Everton have all the ingredients to mount a challenge for Premier League top four

Carlo Ancelotti

Farhad Moshiri’s message has been simple to detect since he purchased a 49.9% stake in Everton Football Club back in February 2016: spend hard or go home.

With ambitions of transcending into Europe’s elite, the British-Iranian businessman has ploughed £501m into a project that has at times fallen into a jarringly familiar pattern, as if the club is doomed to realise its Groundhog Day destiny.

Moshiri’s commitment to progress, however, has been unwavering. That he increased his stake to 77.2% in June 2019 suggests he’s in it for the long haul, while the appointment of Carlo Ancelotti in December of the same year represented a watershed moment in the Toffees’ modern history.

"I am here to support them (Bill Kenwright and the board) as required to ensure that the club recaptures the glory days of the past and builds sustained success in the future,” said Moshiri following his arrival. The then Everton manager Roberto Martinez was full of gushing admiration for the new owner and shared his enthusiasm for the future: "What I can say is that the vision Moshiri is sharing is to take Everton to the next level."

Anyone with a basic knowledge of the game will know that until the iconic Champions League anthem is reverberating around Goodison Park, the club will have failed to reach the next level Martinez was alluding to. Instead, the next level looked like Theo Walcott, Gylfi Sigurdsson and Alex Iwobi, three mediocre players who had been disposed of by clubs with comparable European ambitions. In footballing terms, the £92.25m Everton shelled out for the aforementioned trio has provided the equivalent value of a university degree in the midst of a global pandemic.

A perfect opening to the new season, however, has bred fresh optimism on Merseyside, prompting tentative suggestions that Everton will challenge for Europe and, given the unpredictability of just about every granular detail of human existence right now, perhaps even trouble the top four.

There are plenty of interconnecting factors that give Everton a chance of becoming the surprise package of the season.

Here we break them down and argue Everton’s case for European football.

The Ancelotti effect

Carlo Ancelotti

In the smooth-talking, amiable and well decorated Italian the club boasts a leader with genuine gravitas. With three Champions Leagues and four domestic titles to his name in as many countries there was no doubting his credentials when he was appointed, but the Everton job posed a unique challenge in the context of his managerial career. Any concerns over his ability to squeeze results out of a less prestigious group of individuals, however, have been duly quashed.

Ancelotti’s record of 1.78 points per Premier League match so far is superior to many of the managers who preceded him, including Marco Silva (1.38), Sam Allardyce (1.42), Ronald Koeman (1.48) and Martinez (1.56).

Aside from the upturn in results, one of Ancelotti’s biggest and most palpable triumphs thus far has been his man-management, which is most apparent in Dominic Calvert-Lewin’s goal scoring record since his arrival. His maiden call-up to the England squad on Thursday arrived having scored 16 goals in 26 appearances under the Italian in a turnaround which few envisaged. 

Calvert Lewin

If he continues his rich vein of form in front of goal, combining to devastating effect with Rodriguez and Richarlison in a new-look front-three, it could be a game changing season for the Toffees.

And while tactical tweaks to model Calvert-Lewin’s technique on the tried and tested formula that worked so consistently for rampant goal machine Filippo Inzaghi, Thiago Alcantara’s gushing words from his Bayern Munich days indicate Ancelotti’s holistic approach has inspired the recent flurry of goals.

"[Ancelotti] does not speak in vain. He is understood in all languages. He does not talk much but when he talks everybody listens to him and it's like he has something important to say.

"Beyond the talks and the words and the jokes he tells you, you get to find that difference between being a coach and being a person who is with you every day and asks you how you are, how your life is going.

"He has had players of a difficult character throughout his career and they all speak well of him. That is very rare.”

Marcel Brands finally gets it right

Marcel Brands

Everton’s director of football has been under scrutiny since he became the architect of the club’s transfer policy in May 2018. Tasked with assembling a squad capable of unsettling the Premier League elite, Brands has divided opinion during his time on Merseyside.

The signing of Alex Iwobi for an initial £28m was an unforgivable panic buy that for a time tarnished his reputation as a shrewd purchaser of elite talent.

Based on the early openings of the season, Brands appears to have redeemed himself. Allan has completed the transition from Serie A to the Premier League with seamless grace, operating with authority at the heart of the midfield alongside an equally smart acquisition in Abdoulaye Doucoure.

James Rodriguez, meanwhile, possesses a level of talent befitting of his CV. The presence of the Colombian and Allan, in particular, who both have plenty of Champions League experience, should elevate the mentality of the squad.

The chaotic, unpredictable top six

David Moyes

Leicester City infiltrated the top six in the 2019/20 season by occupying 5th place while Wolves narrowly missed out on 6th place by virtue of goal difference. Given the level of investment that goes into an increasingly competitive Premier League, the concept of a top six may soon be redundant.

Chelsea have invested heavily in new players this season but it will take some time for the squad to gel in Frank Lampard’s vision, while there are still question marks over Lampard’s credentials at this level. Equally, Jose Mourinho, for all his historic success, has a huge point to prove at Spurs this season, as does Ole Gunnar Solskjaer at Manchester United.

The only thing that can really be said of the established top six with any certainty is that Liverpool look nailed on to mount another stark title challenge.

It's also worth noting that, with the exception of Arsenal, the top six will all have European commitments to balance with their domestic aims this season. 

With so much uncertainty looming over the established elite, this season represents an ideal opportunity for Everton to prosper from a reshuffling of the top order.

Fixture list

Everton players celebrate

There is seldom a good time to play the top six away from home. That statement rings particularly true for Everton, a club who have been incapable of clinching three points in such encounters in recent years. Prior to their 1-0 opening day win at Spurs, they had failed to win in 40 away trips to the Manchester clubs, Chelsea, Liverpool and the north London giants.

The opening day victory finally began the process of exorcising that tormenting demon, but they’ll have to wait until 6 February 2021, whey face Manchester United at Old Trafford, before that can continue. Away games against Liverpool, Chelsea, Arsenal and then finally Man City on the final day will all take place in quick succession during the final months of the campaign.

With five of the six supposedly toughest away fixtures set to take place next year, there is ample opportunity for the Toffees to build momentum and resolve their deep-rooted mentality problems.

Ancelotti and Pickford

It would certainly be premature to back Everton to the tilt to finish inside the top four, particularly given no manager has led the Merseyside outfit to a top four finish since David Moyes masterminded a 4th place finish in the 2004/05 season.

However, a combination of intricate factors do appear conducive to that rare outcome this season.

In a world where football is played in empty stadiums, Gareth Bale has returned to Tottenham Hotspur and Roy Keane has been put in his place on live television, Everton must be considered a dark horse to qualify for Europe’s elite knockout competition. Stranger things have certainly happened in football and beyond.

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