Article on Ebrell's new role in the athletic
“You’d be a fool not to look at Carlo, a world-class coach, and wonder what you can learn, what we can take from him to hopefully produce more Premier League players than we have done so far.”
John Ebbrell is musing on a busy couple of weeks, what he has learnt since becoming Everton’s head of academy coaching and how he can move the club forward.
Appointed by director of football Marcel Brands at the start of the month, Ebbrell has been hard at work getting to grips with his new role. The biggest change so far has been the longer days. “I left at 8pm last night. Time just drifts by, because you’re immersed in it,” he tells The Athletic.
Ebbrell is exactly where he wants to be, helping shape the long-term future of a club he won the FA Cup with as a player in 1995. He has always had a curious mind when it comes to football, doing a similar job to his current one for Tranmere Rovers before rejoining Everton in 2015, and though the call from Brands was “a bit of a surprise”, it was something he had “always looked at and wondered what I would do and how I would in that sort of situation”.
He no longer has to wonder.
Already, Ebbrell has attended training sessions at all academy levels, speaking to coaches and colleagues to assess what comes next at the club. Keen to also pick the brains of one of the most successful managers in the game, early last week he met Carlo Ancelotti.
“Carlo and (assistant manager and Carlo’s son) Davide are open in sharing their idea of the game and their principles. They are brilliant at that,” he says. “They’ve given us access to how they see the game, but there’s absolutely no pressure. It’s not, ‘You must do this, you must do that’. I don’t think we should just be copying the first team because you don’t know what happens in five or 10 years.
“We need to work slightly the other way and think, ‘What are our principles at Everton?’ We should have our own identity and build that, taking stuff from Carlo as best we can.”
There have been changes, brought about by conversations Ebbrell has had with David Unsworth, a former team-mate and now director of the club’s academy. One of the first was to emphasise the desire to “move faster in all areas of the pitch” — “faster actions, thinking faster and speed of play in general” as the 51-year-old Ebbrell puts it.
Since Ancelotti’s appointment 11 months ago, there has been a focus on Everton building from the back. It is an approach that is being mirrored lower down their age-group ranks. Such slick passing represents a departure from the kind of football seen from them during Ebbrell’s functional playing career, but there is an understanding of the benefits of playing in such a way.
John Ebbrell Everton
Ebbrell, a functional midfielder, celebrates a rare goal (Photo: Allsport UK /Allsport)
“As a club, we’re looking to play through the lines a lot more and the emphasis will be how quickly can we do that,” says Ebbrell. “I never thought I’d see two centre-backs receiving the ball close to the six-yard box from the goalkeeper at Goodison Park.
“It looks normal and relaxed when we play out. Everyone knows what they should be doing. (And) when we get out, it’s virtually a four-on-four counter-attack. If you take the risks, then the rewards are there. The earlier we can expose young players to that pressure of receiving the ball close to the goal, the better.
“In my day, defenders were just defenders. Nowadays, you have to be multi-faceted: defend one-on-one, win aerial challenges and also be excellent in possession. Midfielders can’t lose the ball in dangerous areas and they need to play with intensity, think quickly, and have vision. You need your athletes, as the ball goes box-to-box in the Premier League. It’s a real challenge. Looking at the data, it’s just going further in that direction. We’re asking our players and sports scientists to make sure we can keep up with the demands of the modern game. That’s the way the game has gone. Every position is evolving.”
These are fairly common principles in the modern game, but Ebbrell and Unsworth are also setting about instilling what they believe to be key traits of any Everton side.
“One of the key things I’ve learnt is that we’ve been trying to coach a bit of everything,” he says. “For the first team, under-23s and to some extent the under-18s, there’s a league table and I would expect they would all look to do certain things in matches and in their set-ups to win games.
“In the younger age groups, one of the first things was to say, ‘We’re going to play like this and I want to coach like this’. We always look to have a press, whether it’s a high press or a mid-press. And it’s being aggressive, trying to take the game to the opposition, not getting caught up in having 25 passes just because it looks good.
“Everton have been built on being aggressive and being a fighting club. We shouldn’t lose those values. Yes, we should want to play good, possession football. Penetrative, fast, exciting football. But there have got to be good values and a good structure. I think David has always got that balance right. When I first went to watch training, everyone was challenged and that was exciting. I don’t see that too often when I go round other clubs. You see the identity, and with our under-23s you always know what you’re getting.”
As with Unsworth’s appointment, Ebbrell’s promotion forms part of a wider strategy for the academy being conducted by Brands.
“I’m always mightily impressed by his forward-thinking. He has been outstanding,” Ebbrell says of the Dutchman, who has set about putting his stamp on all aspects of the club, including their academy. “He cares passionately about Everton. He is personable and humble, so you want to work with him and for him. He’s made lots of small decisions that make a difference. Lots of, ‘If this player comes in, this needs to happen’ and, ‘If this doesn’t work, this needs to happen’. There is a very coherent plan, a more holistic approach to bringing players through, and strategy not just for the club, but also for players.”
That focus on individual player pathways led to the recent appointment of long-time Everton defender Leighton Baines as the club’s first professional development coach following his retirement as a player at the end of last season.
The 35-year-old’s remit is to work with Ancelotti, Unsworth and other coaches at the club to provide all young players, from first team through to under-18 level, with “individual training”.
“It’s a really good appointment, not just because Leighton was a great player and wanted to coach, but because the role itself was much needed,” says Ebbrell. “It works perfectly between the three age groups right now, and he has a key role to play.
“There will be times when a player is in-between the under-23s and first team. That programme might get affected because he’s not in the first team or playing with us (under-23s) every single week. Leighton might pick up something there. He could spot a weakness with a player that needs work, or some might ask to do more after training.”
The overarching aim, for Baines, Ebbrell and Unsworth alike, is to produce a regular supply of players for Ancelotti and his eventual successors. “What we do is vitally important but everything leads to the first team,” Ebbrell says. “Things can change at the top, it’s just the way it is. We have to put things in place that last longer than any individual”.
One of the final steps in the process, at least internally, is Unsworth’s under-23s side, where Ebbrell will continue as the assistant manager. After eight Premier League 2 games this season, Everton have three wins, a draw and four defeats to their name.
“It’s been a little bit up and down but that’s OK,” Ebbrell says. “We played really well against Chelsea (a 2-0 home win a fortnight ago). The very fact three or four players from the fringes of the first team came in and were outstanding is pleasing, because that hasn’t happened for a while. It’s evidence of people working closer together and a strategy. That’s progress.”
There is widespread excitement among the fanbase about top goalscorer Ellis Simms, 19, and 17-year-old midfielder Tyler Onyango but Ebbrell is keen to stress the pair remain works in progress.
“Ellis is scoring goals,” he says. “He’s still got lots to do and can’t get ahead of himself.
“Tyler is only 17 and under-23 football is still a big ask. He’s great to work with, lots of scope for improvement. They are all made very aware that there’s lots to work on. Don’t believe little bits in the press. Tyler needs more under-23 football, I know that. In general, we’re a bit younger than normal and that’s been great.
“When I see a young player make his debut for Everton, that’s good, but for me, it’s all about getting to 50 games. That’s when I think you’re a Premier League footballer.”
There is a hunger for more, a continued raising of standards across the board.
Crucially, Everton’s new head of coaching sees cause for optimism as he sets about his task.
“You can never be happy and it’s never enough,” he admits. “It’s always, ‘Where is the next one?’ That’s the right mentality in football. Football has a great habit of changing things when you get ahead of yourself, so you have to keep your head down.
“What I would say, though, is that there are more good people around the football club than there has been for some time. That’s progress. You can get somewhere with that.”