Everton: Season Preview 2020-21
The last Everton manager before Carlo Ancelotti with a European trophy on his resume was Howard Kendall.
He won the 1984-85 Cup Winner’s Cup for Everton, a clear highlight among a great run for the side in the mid-1980s. Ancelotti’s pedigree is clearly what attracted Everton’s power brokers when making the appointment, much as Jose Mourinho’s glittering history was deemed a match for Tottenham.
Everton have spent quite freely in recent seasons with a view to pointing upwards, but the man in the hotseat, until now, had not fit the description of “serial winner”. Ancelotti changes that dynamic and ahead of his first full season, there is obvious pressure to get the best from his squad. Leicester were the team that managed to profit in 2019-20 from a couple of big teams hitting down years. Everton’s aspiration has to be to do similar in 2020-21.
But can they do it?
The base they are launching from is not high. A twelfth placed finish was the lowest Everton had recorded since 2003-04 and the whole season was hand-braked by a run of poor form under Marco Silva. He left the club after securing 14 points in 15 games and with the team in 18th place. Ancelotti’s subsequent tenure saw the club pick up points at a rate of close to 1.5 per game--57 points over a full season. This pegs the level that he’s achieved slightly ahead of the average of the last six seasons, a useful line in the sand since Roberto Martinez logged a huge 72 points in 2013-14. Within that season too: the last time Everton beat a big six club in a league fixture away from Goodison Park, a 1-0 win over David Moyes’ Manchester United. These are the type of challenges that the team must overcome if it is to move upwards.
From a metric perspective Everton’s season was well… variable:
The first stretch for Marco Silva involved a big skew where results failed to overcome declining expected numbers, which ultimately did for him. The period that Ancelotti oversaw from late December to the Covid break was genuinely good: a 5-3-3 record was scant reward for third best in the league expected metrics (+0.7xG per game vs a flat, zero actual goal difference). Then in the New World, metrics declined, in particular in attack. The positive read of all this is that the good Ancelotti period was extremely promising. The negative read is more a question of why couldn’t they get anywhere near those heights in June and July? It’s fundamentally erroneous to draw lines based on player participation, so I will not point out that Fabian Delph started a lot of games in the good period and Andre Gomes played more in the bad. The whole before/after Covid break dichotomy is an added layer that makes projecting teams in 2020-21 an ever more hazardous procedure and it would not be surprising if a variety of teams played out the season with half an eye on the autumn and this restart.
Everton have been far from shy in the transfer market in recent seasons, and their recruitment has had a mixed outcome. Marcel Brands was tasked with emerging from the weight that Steve Walsh’s tenure left on the club’s roster, and has made some pointed and valuable moves. Richarlison remains a certain hit, Lucas Digne has grown into one of the better two-way full backs in the league and while Delph isn’t one for the future, he was a relatively cheap and experienced player to slot into the midfield.
Elsewhere, Andre Gomes remains elegant on the ball, but probably needs to be less elegant off the ball. Moise Kean is still very young and without the yips (two goals from over four xG) might have raised more eyebrows in first season from which he emerged from the bench most frequently, while Alex Iwobi needs to get back his creative boots if he’s going to continue to mini-Özil his way through life and scarcely shoot. On paper, at least, Jean-Philippe Gbamin was the answer to some of Everton’s issues around their midfield, but the poor guy is already out til 2021 and has undergone his third operation in a luckless run at the club.
With a surfeit of centre forwards and winger types on the books, and mixed impact and bad luck in midfield, it's straightforward to identify where to strengthen, and Everton have followed that obvious route. Allan was the first through the door, a veteran of Ancelotti's Napoli tenure and a player who who has long provided great energy from midfield:
We can see here that 2019-20 under Gennaro Gattuso saw his on the ball metrics drop back, while he maintained extremely high pressure metrics. To be fair, his season was stop-start with niggling injuries and time on the bench impacting his overall game time. There is an understandable degree of caution in that he's soon to turn 30 years old, and the hope here has to be that he can continue to contribute at levels seen prior to last season. However for his stylistic profile, the balance between "he is a great player" and "he is at the wrong end of the age curve" is impossible to deny. Age queries are also something that can be aimed at James Rodriguez, who looks likely to join up this week too. As a former Galactico of sorts, his pedigree is undeniable, and as a creative, flair player, concerns about his residual quality and reliability as he ages are perhaps less than that of Allan. It's really not that long since he was at Bayern putting together a profile like this:
Dominic Calvert-Lewin and Richarlison will undoubtedly be thrilled to see a world class creator teeing up set pieces and throughballs for them. The upgrade here versus Gylfi Sigurðsson is nothing short of huge. The warning when Sigurðsson signed for Everton was that so much of his shot creation was inhabited within set pieces. He got 12 assists for Swansea in 2016-17 and only four were from open play. His actual key pass rate was a shade over 0.5 per game which is miniscule for any nominally creative player. His seasons at Everton have seen this rate broach one per 90 only once (1.03 in 2018-19) and he was back at below 0.5 in 2019-20. James gives you at least as much as Sigurðsson from set-pieces while adding elite open play shot creation numbers on top, reliably over two per game. This difference is shown amply by James' open play key pass chart at Bayern vs that of Sigurðsson last season for Everton. Even allowing for difference of quality in team-mate, the variation is stark and by any stretch, James as an upgrade is hugely enticing. He's also two years younger:
James also has experience under Ancelotti for a brief period during their time at Bayern Munich, so there could well be some benefit from these high quality players being able to join up, and quickly drop in to the team. Do Allan's legs allow James to create with some impunity? Perhaps so, but undeniably, their recruitment improves Everton in an area they were likely weakest and certainly makes the short term likelihood of Everton raising their floor very real. Given erratic game time for each in recent times, it will be interesting to see how frequently they feature and how frequently Everton get a full shift from them. As much as queries around contracting players into their 30s will persist, getting Everton's first 11 onto the pitch reliably will have a large impact on outcomes.
It's also looking as though Abdoulaye Doucouré will be joining from Watford.
As an aside a quick glace at the squad makes me feel a little more full back depth could go a long way.
What is success for this team this season?
Everton have invested in players at a cost that demands a challenge to the top six. At times it has felt as though each new manager and season has been treated as a blank canvas, and the residual squad members from previous regimes have been hard to move on. Everton need to find a way to move on from that cycle, and on balance, enough of their more recent recruitment in the Marcel Brands era has created a team that at its core has the makings of a prosperous side. Very little more needs to go right to regain a slot in the eternal seventh to tenth zone that Everton frequently occupy, but a big impact from their new recruits could steer them upwards. Sporting Index opened up with a ninth placed 52-53 point estimation and that may be a low base, considering what we know about 2019-20 and the Ancelotti era. As discussed, his actual point accrual rate was about five points ahead of that and a further handful of points probably gets you to the top six mix.
Maximising outcome is Ancelotti's challenge. He needs to get close to the top six for 2020-21 to be deemed successful. The form of the team was concerning during the restart, but it can be hoped that the planning was orientated towards this season instead. Teams that understand the brutal schedule and plan to adapt will be set-up to fare best in 2020-21 and there is an opportunity here for those that do. Everton do have a large squad too. If Ancelotti can't manage to point this team upwards, further change in management and personnel may be in the offing, and the cycle could recur.
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