Everton's phenomenal start to the season has been widely attributed to the superb performances of new signing James Rodriguez, and yet Carlo Ancelotti deserves a lot of the praise for the tactical work that has formed the foundation for the club's 100% record in the Premier League.
The Italian is known for a macro approach to tactics, generally picking a shape and coaching a style of play before leaving it to his players to work out the details and adapt accordingly on matchday. It is a style that has proved Ancelotti's undoing in previous jobs, leading to plenty of cup runs but under-performance in the league, where the weekly grind requires more fine-tuning.
It is working superbly at Everton, where the forwards are flourishing in an environment that offers them creative responsibility and freedom. Here's how Ancelotti has got things to click at Goodison Park:
The shape-shifting formation
Ancelotti has switched to a 4-3-3 formation this season, abandoning the hybrid 4-4-2 of 2019/20 that occasionally became too flat and stale when in possession. With Allan at the base of a three-man midfield with options to his left and right, and with both wingers cutting inside to leave space for overlapping full-backs, there are now plenty of opportunities for vertical progressions.
Lucas Digne and Seamus Coleman are instructed to advance simultaneously down the wings, Richarlison makes diagonal runs from the left to support Dominic Calvert-Lewin, James drifts into the number ten space, and Andre Gomes and Abdoulaye Doucoure probe forward one at a time. Consequently their 4-3-3 rarely shows straight lines, helping to explain Everton's free-scoring form and their 54.5% possession average.
One of the key moves we have seen so far this season is long diagonal switches out from James to the other side, with the Colombian making use of Digne's late arrival, often unseen, into gaps vacated by Richarlison. The Everton winger proves distracting for opposition right-backs, and that has seen both his and Digne's output increase.
Emphasis on crossing and counter-pressing
But even more prominent is the emphasis on throwing crosses into the box and Ancelotti's work on set-pieces; Everton top the Premier League charts with five set-piece goals already,and with Calvert-Lewin's aerial ability it is no wonder Digne and Coleman are constantly looking to whip balls to the back post. Like much of what Ancelotti coaches, it's a simple and pragmatic idea.
However, crosses are only a major feature during those sustained periods of Everton possession, and in fact they are often more dangerous when the other team has the ball. Their counter-pressing was exceptional against Brighton, leading directly to two goals, with Graham Potter's midfield constantly harassed as they tried to build out from the back. Brighton had already shown in recent matches that they are too porous in possession, but nevertheless Everton capitalised superbly.
The midfield trio
That press was often absent last year, when Everton instead tended to drift back into a safe mid-block, but Ancelotti has changed tack this season primarily because of what new additions Doucoure and Allan add to the team. Now playing with a three-man midfield, Doucoure and Gomes (sat either side of Allan) are forming a very effective wall against opposition counters. This not only allows Everton to pen in their opponents, but it also means they are more effective in the pincer press, as witnessed in the 4-2 defeat of Brighton.
Allan has already become the fulcrum of the team. His technical ability under pressure is reducing the amount of mistakes Everton make in their own half, with Yerry Mina and Michael Keane now both comfortable moving out from the back with such a reliable out-ball always available. He also appears to have calmed Andre Gomes, who is yet to be shaken this season.
DCL and James
And then there's James and Calvert-Lewin, the two headline-makers who have contributed nine goals between them in just four Premier League matches. James offers Everton a maverick quality from the right flank that Everton haven't had in a very long time, his ability to pass with such dexterity in the final third clearly boosting the energy levels, and output, of those around him.
Calvert-Lewin is thankful for his high-quality deliveries, of course, although it is Duncan Ferguson and Ancelotti who deserve the credit for his changing fortunes. Calvert-Lewin has been stripped back by his coaches, instructed to make fewer runs into the channels and to play more like a penalty-box poacher.
The result is the birth of a 25-goal a season striker, and with James supplying, the full-backs freed to get crosses into the box, and an airtight midfield trio, Everton suddenly look capable of challenging for a place in the top four. Ancelotti might not look at tactical elements in microscopic detail, but on this occasion his work on a macro scale has created a system perfectly in sync.