How you refer to our current manager probably reveals the degree to which he has won you over.
For those who are already calling him ‘Rafa’, it seems as though the incomer has already fought a good deal of the battle. Even though such an overly familiar term mirrors that employed by the heathen across the park, adopting his Christian name suggests that his past misdemeanours are not as off-putting as they might have been just a few months ago.
For those unable to be quite so friendly, and I would place myself in this camp, ‘Benitez’ appears the best we can manage so far. It suggests a grudging acceptance but one that could easily be withdrawn should the ‘Benitez’ project go badly awry. For this constituent, the term ‘Rafa’ is so indelibly tied to the sight of Jamie Carragher’s mouth screeching out the name in borderline falsetto, that it’s adoption would take some pretty impressive managerial feats on Benitez’s part for it to be regularly used.
And then we have the final camp, a group that I like to call the TFFs, an acronym in honour of my Ma’s opinion on the new manager, which from day one of his appointment has not shifted a single inch, writing him off then and now as a ‘Tainted Fat F**k’. For the TFFs, there is probably nothing Benitez could do to win them over. Even if he delivered the FA Cup, the Premier League title and a resounding Labour majority, three things that would make my Ma’s life immeasurably better, he would still remain dismissed by those original terms.
The season is clearly a marathon not a sprint and its difficult to extract any long-term predictions from what has happened to date, and to what extent Benitez has exceeded, met or failed expectations. After all, we’ve been here before, in very recent memory, getting carried away only to have our hopes ultimately dashed.
What’s more, context is everything and set against our relatively kind start in terms of fixtures and the evident shortcomings of the wider squad, which will remain an Achilles heel at least until January, it’s clear that only the most optimistic of Evertonians (which is in itself something of an oxymoron) would think that our decent start necessarily sets the tone for what is to come.
The best that you can probably say is that Benitez’s Everton are doing what they need to do, which is to rack up as many points as possible before the winter arrives with its cavalcade of awkward fixtures. To have not done so, to have effectively taken the mood and form from the tail end of last season into this new one, would have been potentially catastrophic. There is an alternative timeline where Everton under Benitez start the season badly, barely mustering any points and head into the November/December grind too far down the table and devoid of confidence.
As it is, with the exception of ten mad minutes against Villa and an exceptionally poor and ultimately damaging first half against QPR, the Blues have done a decent job of dispatching what has been put in front of them, seeing off the kind of teams who last season proved to be the club’s undoing. Considering the injury hand that the new manager has been dealt, that’s not a bad achievement. Yes, the side could defend better and that mental imprint of recent Everton teams still lurks beneath the surface at times. But by most metrics, the opening fixtures of the new campaign have been professionally dealt with.
Is there anything we can learn from these opening weeks? Well, we probably now know that the only three points that Gbamin is likely to achieve this season are those added to his driver’s licence. It’s also clear that Everton have no intention of ever recruiting a right back, putting their faith instead in Seamus Coleman’s enduring ability to go a season without injury. And, lastly, it looks like it’s going to take more than a few circuits around Finch Farm before Rondon manages to sweat off a years’ worth of chow mein.
It has also been interesting to see the genesis of what might be called a ‘Benitez Everton’. Although it’s clearly early days and the manager has yet to fully put his stamp on the club, something that will only be really achieved given time and new arrivals, it seems evident that Benitez is set on creating a version of Everton that differs markedly from those that have existed under his immediate predecessors.
He has talked at length about what he feels Evertonians expect from players, something that was entirely absent from the vocabulary of previous managers, all of whom came burdened with what they believed we needed and not necessarily what we, as fans, wanted. Benitez has promised to deliver an Everton that is aggressive, that is direct and which is populated by players who give everything they can for the team. That appears to be the template that the new manager is laying down. And it seems to be taking, because in recent games, for the first time in a very long time, you do get the impression that there are players out on that pitch who genuinely appear to understand that constant effort is the minimum requirement of an Everton player.
It is an attitude encapsulated in the tireless work rate of Andros Townsend. This un-showy and less-than-heralded summer arrival seems to have all the basic attributes you would want in an Everton player: hard work, humility and a desire to play for the club. If this is the archetypal ‘Benitez’ Everton player, then long may it continue.
In recent years, there has been a palpable desire amongst Evertonians for the creation of a side that embraces these attributes, essentially a side that gives a s**t. After the profligate years of waste under Moshiri, when a succession of managers recruited disinterested mercenaries on inflated wages, Evertonians have begun to yearn for players that understand what this club means to the fans. You need only see how quickly Ben Godfrey became a crowd favourite to realise this. Starved of that tenacious ‘die-for-the-shirt’ mentality for so long, Godfrey’s approach to the game was greedily gobbled up by Blues last season.
This need for tenacity and graft was not something understood by Ancelotti. Nor Silva. Nor Koeman. But it seems that Benitez, perhaps because of his long-term connection to the city, gets it. Part of the despair in recent seasons wasn’t just the results or the disappointing finishes, but the pervasive attitude that the team seemed to exhibit. There was too often a casual air about many of them, as if the end result was of little consequence. How many times in recent years have there been occasions when Everton have offered no contest to the opposition, simply going through the motions as sides who look more motivated and harder working bulldozed their way through our ranks.
There is no doubt that there will be difficult times ahead for Benitez. This is Everton after all. Form will dip at some point. But, as fans, we are generally a lot more forgiving during those difficult times if you get the sense that the players are giving everything they can and that they understand your pain. Hopefully, this is the attitude that Benitez aims to foster at Everton. If he does, then at least that will be something. And who knows, if he manages to create that and mix it with success on the pitch, I might even one day refer to him as ‘Rafa’?