Benitez’s side are on the same number of points as United but have so far faced only one team that finished above them last year. As positive as their start has been, the Spaniard will not be judged by victories over the likes of Norwich City. Evertonians, who are naturally suspicious of the former Liverpool boss, will only truly accept the 61-year-old if he is able to compete with the so-called Big Six. Especially as three of that self-aggrandising sextet have the look of wounded animals about them.
The Everton manager has plenty of history with United. They were the target of “Rafa’s Rant”, which in reality was a remarkably composed attack on Sir Alex Ferguson’s influence on English football. Benitez also said he would never manage United, a statement made in the understanding that he would never be offered the job (Chelsea and Everton were on the verboten list at various points, too). Even so, Old Trafford is a place where he relishes winning.
The game also brings a reunion with a player that Benitez briefly crossed paths and swords with in Spain. Neither he nor Cristiano Ronaldo remember their time together at Real Madrid with any affection. Benitez speaks highly of the Portuguese’s ability and work ethic in training but the two have very different approaches to the game. The sight of the manager gesturing to his superstar winger to tuck in when Real lost the ball and Ronaldo affecting not to see Benitez was pure Bernabeu comedy. Neither man found it funny.
United – along with Arsenal and Tottenham Hotspur – are struggling to live up to their Big Six status. The defeat to Aston Villa last week – the team that also spoiled Everton’s unbeaten start to the season – was another indication of the vulnerability of Ole Gunnar Solskjaer’s side. They escaped with a last-gasp 2-1 win over Villarreal in the Champions League on Wednesday but there are growing questions about the Norwegian’s tactics and deployment of a talented but sometimes directionless squad.
Benitez has the strategic brain to trouble United but his problem is personnel. Despite Everton spending more than £500m in the past five years, the new manager quickly came to the conclusion that Goodison needs a clear-out. That puts the spotlight on Marcel Brands, the director of football for the past three years. Brands spent his entire career in his native Netherlands before coming to Merseyside but it is telling that there is not a single Dutch player on Everton’s books.
In the absence of Dominic Calvert-Lewin and Richarlison, who are both recovering from injuries, Benitez will be short on quality tomorrow but there are areas where Everton have improved significantly from their last visit to Old Trafford, a 4-0 friendly defeat in August. Abdoulaye Doucoure has benefitted from his manager’s rigorous work on the training ground, as has Allan. Their midfielder partnership has been one of the positives of the campaign.
Demarai Gray and Andros Townsend will be looking to hit Salomon Rondon tomorrow. The three bargain-basement summer arrivals put Benitez’s problems in perspective. Gray, who has had a huge impact, cost £1.8m and the other two were free transfers.
Everton are relying on their manager’s craftiness given his paucity of options. Solskjaer can sprinkle his team with stardust but Benitez is highly skilled at exploiting the tactical incoherency of sides that look better on paper than on the pitch.
The game against United will give a clear indication of where Everton are and how far they need to go. The longer Benitez has at Finch Farm working with the players, the more they will improve. In January they will look to reinforce the squad. They have been linked with Allan Saint-Maximin from Benitez’s former club Newcastle United but Sean Longstaff looks a likelier option in the short term.
There is no quick fix at Goodison but Benitez believes Everton are going in the right direction. United will be a barometer of that progress.
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