So after an inconspicuous and long winded search for a new manager, Everton look to finalised on Rafael Benitez as the choice. If you were to be kind, you would concede the reaction has been mixed, but a more honest reflection would probably indicate that it is an unpopular decision. While the gap is cloning between positive to negative sentiment, the ratio is around the 3:1 mark for negative against positive sentiment. There is some supposition within the press that it has been a decision that has not been supported by the Chairman and DOF but Farhad Moshiri and the clubs major sponsor Usmanov have settled on Benitez in spite of what the general sentiment around them being critical of the manager.
No doubt within the media there will be some who will take the easy position that this is down to his links with Liverpool, though the reality that former players Gary Ablett, Peter Beardsley and Don Hutchison are all held in high regard following the switch from Anfield (as well as Alan Harper, Kevin Sheedy and Dave Watson for a slightly older generation) would seem to contradict that hypothesis. Indeed there was actually some clamour to approach Brendan Rodgers, more recently a Liverpool manager who would have been a widely popular choice for manager had he been selected. So I’m not sure the “Liverpool thing” is really a motivating factor at all. Some may also suggest that some ill advised and frankly ridiculous comments about how Everton set teams up at Anfield could be a determining factor. For sections of the fan base this could well be true, and while I have no real interest in holding a grudge against ludicrous statements I can certainly understand why some supporters would. To me though the frustration runs deeper.
I did note early on into him being linked to the job that I didn’t care about his previous comments, but I did care about the fit, about how well he could work under a DOF and how far he would suit a team who need to nurture younger players to be sold, as opposed to being given a decent pot of money to spend on arrival. I have contacted different supporters of Liverpool, and the same message keeps coming back- that while he is a talented manager he cannot work effectively under a strict DOF. It’s mainly why he has never been considered for the Liverpool job after he was sacked around 10 years ago.
For many supporters, probably myself included, this summer marked a unique moment to have a “great reset” moment. While the last 18 months may have worked, the previous 5 haven’t. A fair chunk of money has been spent chasing Hollywood managers and doing a bit of a B rate impression of Chelsea, with d rate results. Without looking to go over old ground, I pitched 5 names at the outset- Favre, Galtier, Ten Haag, Gasperini & Rangnick. I felt all 5, either through their own outlook (Rangnick) or through their ability as coaches to develop teams under a strict DOF model could help that reset. Money could continue to be spent, but more entrepreneurially with more of an outlook of longer term successes rather than chasing glory on a seemingly year by year, boom or bust cycle.
What is clear is that this is very much not the priority of Owner Farhad Moshiri and sponsor Usmanov. They clearly don’t see it that way. What is interesting is that they appointed Everton’s oldest manager in Ronald Koeman at age 53. 3 of the following 4 managers have been older than this. In their 5 appointments, they have appointed the 4 oldest managers in Everton’s history. It’s an approach that doesn’t sit easily with sections of the fanbase, who struggle to see any logic behind the decision making. Within this context it is important to note that in many ways Benitez is a consequence, not a cause of the problems.
What is certainly clear is that Usmanov and Moshiri clearly favour experienced managers, who have a certain name recognition value. Whether that is because they are more wowed at interview by such figures, an acknowledgement that the one shift from this approach (Marco Silva) really failed to cope with the pressure of the role or they feel an experienced head is needed to quell the contradictions that exist within the football club is an interesting question and not one that is easy to answer. From a fan perspective the hope is it’s the latter and there is some rationality behind the approach beyond being wowed by big names, though in lieu of any real meaningful communication from the club it is hard to fully get on board with such a theory.
For Benitez, you get the sense there are two major possibilities. The first is that he is the man that Moshiri/Usmanov want to plunge big money behind and if they are going to want to do this, they want an experienced winner at the helm who is able to tactically manage games. The 2nd (and my view real) approach is that Benitez is favoured as something of the continuity candidate. He is someone who knows the city and the football cauldron that exists within it, has clearly pushed for the Everton job on 3 or 4 occasions so for whatever reason seems very motivated to want to do it (beyond living on the Wirral, however pleasant the Wirral is). I find it hard to understand why the motivation is there for Benitez, but there does at least appear to be some strong motivation.
While at some level it pains me to do it, there are some positives to such an appointment, not with-standing my earlier more fundamental objections of him being the wrong type of manager. I have previously written how this Everton team worked most effectively playing defensive, tactically astute, disciplined defensive football. The frustration I had with Ancelotti was his unwillingness to want to commit to such an approach. Benitez, the arch pragmatist will have no such dilemma. In honesty, you would struggle to find a manager more suited to wanting to play tactically aware, defensive minded, attritional football. There is a reasonable argument that being where we were at the half way stage last season, Benitez would have eeked out the 10 or so points required to get into the top 3 or 4 by merely sticking to a trusted formula that had shown results. He has always been a manager who has focussed on extraction rather than overwhelming process- looking to maximise what a squad has as opposed to fundamentally alter what they do.
There is also a reasonable argument that he is as well placed as anyone to build upon that legacy left by Ancelotti and eek out a few extra points. It won’t be pretty, or easy on the eye but it could be very effective. It’s unlikely to be very popular, and for supporters feeling not entertained by Ancelotti, expect a lot more of the same next season. Supporters will have to ask, if we can eek out 3-4 more points for a Europa League finish would it be a sacrifice worth making? If not how about the 8 required for CL qualification? You would hope these are the questions that Usmanov asked Benitez, and that it is with these considerations they have made the decision.
As a final feather in Benitez’s cap, is that he is used to working with sides in and around Everton’s standing in a European context and it hard arguably been at this level of side his best work has been done. On the ELO European rankings Everton currently sit on 1767 points (ranked 25th in Europe). He took over Napoli when they had 1724 points (and were rank 31) and Liverpool 1771 points and rank 23. With particularly Napoli and Liverpool he added real value (although Liverpool would collapse in his final season). At Liverpool he would leave them on 1847 points in rank 8 (but peaking at 1977 as 2nd in Europe). At Napoli he left them rank 25 but peaked at getting them up to rank 17 and just over 1800 points). Crude assessments would show he would improve us to around 7th under the Napoli performance, and 5/6th under the Liverpool improvement, but having likely made the CL in the process.
The two disastrous roles he had came at Inter Milan and Real Madrid. Both clubs were well over 1900 points on the ELO (Inter around 1920) and Madrid an astonishing 2061 when he arrived, with Inter being 5th in Europe and Madrid being 2nd (behind an astonishingly good Barcelona). Both jobs represented a huge flop for Benitez, with Madrid losing 25 points from 24 games and Inter worse still 80 points in 21 games. You factor in as well as soon as Liverpool got to the position of 2nd in Europe on the ELO losing over 100 ELO points in a single season. It paints a picture of a manager, particularly post Valencia of a manager who struggles at the biggest of clubs, but at clubs 1 rung down it is a sweet spot for him. We can speculate as to why that is, potentially the defensive minded game plan he has ultimately hitting a glass ceiling would be an obvious initial summation though whether Benitez quite has the character, self belief and charm to really dominate in such spaces is also an open question. Whatever the reason’s the evidence overall seems quite compelling. But for where Everton are and where Everton want to be, there are reasonable grounds to suggest it is a good fit.
The note of caution on the above is that he does need financial backing to achieve said results. At Liverpool in terms of gross and net spend he sat 4th in both categories in the league (and 2 of the sides above him were Chelsea and City who were not really established direct rivals as of his arrival). At Napoli in Italy he was 2nd in terms of gross spend and comfortably top in terms of net spend when ranked across the league. At Valencia (the third club of the Napoli/Liverpool trilogy) he spent the 8th most net and while having the lowest net spend in the league (on account of the huge sale of Mendieta to Lazio). So in general he is a manager who requires funding to do his job, and can become increasingly agitated (at best) and divisive/unprofessional (at worst) if he doesn’t get what he wants.
There are two ways to take this. The first is that it is problematic for a club that is so tight on FFP and STCC regulations to be able to give Benitez the sort of guarantees he enjoyed at Liverpool and Napoli (and while he didn’t spend money at Valencia he took over a very good side who had just got to their 1st European cup final, which was a world away from where Everton currently are). The alternative is to say, that in spite of all the other contradictions and problems involved at the club, the one thing that has been a constant is the continually flow of money. Unlike some suggestions, I don’t think Benitez is going to want to solve the inherent structural flaws of the organisation, nor do I think he has the ability to do so. But if he’s given a regular stream of funding, there is fairly strong evidence to suggest he an identify and organise good players.
Since Moshiri’s arrival Everton sit 5th in both net and gross spend in the PL table. There is an open ended question here as to whether this level of funding can be maintained over the next 3-5 years with Benitez in charge? From a balance sheet and/or regulatory perspective it is very hard to see such an argument being able to be made. We of course have no idea if Moshiri has more lucrative sponsorships up his sleeve to allow for further spending to occur. It is not unreasonable to assume, if it can be, there is some precedent for improvements in the playing performance to be seen from Benitez . There remain a lot of ifs and buts in this though.
There are further factors against him. His age is a concern, especially in light of him opting to go to China. His previous job before that was Newcastle, after the Real Madrid debacle. For the most part I would say he did ok at Newcastle (not as miraculously as some have suggested, as Steve Bruce has shown) but a decent job. But it paints the picture of a man at 61 slightly on the decline and perhaps like his old adversary Jose Mourinho maybe trying to play a brand of football that is analog in an age that is increasingly digital. Neither Benitez nor Mourinho become bad managers, but there is a possibility they become managers that are slightly outdated.
Given his connections to Liverpool, some of the ludicrous comments he has made and the performance level last season, it is unlikely he gets an enormous amount of time. He has to start well. To a degree I have always advocated for time for managers but if you look at each Moshiri appointments they had factors in their favour that justified that. Koeman had a good first season under his belt so had earnt some time, Silva was a young coach who you knew would take time to implement his ideas while Ancelotti came in mid season. All 3 inherited teams that were performing far worse than this team. Koeman took over a side who had got 47 points the previous season, while Silva one with 48 points and Ancelotti took over mid season to a side that were on 14 points through 15 games under the previous manager. In each case for them to score 61, 54 and 59 points respectively in their first full season was a decent if unspectacular effort but one which gave them the right to more time in the eyes of supporters. What’s crucial here to say, is the gift of time is earned not automatically given.
Benitez comes into a side that is in a demonstrably different place, having achieved 59 points last season. There has been a lot of language dedicated to “consolidation” and “safety” and I imagine this will be amplified by sections of the national press who simply won’t have spent the time analysing what Everton did last season and make the assumption it is the same situation as previous managers have inherited. That’s simply not the case and that point needs to be politely but firmly reminded to those who seek to make such a point. In around ¾ of the last 20 seasons 59 points would have secured 7th and on around ¼ of occasions it would have secured 6th and upwards. So to stand still in real terms would be to be qualifying for the Europa League (or Conference League). This to me stads as a minimum target for Benitez (or any new manager of his ilk) and would represent consolidation. Pushing the points total up through the 60 points range towards CL would represent progress. Finishing with less points that 59 would represent failure and is understandably going to cause significant questions for the manager, not out of any malice of hatred of him, but because there is a frustration the club will be going backwards.
So where do I stand on Benitez? Contrary to what some might believe I have been keen to put some defence of his record. At Liverpool he did an excellent job (albeit with enormous funds at his disposal) and at Napoli he managed to win a trophy (even though the wider league performance was a little underwhelming) but again he had funds available. The work at Valencia was very impressive (though he did benefit from Barcelona not being the behemoth they are today and Real Madrid having a period of relative collapse, allowing him to win a league with 76 points). At Newcastle he did a solid job, taking a side outside of the relegation zone to being relegated, rectifying this mistake with promotion before consolidating the team in the the top flight (in a manner akin to what Steve Bruce has continued). HIs latest job in China was a disaster, as were his stints at Inter Milan and Real Madrid. What should be a comfort for Everton fans, is that where he has taken over clubs in a similar situation to Everton he has generally done his best work.
There are questions about his age, motivation and the physical abilities to keep doing the job. Alex Ferguson in a recent film spoke about how much more draining the job becomes in your 60’s and you need to try to live more healthily, maintain a decent figure to be able to perform to your optimum. There are legitimate questions around Benitez at 61, and whether we get the same Benitez that was a much younger man at Valencia and Liverpool.
In terms of a personal feel about what has been said previously, I can’t say I feel overly concerned, as a general rule in life holding grudges only hurts yourself. I appreciate for many this marks a nadir with Moshiri, but for me that moment came with the appointment of Sam Allardyce. At the risk of sounding unduly dramatic a small part of my faith in the Moshiri project died that day and has really yet to recover. I have never liked Allardyce, and was highly critical, but could see by the end of his short stint that he had done a reasonable job. I suppose my reflections were it was job, managers will come and go and all you can ask if they put you in a better place than where they left you. To me, that is the standard Benitez will be judged too, irrespective of any personality defects he may or may not have in my mind.
Everyone is going to have a different view of the appointment, some will be very angry others will want to close ranks and pull behind team and manager. I can only reiterate what has been said by many through this process- that all views within that spectrum are welcome. Nobody becomes a bad Evertonian because they will either boo, or cheer Benitez. People have different perspectives based on a range of factors and it’s worthwhile to note that the broad church of support the club has is a great strength. It would be very dull if we all agreed, especially with me!