Benitez’s team host Arsenal tonight and are aiming to break a winless streak that goes back to September. Their most recent defeat, a 4-1 pummelling by Liverpool, inflamed an already restive fanbase and precipitated the sacking of Brands. The Dutchman’s 3½ years on Merseyside was not a success but Brands was still a scapegoat.
Since Farhad Moshiri bought into the club five years ago, Everton have spent more than half a billion in the transfer market and are on their sixth manager. This illustrates the lack of cohesive thought. Moshiri has no clear vision about how to develop the football side of the business. He has been susceptible to the blandishments of agents. Brands was often over-ruled on decisions that he was employed to make.
The influence of Bill Kenwright, the chairman, has not been positive, either. No one could doubt the theatre impresario’s emotional attachment to the club but his role as guardian of ‘the Everton way’ has frequently proved counterproductive. The 76-year-old’s input on team-building further complicated Brands’ job.
Dysfunction is in Everton’s DNA and it long predates Moshiri’s involvement. Benitez needs to untangle this mess. Because of Benitez’s reputation for playing politics, some will style the departure of Brands as the climax of a power struggle. That is a stretch. The Everton board were questioning the performance of the director of football last year.
Benitez was bemused by the standard of the squad he inherited and surprised at the lack of Dutch players at Goodison. After all, Brands cemented his reputation at PSV Eindhoven. The two men would probably not have worked together by choice but one of Everton’s issues is that Brands, the individual charged with overseeing the footballing operation, has had little say when it comes to employing managers.
Where does this leave Benitez? Still in a difficult situation. It should buy him more time. If nothing else, Brands’ dismissal gives the illusion of action. Whether it addresses the underlying problems remains to be seen.
Most Evertonians – including some internally – are still uncomfortable with the thought of a former Liverpool manager being at the helm. Yet at least Benitez has a clear philosophy about how he envisages the club’s development. Like Carlo Ancelotti the 61-year-old has top-class connections and credentials. In contrast to the Italian, Benitez is a 24/7 workaholic. If he fails at Everton it will not be for a lack of commitment and effort.
The turnover of managers at Goodison means that the squad have become used to seeing off their bosses. A substantial proportion of the playing staff are on more money than their production warrants and are reluctant to move on until their contracts are up. Some of the criticism aimed at Brands concerned his inability to trim the squad. Everton have very few marketable assets.
Half a decade of overspending means that Everton are close to the edge when it comes to the Premier League’s financial fair play regulations. There will be no spending spree in January.
The big plus for Benitez is that he has the support of Alisher Usmanov, the Uzbek-born billionaire and Goodison’s most significant sponsor. Usmanov, who was a minority shareholder at tonight’s opponents Arsenal for 11 years, is Moshiri’s friend, business partner and mentor. As long as the oligarch has faith in the manager, Benitez is likely to retain his position, even if the crowd and the boardroom turn toxic.
These are not ideal working conditions but Benitez, who relished his connection with supporters at Liverpool and Newcastle United, has the knack of shutting out exterior noise. His obsessive nature gives him a sometimes unhealthy focus. He spent the weekend avoiding distractions and trying to work out how to beat Arsenal. The team need a result badly.
That will be a difficult task. In the absence of Dominic Calvert-Lewin, Everton have scored just twice in the past five games. The England striker is unlikely to play before Christmas and the lack of goals is exacerbated by a leaky defence.
Reinforcements are still a long way over the horizon but another of Benitez’s attributes is his wide range of contacts and his reputation as a winner. This means players want to work with him. Demarai Gray and Andros Townsend, two bargain-basement signings from the summer, have been among Everton’s better performers. January will be spent looking for undervalued, underachieving recruits with the potential to impress.
Time is just one of Benitez’s problems. Everton need structure, a clear delineation of authority and a new ethos. This will require change. Until that happens, the chaos will continue at Goodison.
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