There’s a stock explanation behind Everton’s decision to pursue, and appoint, Carlo Ancelotti as their new manager. The Toffees are ambitious and willing to spend enormous amounts of money to achieve, and maintain, elite status. Given that Ancelotti has managed more elite clubs than you can shake a stick at — from Milan to Real Madrid, from Bayern to Paris Saint-Germain, from Juventus to Chelsea — Everton are automatically on their way with their elite manager.
Of course, this kind of (flawed) logic raises several more questions.
One is the obvious cart-before-horse argument. The past five clubs Ancelotti managed finished first, second or third before his arrival; Everton haven’t finished that high since 1987 and haven’t finished higher than seventh in the past five years. What evidence is there that he can turn this team around? After all, he hasn’t built a top side in nearly two decades but instead has focused on the “last mile”: taking powerhouses to the next level (or not, in some cases). The problem with that argument is that A-list managers tend not to take over clubs that finished outside the elite — at least not after they’ve hit the heights. (Pep Guardiola has never done it, for what that’s worth.).
It’s also, largely, a question of resources. Juventus finished seventh the year before Ancelotti’s arrival, and he guided them to consecutive second-place finishes, twice missing out on the title in controversial circumstances. Milan were sixth the season before he joined them. In his first full season, he won the Champions League, and he followed with the Serie A title the year after. But this is just statistical pedantry. A big club with big resources bouncing back after a tough year or two (as was the case at Milan and Juventus) isn’t the same thing as turning Everton into a perennial Champions League side.
Chelsea were 10th the summer Antonio Conte arrived and won the title the following year. (Of course, they won it the season before they finished 10th, too.) Liverpool were sixth the year before Jurgen Klopp arrived, but they had finished second two seasons earlier. The point is if you’re a big club (as in high turnover, not historical oomph) that has enjoyed recent success, the act of bouncing back is an entirely different proposition.
That isn’t who Everton are right now, and that’s what makes this challenge entirely different for Ancelotti.
According to Deloitte’s Money League most recent list, Everton rank 17th across Europe in revenue, but that takes on a rather different spin when you consider that they are seventh among Premier League clubs, and the team in sixth (Tottenham) has more than twice Everton’s revenue (and that was before their new stadium opened). Everton, of course, also have plans for a new ground, but the earliest they’ll move in is 2023. And sure, owner Farhad Moshiri seems to have access to a ton of cash (his mate, Alisher Usmanov, has even more), but without substantial growth in revenue, it’s about as useful as a motorbike is to a narwhal. Financial Fair Play — and the Premier League’s version of short-term cost controls — means Everton won’t be able to chuck money in pursuit of instant success like Manchester City did a decade ago.
If they grow, it’s going to be incremental. There’s a gaggle of players out of contract in 2021 and 2022 (Morgan Schneiderlin, Theo Walcott, Seamus Coleman, Fabian Delph, Gylfi Sigurdsson, Cenk Tosun) who are beyond or close to 30. You either figure out how to make it work with them, or you clear them out and take a hit since you rarely get much back for players of that age with those contracts. And, of course, if you take a hit, then you have less to spend elsewhere.
Ancelotti’s recent reputation is built on his ability to motivate and manage veterans, albeit mostly guys who have already enjoyed success. The vast majority of these players haven’t. Equally, developing promising youngsters isn’t normally listed among his strong points, and there are several here, both those already in the squad (Tom Davies, Moise Kean, Mason Holgate, Dominic Calvert-Lewin) and those likely to come through one of the better academies in England.
Does it matter? Does the fact that Ancelotti hasn’t done this in his past few jobs — mainly because it wasn’t required — mean he can’t do it now? That’s how the conversation ought to be framed. What are the challenges, and how will he deal with them? A lot of the rest is just hot air.
You get the moans coming from Bayern Munich that Ancelotti’s training sessions were “too relaxed,” which is exactly the sort of tough-to-verify-and-likely-not-relevant justification we often hear from clubs that sack their managers. (Were they too relaxed at Bayern but “just right” elsewhere, like when he was winning the Champions League at Real Madrid and keeping Cristiano Ronaldo happy or winning the Double at Chelsea? Does it mean they’ll forever be “too relaxed”?)
You get folks pointing out that Ancelotti hasn’t spent more than two seasons at a club in a decade. Sure, but he was sacked at four of the five clubs he was at in that time frame — after winning silverware at three of them and finishing second at the other — so maybe it’s not a question of his not wanting to stick around.
You get those who point to the fact that Ancelotti has won only four league titles as evidence of some kind of flakiness or a sign that he’s better suited to cup competitions. Well, three of those league titles came in his past seven full seasons. Maybe recency ought to matter a little, too?
It’s also funny that those who point to his single league title at Milan, in seven full seasons, often forget that in two of those years, the winner was stripped of the title due to the Calciopoli scandal, and in another, he began the season with an eight-point penalty.
Then you get those who write him off as a “pragmatist” at a time when successful football is all about visionaries and idealists, such as Pep Guardiola or Jurgen Klopp. Leaving aside the facts that people (especially pragmatists) adapt (as both Guardiola and Klopp have adapted) and labels aren’t some sort of scarlet letter you have to wear in perpetuity, the description is especially out of place with Ancelotti. This is the same guy who (wrongly) was so dogmatic that he said “no” to Roberto Baggio and sold Gianfranco Zola in his prime because neither fit into this precious, visionary scheme. That happened at Parma, and that was a long time ago, but anybody who forgets that the single biggest influence on his career was the epitome of dogma and system (Arrigo Sacchi) doesn’t know their history. If Ancelotti is pragmatic, he’s pragmatic by choice.
The fact that we’re even having these conversations shows just how unprepared we are for a guy such as Ancelotti landing at a club such as Everton in its current incarnation. Managers of his status do not usually put their reputations on the line by taking on an entirely different brief than what they’ve had the past two decades.
Ancelotti could be splitting his time between the lush greenery of Vancouver and the salt-of-the-Earth Emilia countryside, eating salmon and cold cuts while contemplating humanity. He’s not. He’s back at the coalface, trying to turn the Everton clock back to the mid-1980s, when they were one of the best sides in Europe.