Everton secured a fine and well-deserved point at Old Trafford yesterday lunchtime and two players signed last summer were again key to that success.
Those two players were both signed last summer by Everton manager Rafa Benitez’s predecessor Carlo Ancelotti. I’m talking of course about Allan and Abdoulaye Doucoure.
Once again against United the two of them were immense with Doucoure again pivitol in a goal for the Blues as following a brilliant counter-attack he laid the ball off to Andros Townsend who shot home for the Toffees equaliser.
While the majority of recent attention has been rightly and understandably focused on the huge impact Benitez’s summer signings Townsend and Demarai Gray have made since joining, the two midfielders have been absolutely essential to the effectivness of the team.
This is particularly true because new manager Benitez favours a 4-2-3-1 type formation in which the two central midfielders have a key role in making this system work.
A huge amount of responsibility is placed on the two in the middle who have to be hard-working, dynamic and effective to enable a team to operate in this formation.
This formation has been used before by one of Benitez’s recent predecessors Marco Silva. The Portuguese coach tried this tactical system with Andre Gomes and Idrissa Gueye as the usual central midfield pair.
For a while this worked well and the Toffees produced their best form and results of Silva’s ill-fated reign during the final third of the 2018-19 season.
Ultimately, the combination of Gueye’s departure to PSG in the summer of 2019, injuries and poor form and the fact the player signed to replace Gueye, Jean-Philippe Gbamin, was basically out injured virtually from the start of his Everton career, undermined this and led to his demise.
The current Everton boss has been fortunate to have inherited these two players when he took over from Ancelotti this summer.
Had he not already had them in his squad it’s certain he would not have been able to bring in players of that calibre given the huge financial constraints he faced in the transfer market.
As it was he was able to focus his very limited resources on adding the pace and width he rightly identified as critical to making the most of his striking resources, particularly Dominic Calvert-Lewin and enable Everton to play much more effectively on the counter-attack.
Last season Ancelotti deployed his new midfield signings in an essentially defensive way usually in some version of a 4-3-3 formation.
This was necessary because the other big signing he made was the Colombian superstar James Rodriguez who preferred to play wide on the right of the attack.
Ancelotti wanted to make the most of Rodriguez’s great talents and so set up his team to essentially make the most of them.
That though meant he needed a really dynamic all-round full-back on the right hand side where James would operate, and this also required the midfielders to provide cover especially as the full-back was often out of position and Rodriguez tended to drift inside.
Ironically, after six Premier League matches from the start of last season Everton’s record was exactly the same as this campaign with fours wins a draw and one defeat. But then came injuries and things started to go wrong with Ancelotti’s approach.
Yesterday, Benitez’s Toffees team secured another draw – and could have had a win – to maintain their fine start despite all the injuries he has been dealing with.
The Everton manager has done a superb job organising his players, instilling a much more resiliant mentality and a greatly improved work ethic while he has emphasised the basics of the game and kept it simple tactically.
All this has massively improved the ability of this team to stay in matches and stick to a game-plan, ensuring they get something from a contest even if they’re not at their best.
He’s also underlined his reputation for an obsessive focus on every detail and has spent a good deal of time working with individual players. This has paid real dividends.
In the case of Doucoure in particular he has encouraged and brought out the excellent attacking qualities of the powerful Frenchman and what a difference that has made to the team’s performances. This was something I was desperate to see this season.
So, Benitez rightly deserves a great deal of credit for what he has done, and he’s getting it from Evertonian’s many of whom would have been doubtful about his appointment a few months ago.
When Ancelotti joined nearly two years ago now, it was to huge acclaim from almost all supporters but by the end of last season there were increasing doubts emerging, and with some justification too.
But while there was understandably bitterness about his abrupt departure, perhaps he (and maybe also Marcel Brands?) should be acknowledged for their contribution to this current success as those two midfield signings are proving crucial to enabling Benitez to make all this work.