Rafa Benitez says Lucas Digne wants to leave Everton.
In a rather terse news conference, a defensive Benitez questioned what else he was supposed to do if he had a player on the books who did not want to be there.
He also, rather bizarrely, referred to Toffees legend Peter Reid when justifying his decision to freeze Digne out of the first-team picture.
“I think he was very clear. I want to ask a question to any fan or former player, what Peter Reid will say if a player doesn’t want to be here? He told me what he thought, so what do you expect the manager to do?
“I have no explanation [for why he wants to leave]. If someone is happy or not happy, you are paid big money and have to perform and be available. You have to put your interest behind that of the club. But modern football, maybe the stats and the priorities have changed and maybe people think about themselves ahead of the team.”
Pressed on the reasons behind Digne’s desire to leave, Benitez suggested the Frenchman was more interested in his individual stats than the team, again chucking in a random Peter Reid reference.
“A team that finished 10th [last season] and someone is worried about the stats, it changes nothing for me what you said before. I don’t want to finish 10th. I would like to be in a much better position.
“I want to be sure that Everton Football Club is growing and improving, and we create a winning mentality for the future. So we’ll take some time. Yes, but in the meantime, you need players that really want to be here.
“So again, I will ask the question Peter Reid, what he will say if a player doesn’t want to be here. He will be happy with this player? He will supportive of this player? The fans will be supportive of this player? It’s what we have to consider what we want to do in the future. We want to try and grow and improve. It’s just to manage the egos and then leave the team behind, depending on the egos.”
Asked whether there was any way back for Digne, and whether there had been any interest in the full-back, he said:
“It’s very simple. The 31st January, if he’s still here, we have to deal with it.
“We knew already, we were trying to manage the situation. We have interest but nothing concrete. What I cannot do is bring players who want to be here, and then give priority to those who aren’t interested.
“We know Lucas is a good player. The question is what the team needs, and then we didn’t have that. The team has to do something, every player has to be there for the task”
Benitez has a reputation for relishing confrontation and he was certainly in fighting mode here, seemingly lashing out at anyone questioning his methods.
We are unlikely to ever find out exactly what has gone on with Digne, but the fact he appeared happy and only signed a new five-year deal last year suggests a clash with Benitez is behind his change of heart.
Digne may well have questioned Benitez’s tactics and the impact it was having on his performances, but Benitez can hardly claim the moral high ground when results have been so desperately poor.
Constantly referring to Peter Reid suggests he is aware of the deep hostility towards him from the Everton fans because of his Liverpool connections and thinks any manager, even a true blue like Reid, would do the same. However, would another manager fall out with such a key player and attempt to force him out in such a crude manner?
What he doesn’t seem to acknowledge is the anger at his Red connections is trumped by the anger at the woeful results and performances over the last three months - something he has not taken any responsibility for.
For the sake of balance, Digne is 29 later this year and has struggled for his best form over the last 18 months, so cashing in now and bringing in 22-year-old Vitaly Mykolenko as his replacement makes sense.
It could also well be that Digne IS a disruptive influence and such a hardline stance is maybe what the squad has needed for sometime?
But by publicly shoving him out of the door he has reduced Everton’s leverage, meaning clubs will likely wait until late in the window before making a bid, aware that the Toffees do not want an unhappy player hanging around.
It also adds to the sense of disharmony that currently envelops the club and is unlikely to appease a simmering fanbase deeply concerned about the future.