Everton Evolution: Analysis of Ancelotti’s ever-changing shape in victory over Liverpool
The 25th game week in the 2020-21 Premier League featured the Merseyside Derby with Liverpool hosting local rivals and top-4 challengers Everton at Anfield. It hasn’t been a smooth 2021 for both of them with Liverpool suffering 3 consecutive losses both at home and in the league.
Ancelotti’s men have also had a mixed 2021 with suffering 4 defeats in the league since the turn of the year. The battle will be crucial for both of them in their bid for a top-4 spot. This tactical analysis will discuss the tactics deployed by both managers. Let’s begin the analysis.
Jurgen Klopp made one change to the lineup that suffered a loss against top-4 rivals Leicester City last weekend with James Milner making his way out for Thiago. He went with a 4-2-3-1 shape later in the second half with the introduction of Xherdan Shaqiri.
Ancelotti has been shuffling and changing his formations for a while after suffering a sudden blip in form. He went with a 3-5-2 system for the derby after going with systems like 4-3-3 and 4-3-1-2 in recent games. Sigurdsson made way for an extra centre-back while Pickford replaced Olsen to take the number 1 spot.
Ancelotti’s shift to a back-3 provides Everton defensive stability
Throughout his tenure as an Everton manager, Ancelotti has never particularly tinkered with his formation and has maintained the 4-4-2 system. To shore up their defence, he went with the 3-5-2 formation for this fixture. Similar to his 4-4-2 system, he set his team up in a zonal manner. Despite setting in a back-3, the Everton centre-backs were not told to follow their markers, Liverpool forwards, very high. When Mane dropped, Holgate decided to stop following him as Mane entered Davies’ zone.
The 3-5-2 shifted to a lopsided 4-4-2 when the ball reached the flank with the ball-near Everton wing-back pushing up to the midfield to press the Liverpool full-back.
The idea behind the zonal structure is to cramp the nearby spaces for the opponents or block passing lanes by occupying markers. Everton for the large parts of the game was able to do it well and limit Liverpool’s attack in creating chances. The whole midfield and the front line, comprising 5 players, moved along as a team from flank to flank. The image shows them moving to their left flank and cramping the nearby space to all the players.
Doucoure in the right flank was tasked with keeping tabs on Curtis Jones especially. Gomes meanwhile kept a close distance with Thiago. When the ball went to the flank, the ball near Liverpool central midfielder (Jones or Thiago) would be marked by their respective markers. Wijnaldum would be marked by either of the two forwards. If the ball went to Liverpool’s left flank, Richarlison would mark Wijnaldum and Rodriguez would press the centre-back in possession. The vice-versa would happen on the opposite flank. This gave Davies a free role and if at all Firmino dropped deep he could have also been taken care of.
Higher up the pitch, the Everton front-two, Richarlison and James Rodriguez pressed the two Liverpool centre-backs while Davies would be the midfielder who would follow the Liverpool midfielder higher up the pitch.
But these are some of the situations where Liverpool could have made good advantage of. In the previous situation, we can see Gomes was left as an option oriented marker with him choosing to press either Thiago beside him or Alexander Arnold at the flank. This was the reason behind his positioning slightly in the middle of them. But it was still a humongous task to simultaneously keep tabs on two of the best technical players on the pitch in TAA and Thiago. Allison could have used this to great effect as we can see Thiago signalling him to pass the ball to him. With Thiago in huge space, he could have certainly evaded pressure and opened up the defence.
Thiago did even drop deep and this opened a new possibility. Gomes was now much closer to Thiago than TAA and TAA could have used that to push forward with already 3 Liverpool players at the back for protection. He had the whole flank to run into and Allison could have to thread him with a pass. Liverpool though missed out on both the opportunities. This happened before Everton’s goal as after that they dropped off slightly avoiding to go press high with intensity.
Liverpool’s positional play issues in the first half
Liverpool in total had 15 shots in the game and came out of the game with a total xG of 1.54. Despite that, it wasn’t smooth sailing in possession for the defending champions as they struggled to enter the final-third. Much was down to their positional play shape with it being not-so like Liverpool on many occasions. The following image shows both Mane and Firmino on the same line and the same flank. This makes them redundant and Davies can be blocking both of them with his cover shadow. The left flank also remains unstretched and Everton can easily shift their focus on the right half.
Liverpool’s recent defensive struggles meant that they weren’t able to commit their full-backs very high up the pitch. Kabak, their recent signing, struggling to set into the current system, Klopp decided to not give too much freedom for Alexander-Arnold to push forward (black circle). This is to have an additional player in their rest defence and not leaving Richarlison in a 1v1 against Kabak. This forced Salah to stay wide and look to stretch the defence which made it impossible since Everton had too much cover at the back.
Again in the example, we can see too many Liverpool players commit to one side and this isolates Salah on the other. While this did not stretch the Everton players laterally and they maintained very good spacing in the final line, TAA was again given the space for him to cross from the deep position. But for some reason, the urgency that we usually associate with the Reds. They failed to shift the ball quickly over to the opposite flank on more than one occasion. Everton thus were able to quickly shift well and adjust their position.
This did get better in the second half as Liverpool decided not to over-commit too many players in a single flank. The example below shows both Mane and Firmino look to remain central. This forces Godfrey to stay tight on Mane and not afford space for him. With Salah and TAA at the wings, Lucas Digne is forced to engage and this creates a huge space between the centre-back and the wing-back for a player to run into. TAA made a run and it opened an opportunity for Liverpool to equalise. TAA’s overlapping and underlapping runs meant that Liverpool now had the territory they needed to dominate the proceedings.
They also got back their ability to shift flanks in the second half that was strangely missed in the first period. Trent especially looked to switch the ball often to the opposite flank. This improved their ability to disorient the Everton defence as now they have very limited time to shift horizontally and cover the spaces.
Everton take advantage of Kabak’s frailties
Everton were always going to be relying on counter-attacks and maximize the opportunities they get to hit Liverpool back. But with Ancelotti going with James Rodriguez in the forward line, he had only one forward looking to make runs behind the defence. But Richarlison’s off-ball attacking performance was flawless on the night as he constantly used Kabak’s inexperience to his advantage. With James Rodriguez dropping into the midfield, Everton went with a 3-5-1-1 midfield diamond and were able to sustain immediate pressure at crucial instances. The example was just before their first goal. He drops into the midfield and Richarlison immediately makes a run as he is played onside by a retreating Kabak.
Richarlison again makes a run and drags Nathaniel Phillips with him, this opens a passing lane for James Rodriguez at the tip of the diamond.
To add up numbers into the box for crosses or passes, Seamus Coleman was given a free role to join the attack as a wing-back with protection being provided by Mason Holgate as a third centre-back. He even found himself at the receiving end of a brilliant cross from Lucas Digne and forced Allison into making a good save. Again he was played onside by Kabak who was again stretched vertically by Richarlison and Andy Robertson failed to identify Coleman on his blindside.
Ancelotti later drafted Calvert-Lewin in for James Rodriguez to make better use of the former’s aerial ability against two fragile defenders. DCL in the image below wins an aerial duel against Phillips and Everton now have a 2v2 situation inside the box.
Eventually, they sealed the match with a counter-attack that won them a penalty and Sigurdsson doubled their lead with 10 minutes to be played.
After going 4 years without a loss at Anfield in the Premier League, Liverpool have lost 4 consecutive league games at their home turf for the first time since 1923 and also 4 successive PL games under Jurgen Klopp. The loss puts them in a very tough position for a top-4 spot with their local rivals on level with them in the points table while having a game in hand.
With Everton’s win, Ancelotti will look to be one of the first managers to take Everton into the Champions League in a while. A win in their remaining game will put them at level with Chelsea, who occupy the 4th spot.