Rafael Benítez is a gamble that could expose Everton’s wider fragility | Andy Hunter

Few managers are as hard-working, obsessive in pursuit of victory and evidently in possession of such cojones of steel as Rafael Benítez. But he is a favoured son of Liverpool who once labelled Everton a small club. Few people have helped as many charities on Merseyside in recent years as Rafael Benítez and his wife, Montse. But he is a favoured son of Liverpool who once labelled Everton a small club. And there are few better qualified managers available to a club that have won nothing for 26 years than Rafael Benítez. There are just some things, however, that you can never see past.

It is stating the obvious to report that Benítez’s appointment as Everton manager, the most controversial in the club’s 143-year history, has been met with a cocktail of widespread anger, some acceptance and a little apathy – reflecting a fanbase that has become increasingly divided in the five years of Farhad Moshiri’s ownership. But there should be apprehension, too. Not only for the reception that awaits a good man –and it is not an exaggeration to think Benítez may be the first Everton manager booed before their first game – but for the precarious position the club find themselves in under their majority shareholder.

In his understandable thirst for success, having invested about £450m into Everton, Moshiri – encouraged by his business partner Alisher Usmanov – has injected fresh turmoil into a club in desperate need of stability and a clear, long-term football vision. Preparation work has commenced on the £500m stadium at Bramley Moore Dock, with more than £20m spent on a project that has hindered Everton for decades and advanced only thanks to the largesse and ambition of the British-Iranian billionaire.

The club have posted total losses of almost £265m over the past three financial years, and that’s without the full effect of the pandemic on this year’s accounts, and have the 10th-best team in the Premier League to show for it. Now, by ignoring a groundswell of disapproval among supporters, the man who props up the show faces fiercer criticism than he has encountered before. And this is someone who thought Sam Allardyce would be a good fit for Everton having enjoyed his autobiography. Everton could be exposed as a house of cards depending on how Moshiri takes it. “Hopefully now we can come together and be confident about our plans on and off the field,” he said after his fifth managerial appointment in five years. “I hope the supporters know that they have my full commitment in terms of delivering our ambitions.”

Goodison Park
Goodison Park, which Everton are due to leave for a new stadium. Photograph: Sam Bagnall/AMA/Getty Images

What has surely tumbled at the end of four-week search for Carlo Ancelotti’s replacement is the director of football model led by Marcel Brands. Benítez does not work well with one and Moshiri has again pulled rank on his when making a club’s most critical, emblematic decision.

Everton went to great expense to keep the Dutchman before his contract was due to expire this summer. Brands, already appointed to the club’s board, was awarded a lucrative three-year deal and also appointed to the boards of Everton Investments Ltd, Everton Finance Ltd and Goodison Park Stadium Ltd. Yet on the appointment that determines whether his strategy succeeds or fails, Brands, who has overhauled the scouting network, was ignored.

The chairman, Bill Kenwright, ultimately had no say either, although both issued statements welcoming Benítez on a three-year contract. Moshiri drove the search with backing from Usmanov, whose official connection to Everton is sponsorship via his USM and MegaFon companies. The disconnect at the top explains the dysfunction that runs throughout Everton and continues to hold them back.

Marcel Brands (left) with Bill Kenwright in 2019.
Marcel Brands (left) with Bill Kenwright in 2019. Neither had a say in the Rafael Benítez appointment. Photograph: Nathan Stirk/Getty Images

In the vacuum between a malfunctioning executive and a fractured fanbase stands Benítez, only the second person to manage Everton and Liverpool after William Edward Barclay in the 19th century. Barclay took over at Liverpool in 1892 having refused to side with Everton in the split that took them from Anfield to Goodison Park. He held the distinction as a result of the divide. To many Evertonians, vowing not to set foot inside Goodison again, Benítez is the dividing line. He may have taken 11 years and a circular route to cross from Liverpool to Everton, via stops at Internazionale, Chelsea, Napoli, Real Madrid, Newcastle and Dalian Professional in China, but in a city where it is easier to change religion than football allegiances that has not allowed enough water under the bridge.

A coward with a bedsheet and poor sense of direction increased support for Benítez among appalled and embarrassed Evertonians this week by daubing “We know where you live” on said linen outside a house where the 61-year-old and his family do not live. Therein lies the problem. A sinister, idiotic act inadvertently helped Benítez’s cause in a way his Champions League, Europa League and La Liga winning credentials had not.

Benítez is a consummate professional who will spend an entire night and early morning after a game analysing his team’s performance on repeat. Liverpool allegiances will be easily parked. His attention to detail is meticulous and impressed Moshiri during several rounds of talks. His willingness to confront owners over any perceived shortcoming is also well known. That is precisely what Everton do need. Poor signings on exorbitant contracts, too many cosy internal appointments and the longest trophy drought in the club’s history necessitate a change in culture.

Beyond the toxic atmosphere and tribal intransigence that confronts Benítez, there are genuine football reservations over Moshiri’s claim to have landed the best man to get Everton “competing at the top end of the league and winning trophies”. A defensive style will not win over a Gwladys Street End liable to turn on a former Liverpool manager easily. It was, perversely, Ancelotti’s good fortune to have managed Everton behind closed doors last season and avoided direct criticism for soul-destroying displays that yielded the joint-worst home record in the club’s history. Benítez will know how Evertonians feel. His recent body of work also fuels an argument that the methods that once made him among the finest coaches in Europe have become stale.

Farhad Moshiri has exposed himself to potentially far fiercer criticism than at any other point during his ownership of Everton.
Farhad Moshiri has exposed himself to potentially far fiercer criticism than at any other point during his ownership of Everton. Photograph: Lynne Cameron/EPA

Steve Bruce has produced similar returns at Newcastle to Benítez who, after winning the Championship in 2017, guided the club to 10th and 13th in the Premier League. Under his successor, Newcastle have finished 13th and 12th. In his last job at the Chinese Super League side Dalian Pro, on a £12m-a-year contract, Benítez led the side to seventh in an eight-team group and avoided relegation in the play-off. Then there is the squad he inherits at Everton. Ancelotti was the latest manager to regularly question the character of an underachieving group that hides behind a leader under pressure rather than fights for one. Benítez needs to find leaders as well as balance in his team.

The impact of an unpopular manager inside the club has been articulated previously by Duncan Ferguson. In an interview with Toffee TV in November 2019, circulated widely on social media in recent days, the first-team coach described Allardyce’s inevitably ill-fated tenure as “the toughest time of my career as a coach and also as an Everton fan. It was incredibly hurtful, stressful and it was tough to go through that period of time when we were winning games of football and we were getting booed off the pitch. It completely broke my heart”.

Ferguson, no doubt to Moshiri’s immense relief, has agreed to remain part of Benítez’s backroom team having been overlooked for the job. The Scot is willing to put Everton first and himself through that again. Many Evertonians will reconcile themselves to the same, but this appears one for the rubberneckers.

source: theguardian.com