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Why have Everton become so awful under Rafael Benitez?

Everton
(Image credit: Getty)

If the league table famously never lies, two tables tell different stories of Everton’s season. Only Liverpool took more points in August and September. No one has taken fewer since, even if October began with a creditable draw at Old Trafford. Bottom of the form table, and in the bottom half of the actual table, it underlines the sense that a promising start has given way to a torrid time for Rafa Benitez.

Everton have one point from their last six games. They have gone 294 minutes without a goal. They have a Merseyside derby on Wednesday, with Arsenal and Chelsea to come within their next four fixtures. The Rafa reunion promises to be a traumatic affair for a manager more beloved in the half of Merseyside where he has not plied his trade since 2010.

Sometimes it does not take much to shift Evertonians from optimism to pessimism. An excellent run, followed by an execrable one, contained little middle ground. It exposed underlying problems. At times, it left Benitez looking luckless. It remains a minor mystery that a club who have spent so much in recent years have so little in reserve. Everton’s first 11 remains potentially good. Take two or three out and fault-lines in the squad soon become exposed.

The extended absence of arguably their most important player, Dominic Calvert-Lewin, who retains a goal-a-game record this season but has not played since August, deprives Benitez of a player who scored 29 times in Carlo Ancelotti’s relatively brief reign. His sidekick, Richarlison, has had an undistinguished but stop-start season of a mere two goals but enough bookings to get him suspended for Sunday’s loss at Brentford. All of which has propelled Benitez’s old ally Salomon Rondon to prominence; short of sharpness, acquired as a back-up, a free transfer feels a stick with which to beat Benitez. But Rondon’s 550 minutes on the pitch have produced three shots on target and few suggestions a first goal is coming any time soon.

The flagship successes of his bargain-basement recruitment came on the flanks, highlighting a new-found commitment to width in an era when a team is no longer built around James Rodriguez. But it always looked as though the £1.7 million wingers were overachieving when Demarai Gray and Andros Townsend each had three goals by early October. Neither has one since, with Townsend even taking turns infield when Everton, despite having a host of central midfielders, lacked compelling choices when Abdoulaye Doucoure was out. Tom Davies may have been unselectable after the 5-2 defeat to Watford, as was Jean-Philippe Gbamin after the first half at Wolves. Fabian Delph played well against Tottenham and was taken off, a preventative measure to stop an injury-prone player from getting injured again. Such are the complications of managing Everton and the problem of a squad that is big and yet feels small, due to permanent congestion on the treatment table and previous managers’ poor choices. Financial Fair Play regulations meant they could scarcely spend in the summer, but they still have Cenk Tosun, part of Sam Allardyce’s utterly needless £50 million splurge on the Turk and Theo Walcott.

In defence, Everton look for a successor to Seamus Coleman every window and never sign one. Benitez felt unfortunate that Yerry Mina, who was shaping up as his best centre-back, got injured and that Ben Godfrey, a revelation last season, got Covid: his performances are yet to reach such a level again. He can be faulted more for his management of Mason Holgate, who was first marginalised and then sent off against Tottenham, and Lucas Digne, who has lost much of his creativity while seemingly playing in a straitjacket.

The Spaniard’s fondness for two compact blocks of four, counter-attacking and eschewing possession, worked well at the start of the season. Since then, however, Everton have been playing underdog football without much of a cutting edge. Factor in the self-destructive streak of the bizarre collapse against Watford plus the wretchedness of the first half at Wolves and Everton can reflect on a particularly damaging hour, spread across two games. And the pragmatist in Benitez may eye two meetings with promoted teams for a glimpse of where it has gone wrong: beat Watford and Brentford and their position would be looking more healthy. Instead, they lost to both and now there might be a certain inevitability about discussions centring around his position. Especially if a manager accustomed to pleasing Liverpool fans in derbies does so again, but in a different way.

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Richard Jolly

Richard Jolly also writes for the National, the Guardian, the Observer, the Straits Times, the Independent, Sporting Life, Football 365 and the Blizzard. He has written for the FourFourTwo website since 2018 and for the magazine in the 1990s and the 2020s, but not in between. He has covered 1500+ games and remembers a disturbing number of the 0-0 draws.