It would be easy to look at Everton’s position in the bottom half of the Premier League table and conclude this will be another year of wasteful underachievement at Goodison Park. Since Farhad Moshiri’s takeover in early 2016, there has been very little return on approximately £450m-worth of transfer spending.
But despite sitting in 12th-place, Everton are only six points off sixth. Qualifying for Europe is still a realistic target. Mid-season relegation fears have abated. And most significantly of all, they finally have a manager capable of maximising the talent within the squad and matching the ownership’s lofty ambitions.
The appointment of Carlo Ancelotti has the potential to be a turning point for the Moshiri regime. Some might say it has to be. If a three-time Champions League-winning coach cannot break Everton into the top six, what then? The initial signs are encouraging though, with five wins in 11 league games and the three defeats only coming away to top-six opposition.
There is definitely a happier and healthier mood at Finch Farm than there was under Marco Silva earlier in the season. Everton’s underlying numbers did not always tally with their dismal results back then and Silva could point to a few cruel swings of fortune. The 3-2 defeat at Brighton in late October turned on one of the only VAR decisions which referees’ chief Mike Riley has since said was incorrect.
But after a 5-2 Merseyside derby defeat at Anfield in early December, Everton were third-bottom and had lost nine of 15 league games. A change of direction was inevitable, even though appointing Silva had been an obsession of Moshiri’s just 18 months earlier. Duncan Ferguson took the reins on a caretaker basis while Silva’s permanent successor was sought.
The style of play during the Ferguson interregnum was old-fashioned – so too was his treatment of Moise Kean at Old Trafford – but he deserves immense credit for a back-to-basics approach which has outlived his brief spell in charge. Ancelotti has only tinkered slightly with the 4-4-2 formation which served his new assistant well in the weeks leading up to Christmas.
Ferguson’s decision to partner Dominic Calvert-Lewin and Richarlison together up front was a particular masterstroke. While Richarlison has become Everton’s most dynamic attacking player, Calvert-Lewin has been a revelation, scoring 15 goals in all competitions thanks to a rare blend of physicality, athleticism and poaching instinct. The 23-year-old recently signed a new five-year contract and if not for the pandemic, he would potentially have made England’s European Championships squad.
Mason Holgate is also blossoming into a potential international after a breakthrough season in the centre of defence, while Lucas Digne remains one of the top-flight’s best attacking wing-backs. There are issues in central midfield, though, where the loss of Idrissa Gueye last summer has only been compounded by the misfortune of his replacement Jean-Philippe Gbamin. After recovering from a quadriceps injury and returning from a nine-month lay-off, he will now be sidelined until the new year with an Achilles problem.
And while Liverpool could end a 30-year title drought at Goodison upon football’s return, Everton’s wait for silverware will go on. The FA Cup third round defeat at Anfield against a team of youngsters was nothing short of a humiliation, but missing out on the EFL Cup semi-finals after a penalty shoot-out defeat to Leicester City was arguably just as disappointing.
This is a club which marked the 25th anniversary of its last trophy during lockdown. It is desperate for success, particularly as with the move to a new £500m home at Bramley Moore Dock planned for the 2023/24 season. Moshiri has promised all that and more and is yet to deliver. But with a manager of Ancelotti’s calibre finally on board, there is reason to believe that this time could be different.