Our review of the past Everton season continues with a report card for now-former manager Rafa Benitez
At the start of this past season, hopes were high coming off of a campaign overseen by Carlo Ancelotti where Everton were so very close to securing a top-six final spot in the Premier League table. Rafa Benitez, however, had been appointed the manager after the shock departure of the Italian back to Real Madrid; while supporters and pundits alike were unsure of the hire, it became clear after just a few months that things were not going to be like they were the season prior.
When looking in hindsight upon the entire Benitez debacle that would see the former boss of Liverpool sacked at Everton by mid-January, the writing on the wall was there fairly early. While the team started off somewhat strong in August, by September flaws were already becoming glaring.
The first loss of the year — to Aston Villa by a score of 3-0 — should not have been much more than a defeat that is rebounded from and put behind the club, yet the shock loss to Queens Park Rangers in the third round of the Carabao Cup only compounded and accentuated the issues that would become endemic for this club under the eye of Benitez. From that loss to Villa on the 18th of September until Benitez was relieved in January, replaced at first by Duncan Ferguson and then by Frank Lampard, Everton managed only two victories and nine total points out of a total of 15 Premier League matches.
In the final games and weeks of his tenure at Everton, Benitez narrowly avoided losing in the FA Cup to Hull City before failing to defeat a Norwich City side that would end the season in 20th position on the table. Marcel Brands would leave his position during the Benitez era around this time as well, and Rafa also managed to chase Lucas Digne away to Aston Villa before he was shown the door; both actions further infuriated Toffees on Merseyside and elsewhere in the process.
The team began looking much the same as it did under Rafa’s predecessor, winning four of the first five matches overall and losing just once in the Premier League over the first two months. But when that first loss did occur, and the inevitable injuries that followed took their toll upon Everton, plus the poor performances of which started to creep across the stage of play, there was ultimately no rebound possible under the Spaniard’s leadership.
The connection with the players wasn’t there, the system was too rigid and the selections were not always entirely positive either. Injuries enveloped the team and Rafa had no answers despite putting in place his own head of medical staff; worse still, it appeared as though the fight of this team had dwindled to terrifyingly low levels.
He did not leave his successor in a very kind or pleasant circumstance, which also accounts for why the Toffee faithful were so absolutely exuberant when their side finally did find a way to avoid relegation.
4-4-2s, 4-2-3-1s, 4-4-1-1s, 3-4-3s, 3-4-2-1s, and 5-4-1s were all tried for at least one match under Rafa Benitez, and in many cases, the formations would change from match to match; in other circumstances, the system might stay the same for several matches with different personnel. A major problem, however, was that he was asking this team to play far less fluidly than Carlo had asked of them, and it was noticeable that the players did not favor his tactics, his shapes or his advice by the end of Rafa’s short time back on Merseyside.
The boss was certainly trying, that much cannot be argued surely, but his methods and results — alongside his eventual excuses — did not play well to either the Everton players or supporters. The rancor that first greeted the news of Benitez’s hiring showed itself by December and January, and by the shock Norwich City defeat, his position was untenable.
Bossing some other side in some other league quite likely. Like Mourinho, while his methods might not always work in all circumstances and environments, there are certainly destinations and clubs that would benefit from the experience and knowledge that the boss obviously still possesses. Yet to be sure, that club is certainly not Everton, and in all likelihood, it never was the correct fit for the team in the first instance.
It’s hard to give him any grade other than a failing one for (almost) singlehandedly driving the club to ruin. While true that the rot had set in well before it did, Benitez was ultimately not prepared to run a club of Everton’s unique magnitude or set of circumstances.