There are tough times for Rafa Benitez. The Everton manager takes his team to Molineux tonight to play Wolverhampton Wanderers, aiming to rebound from one of the most disappointing defeats of his career.
The capitulation to Watford at Goodison nine days ago was a low point for the 61-year-old. Everton were leading with 12 minutes to go and collapsed to lose 5-2. Benitez teams should not fall apart in this manner.
The Spaniard was downcast afterwards. He understood that the squad had limitations when he took the job in June but expected more improvement. It has become clear that he cannot solve all of the team’s problems on the training ground. “Morose,” is how a confidante described his mood after the game. Ugly defeats have that effect on a manager.
There are no quick answers in the transfer market. Everton, who have spent more than half a billion in the past five years, are mired in financial fair play restrictions. They will have to sell to buy but have very few marketable assets.
Injuries have had an impact on the side but a team that has, in the words of one insider, “burnt money” should be able to cope with the absence of the likes of Dominic Calvert-Lewin and Abdoulaye Doucoure. Everton have bought badly and have no depth. Marcel Brands, the director of football for the past three years, is under deep scrutiny at the club but improving the recruitment process will have to wait until the transfer window.
Benitez is keen to make strides with the medical department. He brought in Cristian Fernandez as a fitness and rehabilitation coach last month and was particularly frustrated by the setback Calvert-Lewin suffered during his recovery. Dan Donachie, the longstanding director of medical services, has left the club. This will not be the last departure. The Champions League-winning coach has taken his time to evaluate the staff and any decisions will be based on long-term performance rather than kneejerk verdicts.
There is still a minority within Goodison who are not comfortable with a former Liverpool manager being in charge. They believe that the ‘Everton way’ is being compromised. That would be a reasonable argument if the team had a record of success. Benitez is only concerned with winning, not the sensibilities of an underachieving club.
He was realistic when he assessed the squad after taking over but some of the players who he believed had room for improvement have turned out to be disappointments. Benitez had big hopes for Ben Godfrey and was impressed by the 23-year-old’s pace. Speed is not enough in the Premier League, however. Godfrey has been slow to adjust to his manager’s tactical tweaks and will need to develop more quickly if he is to anchor the defence.
Set-pieces have been a problem. One of the controversies around Benitez that stretches back to his early days in the Premier League is his use of zonal marking. Everton have deployed a different system this season, which mixes man marking with covering space. The defence is not big enough, strong enough or clever enough to satisfy the manager’s demands. The problem is not the style of marking but the personnel.
The most depressing aspect of the defeat by Watford was the mental meltdown from a winning position. Building belief – on and off the pitch – is the biggest challenge faced by the Everton manager.
The initial mood of anger at his appointment from the fanbase has faded. Evertonians – who have for too long been underwhelmed by their team – understand that turning the club around is not an easy task. It is becoming increasingly clear that there are no short cuts.
The mood in the stands may change quickly. Benitez is the easiest of scapegoats if things go wrong. He is ambitious and tenacious. Unlike Carlos Ancelotti, he is in it for the long haul. Newcastle United would have appointed him in a heartbeat after the takeover but he ignored the advances from his former club.
The next task is stabilising the situation after the debacle against Norwich. Benitez faces a huge test tonight against Wolves. Everton’s performance will say a lot about how the players regard their manager.