At the moment of writing this article, Everton sit top of the league with 13 points from six games thus far, winning four, drawing one and losing one as well. So far, the Toffees have beaten Tottenham Hotspurs 1-0 with a goal from Dominic Calvert-Lewin, thrashed West Brom 5-2 with a hat-trick from Calvert-Lewin, beat Crystal Palace 2-1 and Brighton 4-2. They drew 2-2 with Jurgen Klopp’s Liverpool and lost 2-0 to Southampton. In most of these games, Everton have dominated in all parts of the pitch and that’s due to one man: Carlo Ancelotti.
Ancelotti, affectionately known as Don Carlo, is one of the most decorated managers in the world. He has won the Champions League three times with Real Madrid and AC Milan, the Club World Cup twice, and various domestic trophies like the English Premier League and the Bundesliga. After unfairly getting sacked at Napoli, Ancelotti turned towards the Toffees, a team that was struggling then to win games. They had just sacked Marco Silva and had Duncan Ferguson as a caretaker for a few games. Ancelotti took over the project mid-2019/20 and the rest, as they say, is history.
In this tactical analysis, we will focus on Carlo Ancelotti’s tactics for the 2020/21 season and look at how he sets up his team in defence and attack. We will also look at the role of Dominic Calvert-Lewin in Ancelotti’s tactics to understand his philosophy a bit more in this analysis.
Ancelotti has employed the 4-3-3 in every game in the Premier League so far this season, with his best possible lineup seen below:
The English international Jordan Pickford generally starts in goal, keeping one clean sheet so far this season. In central defence, Ancelotti has opted for starting the Colombian Yerry Mina along with Michael Keane who have played every game together in the Premier League. At left-back, ex-Barcelona man Lucas Digne has been consistently putting in solid performances, especially on the attacking side of the game, grabbing two assists so far and being an imperial presence in the left-wing. At right-back, Seamus Coleman has been playing well so far, picking up one assist.
Allan, the lone defensive midfielder picked up from Napoli, has been a workhorse so far this season with him running all around the central third of the pitch. Alongside him, the Portuguese midfielder André Gomes generally plays alongside Abdoulaye Doucouré in central midfield.
The attack has been stellar this season with Real Madrid starlet James Rodríguez at right-wing, Brazilian international Richarlison playing at left-wing while newly-capped Englishman Dominic Calvert-Lewin completes the attack as the striker.
Everton in Defence
Ancelotti’s side this season believes more in counter-pressing their opponents compared to dropping back deeper to defend. They generally press in various shapes but mostly in the 4-4-2, the 4-1-4-1 or the 4-2-3-1. The 4-2-3-1 has been used against teams that have been weaker in the attack, with one of the midfielders (Gomes or Doucouré) shifting to the attacking central midfield position and Rodríguez shifting wide into the wings.
This gives them numerical superiority in the central parts of the pitch and is used to block off the centre and half-spaces. We can see it in the particular formation against West Bromwich Albion below:
Calvert-Lewin spearheads the press, with Gomes releasing himself from the 4-3-3 to get into more attacking positions. Rodríguez goes wider to cover the opposition’s wide midfielder while also covering the passing lane to their full-back. Gomes then goes forward to occupy both attacking midfielders, and his body angle suggests that he is ready to take on either midfielder before the pass is made. But, as this formation is not as heavily used, we will look at how Everton press in the 4-1-4-1 or 4-4-2 formation too.
This is the first part of the press on the attacking side. While Calvert-Lewin is a mainstay in the front two, one of the two wingers drop back based on the location of the ball and the nearest passing options. In this scenario, the Liverpool players are on the left-wing, so Richarlison drops back to form the mid-block. This is the ball-oriented pressing style that has given them success.
The two wider players, Richarlison and Rodríguez are in charge of the opposition’s full-backs. They cover the wider defenders while Calvert-Lewin takes charge in pressing the centre-backs. In the 4-4-2, Allan is generally the player that is behind the other midfielders, while Doucouré and Gomes stay in front of him. This is why the 4-4-2 in the press can be interpreted as a 4-1-4-1. The two midfielders in front of Allan take on the two opposition’s central midfielders while Allan takes the opposition’s attacking midfielder.
Allan’s role in this press is multi-faceted, however. He is the anchorman in this midfield, whose role is to act as the bridge between the defence and the midfield. He generally needs to stop any positional attacks arising from the opponents’ central midfielders. His job is not to cover the wing but to marshal the central part of the pitch and the half-spaces to dispossess the players in the passing lanes in his region to cover. Allan is also important in the build-up as we will see later in this tactical analysis.
The second part of the defensive press and organisation can be seen below, looking at the midfield and defensive line of the opposition.
As the teams in the Premier League have attacking structures with three or two attackers, using four defenders is sufficient to cover for the attack. The left-back and right-back take the opposition’s wingers while the two centre-backs cover the striker. The extra centre-back is useful in starting the build-up or to hit the ball up to create counter-attacking situations. We can see who marks whom and their positioning below, where blue is Everton and red is the opposition:
The CDM (Allan) generally covers the area in front of the defence and has another important role. Some teams like Pep Guardiola’s Manchester City use inverted full-backs whose role is to cut inside and become a central player in the zone 14. In this case, Allan is required to keep check of these runs while also covering passing lanes in the most dangerous areas in the centre.
Another crucial aspect to their pressing is the releasing of each individual player to cover the player on the ball. To understand this, we should first know that Everton’s defensive tactics involve them being dynamic and often stepping out of their natural defensive line to press to get the ball. The Toffees generally press with a direct approach to win the ball back immediately. We will see this in action below:
Here, Gomes is paired alongside Dominic Calvert-Lewin in front while the others take their positions in the 4-4-2. Considering that the ball is in the opposition’s half with only four Tottenham players against the two of them, it might seem like Spurs have the numerical superiority and would not lose the ball. However, the first part of the smart play is the positioning of the players and their angles towards the ball and defenders. Both Calvert-Lewin and Gomes are ready to cover for both defenders to limit the ball progression.
Now, we will see what happens when Eric Dier passes the ball out to Toby Alderweireld below:
Gomes runs in immediately to cover for Alderweireld as the Belgian is in a lot of space to pass. So, he needs to leave his original stable position to quickly block any pass and get into a counter-attacking position immediately. In this scenario, Alderweireld passes back to the goalkeeper, Hugo Lloris out of immense pressure. This is a great success for Everton as they can go back into their defensive shape and press their opponents further up the pitch, where the danger is limited.
The main drawbacks to Everton in this 4-1-4-1 or 4-4-2 press are the initial teething problems for Allan and the overcommitments at times in the press. While the former has worked itself out, with Allan becoming a defensive beast, the latter is still work in progress. In the image above, we saw Gomes commit to the press but leave a lot of space behind him. This means that, at times, the players on the ball can simply hit the ball long into Everton’s half, making them suspect to concede goals. This is especially true with Allan being the only player patrolling the opposition’s zone 14. He tends to overcommit to a challenge and is thus in no man’s land when the opposition player goes past him by dribbling or passing.
Everton in Attack
When building up, there is a clear focus on the right-hand side that consists of James Rodríguez, Seamus Coleman/Ben Godfrey and Abdoulaye Doucouré at right-wing, right-back and right central midfield respectively. They generally form passing triangles as we can see below:
There are two possible variations of the passing triangles that can be formed here. The first is with the midfielder (Doucouré) dropping deeper into the right half-space. He acts as defensive cover for the full-back who’s attacking (Godfrey in this scenario). The full-back is in the right-wing while Rodríguez drops to the half-space. The important part of how Everton attack is the rotations that the players do by switching their positions around. When Rodríguez cuts inside, the full-back overlaps to make a run. We can see this in a more advanced position below:
Here, Rodríguez is the deepest player in the midfield while Doucoure goes forward to attack the opposition’s box. Seamus Coleman overlaps the wings and hugs the touchline to act as a crossing option if required. The beauty of the positional switches that take place is that there are no fixed positions to the players. Coleman can underlap based on the situation while Doucoure goes wide while Rodríguez stays centrally.
James Rodriguez conducts an important passing dynamic as seen below:
Here, Rodríguez makes a long ball by switching it to Digne on the far side from right to left. This play occurs regularly as the full-back is in a lot of space to get to the ball and run around with it. This play works well against teams that try to heavily press the player on the ball. Another important reason to switch the ball is that the opposition generally mark and press the right-hand side, overloading players. In the central part of the pitch, this works to reduce the pressure on one side of the pitch and switch it to the other. This decreases the overall pressing intensity and number of pressers as they are spread out more on the pitch. This works differently in attacking positions, however, as we can see below:
When Rodríguez switches the ball out wide, Digne makes an overlapping run to get the ball. The pass generally clears three to four defenders well and works to penetrate the opposition’s midfield lines. Richarlison meanwhile, makes a timed run into the ball to drag the opposition’s left-back and to overload the left half-space in the box. This is how the Colombian unlocks deeper defences with his pinpoint long passes.
In the build-up, the role of Allan and Gomes is not very crucial. Their presence is mainly to act as a passing option for Rodríguez cutting inside and limit counter-attacks. In any case that Everton would like to create positional superiorities in the opposition’s half, Gomes tends to set the tempo by pushing forward by distributing the ball around the pitch and making sideways or slightly forward passes to switch the ball over time, but not as direct as Rodríguez.
The agile attackers in Dominic Calvert-Lewin and Richarlison are important in the end-product of the build-up as well. Both strikers have a great physique and are great technically, especially when controlling long balls from Rodríguez and Digne. Their main strengths, however, are their ability to break free from defenders by running through the channels between the opposition’s defensive lines. Calvert-Lewin, especially, can stagger and time runs into the box very well and generally arrives to finish with ease.
The Role of Dominic Calvert-Lewin
The player that I believe is the key to Everton’s table-topping game style is Dominic Calvert-Lewin. We can see his statistics in this season below:
The first important image is Calvert-Lewin’s heat map. It is centred in the box, with most of his movement and positioning near the penalty spot. Calvert-Lewin has developed to become more of a ‘fox in the box’ by making runs behind the defensive lines and getting onto crosses.
The first pivotal aspect of Calvert-Lewin’s playstyle is his aerial ability. In the top five leagues, he has the most goals scored with his head, netting in four. He attempts the sixth most aerial duels per 90 in the league and has the 11th most success with his aerial duels. We will see two examples of his aerial prowess, one in more advanced positions and one near the half-way line.
This is one of the goals he scored against Tottenham Hotspurs in the Premier League. In terms of height, Calvert-Lewin and the two centre-backs marking him (Dier and Alderweireld) are 187 cm tall. The pure difference here is Calvert-Lewin’s athleticism and ability to win his aerial duels. He leaps over the two centre-backs (who are good at jumping as well) and forces a strong header into the back of the net. This aids Digne, Coleman and Rodríguez that are great crossers.
Calvert-Lewin’s ability to head the ball well in the box also ties in with Digne’s crosses after making overlapping runs as we have seen repeatedly this season. This exact attacking routine takes place in Everton’s second goal against Liverpool. Rodríguez plays a through pass to Lucas Digne, who is making an overlapping run. Digne exploits the space behind Alexander-Arnold and crosses the ball into the box for Calvert-Lewin to head it into the net.
Above is the second form of aerial duels that Calvert-Lewin attempts regularly. A long ball from Jordan Pickford was sent to the attacking half, and Calvert-Lewin was ready to pounce. At 6’ 2”, he is in a great position to win flick-ons to get the ball to his team-mates. Then, he makes runs into the final third and links-up with the midfield in the box.
Calvert-Lewin’s movement in the box is another crucial improvement of his this season. As he is a fast and agile player, he can make runs into the channels between the opposition’s defensive lines. He plays with his back to the goal and turns when a through ball comes in his direction. He can also stagger his runs very well, and as we will see below, get in front of the goal to score with ease.
There is no doubt about Ancelotti’s ability and philosophy as a manager and he is now plying his trade at Merseyside. They are a team with a dangerous attack and a slowly but surely improving defence. Considering that the season has simply started, we won’t be able to fully judge the position that Everton finishes in, but I well and truly predict them to qualify for Europe this season, whether it be the Champions League or Europa League.