It was considered doomed from day one, and now the union is over. What next for Rafa the Gaffer and the Toffees?
A Line in the Sand
On Saturday, Everton’s 2-1 defeat to Norwich City — arguably every Premier League team’s favourite opposition this season — left them languishing in 16th place in the league table, just six points off the relegation zone.
Everton looked far from the team that had started their league campaign with three wins and a draw out of their first four matches. They definitely looked further away from being the European juggernaut Farhad Moshiri, the club’s majority owner, has hoped for since his 49.9% acquisition of the club in February 2016.
Rafa Benítez never really had a strong footing at the club from day one. For every ten steps he took right, he needed to take only one step wrong for the fanbase to call for his head. The ice under his feet was already very thin; the Norwich defeat melted whatever was left of it.
So, obvious as it may have looked from the very start, why didn’t the Benítez-Everton partnership work?
The Proof of the Pudding
In his farewell letter to the Everton fans, Rafa points out how “it is only when you are inside that you realise the magnitude of the task” and that “the financial situation and then the injuries that followed made things even harder”.
He’s not wrong. Since Moshiri’s takeover nearly six years ago, the club’s profligacy in the transfer market has seen their net spend cross the £200m mark, but the results have been anything but positive both in terms of silverware and player sales. This, and the consequently hefty wage bill, meant that the club needed to severely restrict their spending this season in adherence to the Premier League’s Financial Fair Play regulations.
The FFP restraints were undoubtedly part of the reason Rafa and his pragmatic approach were considered ideal for the club, but at the same time they also contributed in making things harder for the ex-Liverpool manager whose past ensured the odds were already neatly stacked against him.
Of the players onboarded in the summer, only Demarai Gray commanded a transfer fee — a paltry amount of £1.7m. Gray, alongside Andros Townsend, a free signing, has provided some exciting moments. While neither of them is close to producing performances of the level Everton aim to operate at, their presence is a net positive.
Another free signing, Salomón Rondón, has been a constant subject of derision from the Everton fanbase. Considered a Benítez favourite because of their time together across Newcastle United and Dalian Professional, the Venezuelan veteran has had to play more than he would have anticipated when he joined Rafa at the club given Dominic Calvert-Lewin’s long-term injury issues this season, and his sluggish performances in front of goal have made him an even softer target for Toffees fans.
The Spaniard is not without blame, however. The admiration for his workaholism is universal, but so is the acknowledgement of the fact that his man-management leaves much to be desired. Even the players that have been part of successful Benítez teams point out that the 61-year-old can be very hard to work with. Such a trait is hardly a plus in modern-day football, let alone in an environment readied by design to repel your very presence.
Unsurprisingly, Benítez’s comportment did not help his case. A review led by him earlier in the season saw the dismissal of Everton’s head of medical services Danny Donachie, who was considered popular among the players, while few others of the medical staff had their roles downgraded as Rafa onboarded personnel he worked with at Newcastle. His role ever-diminishing under Benítez, Marcel Brands left his post as the club’s Director of Football in December after serving the role for three years; he was handed a three-year contract extension in April.
Finally, Benítez’s very public fallout with Lucas Digne, regarded as one of the finest attacking fullbacks in the league, saw the Frenchman leave for Aston Villa only a week before Everton decided to call time on Rafa’s reign.
Everton’s decision to choose Rafa over Digne only to then let go of the manager within a week is an example sufficient in and of itself to demonstrate the club’s wayward and confusing decision-making that has seen them become anything but a European powerhouse under Farhad Moshiri, because of which, despite the ownership’s opulence, Everton remain a mid-table club currently in danger of falling into a relegation battle.
Where to, Toffees?
The powers that be at Everton need to understand that simply chucking money into the club is not going to result in an efficient, trophy-winning squad. They only need to look across the town at their bitter red rivals to infer that shrewd staffing and well-thought-out decision-making is just as important—if not more—in order to compete with state-funded, uber-wealthy goliaths.
Everton under Moshiri have shown very little clarity—if any at all—in what they are trying to achieve. After they sacked Roberto Martínez in May 2016, they brought in Ronald Koeman at the start of the 2016-17 season, only to sack him early in the season after, bringing in Sam Allardyce to save them from relegation. The mantle then passed on to Marco Silva in hopes of effective, expansive football, but he was relieved of his duties after just a season and a half, with Carlo Ancelotti’s celebrity enticing the Everton owners to bring him to Merseyside. His only full season precipitated in a tenth-place finish in the Premier League, and he could just as well have suffered a bitter end had Florentino Pérez not asked him to return to Spain and help him steady the Blancos ship. Now, less than seven months into his three-year contract, Rafa Benítez has been given his marching orders.
It’s not just the hiring and firing; it’s the profile of managers that have been chosen and then dismissed once their position is deemed untenable. That this has happened under the presidence of two Directors of Football in Steve Walsh and Marcel Brands doesn’t help Everton’s case either. That the current Everton squad is a net result of over £500m spent in bringing players in is incredible, and not in a good way.
The shiny European spots in the Premier League are way fewer than the teams vying for them, without which their season cannot not be considered successful. Because of their global might, the Big Six will always have the “Europe or bust” mentality, with clubs run much more cleverly than Everton ready to swoop in for the spaces left unoccupied by the Six. There shall always be, therefore, more than one team who will end their season unsatisfied. For the lack of European qualification to not be a total disaster, teams need to operate wisely, keeping forever in mind that while investment is paramount, success is not a guarantee. The Everton owners have thrown away money hoping to earn it back and then some by reaching the European paradise, but their wastefulness has left them strapped by FFP and with half a foot in the relegation quagmire.
The blues of the Merseyside Blues will not blow away instantly, but for now, they need to be jump-started in order to not become part of the Premier League’s basement, which has been nicely cemented by Watford, Norwich City, Newcastle and Burnley up until now. Duncan “Big Dunc” Ferguson is considered to be the likeliest candidate to take charge in the meantime, and given his connection with the club, he might just be able to save their season and set things up for the next manager, unless he is finally handed the role full-time.
If anything, this season needs to be a reality check for Everton. Big changes are needed to be made in the background at Goodison Park, and unless they realise the need for a proper ideology to complement a system that provides foundation for progressive team-building, Everton will continue going round and round in circles.
Rafa’s Road Ahead
Rafa Benítez was obviously not solely responsible for his ill-fated Everton stint, but if anything, his return to Merseyside has highlighted once again the importance of adapting one’s repertoire with time. Rafa’s cold-shoulder mannerisms may have worked just fine fifteen years ago, but they no longer provide foundations for a long-term successful stint in modern-day football.
In that regard, Benítez joins José Mourinho on the pantheon of great managers whose ways are becoming more antiquated by the day, yet they seem determined to test Time itself.
Just ask Ozymandias — it’s not worth it.
Will Rafa get another job in the Premier League? It is likely, yes. He left Newcastle United in 2019 because of Mike Ashley, who is no longer there. The new Saudi Arabia-led consortium that presides over the club are keen to win the fans over, and who better to help them out in that regard than an absolute fan favourite with a serious pedigree? Of course, they may end up inclining towards setting up a more structured hierarchy, but a Benítez-Newcastle reunion in the near future cannot be ruled out.
Then again, one of the key reasons Rafa took the Everton job was to stay close to his family. It should be considered likely, therefore, that Rafa Benítez will end up manning another Premier League ship, if only for one last ride.