No Merseyside derby wins in 10 years - but Ancelotti's Everton have no reason to fear vulnerable Liverpool
Saturday’s Merseyside Derby takes place 10 years to the day since Everton last recorded a victory over Liverpool.
To beat them on the anniversary, at this moment, with this team, would be a fitting way to end a difficult decade for the Toffees and announce the beginning of a new era if not as equals, then at least as worthy challengers to the Reds' recent supremacy.
Perhaps that is too much of a stretch. Perhaps the symbolism of winning three points this weekend isn’t quite so loaded with what the next 10 years will bring to Goodison Park.
However, you could forgive Everton fans for believing as much following their perfect start to the 2020-21 Premier League season, particularly now they are led by two genuine superstars of the game in Carlo Ancelotti and James Rodriguez.
These are early days in the project, of course, but there is already a tactical balance and sophistication to what Ancelotti’s Everton are doing which suggests they can end their drought against Liverpool and compete for the Champions League places.
The Italian has always been a big-picture manager, a coach with a keen eye for the right formation and wider structure of his team’s play, but lacking in the finer details.
Throughout a career that has taken in spells at AC Milan, Chelsea and Real Madrid, among others, he has exhibited a laissez-faire attitude towards the minute tactical tweaks often required to win league titles, but Ancelotti has an undoubted flair for getting the pieces to click for cup competitions.
And that is most likely what we will see at Everton, if the first four league games of the campaign is anything to go by.
The Premier League leaders have been very consistent in their formation and style, worrying only about their own broad strokes rather than the unique challenges of each opponent.
In a 4-3-3 formation, the main features are: flying full-backs who get forward in tandem and look to swing crosses into the box at every opportunity; a playmaker in James Rodriguez drifting off the right to spread the ball wide and set the tempo; and a three-man midfield designed to provide a solid foundation of support against the counterattack.
The general aim is high-tempo possession football with defenders regularly carrying the ball out from the back and Allan pulling the strings from the base of midfield, although the pretty patterns tend to give way to a more direct approach in the final third – in keeping with Ancelotti’s simplistic attacking lines at previous clubs.
Dominic Calvert-Lewin, stripped back and taught to play as a poacher by Duncan Ferguson and Ancelotti, is an important target for crosses into the box and set-pieces.
He is often joined by Richarlison, cutting in from the left wing to leave a space on that side for Lucas Digne to advance into. A Richarlison dart infield, a James cross-field pass, and a Digne cross – this is the template of many Everton moves this season.
Last year, Ancelotti mostly used a 4-4-2 formation that morphed into a 4-3-3, mimicking the system with which he had enjoyed so much success at Napoli.
The aim was for Alex Iwobi or Bernard to flit between central midfield and forward roles depending on whether Everton had the ball, although a lack of sophistication in their passing meant that often they were too disjointed to find any rhythm.
More importantly, they just didn’t have the central midfielders for such a complex approach to work, with Tom Davies and Gylfi Sigurdsson frequently bypassed by more nimble opponents.
Adding Abdoulaye Ducoure and Allan, with Andre Gomes joining on the other side of the Brazilian, has given Everton a solid wall that protects against opposition counters, in turn allowing Everton to sit their defensive line higher and dominate possession.
That has transformed their style of play, while a formation switch to a permanent 4-3-3 has been taken to accommodate the marquee signing of James.
The Colombian’s elegance adds that unpredictable element. In fact, James – who previously excelled under Ancelotti at both Bayern Munich and Real Madrid – encapsulates the very best of the manager’s tactical philosophy.
In Ancelotti, Everton’s players get an intelligent and well-coached foundation, but, because the manager takes a more backseat approach once the system is in place, they also have plenty of room to improvise – hence the combination of a strong midfield with good compression between the lines and the difficult-to-track positional freedom of both James and Richarlison.
And the general tactical pattern of Everton’s opening four league games just happens to be exactly the approach needed to target Liverpool’s weaknesses, as Aston Villa showed in their 7-2 win a fortnight ago.
The lack of pressing in a passive Liverpool midfield, coupled with Jurgen Klopp’s high defensive line, left them exposed to simple counterattacks funnelled down the Reds' right.
The Villa midfielders sprayed the ball out towards the left for Jack Grealish and Ross Barkley, who then slipped Ollie Watkins in behind. It was two simple moves that bypassed the majority of the Liverpool team, exploited the space behind Trent Alexander-Arnold, and isolated their weak link, Joe Gomez.
The psychological power Liverpool had over their opponents, forcing them into nervous territorial retreat so they could grind out wins, is almost certainly gone now. Villa have punctured something significant, and now Liverpool must find a way to press furiously once again or face a surprisingly difficult season.
Everton, for one, will not be afraid of a potential backlash.
They will attack with gusto, mimicking Villa’s approach via their natural rhythms, using James’s long diagonals to get behind Alexander-Arnold, using Richarlison’s power to get past Gomez, and using Calvert-Lewin’s goalscoring prowess to add the finishing touch.
Win or lose on Saturday, the season ahead promises to be Everton’s best since 2013-14, when Roberto Martinez and Romelu Lukaku inspired a fifth-place finish with 71 points. But with Tottenham stabilising under Jose Mourinho and Arsenal looking very impressive under Mikel Arteta, Everton will most likely be thwarted in their pursuit of a finish in the top four.
Then again, in this most absurd and unpredictable of Premier League seasons it would be unwise to rule anything out. Indeed, as Manchester City and Liverpool falter, many pundits are already wondering if 2020-21 is ripe for another Leicester City season.
And if we are to get an upset on that scale this May, Everton are the side most likely to upset the 'Big Six'. If it is to happen, though, they’ll need to start with victory over Liverpool on Saturday.
On the evidence of what we've seen so far this season, a first win in the derby for 10 years is certainly not out of the question for this exciting Everton side.