Chelsea’s then-chief executive Ron Gourlay was driving away from Goodison Park on the final day of the season in 2011 when he reportedly received the call: “Turn around and tell Carlo he is fired.”
There was no point in waiting. Carlo Ancelotti himself had long known it was coming and a 1-0 loss to Everton was the last signal needed to push the button on one of the harshest sackings the Premier League has ever seen.
Only a year earlier the Italian had led the Blues to a historic double — but a second-place league finish was not good enough at a time when despot Roman Abramovich was at his most heinous.
Yet, somehow, amid the injustice, you always knew he would be back. By all accounts, including his own, Ancelotti had adapted swimmingly to life in England, retaining a London house to this day. More importantly, he instantly grasped the style of the land’s football, quickly learning its nuances and exploiting them to capture a league title in his first year there.
It may have taken nearly a decade but Ancelotti eventually returned, ironically to that same ground he was dismissed from so unceremoniously. With two months of evidence at hand, it would seem he once again needs no time to settle in and additionally might even be in it for the long-term this time around.
On the form table, only Manchester City and Liverpool have collected more points since Ancelotti first reclined in his dugout. Everton were teetering above the relegation zone before he arrived. Now they’re hinting at breaking into the top six — a common domain during the David Moyes era but one that has infrequently been in sight in recent years. Had Sunday’s game against Arsenal gone differently, we might even be punting the Toffees as one of the favourites to scoop a potential fifth-placed Champions League slot.
As it was, that game was one of the few tactical disappointments we’ve seen under the new regime, but even then a few uncomplicated forward balls were almost enough to offset the midfield deficit that would ultimately be the game’s undoing.
With Everton, Ancelotti has once again been able to return to his preferred 4-4-2, a formation he has always favoured but not forced. One of his greatest strengths on his journeys has been his ability to tailor his approach to suit the players he has at his disposable and, once again, he seems to know exactly where to slot in his pieces.
On the wings, Theo Walcott and Alex Iwobi have delivered some of their better performances in a blue shirt under his setup. Asked to play directly and at pace, the former Gunners appear emboldened by instructions that specifically conform to their skill set.
When Bernard starts in their stead, meanwhile, he’s allowed to drift inside and almost fill a wide playmaker role — the game plan again adapting to his style, instead of asking him to make up ground he will never cover. It’s much the same in the centre of the park where Morgan Schneiderlin, Gylfi Sigurðsson and Fabian Delph can swop out neatly in a flat midfield two.
But Ancelotti knew he had to build the mould primarily around his best player if he were to unlock the full potential he has at Merseyside. To that end, Richarlison has been given relatively little to do defensively and instead is ideally placed to feed off most of the opportunities that are created. The strength and hold-up play of Dominic Calvert-Lewin — who often will slip into deeper areas — facilitates this and allows the Brazilian to run into the new channels he creates.
As effective as the approach has been for Ancelotti, the next three weeks will be its true acid test. If he wishes to prove he has learnt from the Arsenal game, he will have to do so in consecutive games against Manchester United, Chelsea and Liverpool. That vital run will determine if European qualification is a lost dream or a realistic objective.
Still, you get the feeling that Evertonian players and fans alike will remain patient no matter how the rest of the season plays out. Tactical flexibility is just one facet of Ancelotti’s excellent man-management: few other coaches are also capable of instilling such a palpable sense of calm into their squads.
His CV includes ego-laden superpowers such AC Milan, Real Madrid and Bayern Munich, making it remarkable that whispers of discord have rarely followed the Italian. To the contrary, those under him have often effused about his character —an obvious consequence of putting the players before his ideals.
In his memoir Quiet Leadership: Winning Hearts, Minds and Matches, Ancelotti cites his cool temperament as the reason he was doomed during his first spell in England; he says Abramovich chastised him for what he perceived as a soft treatment of his players.
“I’d heard it before and I’ve heard it since,” he writes. “But he was wrong — they are all wrong. I don’t change my character.”
If he can refuse an oligarch so brazenly, don’t expect anything different from him at Merseyside.
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