The blame at Everton goes far deeper than Rafael Benitez

Lucas Digne’s fractious exit painted the beleaguered head coach as the main problem but the malaise at Goodison Park existed long before Benitez took charge

Tony Evans
Friday 14 January 2022 09:16
<p>Rafael Benitez is under severe pressure at Everton </p>

Rafael Benitez is under severe pressure at Everton

“Sometimes it only takes one person from outside to destroy a beautiful love affair.”

Lucas Digne’s heart-rending farewell to Everton supporters before his £25m move to Aston Villa is a masterpiece of the player-exit genre. It underlines his commitment to his former club while skewering Rafael Benitez in a single movement. There’s nothing like farting as you’re just about to leave the lift – especially if it’s going down. You poison the atmosphere but you need to be careful. The bad smell clings to you, too.

The away end at Carrow Road will be especially toxic tomorrow. Benitez cannot afford to drop points against Norwich City. Everton have won only once in the league since September, have produced some awful performances and are lurking on the fringe of the relegation battle.

Yet before going any further, it is worth exploring the nature of Digne’s “beautiful love affair.” The phrase gives the impression that Everton were somehow on an upward trajectory when Benitez arrived, That a golden era was around the corner. That Goodison was illuminated by glorious football. That the School of Science was alive and well.

Here is the reality. Everton finished tenth in the Premier League last season after spending more than half a billion on players – that’s excluding wages - in a five-year splurge. Carlo Ancelotti could not wait to jump ship to Real Madrid in the summer. The Italian is a hands-off, laid-back manager but he could see what was coming. The squad was worth a fraction of the £50m it cost and Farhad Moshiri, the owner and Bill Kenwright, the chairman, had maxed out on financial fair play regulations.

A clear indication of how badly wrong the recruitment had gone was that Marcel Brands, the former director of football, was criticised for his inability to offload players. Digne is the first departee to bring a decent return since the club turned a profit on Idrissa Gueye and Ademola Lookman three years ago.

Yes, the pre-Benitez era was a beautiful time. If you could romanticise mid-table mediocrity. If you wanted to believe that James Rodriguez was worth more than £200,000 per week. If big names meant more than big results. It was, without doubt, a time to dream.

The only people who really enjoyed these years were the agents who flocked around Moshiri and Kenwright. And even they knew that the great Goodison gold rush was not sustainable. Like Digne’s “love affair,” it was a fleeting fancy. Heartbreak was always just below the horizon.

It is impossible not to feel pity for Evertonians. Their journey from dizzy to desperate has been brutal. If no one else around Goodison realised that dreamtime was over, Alisher Usmanov understood it was time for a wake-up call. The Uzbek-born billionaire is Moshiri’s business partner and mentor and the club’s most significant sponsor. His backing of Benitez was key to the 61-year-old getting – and keeping – the manager’s job.

The Spaniard does not do love affairs. Not with players, not with fans. Ancelotti barely paid any attention to training – his greatest successes came when he had the sort of teams he could send onto the pitch with a cry of “go out and play.” The three-time Champions League-winning boss is a polisher rather than a builder.

Benitez is the opposite. If players are slack in training, it infuriates him. When they idle on the pitch and neglect their duties in favour of playing their own game, he finds it unacceptable. The culture shock in the Everton dressing room was massive.

His logic, too, is not the type that appeals to supporters fed on a diet of delusion for five years. The money received for Digne covered the vast majority of the fees for Vitaliy Mykolenko from Dinamo Kyiv and Nathan Patterson from Rangers. For Benitez the series of transactions are aimed to solve both full back positions without too much extra expenditure.

The former Liverpool manager will never be accepted by the majority of fans. His history at Anfield means he was not the right man for the role. He has not made things better in his short time at the club. Yet he is hardly the only one to blame for Everton’s current problems.

The lowering of expectations coincided with his arrival but there was a perfect storm heading Goodison’s way even before Ancelotti bailed out. It was probably a mistake to add hurricane Rafa to such an environment but others are far more culpable for Everton’s mess.

Digne had it easy during his time on Merseyside. The team coasted, money was no object but there was no strategy and little accountability.

Goodison needs less love and more fight. Digne was a small symptom of a deep malaise. Like the supporters, he has found it easier to blame Benitez than face the truth.

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