In a recent interview with Sky Sports, former Everton manager Rafa Benitez reflected on his tenure at Goodison Park, delivering an explanation for some rather rash decisions made by the 2005 Champions League winning manager during his short spell at the Toffees last season.
With such pedigree and years of experience, you’d have thought that Benitez would look past his Liverpool connections upon taking the Everton job, meaning his ‘across-the-park’ past would not come under consideration when the key tactical and system management decisions need to be made.
However, according to Benitez himself, to look past those very relations was not such an easy task. The Spaniard admitted that “because I was [a] red, maybe I couldn’t make some decisions”. During Benitez’s spell at Everton, he looked to implement a sense of autocratic authority and hierarchy within the structure of the club, not only on the pitch and training ground but also whilst conducting transfer activities - one of the most heavily criticised features of Benitez’s philosophy was that very ideology, wanting to be more than just a ‘manager’.
Benitez set out an end goal that he would monitor other departments of the football club and instead of absorbing the knowledge of highly skilled individuals, he would look to assert his dominance within the culture - a classic example of this scenario was displayed when star striker Dominic Calvert-Lewin was recovering from a lower leg injury and was advised by the medical team and Director of Medical Services Danny Donachie to not be ‘rushed’ into a return. However, this was contrasted with the opinion of Benitez who then decided that his team relied on DCL and required a quicker recovery plan, not taking into account the long-term effects this would have on the team as a whole.
An area that Benitez does generally receive praise for is the recruitment of players on a strict budget, as witnessed during the summer immediately after his hire. The manager used his former Newcastle Utd connections to obtain winger Andros Townsend in the early stages of his first transfer window, a move that got very few excited, but ultimately proved worthy on a free basis.
Another signing that Benitez received plaudits for is the transfer of Demarai Gray, an Everton regular in the current side and a player that many doubted would relive his form from his Leicester City past. Although the input of Rafa Benitez certainly helped to speed up the pursuit of the then Bayer Leverkusen winger, Gray was reportedly a long-term fixture on Marcel Brands’ talent shortlist and has left many fans and pundits alike wondering if Lampard can recapture Gray’s initial form at the start of the Benitez tenure.
Nathan Patterson and Vitalii Mykolenko are another two names that have been touted as Rafa Benitez signings but similar to Gray, the fullbacks were both previously identified by the clubs’ recruitment and scouting department. Although a decision that many didn’t see the positive side of, the sale of Lucas Digne may now be appreciated, following the impressive season of Vitaly Mykolenko - acquired in January from Dynamo Kyiv as the Digne replacement. Aston Villa’s purchase of the Frenchman balanced the books for Everton, allowing them to reinvest the reported £27m fee on the two fullbacks.
In terms of the interview, it’s clear to see that this press junket was conjured by Rafa Benitez as he looks to find yet another Premier League job, with several options becoming available. Although experienced, Benitez’s CV now includes the increasingly common rigid relationship between himself and any given club’s hierarchy, leaving questions to be answered on why a competent Premier League club would take on the services of a dated manager such as himself.
The Liverpool past was not the only factor in numerous Evertonians’ preconception of Benitez, it was more the archaic and outdated managerial approaches that he had displayed, not only at Newcastle, but also at Real Madrid and Inter Milan, with Nerrazurri legend Wesley Sneijder describing Benitez as “the worst manager” he had ever played under the stewardship of, and as a “horrible man”.
Another factor that affected many fans’ opinions of Benitez was his man-management skills, notably the situations that ultimately led to the sales of Lucas Digne and fan-favourite James Rodriguez, who left for Aston Villa and Qatari club Al-Rayyan. Rodriguez is no stranger to Rafa Benitez, having connected at Real Madrid in 2014 and there were real problems then, too.
In the end, Benitez didn’t last at Everton for a sustained period either, after 1 win in 14 games, he was relieved of his duties by Farhad Moshiri in January 2022, to elation from the Everton fans following the news.
Succeeding Rafael Benitez was Frank Lampard, a homegrown manager that although may have lacked the years of experience needed to clean up the mess of Benitez, proved to connect with the Everton fans in such a manner that has left Evertonians optimistic for the future. The former Chelsea man was appointed in 2018 by Derby County in what was his first managerial job since retiring, he brought Derby to the Play-Off Final, narrowly missing out on promotion at the hands of Dean Smith’s Aston Villa.
Lampard and his staff received praise at Derby for promoting youth players such as Jayden Bogle, Fikayo Tomori and Mason Mount - all of which have played Premier League Football since. It wasn’t just the Derby side that received an injection of young players though, Lampard brought this philosophy to Chelsea, implementing now-stars Reece James, Mason Mount, Callum Hudson-Odoi, Tammy Abraham and several others in a bid to recover from the Transfer Ban placed on Chelsea when he arrived. Despite these transfer obstacles, Lampard managed to coast his team into a fourth-placed Premier League finish in 2020 and was allowed to spend the following window.
He has continued a similar theme at Everton, implementing a core of young players in the recent transfer windows but creating a team that doesn’t lack in the experience department too, with a veteran spine composed of Conor Coady and James Tarkowski at the heart of The Toffees’ backline and Idrissa Gueye ahead of them. Amadou Onana is also a player that has looked to show his leadership qualities in games and training, constantly communicating and making sure everybody knows their role in the team.
As well as Onana, the youngsters include Patterson, Mykolenko, Anthony Gordon and to some extent Alex Iwobi and Dominic Calvert-Lewin - all players with current ability and a high ceiling to perform. The recent window has provided Lampard with a more than capable team to progress up the table and prevent a repeat of last season’s close call.
Gana represents a signing that brings sentiment, but an improved technical ability and composure that the Everton midfield has so desperately lacked recently, he’s also a flexible player, one that can sit and protect the backline or can press higher up the pitch depending on the system and supporting outlets. Gueye paired with Onana and Iwobi is a midfield that could potentially match most teams in the Premier League, as displayed in the Merseyside Derby (although Tom Davies started) and at home to West Ham Utd last weekend.
Moving onto Iwobi, Lampard has managed to completely transform a player that many dubbed as a ‘flop’, but has now found himself a consistent starter for Everton. Lampard identified Iwobi’s work rate and ability as the perfect player to play the number eight role in the centre of the park. Also flexible, Iwobi has recently played as a number 6 and 10 this campaign, proving to be one of the several factors that have earned Frank Lampard plaudits, a relationship that looks to be a match made in heaven.
Alex Iwobi, nominated as a September player of the Month contender, represents Lampard’s ever-improving man-management and Talent ID, for which he has been heavily praised in the past as Iwobi continues to pay back that £27m fee, which now may look like a bargain in many Evertonians eyes.
The future at Everton looks to be slowly improving under Frank Lampard, with many hoping he’s the man to lead The Toffees into our new home at Bramley-Moore Dock - a historical event and one that would only represent a success.