don’t want to play against him,” Jamie Carragher once said of Calvert-Lewin. And true, the former Sheffield United man’s work-rate has been invaluable to Everton over the years, but to be an elite striker, you need more than that. You need to add goals to the hard yards.

The solution devised by Ancelotti has been a simple one: the more you are in the box, the more you will score goals.

Calvert-Lewin hasn’t lost his work-rate but now, he’s picking his battles, only dropping deep as a last resort when Everton are struggling to progress forward, and only working the channels when he knows it can cause disruption in the opposition’s backline. Instead, as soon as the likes of Lucas Digne and James Rodriguez get on the ball, Calvert-Lewin’s first instinct is to get into the box and between the posts, safe in the knowledge he is almost guaranteed to receive a good delivery.

Eight of Calvert-Lewin’s 13 Premier League goals this season have come inside the six-yard box, while the other five have been scored in the penalty area. This is absolutely by design, his close work with Ancelotti’s son and assistant, Davide, as well as club legend Duncan Ferguson, has moulded him into one of the Premier League’s deadliest marksmen with a far greater ruthless streak.

“In terms of that on the pitch, he just told me to back myself more, believe in my stature and backed my strength,” Calvert-Lewin said of working with Ferguson back in October.

2. Michael Keane

Despite his 12 caps for England, there have been plenty of people who have written off Michael Keane as nothing more than a run-of-the-mill Premier League centre-back. That’s understandable. Dominant in the air and strong as he is, the former Burnley man has often looked uncomfortable playing out from the back, while he has been prone to losing his man and letting forwards run free beyond him.

This season, Keane has been a defensive colossus, most recently leading the effort in Everton’s memorable 2-0 win over Merseyside rivals Liverpool, almost single-handedly keeping Jurgen Klopp’s famous front three quiet at Anfield with a mountain of clearances and interceptions.

Like Calvert-Lewin, Keane’s role has been simplified by Ancelotti. Instead of a high defensive line, the Italian tactician favours a low block which covers for Keane’s lack of pace, while the additions of Allan and Abdoulaye Doucoure, coupled with Ancelotti often playing four centre-backs, means the 28-year-old no longer needs to cover spaces out wide for marauding full-backs, allowing him to concentrate on acting as a wall between opposition forwards and his goalkeeper.

“The backline is working well together, it has character,” Ancelotti said of his defensive set-up after Everton’s win over Leicester in December. “We don’t push a lot with the full-backs, so it’s difficult for teams to find us out of balance.”

The result? Keane has been dribbled past just nine times all season with players unable to exploit space behind him, while he has made the second-highest number of clearances (105) in the Premier League. In fact, compared to 2019/20, Keane has seen a huge improvement across most defensive metrics on a per 90 minutes basis.

Asked directly about Keane’s form after that win at Leicester, Ancelotti responded: “Simply because he’s a good defender and a good player. He’s focused defensively, really intelligent tactically and that’s why he’s doing well.

“Now he has more confidence because he’s practically played all the games, and I think he’s deserved to play them. He’s got quality but he’s also really serious and really professional.”

3. Ben Godfrey

While Keane has often been the last line of defence between opposition forwards and Everton’s goalkeepers, Jordan Pickford and Robin Olsen, it’d be remiss of us not to mention one of the guys stood next to the England international.

Arriving for a massive £25m from Norwich in the summer, Ben Godfrey came to Everton with plenty of pressure and a lot to prove. Price tag aside, this is a defender who was relegated from the Premier League last season with a Norwich side that conceded 75 goals in 38 games while at 23-years-old, he is still very much in the developmental stage of his career. However, Godfrey has already exceeded all expectations.

The England youth international made his debut from the bench during Everton’s 2-2 Merseyside derby draw back in back in October and put in a solid performance against the then-in-form Reds, but could only back that up with a very nervous display in the Toffees’ 2-0 defeat away at Everton. But since then, Godfrey has gone from strength to strength.

Splitting his time at centre-back and both full-back positions, Godfrey has provided Ancelotti with an unexpected but vital utility option across his backline. Like Keane, Godfrey has kept things simple wherever he has played, largely refusing to push forward as a full-back and looking to take the safe option with the ball when he’s at centre-back. But his size and unexpectedly lighting speed mean he can both bully opposition forwards into submission and see danger out in one-on-one situations.

Despite the simplicity in his play so far, it’s important to remember Godfrey can play. Despite a lack of substance, style was one of the few positive traits attributed to Norwich last season. Richard Cresswell, head of football operations at Godfrey’s former club, York, has even revealed how he’s been compared to Rio Ferdinand by those who have worked up close and personal with him.

“You could tell as soon as he turned up he was wanting to prove himself,” said Cresswell. “I know people hear this time and time again but I’ve never seen anybody put everything into every session like that.

“(Godfrey took the approach) I’ve got two years to earn myself a contract and I’m not going to waste a day. It stood out from day one.

“By his second year, Jonathan Greening had taken over as youth-team coach. He’d played with Rio Ferdinand and he said to me, ‘I can see him playing at the highest level at the back, there are so many similarities to Rio it’s ridiculous.”

If you’re still not impressed, head over to Twitter and take a look at his slide tackles:

4. Tom Davies

While Allan has been sidelined since mid-December with a hamstring injury, Tom Davies has done a fantastic job of filling the void left by the Brazilian, especially against the Premier League’s big hitters.

During Everton’s 3-3 draw with Manchester United, for example, Davies made three tackles, two interceptions and four clearances to help his side withstand immense pressure. And in last weekend’s Merseyside derby, he was instrumental in disrupting Liverpool’s attacking play, making a quite ridiculous eight tackles and forming a human shield between Klopp’s midfield and forward line.

A common theme here is simplicity and just like the aforementioned trio, Davies has excelled as a result of this. The England U-21 international isn’t pulling up any trees in terms of splitting opposition defences or powering up and down the pitch a la Rodriguez and Doucoure. However, what he is doing is using his mobility and sky-high work rate to plug gaps in his defence, cover for Everton’s more expensive midfielders, and keeping some of the Premier League’s most effective creators and strikers quiet.

“I think, first of all, Tom is a really professional player, really focused on what he is doing,” Ancelotti said following Everton’s 3-3 draw with Man Utd. “He has a strong sense of belonging to this club and this is also really important.

“The only thing I said to him is to simplify his work and his style of play. He plays in a position where tactically you have to be really focused.

“Watching the game against United I think tactically he was perfect. With the ball he has maybe not the quality of a top midfielder but in that position we need to play simple passes, you don’t need to over-complicate.

“Sometimes he touches the ball one or two times too much and I say to him play simple.”

Tenacious and immensely committed to his boyhood club, Davies finally seems to have found his role at Everton. Given his scouse roots, Evertonians are understandably thrilled for him, while excited about where this midfielder, still only 22 years old, can take his development under Ancelotti.