English Premier League

The Toffee Tragedy

The current state of Rafa Benitez’s Everton and how the train so quickly fell off the tracks…

If you would allow me a moment to indulge in the misery of supporting Everton, I think it would help me update the readership on how the Rafa Benítez era has gone at this club.

I wrote twice previously about the fallout of Carlo Ancelotti’s departure from the club and the subsequent managerial goose chase that led to the club settling upon the former Liverpool manager despite the very vocal and very aggressive protests from the supporters. The steady downward trajectory on the pitch of one of English football’s largest institutions was only matched by the absurd drama and politicking happening off it, but has that changed at all since the Spaniard’s arrival? Has he righted the ship? Got everyone reading off the same hymn sheet?

Well, not really. At least depending on who you ask.

It is safe to say that, on the pitch, Everton are not doing well. Rafa’s mini-“new manager bounce” at the beginning of the season has given way, and emerging from that temporary moment of positivity is an Everton team among the worst in the league on the form table and are not looked upon much more fondly in Expected Goals and Expected Points tables. While a wild 2-1 home win against a fairly young and naïve Arsenal team paired with a largely undeserved “smash and grab” 1-1 draw away to Chelsea has at least somewhat stabilized the club, leaving them in 14th and eight points off the drop zone heading into the meat of the Festive Fixtures schedule (or whatever of that schedule will end up happening, with COVID cases ramping up in England and in the Premier League), a 3-1 loss away to Crystal Palace between those two games showed the world that the toxicity and frustration that was evident prior to the Arsenal game is still simmering under the surface. It feels like that another few poor results could send things boiling over.

What has not received as much attention, however, is what has gone on behind the scenes at the club. For years, the organizational structure and hierarchy at Everton has been, to put it politely, rather vague and muddled. The team flew through managers like teenage school romantic crushes, there was no real evidence of an overarching plan, and the transfer strategy was quite unclear, leading to several deficiencies within the current Everton team. Farhad Moshiri’s wealth was supposed to signal a new dawn for Everton, but we are now at a point where a club that has spent more on transfers than most European teams and as much, if not much more, than the teams currently around them in the table is stuck with relying on 33-year-old Seamus Coleman to continue as right back despite the best years of the Irishman’s career being long past him. This is also a team that entered the season with only one recognized first-team left back (who we will talk more about in a minute) and without the star right winger that the fans had longed for. This lack of organization has also descended into the club’s youth set up, which was already damaged by a ban on signing youth players and has now seen maybe its two brightest young stars, Thierry Small and Mohammed-Ali Cho, leave the club upon expiry of their contracts and the potential of a third, Lewis Dobbin, following suit after this season.

With the arrival of Benítez, a man who has a history of demanding control of sporting decisions, it was never more unclear as to who had control behind the scenes. The Athletic cited a quote from an unnamed Premier League executive, who remarked that Everton were the only club that he has worked with where you need to call two or three different people to get one answer. Despite the previous disorganization, however, the decision-making process has become slightly more clear as Rafa has settled into his role.

While the early season feuds between Benítez and James Rodríguez were largely believed to stem from previous history between the two, it acted as a moment that showed the control over sporting decisions that the manager now had. The real sign of that control came when club Director of Football Marcel Brands resigned in early December. Many reports (and leaks, many more leaks) came out of that event, showing that Brands has never really had the control over sporting decisions that one expects of a director of football, constantly working in the shadows as club owner Farhad Moshiri and chairman Bill Kenwright kept him out of decisions, including any influence over the decision to hire Ancelotti’s replacement. This was only worsened by the arrival of Benítez, a manager that has historically never worked well with sporting directors, as many reports from The Athletic, The Liverpool Echo, and elsewhere indicated that Benítez often went directly to Moshiri with requests or transfer targets, leaving most others out of the loop. This had tangible sporting consequences too, as Brands’ lined-up transfers for then-PSV right back Denzel Dumfries and then-Chelsea right back Tino Livramento were both axed by the manager, forcing Everton to continue relying on Coleman and allowing both Dumfries and Livramento to make moves elsewhere.

The war between the two was waged on many fronts, but it was a war that Benítez ultimately won. Despite Everton’s insistence that Brands’ departure is part of a greater reorganization and self-evaluation of how the club is structured, it is clear to most on the outside that the club have thrown their lot in with Benítez, and the Spaniard would hold all power moving forward.

And, again, this is having tangible effects on the club. Some people on the outside might not have thought twice about the exclusion of left back Lucas Digne from the last few matches. Maybe he was unfit or injured, or maybe he was sick? Well, not quite. Allegedly, there were feuds behind the scenes between Digne and Benítez, with the Frenchman feeling that Benítez’s inflexible and largely defensive system and tactics were not only limiting his ability to utilize his strengths going forward and ability to influence the game, but also that this rigidity and inability to adapt and change was at least partially responsible for the Toffees’ current situation. Rafa responded as he has historically done with feuding players: freezing them out of the team and showing it is truly his way or the highway. Digne, who I will remind you is Everton’s only first team left back, has not played in or even been included in the squad in the club’s last three games, being replaced by young center back Ben Godfrey who has performed passably, albeit not remarkably, in Digne’s stead. With that bridge effectively burned, it does appear that Digne will be leaving the club in January and will be replaced by current Dynamo Kyiv left back Vitaliy Mykolenko. Mykolenko could end up being a good signing, he is certainly a young player with some potential and excitement within Ukraine, but the way in which this was brought about and the likely cut in profit that Everton will claim on Digne, who is one of the best players in his position in world football, will undoubtedly leave a sour taste in the mouths of many.

And this is where we are with Everton. The club have certainly not been well-ran since Farhad Moshiri first purchased his 49.9% stake in the club in 2016, but they have certainly had several outside examples to model themselves after as the years have gone by. Leicester, Man City, Brighton, and even West Ham and Wolves to a certain extent have shown the positives that can come from a modern organized sporting structure, with Leicester’s ability to remain there or thereabouts after their miraculous title win in 2016 being the ultimate example of how to use a modern sporting structure, recruitment philosophy, and player development to be around the big dogs despite lacking their world-beating budget and despite having to replace key players who depart for other clubs. Everton saw those brilliant ideas and examples and decided to follow none of it, instead choosing to chase off the club’s decorated director of football and entrust the entirety of sporting decisions to a manager whose ideas would be considered old-fashioned for the 2010s, let alone the 2020s, and one that might not be at the club a year from now. Baffling, truly baffling.

Rafa has certainly played well to his crowd. His talk of “understanding the city” and prioritizing hard work, running stats, and “putting a shift in” has appealed to segments of Everton’s fanbase. Some are very quick to go along with his suggestions, actively dismissing Digne, a man many claimed could be Everton’s next captain, and go along with a Rafa team that shows more fight rather than technical or tactical ability. The real puzzling aspect of this is it is not quite clear just how big of a segment of the fanbase that is. The lack of participation in the walkout protest during the Arsenal game would suggest that only a minority of match-going fans are objecting to the current situation, but the hostility toward Benítez among the traveling fans at the Crystal Palace game would suggest otherwise. He does definitively retain support of the only person that matters: Moshiri, the only man who has the authority to sack him. While the pressure could still increase if results worsen, the increasing rumors around Brands’ departure and Digne’s impending departure seems to point to the hierarchy of the club throwing their weight behind the manager and implementing the structure and plan he desires, one that completely revolves around him and him alone.

Rafa Benítez is obviously a decorated manager. I am not taking that away from him. But I do believe there is a point where the game passes even the best managers by, and we have long since gotten past that point with Benítez. His talk of outrunning Liverpool after the Merseyside Derby match that Everton got decimated in paints an accurate picture of a manager who is not adapted to the modern game falling victim to one of the trend-setting managers of the modern game. Everton are actively moving backwards and doubling down on that moving backwards. They are not bad enough to go down, especially with the injured players returning and simply how bad the bottom three or four teams are this season, but Everton will likely finish much further from European qualification this season than they did previously under Ancelotti and Silva. Unless something significantly changes in the mindset or leadership of this team, it sure does seem like Everton will be much closer to the Championship than the Champions League in the coming seasons.

And as we enter the 27th year of Everton’s trophy drought, the longest post-World War II trophy drought in the club’s history, it has become more and more unclear as to when that drought may finally be broken. Everton Football Club, one of the institutional clubs in English football and among the most successful in the country, has well and truly fallen off the rails.

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