The reaction to Everton’s 13-minute collapse against Watford was telling. Scorn rained down on players and manager alike after a 2-1 lead in the 78th minute became a 5-2 defeat by the 91st, but a sizeable number of fans in the main stand at Goodison Park headed for the directors’ box to accuse the major shareholder, Farhad Moshiri, and the director of football, Marcel Brands, of deep-rooted mismanagement. Anger has understandably risen to the top.
After three successive Premier League defeats, one win in seven matches and a woeful response to the Watford debacle at Wolves on Monday, it is Rafael Benítez’s turn in a spotlight that has passed from Manchester United to Tottenham to Everton in the past fortnight.
It is just his luck at Goodison so far to encounter a Spurs’ team with added motivation to impress Antonio Conte rather than the sterile version that did for Nuno Espírito Santo. It also spectacularly misses the point, and remedies nothing, to attribute Everton’s recurring malaise to the fifth permanent manager Moshiri has appointed in five years.
Dissent will inevitably increase in the event of a fourth straight league defeat on Sunday, and not only from those who were against Benítez from the off because of his Liverpool connection. A bright start to the Everton manager’s reign with the new signings Demarai Gray and Andros Townsend to the fore has given way to alarming performances that invite criticism – aired by several of his predecessors – of the character within the squad. Never mind its ability.
Inherited weaknesses and a lengthy injury list affecting the entire spine of the team do not give Benítez a free pass. Everton were abject in the first half at Molineux and required the half-time introduction of Fabian Delph, who was not match fit after almost three months out with a shoulder injury, to avoid another heavy loss.
They conceded from a corner yet again, the sixth league goal shipped from a set piece this season. Under Carlo Ancelotti last term the total was seven. And he selected Alex Iwobi over Anthony Gordon.
Yet these are teething troubles compared with the structural flaws that prompted fans to seek out Moshiri and Brands after the last game at Goodison.
The team against Wolves provided a perfect illustration of the club’s problems under an owner who appears easily swayed by the advice of a select few agents, or Alisher Usmanov, thereby undermining the role of director of football in the process. The starting XI were signed under six different Everton managers – David Moyes (Séamus Coleman), Roberto Martínez (Mason Holgate), Ronald Koeman (Jordan Pickford and Michael Keane), Marco Silva (Richarlison, Iwobi and Jean-Philippe Gbamin), Carlo Ancelotti (Allan and Ben Godfrey) plus Benítez (Townsend and Gray). The spectre of a seventh, Sam Allardyce, hovered on the substitutes’ bench in the form of Cenk Tosun.
Lucas Digne was injured and so Godfrey, a right-footed central defender who missed the start of the season with Covid and has struggled since his return, deputised with damaging consequences at left-back. There are no other left-backs at the club to provide genuine competition for Digne and his form has declined markedly, too.
Niels Nkounkou was loaned to Standard Liège in the summer for more first-team experience while Thierry Small, who holds the record of being Everton’s youngest first-team player, signed for Southampton after rejecting a first professional contract at Goodison. Another blow to an academy that has supplied little to the first team in recent years and also falls under Brands’ remit. In place of Abdoulaye Doucouré, a dynamic influence until suffering a stress fracture of the foot, Gbamin made his first Premier League start in more than two years having been plagued by serious injuries since his £25m transfer from Mainz. The midfielder was unceremoniously hauled off after a 45-minute display that reflected his condition and the dilemma of how to give him the games necessary to rebuild a stalled career.
Despite Ancelotti prioritising a new right-back before the summer, and Benítez concurring, none arrived and so Coleman continues to plough the flank at the age of 33. The captain’s disgust with the lack of effort at Wolves was striking and shared by another sold-out away support. He was one of the few in royal blue to show any fight or take responsibility for the full 90 minutes on Monday. They are hallmarks of a Moyes signing and qualities that have been missing in too many of those who have followed under Moshiri.
More than £500m has been spent on new players since the billionaire’s arrival in February 2016. Benítez, working within the restrictions of the Premier League’s profit and sustainability rules this summer, has had £1.7m of it. He has been promised more for January but that looks a distant window with Manchester City, Liverpool and Chelsea on the horizon after Spurs.
“I am convinced that the players who were on the pitch the other day are feeling the same as Coleman,” insisted the Everton manager, who recently called for improvement in every department at the club. “We know how important it is to give everything because we are professionals but also because at this club the fans are demanding that.
“I can talk about Spain or other countries where they just want to see the team playing well, nice football, passing football and they are happy with that but, here, it is not like that. The fans want to see players giving everything and I think this group of players are giving everything.
“There are two ways to improve players: one is coaching them and the other is going to the transfer window and taking players. In this case we are coaching them and we are really pleased with the way they train and work. I was not happy the other day in the first half because we were not competing in the way we have to do it, but it can happen.
“A group of players like this one, when you are missing important players, it can happen. At set pieces we are not doing well but I am sure if I ask you if we have [Dominic] Calvert-Lewin, Yerry Mina and Doucouré on the pitch will we be better at set pieces, you will tell me: Yes. Everybody can see that. We have to be realistic and analyse where we are and where we were. That is the context we have to consider.”