For many, supporting a football club can feel like being on a rollercoaster, with endless twists and turns and plenty of fun along the way. But at Everton, it feels more like a doom-laden, ‘gritty realism’ horror movie, with the latest change of narrative dividing its loyal fan base six ways from Sunday.
Over half a decade of mismanagement culminated in Everton appointing Rafael Benítez after the untimely departure of Carlo Ancelotti from the Goodison Park club, with many fans feeling that they had gone cap in hand to a man who successfully managed their greatest enemy – disrespecting Everton in the process of doing so.
He referred to the Toffees as a ‘small club’ back in 2007, after David Moyes’ side slugged out a 0-0 derby draw at Anfield – a comment he later redacted during a 2019 episode of Monday Night Football. Even without the comment, though, it would have been difficult for Evertonians to immediately take to the Spaniard for his Liverpool connections, but with his feet under the table, it’s time to get to work.
We’re going to take a look at what Benítez has done so far on the field and in the transfer market, but first a brief analysis of the foundation he was left to work with.
Carlo Ancelotti’s Everton
Everton began last season like a house on fire – winning seven games in a row, scoring at least three in five of those to top the table in mid-October. Very quickly, however, injuries and suspensions derailed the side and cracks began to appear in Ancelotti’s system and management, with the Toffees entering a run of one win from the following seven fixtures.
This sparked a change in tact from the Italian, as he set Everton up to be hard to beat and nick goals whenever possible – living life on the footballing knife edge. It brought positive results against Chelsea, Leicester and Arsenal, but narrow defeats to the likes of West Ham, Manchester United and Newcastle showed the shortcomings of playing in such an unsustainable way.
It is worth mentioning too that Everton were lucky to pick up some of the points they did in the back two-thirds of the campaign. In the aforementioned victory over Chelsea, they were reliant on saves from Jordan Pickford and the visitors hitting the post twice to take home the points, while a late Bernd Leno own goal won all three against Arsenal in a game that Everton managed just one shot on target.
More importantly, playing in such a way led to issues when the onus was placed on Everton to break down a side who were deployed in a similar way. Home defeats to West Ham, Burnley, Sheffield United, Newcastle and Fulham derailed any chance the Blues had of competing at the top end of the table, and ultimately went on to define the Ancelotti era as his side became notorious for dropping points against teams that they should have beaten – especially at home.
The Blues became increasingly hopeful of individuals winning them games, rather than breaking down teams as a strong, cohesive unit. The 5-0 thrashing at the hands of Manchester City at season’s end had been coming in truth, as Everton finished a difficult season 10th in the table with Ancelotti departing for Real Madrid just two weeks after the defeat.
There were, of course, some great performances intertwined between the messes of those home embarrassments: a 2-0 defeat of Liverpool at Anfield comes to mind, as well as battling displays against Leeds, West Ham and a late draw with Manchester United. He achieved this with a squad that was crippled by injuries for large chunks of the campaign, best evidenced by a game against Brighton in mid-April, where the squad numbers of his eight substitutes totaled 325.
But, ultimately, Ancelotti failed to take Everton any further along during his 18 months in charge, and it could have been seen as an opportunity to move in a new direction after Real Madrid pinched him from his lucrative £10m-a-year contract.
It was less a change of direction for Everton this summer, but more a change of lanes. They had gone from a manager who was able to grind out results and make his sides solid defensively against the best sides in the division, with an ability to attract players who perhaps wouldn’t have looked twice at Everton otherwise – such as James Rodríguez.
It felt then that, in Benítez, Everton were hiring a manager who could do plenty of that but perhaps not as well, without also having the upside of knowing that Carlo Ancelotti was at the helm. But, it hasn’t started quite like that.
From four league games so far this season, Everton have either outshot or been level with every side they have faced, managed more shots on targets or equal in each game and – according to UnderStat – posted a higher xG from three of those fixtures, too (other sources have them as topping the xG table in each game). The good signs started against Southampton, even though the new manager got off to the worst start, as Everton trailed at the breakthrough a Michael Keane error.
The Toffees were pedestrian in the opening 45, and struggled to create any real chances – which prompted a change from the Spaniard. He moved new arrival Demarai Gray (more on him later) from a central position behind Dominic Calvert-Lewin to a wide midfield role and put Richarlison up front. It bore fruit as, just two minutes after the restart, the Brazilian equalised.
What followed was, at times, high tempo, swashbuckling football, as Everton got the ball forward quickly, and almost doubled their shot count in the second half. Abdoulaye Doucouré and Calvert-Lewin both scored late on to round off the scoring, as Benítez’ men ran out as deserved winners.
It’s clear that Everton are looking to get the ball up the field quickly; with no creative presence running through the centre of the team, the Blues have attempted 57 long balls per90 on average – the fifth highest in the Premier League this season.
But of the four teams above them in that metric (Wolves, Burnley, Brentford and Leeds), Everton better all but Wolves in terms of shots per90, all for shots on target per90, and their ten goals this season is at least double of those sides, too. In fact, Everton’s ten goals this season sees them rank above Chelsea, Liverpool and Leicester – with only the two Manchester clubs scoring more in the division.
It may not always be pretty to watch, but, thus far, Everton have been rather effective in the final third. Going back to their numbers, their 14.8 shots per90 is the 6th highest in the division, while their total of 6.3 shots on targets sees them rank 3rd. Benítez appears happy to let other sides have possession (with the Toffees ranking second-best in that metric for their opening three games), but their attacking potency has made it worth it.
Another hallmark of Ancelotti’s time in charge was terrible second-half performances, especially at Goodison. Last season, home games against the sides outside of the top six yielded just eight second-half goals (three of those against a ten-man West Brom), whereas this season, Everton have managed six goals from just two second-half performances. The Blues have also amassed 9+ second-half shots from three of their four games this term – something they achieved only twice in Ancelotti’s final 37 games.
In what should be typical ‘Dogs of War’ fashion, the Toffees have become more aggressive under Benítez, too. Compared to last season, Everton are committing more fouls, winning more aerial duels, receiving more bookings, making more interceptions and showing a far greater ability to press their opposition.
In terms of high turnovers, the Toffees rank 4th in league, compared to a lowly 15th place last season. Average pressures per game are up marginally (from 148 on average last season to 149 this), but the success rate of those is up by 5%, and attacking third pressures are also in the ascendancy.
To summarise – Benítez has thus far delivered on the intangibles, but the underlying stats back it up. This team feels more like an Everton side with each passing game; they’re aggressive, direct and get the ball forward quickly. They’re getting the best out hard-working players – turning the likes of Abdoulaye Doucouré, Andros Townsend and Demarai Gray into valuable, forward thinking players.
Twice this season already they have recovered from a goal down to deservedly win both games – a figure matched across the previous three seasons combined, in perhaps the most telling of all statistics.
Everton have come full circle: from dealing with pennies under David Moyes, to ‘War Chests’ under Ronald Koeman, large transfer kitties under Marco Silva and Carlo Ancelotti, and back around to working with a pittance this summer. Rafa Benítez admitted last week that FFP rules were ‘killing’ Everton – forcing them to spend just £1.8m, the smallest expenditure in the division, the Blues’ lowest spend since 2010 and their third smallest of the Premier League era.
So, what did they get for that money? They signed five players, but two of those were backup goalkeepers in the shape of Asmir Begović (who is absolutely fine), and Andy Lonergan. The entirety of that £1.8m expenditure went on Demarai Gray, with the former Leicester man joining following a fairly lowkey six months at Bundesliga side Bayer Leverkusen.
And what a start he has made as well: in four league games, Gray has managed three goals, and has wowed Toffees fans with his directness, pace and eye for goal – with two of his strikes so far this term coming on his weaker left foot. He offers a far cheaper and, so far at least, more efficient option than Bernard on less than half the wages. It wouldn’t be a surprise to see Gray spoken of in the ‘bargains of the season’ bracket come season’s end if this form continues.
Scored in his last 3. Bargain of the summer. £1.7m Demarai Gray😍 pic.twitter.com/2zaEPcX9W6
— 𝐃𝐆𝟏𝟏 (@DemaraiArmy) September 13, 2021
Benítez then called upon two of his former players to help bulk out his forward options. First, he brought in Andros Townsend on a free transfer following his release from Crystal Palace, reuniting with a man who managed five goal involvements in just nine starts under the Spaniard in 15/16.
He has begun life at Everton terrifically; already enticing Toffees fans with tireless work rate, but his total of two goals and two assists already shows there is end product and value to match – including an absolute slobberknocker of a strike in the 3-1 win over Burnley. Many laughed at the pair of wide men Everton signed this summer, but seven goal involvements in just five games between them is a frankly brilliant start.
Then came the deadline day addition of Salomón Rondón, who joined the former Napoli manager for a third time following spells together at Newcastle and Dalian Professional. Rondón is in another bargain bucket signing and should offer adequate backup to Dominic Calvert-Lewin (and is certainly more effective than Moise Kean and Josh King to this Everton side), with the Venezualan making his debut as a late substitute against Burnley.
The fact Everton have found so much apparent value from so little will have Toffees fans pulling their hair out at the money they have wasted previously, but it should also work to show the club where they should do their shopping in the upcoming transfer windows.
Life for Rafa Benítez at Everton has started tremendously. They may not have beaten any sides who you would imagine will finish above them this season, but their performances in the four games so far show that there is a spirit and resilience in this team, a manager able to make subtle tactical changes and an ability to play better against more attacking sides.
Unfortunately for Evertonians, Benítez will always be synonymous with one comeback in particular, but if he can turn Everton into the side they’ve wanted to be for so long – winning the Goodison faithful over in the process – then it would, without doubt, be his greatest turnaround yet.
By: James Pendleton / @jpends_
Featured Image: @GabFoligno / Visionhaus – Getty Images