Behind the scenes at Everton, Carlo Ancelotti and his coaches were wracking their brains. In the inner sanctum of Finch Farm, the club’s training base, there was an acceptance that the team’s defence must become sturdier if they were to be considered creditable ‘European contenders’ this season.
Even as Everton won their first seven games of the campaign, making the club’s best start to a season, they were shipping too many goals. They conceded two against West Bromwich Albion but managed to score five, they got the same result against League Two Fleetwood in the League Cup, and won 4-2 against Brighton & Hove Albion. All shoot-outs, no shut-outs.
Everton didn’t manage to keep a clean sheet after the first game of the season, 1-0 against Tottenham Hotspur. There was, therefore, some surprise when they kept Chelsea out last Saturday despite the visitors managing 72 per cent possession and 10 attempts at goal. That was then backed up with another confidence boosting win over Leicester City in midweek, another clean sheet gained having won 2-0, and then topped off by defeating Arsenal this weekend 2-1.
These three results were much needed for Everton having gone seven games with only one win, away to Fulham, after their impressive start. “This season we started well, then we had a difficult moment, but right now I’m really pleased,” Ancelotti said. “We have fantastic players on set-pieces and we score lots of goals. We work on this because we are very dangerous. We are pleased; the position in the table is really good.”
Everton moved up to second with their productive week and it has coincided with Ancelotti’s one-year anniversary at the club, an appointment that increasingly feels right. There are three subtle changes that have reintroduced the vigour to the team lately and increased the belief that they can possibly even achieve a top-four finish this season rather than just Europa League qualification.
What is most striking is that Everton have achieved these three notable results in eight days without having their first choice right and left back available. Nor has James Rodriguez, whose creativity propelled Everton in the early stages of the season, been fit to play, while defensive midfielder Allan, went off during the game with Leicester.
Ancelotti has countered these injury impacts by sticking to his guns. Whereas previously he tried to adapt by using a five-man defence and deploying Alex Iwobi and Tom Davies as makeshift wing-backs, the Italian coach has stuck with four at the back.
Ben Godfrey and Mason Holgate have played out of position at full-backs but done a good job with Holgate also getting on the scoresheet against Leicester. Michael Keane, meanwhile, has been Everton’s most consistent performer this season with poise and increased confidence and Yerry Mina has brought his usual energy.
This defence has been used in all three games, kept two clean sheets and dug in and showed determination to keep Arsenal and Chelsea at bay when pressure mounted in the final stages of the respective games.
Godfrey and Holgate, both still young, have applied themselves superbly; so much so that even when Seamus Coleman was available again on Saturday, Ancelotti stuck with them in the starting lineup - although there is certainly space for the captain over the next few weeks.
Another aspect that Everton have worked on is set-pieces. Out of the five goals scored this week, two have came from corners, one from a penalty and two from open play, but even one of them came from a cross from wide. Gylfi Sigurdsson’s involvement has especially been noticeable. The Icelandic midfielder couldn’t get into the lineup earlier in the campaign but has started each of the past three games.
Partly as a result of James’s injury, Sigurdsson has been given the role of creator-in-chief on the right side of midfield. He supplied the corner that Mina headed powered past Bernd Leno and scored the penalty that gave Everton a narrow victory over Chelsea. It is clear that Everton have tried to make set-pieces, and crosses in general, more fruitful with even the losing Arsenal manager, Mikel Arteta, admitting that “it is something they do really well”.
Creating a more stable defence is something that Ancelotti has spoke of for some weeks and, as a coach of such experience, knows readily that that must be the backbone of any challenge in the Premier League or cup competition. Therefore it does go against the grain somewhat that he has opted to rotate goalkeepers, not only just in the cups but also the league too.
Robin Olsen played against Newcastle United in late October and also started away to Leicester with Jordan Pickford being ‘rested’ on the bench. The England goalkeeper has produced a few gaffes already this season leading to goals, but now that he is of the knowledge that there is a goalkeeper behind him, and a manager there too who will make the changes if required, his performances seem to have improved.
There is now competition for the No.1 shirt and that has focused Pickford’s mind rather than him being able to play week in week out unchallenged. One late save in particular to deny Bukayo Saka of Arsenal prevented Everton from dropping points on Saturday. Ancelotti’s rotation policy seems to be working for now as both goalkeepers have started this week and kept a clean sheet against teams capable of creating chances.
“I consider a goalkeeper a player and as we rotate a defender or a striker sometimes I want to rotate also goalkeepers,” Ancelotti said when asked of the decision. “I started it in Real Madrid when I had two great goalkeepers: Iker Casillas and Diego Lopez. Casillas was a world champion and he understood, everyone understood. So there is no problem with this.”
Combined together Everton have conjured a productive week, featuring three successive wins and two clean sheets, just when they needed it. A sprinkling of supporters are back at Goodison Park and no doubt adding something as well. The fact that this has been achieved without some key personnel is intriguing and does beg questions as to whether they are better defensively without James, or prefer facing teams who want more of the ball.
Nevertheless, there is little doubt that Ancelotti is once again getting the best from his players. They are playing with flair and determination, a combination that successful Everton sides of the past have possessed. A League Cup quarter-final against Manchester United is next up on Wednesday and there is talk that Sami Khedira could be the latest player wanting to linkup with Ancelotti again in the next transfer window. But the key ingredient in all of this is Ancelotti himself.
"We did very well in our last few games - brilliant performances and fantastic results," he said late on Saturday evening. "We showed more consistency. This season we started well, then we had a difficult moment, but right now I'm really pleased. The position in the table is really good. But as I said last week it is not the end of the season, we have to keep fighting but this was a top, top performance.”
His one-year anniversary couldn’t have been marked any better.