English Premier League

Rafa the…Blue?

On Rafa Benítez’s impending appointment as Everton manager and what positives I can try to dig out of a sea of unanswered questions…

So…it appears Everton have finally found someone that wants to manage their club…and it is someone we have less-than-fond memories of…

Rafa Benítez, the man most known for a long and successful stint at Liverpool but also managed at Real Madrid, Valencia, Chelsea, and other clubs, has apparently only the i’s to dot and the t’s to cross in his contract before he is named the next manager of Everton Football Club. He will hold the honor of being Everton’s sixth permanent manager in the eight years since David Moyes left the club for Manchester United in 2013. If you want to go even further back, he will be the club’s 11th manager since Joe Royle, the last Everton manager to win a trophy, left the club in 1997. Despite a run of consistency and control under David Moyes, that quarter-century has been a very tumultuous time in the history of one of England’s biggest football clubs, and the last eight years have seemingly been the nadir of that steep, immediate decline.

In to become the latest to try and right the ship is the 61-year-old Benítez, a man who is no stranger to English football and to Merseyside, a manager with plenty of experience and a decorated resumé, but one who has also had a not-so-good run in recent years.

You can say the reaction to this hire has been, well, impassioned, to say the least.

Judging by the multiple banners, signs, and graffiti messages left on and around Goodison Park over the last week or two, it is safe to say that many Everton fans do not like the idea of Benítez taking the reins of the club. Much of the hostility likely stems from the Spaniard’s connection with Liverpool, and he was not exactly proper and polite to his soon-to-be employers while he managed on the red side of the city. He managed at a time when relations between both institutions were, relatively speaking, not great, and he notoriously dubbed Everton a “small club” during one particularly fiery interview. It is safe to say that Everton fans remember, and many are seemingly not keen on the former Liverpool manager taking over.

Despite this very strong negative reaction, the Spaniard looks set to take over, becoming the first manager in the history of English football to manage both Everton and Liverpool. By the time you read this, he may have already been announced as the next manager (I started writing this the weekend of June 26th, 2021, when it seemed fairly certain it will happen. I began editing this when reports of his announcement being imminent were going around). And man…I really have concerns.

So to address the elephant in the room, no, I do not have an issue with appointing an ex-Liverpool manager as our manager. I do not even care that he called us a small club. I really do not care. I mean, I am coming off of ex-Marseille manager and general awful annoying tit Rudi Garcia managing Lyon. It was a fairly similar situation, with Garcia being the pantomime villain of Ligue 1 while at Marseille, even taking several opportunities to fire shots at rivals Lyon when the moments arose, before taking the reins of OL himself. He did not do a good job, obviously, but his status as having managed Lyon’s second-biggest rival did not shape the majority of my view on the hire. Hell, I wanted Lyon to hire Christophe Galtier to replace Garcia, and Galtier managed Saint-Étienne, Lyon’s biggest rivals, for eight seasons. It is a difficult situation, do not get me wrong, as these guys often go into these clubs with the fans already at their neck, and that is a very difficult situation for managers to recover from that early. But I, at least, am able to put that aside when it comes to evaluating a manager.

Even looking at the history of the Merseyside Derby, there is a nice collection of players who supported one side growing up and ended up playing for the other. For example, Peter Reid is an Everton legend, but he grew up supporting Liverpool. Leon Osman is a cult hero at Everton and he also grew up supporting Liverpool. On the other side, Jamie Carragher, Ian Rush, and Steve McManaman all grew up Everton fans and ended up becoming Liverpool legends. These people are professionals, despite football being as tribal and partisan of a sport as it is, and I have no doubt that people can put aside any rivalry loyalties and internal biases to do the best job they possibly can at the jobs they take. If the candidate selected is the right hire for Everton, I would have no problem with that candidate having past affiliations or loyalties to Liverpool.

The issue is that I do not believe Benítez is the right hire.

I at least touched on this in a previous article written around the time Ancelotti left the club, but the thing Everton need right now is a unifier and a builder. They need someone who is going to have a vision of where he wants the club to go, the patience to build that team around how he envisions them playing, and has the ability to work well with those at the club to enact that vision. They need someone who knows how to take a club in a lower position and build them into a top side, someone who is capable with working in the same club and environment for several years and working with long-term projects. They need someone who intends to be here for several years, has worked in longer-term scenarios, and has the ability to produce longer-term results if given the backing and patience to do so.

Benítez is not that, and he has not been that since, well, he was at Liverpool. And that might be the only time he has ever done that. His time at Valencia was very positive, but he inherited a team that was in the Champions League Final the season before his arrival. Since leaving Liverpool, his longest tenure at a football club was his three years at Newcastle, where he helped the Toon get promoted back to the top flight and be just slightly better than what Steve Bruce is currently getting out of that team. He ended up being sacked by Liverpool, as well as Inter and Real Madrid. He publicly resigned from his time at Valencia and Napoli, though it did not seem like he had much of a choice in either scenario. His achievements since leaving Liverpool have been winning the Europa League with a Chelsea team that was entirely too good to be in the Europa League and winning the Coppa Italia with Napoli. Both of those were nearly a decade ago. That does not inspire you with much confidence, does it?

And that is not even the bedrock of the concerns. I do not believe this Everton team are on the precipice of winning honors, especially if major players end up leaving the club in the summer. This is a team that needs building, and Rafa has not shown the ability for him to do that since leaving Liverpool. While I am not obsessed with Everton playing some sort of free-flowing attacking football, I do have concerns over whether Rafa’s tendency to resort to very defensive and very direct, route-one football is going to work out in this age of football and help Everton get to where they want to go. I have questions about his ability to get the most out of the team available, and I question his ability to convince key players, like Richarlison and Lucas Digne, to stay at the club. I question his ability to work well with club Director of Football Marcel Brands, as Rafa is someone who historically has not worked well with DoFs during his career (most notably his poor relationship with Valencia Director of Football Jesús García Pitarch leading to his dismissal). There are so many red flags. I do not think he will lead Everton to where they want to go, and he has not shown in his career that he has the ability to rebuild a club over a long period of time. This seems like a move made by an Everton who think they are close to where they need to be, a quick fix of a move, and even then, this is not the best possible move they could have made.

I will try to hide my French bias here, but I still have to readily admit that I think Christophe Galtier was the right candidate for this position. Yes, he is less of a known commodity compared to Benítez, and he does not have the experience in the Premier League, but he has crucially shown the ability to build at a club, especially two that lack financial backing. He took over Saint-Étienne when they were fighting relegation and were cash-strapped, turning them into a consistent top half team that made European competitions several times and won the Coupe de la Ligue in 2013, ASSÉ’s first trophy in 32 years, despite consistently losing his best players. He then took the Lille job while they were fighting relegation and turned them into league champions in three years despite having a fraction of the budget and financial backing of PSG, Monaco, and Lyon. He works well with sporting directors. He is very good at getting the most out of talent available to him, and he is especially good at working with young players. He demands hard work and commitment, he is fiery but retains a bit of control about him. He worked under high pressure situations and succeeded at every turn, leaving both ASSÉ and Lille being revered by the supporters. He fits every major requirement to the detail, and I could not think of a more easily-available candidate that Everton could have hired.

And this, as well as the whole process, hints at the biggest issue with this hire: it hints at (or shows, depending on how true the things in the media are) just how disorderly and how poorly run Everton Football Club are.

(As a preface, I do not profess to be “in the know” on anything happening at Everton FC or within the club hierarchy. This is all based on previous reporting and me trying to logically piece things together.)

Everton were, understandably, blindsided by Carlo Ancelotti’s move to take the Real Madrid job. There is no reason to blame Everton for not being prepared for a reality that did not seem possible until the day before it became reality. Since then, it was assumed by those outside of the club that the process of finding a replacement would be led by Brands, being the most well-connected to potential candidates due to his status as sporting director. There were lots of rumors flying around about over a dozen candidates being interested in the position, and it seemed that Everton had things under control. Since that point, it was mostly radio silence, which, rightly or wrongly, is how Marcel Brands tends to operate. But as time progressed, the rumors started. Some speculated, either substantiated or not, that the hunt for the new manager was actually led by club owner Farhad Moshiri, with him and chairman Bill Kenwright having their own strong opinions as to who should be the next manager. Kenwright, the old soul of the Everton board, longed for the return of David Moyes or Roberto Martínez, while Moshiri, the well-connected friend of agents, wanted Nuno Espírito Santo to take the reins. Despite the Dutchman’s radio silence being the modus operandi typical of his work, the vacuum allowed the media to, rightly or wrongly, speculate whether Brands was even involved in the decision-making process. Given that all signs seemed to point to the manager being Nuno, and given Moshiri’s relationship with Nuno’s agent Jorge Mendes, it seemed that this was Farhad Moshiri’s doing this whole time.

Until it wasn’t. For whatever reason, rumored to be a disagreement over assistant coaches brought in by Nuno and the status of current Everton assistant Duncan Ferguson, Nuno did not end up being the guy. While Moshiri was campaigning for Nuno’s appointment, Kenwright allegedly stood in defiant opposition to any new manager removing Ferguson from the club. More silence from the Everton hierarchy, more rumors of infighting and disagreement. They even interviewed Christophe Galtier about the opening, but RMC reported that the Frenchman “perhaps expected better” from Everton (or better than Everton, they were not exactly clear), so that dream went down the drain quickly. Options continued to be rattled off, disagreements behind the scenes continued to happen. These cogs kept turning until Moshiri, allegedly with the guidance of a former business partner and someone very much not on the Everton board in Alisher Usmanov, settled upon Rafa Benítez as the guy. The fan protests began, rumors that Brands had been completely frozen out of the process began to arise, and we slowly began to confirm that the Spaniard was actually going to be the guy in charge.

While much of this process is not fully substantiated, it is fairly solidly confirmed at this point that this has been as tense and divided of a process as it did appear, and it also feels fairly certain that this was the decision of Moshiri, and that is not necessarily a bad thing. The man who cuts the checks being a key decision maker at a football club, or any business really, is not out of the ordinary. The issue is that the decisions made by Moshiri, especially ones involving manager selections, seem incredibly scatterbrained and lack any sense of coherent plan, structure, or identity that he believes Everton should be going through or embracing, or at least not any plan or identity that is grounded in reality. It seems to show a decision-making process led by ego rather than information and logical sense. Moshiri is not necessarily someone with an incredible mind for the sport, but his ego clouding his judgment when it comes to these decisions is only hurting Everton. His desire to (allegedly) make it his decision and not involve the sporting director that he is paying quite a bit of money to be an expert in this area is not the trait of a good football club owner.

It is also very unsustainable. The reason why a club like Leicester are in the position they are now is because they have a lot of very smart people at the club who know their role when it comes to scouting, talent development, and overall sporting direction of the club. Their work feeds into an overall image, culture, and direction that the club works toward and fulfills on a daily basis. You can tell through their actions as a club, managerial hires, and player signings that there is clearly a plan in place behind the scenes, and that has now paid off with a FA Cup and what seems to be consistent, sustainable European qualification.

Everton do not seem to have that sort of plan. It seems as though Moshiri just wants to make sure the club is at least treading water and can grab some headlines by the time they move into their new stadium, but there is no guarantee that any part of this sporting project is sustainable in any way. Everton have done fairly well with transfers under Brands, but is there a plan in place for the possibly-soon-arriving reality of players like Richarlison and Digne and Calvert-Lewin wanting out? Is there a clear tactical and sporting direction in place to get the most out of those talented players? It does not seem like there is, and all of this chopping and changing over the years seems to accurately reflect the club’s scatterbrained approach to sporting decisions. Those rumors during the reign of Ronald Koeman about incredible division between manager, Moshiri, Kenwright, and then sporting director Steve Walsh around signings seem to make more sense now. Maybe the hierarchy at the club has operated in this manner for a while. And that is not good.

Alright, I will end this article/rant/smattering of ideas with some positives, mainly to try and cheer myself up but to also acknowledge that I do not believe it is entirely doom and gloom. There is not much to hold on to for those looking for hope and positivity here (Everton do not dabble much in the world of hope and positivity), but there might be some things to cling to. I think Benítez comes into this job with something to prove. His departure from Newcastle was not on the best terms despite being fairly well-respected throughout the league during his time on Tyneside. He likely felt that he did not get a fair shake at Chelsea either, and this is his chance to not only get one more go at a Premier League job, but to do so in the city in which his family still lives and for a club with a fairly decent team at worst and an owner who has still shown willingness to back managers in the transfer market. That hunger does seem palpable, as I imagine he would not have taken one of the most difficult jobs in the European Top Five Leagues had he just wanted another easy payday. He is someone who has won quite a few major honors in his career, someone who knows how to win and can instill that mentality into the Everton team. He is someone who seems comfortable being hated, as he did not make many friends in English football during his tenure as Liverpool manager and Chelsea interim manager, so maybe coming into this job with the supporters at his neck will not be an issue for him. And he just loves football, he has a passion and love for the game that comes through every time he speaks. Regardless of the intentions of those who hired them, I do not doubt that Benítez is coming into this gig with the right intentions and right mindset.

I just do not think he is the right guy for the job, and I greatly question the mindset and decision-making process of those who had a say, or did not have a say, in Everton getting to the point where they are now. I do not know what this will mean for Everton moving forward, I do not know who will arrive at or depart from the club this summer, and I am not sure how Benítez wants this team to play. I am not confident, given his recent track record, that Rafa is the man that Everton need at this present moment, and I do not believe this will be as smooth-sailing as many hope it will. I do not think he will last longer than two years at the club, and we could very well be having this conversation again with a different name a year from now.

But I have been wrong before, and I would love to be proven wrong again.

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