When you have won the Champions League three times as a manager, your words carry weight.
Since Carlo Ancelotti’s first game as Everton manager in December, only Premier League leaders Liverpool have earned more points than their city rivals.
Yet the upsurge in form – their 17 points in that period putting them within touching distance of a Europa League place after a 3-1 win over Crystal Palace – has come courtesy of the Italian’s reassuring calmness rather than any sweeping changes.
A little warmth and humour has also gone a long way after the almost robotic-like Marco Silva, who was sacked after the club slipped into the bottom three at the start of December.
Prior to the win over Watford last weekend, the former AC Milan, Real Madrid and Chelsea manager jokingly told Theo Walcott: “Theo, you are allowed to score goals.”
“It made me laugh and relaxed me,” said Walcott, who went on to score the injury-time winner, before likening Ancelotti to his former Arsenal manager Arsene Wenger.
“Both of them consistently says things that make you think.”
At a time where their rivals across Stanley Park are storming to an inevitable title, Ancelotti’s leadership has already provided a galvanising effect at Everton.
Carlo’s calming touch
Part of Ancelotti’s charm comes from combining a human touch with a hunger for improvement.
Having won Champions League titles with AC Milan and Real Madrid, he dismissed questions this week that he is merely a manager who adds the missing piece to a star-studded team, recalling his time at Parma in the early stages of his career.
Although he carries a statesmanlike appearance on the touchline, he leads training at the club’s Finch Farm complex, complete with cap and whistle, alongside assistants Davide, also his son, and Duncan Ferguson.
Sessions are short and sharp in contrast to the more long-winded fare under Silva, which players became tired of. And there is a less regimented feel with players not forced to eat at specific times.
But camaraderie is important to Ancelotti, who has allowed them nights out, so long as they are ready to work the next day.
“You can be relaxed around Carlo and talk to him like you would anyone else,” said Walcott in the club’s programme. “We saw the other side of him at West Ham [where Ancelotti delivered a half-time rollocking during the 1-1 draw].
“He has that in him – but he is a very calming influence in the dressing room.”
That was evident after the 2-2 draw with Newcastle last month when Everton threw away a two-goal lead deep into injury time.
Instead of another volley of criticism, though, Ancelotti added perspective by referring to how his AC Milan team threw away a three-goal lead in the 2005 Champions League final against Liverpool.
“There are things in football you cannot control,” he said.
Simplifying tactics and keeping the faith
Much of Ancelotti’s success so far has come by simplifying how his team plays and leaning on those who are already established at the club.
There are players who are back in the reckoning after being cut adrift by Silva. The 60-year-old was also quick to underline the strength of his squad upon being appointed and has since praised their “character and spirit”.
Not rushing into the transfer window was an additional fillip for the players, while giving Ferguson increased responsibility rewarded the Scot for adding “fire” to the team during his three games as interim manager.
It was Ferguson who switched the team from Silva’s 4-2-3-1 to a 4-4-2, which is also Ancelotti’s preferred formation. He has since added minor tweaks such as asking his wide players to cut inside, allowing the full-backs to be more positive.
He also wants that approach from the rest of the team, demanding more “vertical” football, which has seen an improvement in points per game, goals scored and shots taken compared to Silva.
Yet as his side showed against Palace, there are still times when they fail to find fluency. They struggled to play out from the back at times, and lost rhythm when Bernard went off injured to be replaced by Tom Davies, with Richarlison pushing out wide.
Ancelotti has spoken of how his team can sometimes be “confused” but with a short break to work on their failings, Everton can push for Europe with renewed purpose.
“In the 30 days since I arrived here I have to be happy,” Ancelotti said. “The players and staff did a fantastic job but the Europa League has to be the target.”
Calvert-Lewin and Richarlison prosper
The biggest beneficiaries of Ancelotti’s appointment appear to be his front players Dominic Calvert-Lewin and Richarlison.
Pairing them together is Ferguson’s legacy, and both scored in a transformative win against Chelsea in his first game in charge.
Yet they have since gone on to prove their quality, with Calvert-Lewin scoring six goals in Ancelotti’s nine games in charge, and Richarlison swinging the Palace game back in Everton’s favour when they were under pressure.
The form of Calvert-Lewin, who scored the winner in the Under-20 World Cup final for England in 2017, has led to Ancelotti saying the 22-year-old could be an important player for the senior side. It was notable that manager Gareth Southgate was in attendance at the Palace match.
Richarlison has also become a key figure for Ancelotti, who said the Brazilian was “a top player” after scoring his 11th of the season on Saturday.
“We complement each other,” says Calvert-Lewin. “We get on off the pitch as well.”
And their goals could prove crucial in Everton’s push for European football, especially as Manchester United and Tottenham are without injured strikers Marcus Rashford and Harry Kane respectively.
Everton have lost only once in Ancelotti’s eight Premier League games in charge but they will be tested after their break where they face Arsenal, Manchester United, Chelsea and Liverpool in successive games.
The foundations laid down by Ancelotti, however, have instilled a confidence and trust in the players, which could yet prove decisive.
“We all know where we want to be and that’s playing in Europe,” Calvert-Lewin added. “We’re in the best position we’ve been in this season and we have to back ourselves.”