Everton might have little to play for except pride, but this mini-season offers opportunity to both them and Carlo Ancelotti.
“You tell them that all your experience tells you this is the best way to beat this particular opposition. You persuade them and you drill them, and you tell them so many times they can hear you when they go to sleep. Then, on the day of the game, you stand on the touchline and hope to God that it works.”
God was clearly not listening in the final weeks before football’s forced suspension, with Everton’s disintegration at Chelsea the culmination of seven games which had reaped just two victories – over Watford and Crystal Palace. The latter had lifted the Toffees into seventh place and sparked giddy talk of European football – “the target since I arrived was to get into Europe…now we have a possibility to think about the Europa League” – but that all feels a tad silly now, with Everton languishing in 12th, below even Palace and an under-hyped Burnley. A squashed table still offers the delusion of Europe but really, the target has shifted to ‘pride’, which means a top-half finish and the vague hope that next season might be different.
In any other season, Everton attracting multiple domestic title and Champions League-winning manager (and the 18th greatest manager of all bloody time, according to one recent count) Carlo Ancelotti would be one of the astonishing narratives of the season, but this is the campaign of Liverpool’s title march, Manchester City’s ban, Sheffield United’s miracle, Manchester United’s spending, Chelsea’s kids, north London’s disasters and now a global pandemic. Everton and Ancelotti’s unlikely union has become a footnote, relegated further and further down the page as they have slipped back down the table.
But couple that low profile with an enforced period on the training ground and there is clearly an opportunity to be found. Mid-season appointments – parachuted in mid-crisis – are routinely denied a pre-season, and that must be particularly difficult at a club like Everton, where half-a-dozen coaching voices have been heard in four years. This is a squad built by five very different managers, none of whom is currently in charge. Never has there been a better opportunity for Ancelotti to refute the criticism that he is a chameleon coach, adapting himself to his squad rather than preaching his own philosophy. At Everton, he really has no choice but to go back to the drawing-board.
What he will find is a squad rich in promise but poor on delivery. There is undoubtedly talent – Richarlison, Dominic Calvert-Lewin, Lucas Digne – but there has also been significant money spent on also-rans, has-beens and never-weres who have failed at bigger clubs. That Leicester, Sheffield United and Wolves have all almost effortlessly pushed aside a glass ceiling that Everton have tried to batter open with wads of cash should be an embarrassment; failing again under a decorated manager would truly condemn them to the ranks of the perennial comedy club alongside West Ham and Newcastle.
What does failure look like this season? A bottom-half finish closer to Watford than Wolves, perhaps? Or simply a lack of any forward motion? After being granted weeks on the training ground, we would expect to see signs of an evolving Everton; we should see a hint of what Ancelotti believes they can become if they are told so many times that they can hear him as they go to sleep.
Do not make the mistake of looking at the Premier League table and believing that the only real interest is to be found clustered around the Champions League places or mired at the bottom. There are teams whose upcoming mini-seasons could set the tone for the next two years.
We have been busy. Like and subscribe and stuff.