Every time Everton take to the pitch Rafa Benitez holds his breath. The former Liverpool manager faced huge hostility when he took over at Goodison this summer. There were hysterical protests and important boardroom figures even threatened to walk out. Sense eventually prevailed and the temperature cooled. Yet the 61-year-old knows he has little margin for error.
Today Benitez takes his side to Elland Road to face Leeds United. The Premier League fixture computer has been relatively kind to the Spaniard. Of all the teams Everton meet in the first two months of the campaign, only Marcelo Bielsa’s side finished above them last season and that was only on goal difference. Three consecutive defeats would probably cause the Goodison fans to howl for change in the dugout. Things may have settled down on Merseyside but Benitez does not have any store of goodwill if things start to go wrong.
The 3-1 victory over Southampton last week was a positive start. After Leeds, the next few weeks bring trips to Brighton and Aston Villa and home matches against Burnley and Norwich City. Benitez will take none of these fixtures for granted but they should allow him a reasonable points haul and time to create a sense of normality around his tenure before the stiffer tests of the autumn.
One of the game’s maxims is that even the safest managers are just eight games away from the sack. Benitez has much less leeway. His job is not merely about getting results, he is trying to manage Everton out of half a decade of incoherence. The club have spent more than £500m in the transfer market and have little to show for it. The onus is on Marcel Brands, the director of football, to offload a number of overpaid and underachieving players.
At the top of the list is James Rodriguez who is on wages of £250,000 per week. The easy narrative is that the talented Colombian is a victim of Benitez’s ultra-pragmatism. The truth is more complex. The 30-year-old was never the right fit at Goodison and has not enjoyed his time on Merseyside. His attitude to training is said to be “relaxed” by those wishing to be kind to the former Real Madrid forward, who himself acknowledged he didn’t even know who his club were playing this weekend. Everton have not got their money’s worth in this deal. There are others in a similar position. Brands needs to find a way of getting them out of the club, which is no easy task in this environment. He is under at least as much pressure as the manager.
There will be no more glamour signings in the short term. Benitez prefers effectiveness over expense. Demarai Gray might not have been the most exciting arrival but the £2m signing from Bayer Leverkusen gives a good indication of the manager’s thinking. Benitez is setting up the team to function around Dominic Calvert-Lewin and Gray, Andros Townsend and Richarlison will be given the task of supplying the striker with crosses.
Today’s game at Elland Road is a fascinating clash of styles. Bielsa’s relentless tactical approach contrasts with Benitez’s more circumspect methods. The pair have not faced each other in competitive games before but both men are familiar with their opposite number’s techniques. Leeds will be aiming to bounce back after a shambolic 5-1 defeat by Manchester United on the opening weekend.
For Benitez the formula is simple. If he can improve players on the training ground – where he does much of his best work – that will show on the pitch. That takes time. The only way he will win over the Goodison hardcore is by winning matches. Even then, there will be a small minority who will always resent an ex-Anfield boss. Most managers have a honeymoon period. Benitez has had to make do with a frosty, sullen, pre-break-up atmosphere.
Yet he believes he can turn the relationship around. Everton have not picked up a trophy for 26 years but Benitez’s craving for success is unsated. Silverware might be the one thing that cements the unholy alliance between the manager and the fans. The Premier League is way beyond the club but the EFL Cup is a viable target. Everton will be back in Yorkshire on Tuesday in the second round of the competition. Benitez’s selection then will be instructive in indicating his priorities.
It will be a long time before the Everton manager can breathe easily. Benitez must make the most of these early fixtures to stamp his authority at Goodison.
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