This is the situation that Rafa Benitez dreaded. His Everton team have picked up only two points in seven games and have not won for more than two months. Tonight they face a rampant Liverpool fc at Goodison Park and the Spaniard can only expect to hear his name chanted from the away section. Things could get ugly in the Merseyside derby.
A tight defeat by his former club would be bad enough. A mauling by Jurgen Klopp’s side would be catastrophic for Benitez. The big question is how could the 61-year-old go forward if Liverpool – who have banged in four goals in each of their last two Premier League games – run up the score.
The answer is simple: with great difficulty.
The majority of the fans never wanted a former Liverpool manager in charge. A number of insiders at the club – from the boardroom down – were convinced Benitez’s appointment was a violation of ‘the Everton way.’ For the moment, the manager’s tenure seems completely in accord with recent Goodison tradition. It is hard to see an end to the endemic mediocrity.
Benitez is an easy target. His Liverpool credentials would be enough on their own to generate an emotional response from the Gwladys Street End but the antagonism runs deeper. As the away fans will remind everyone tonight, Benitez once called Everton a “small club.” That remark will haunt him.
The comment is so wounding because rational Evertonians can see that there is some truth in it. Even after spending more than £500 million in the past five years during the Farhad Moshiri era, success seems a long way off.
The bitter truth is that Benitez is the best option available to Everton at the moment. Any manager would be hamstrung by the wasteful spending conducted under Ronald Koeman, Sam Allardyce, Marco Silva and Carlo Ancelotti. The club need to go into the transfer market again but financial fair play rules leave them little room for manoeuvre.
Injuries have sidelined the team’s best players but what has been surprising is Benitez’s failure to improve the rest of the squad. One of the characteristics of the manager’s career is his positive impact on the training ground. After an early boost, players like Ben Godfrey have flatlined. Some of Benitez’s sides over the years have been short on flair but had the knack of grinding out results. Everton have that toxic combination of being grim to watch and liable to leak goals.
The biggest positive for Benitez is the support of Alisher Usmanov, Everton’s most significant sponsor and Moshiri’s friend and mentor. While the manager retains the backing of the Uzbek-born billionaire, his job will be safe. Usmanov has no sentimental connection with Goodison and is concerned only with the bottom line. His influence on Moshiri is huge.
Benitez argues that when he gets his frontline players back the team will be better. Dominic Calvert-Lewin’s goals have been missed but the England striker is at least back in training. He will not be ready tonight.
Abdoulaye Doucoure and Richarlison are available for the derby but the squad looks lightweight. Marcel Brands has been director of football for 3 and a half years and has supervised a recruitment strategy that has failed badly. The academy, once so admired, is not producing first-teamers with enough regularity. The contrast with what has happened at Anfield during the Klopp era is stark.
After the defeat by Watford in October – when Everton threw away the lead with 15 minutes remaining to lose 5-2 – Benitez was as low as at any point in his long career. He is desperate to bring success to Goodison. Where Koeman made it clear he was just passing through and Ancelotti was semi-detached, the present incumbent is committed to the club. Newcastle United were extremely keen for him to jump ship after the Saudi Arabian backed takeover but Benitez rebuffed the advances.
The next few weeks are likely to be rough. If Liverpool do win at a canter, there will be only one consolation. The nadir will have been reached. Things cannot really get worse.
It will need all of Benitez’s organisational skills and tactical acumen to get anything from the derby. If they can stifle the game and come away with a point, it will strengthen the manager’s position. An unlikely victory would not make the fanbase take him to their hearts but it would buy him a lot of goodwill. The problem is that to do either of these things Everton probably need something that their boss cannot give them: better players.
Very little of the mess at Goodison is down to Benitez. Still, it is legitimate to question why the players have shown so little energy, resilience and structure.
Derbies are different. This one has even more at stake than usual. Especially for Benitez. If things go badly it will be a grim winter for Everton and their manager.
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