Inside Rafael Benitez's toxic Everton reign - and the exact moment it all went wrong

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Inside Rafael Benitez's toxic reign at Everton - PA
Inside Rafael Benitez's toxic reign at Everton - PA

The end of a loveless marriage

You can pinpoint the exact moment it started to go wrong for Benitez; it was the day it became apparent majority shareholder Farhad Moshiri considered recruiting him.

When sweeping through the debris of another brief, debilitating managerial era, Evertonians' lingering question will always be ‘why?’

  • Why did Moshiri accept the call from Benitez last summer, knowing the sensitivities of his fanbase?

  • Why did he believe the Gwladys Street’s resistance - toxic from the outset - could ever be overcome?

  • Why did he not foresee how febrile the atmosphere would become if results and performances failed to deliver?

  • Why did Benitez believe his Anfield connection could be forgotten in the mistaken belief he would win over his critics?

  • Why did the Spanish coach ignore the easy escape route to Newcastle United after the Saudi takeover, when they were ready to give him a hero's return to Tyneside?

  • And - most recent - why did Moshiri dismiss his director of football Marcel Brands, sell one of his most popular players who might have stayed had he known how soon circumstances might change, and sign three new ones (Vitalii Mykolenko, Nathan Patterson and Anwar El Ghazi), empowering a coach he knew was one more awful defeat from being sacked?

It is the forecasting of this hurricane which makes the last six months more unfathomable than Everton’s recent managerial calamities. And yet up until the final, 2-1 defeat to Norwich City on Saturday, Moshiri was determined to stand by his man, and Benitez steadfast in his belief he could transform perceptions and results. There was no relish in dismissing him, nor is there relief on Benitez’s part that the personal attacks on him and his coaching credentials are over. Why?

An appointment which reeked of desperation

To answer we must start in July when Carlo Ancelotti shocked Everton by walking out for Real Madrid. In the recruitment process which followed, the dysfunctional Goodison hierarchy was again exposed. Moshiri had his idea what to do, so too his silent partner Alisher Usmanov, chairman Bill Kenwright and director of football Marcel Brands. What formed was an initial shortlist like those during previous searches - managers of vastly different personality, playing style, age profile, salary-expectations and experience.

It was another example that Everton know where they want to be but have no coherent idea how to get there - an accusation which equally applies to their erratic transfer policy. Do they want a modern coach who values possession and high-pressing football? Roberto Martinez was supposed to be that, but there were groans at Goodison Park when the centre-halves passed six yards to each other.

When Graham Potter’s name was mooted in July, some of their fans were underwhelmed. Potter probably would not have left Brighton for Everton at that time anyway. The same dissatisfaction was expressed when members of the Everton board pushed for David Moyes’ return. He was the obvious, ideal candidate with Goodison still in his heart, but West Ham would have demanded compensation for his services. That proved too much of an obstacle and Moyes’ instinct was to keep to his pledge to sign a new deal in London. Moshiri was left to rue ignoring Moyes’ claim when he belatedly turned to Ancelotti 18 months earlier (the ex-Everton coach believed the job was his until Moshiri was seduced by Ancelotti).

Nuno Espírito Santo was interviewed, but came across terribly. His disastrous reign at Spurs justified Everton’s late snub after initial indications the job was his. With pre-season a couple of weeks away, Moshiri had to act and decided to look dispassionately at the coaching qualities of a Champions League-winning coach and ignore the fact he won it for Liverpool. Benitez was available, ready and hungrier than anyone else Moshiri and Usmanov met.

Rafa Benitez Everton - AP
Rafa Benitez Everton - AP

The first move was his, knowing once he was in discussions with Moshiri and Usmanov his chances would increase. His interview was outstanding, detailing how and where Everton had gone wrong and how he would fix it. Moshiri was warned in the most vivid terms that the fans would be unhappy, and internet searches would reveal disparaging comments made in the heat of Merseyside derby battles when Benitez’s blood was red. Moshiri could see and hear it himself when some of them went as far as to issue threats to Benitez if he took the job - but there were enough supporters willing to give him a chance that Moshiri believed positive results would douse the flames of discontent.

'Everton need a stubborn b*stard in the dug-out'

Although Benitez was a controversial arrival, Moshiri thought he had a useful weapon in fixing long-term financial problems. As in previous years, Everton’s wage bill was seven in the Premier League in 2020-21, underlining their consistent underperformance. Benitez spelt out what needed to be done to trim costs, and immediately demonstrated he had the temperament to do it, regardless of the fall-out.

When Benitez sets his mind to a task, whether you want to call it inflexibility or single-mindedness, nothing will dissuade him. So James Rodriguez’s popularity with the supporters was not a factor when it came to offloading a player earning £250k a week. That money could be reallocated on those earning less than a quarter of the Colombian's salary. It led, however, to the first divisions within the fanbase. Those who saw Rodriguez as a symbol of a new era of world stars being pursued under Ancelotti felt they had been duped.

Benitez signed Demarai Gray and Andros Townsend with little fanfare, many believing they were cast-offs and has-beens. That criticism dissipated when Everton’s initial results were encouraging, with Gray and Townsend settling immediately. At that time, there were people at Goodison who felt Benitez - for all the flak he was taking - was precisely the ‘stubborn b*stard’ Everton needed for a revolution on and off the park. He relished that responsibility, so he ruled himself out of a return to St James’ Park even though he knew the public face of the Newcastle takeover, Amanda Staveley, would have appointed him in a heartbeat. That was also because of a sense of loyalty to Moshiri, and because he craved a job nearer his family on Merseyside.

But by December the weaknesses within the squad meant it was already unravelling. Benitez decided Lucas Digne was the next high earner worth sacrificing - dropping the French defender and engaging in a public spat. Results were terrible and the fans took Digne’s side, most audibly when was given a standing ovation as a sub against Brighton on January 9 . While Gray and Townsend excelled, another free signing, Salomon Rondon, was ridiculed. Any credit in the bank from those willing to give Benitez time was gone.

The Digne issue became another symbol of Everton’s dysfunction. Pushing ahead with the £25 million sale to Aston Villa when the next manager might have seen the 28 year-old as a crucial senior player is a damning indictment on Moshiri’s mismanagement and lack of foresight, as is signing three new players the next coach might not rate or want.

Upheaval in the boardroom

Wherever Benitez goes, boardroom battles follow. Perhaps it is just bad luck that he has spent so much time at clubs in the process of being sold, or undergoing some sort of financial reset. But it is also his management style to challenge those above him and bend them to his will. So when he joined Everton, the clock was set on director of football Brands’ exit as he was an increasingly peripheral figure on matters related to first-team recruitment.

It was further testimony to Moshiri’s erratic ownership style. The visions Brands and Benitez were sold by Moshiri when appointed were incompatible. Brands was targeted by fans after Everton’s Merseyside derby defeat and stood up for himself. “Do you think it is only the players,” he asked an irate supporter, in what was taken as a direct challenge to Benitez. A few days later, Brands was gone.

Nobody was any the wiser whether Brands was any good or not because during his tenure the Dutchman was consistently overruled, none of the coaching appointments were his, and there were times when it seemed like Moshiri was in thrall to superagents rather than the man supposedly leading the football strategy.

By then, fans were increasingly blaming Everton’s rapidly deteriorating situation on the board as well as the manager. There are questions as to why Kenwright hangs around. He must ask that of himself given the grief he takes when it is apparent he is not the ultimate decision-maker. Moshiri’s judgement is embarrassingly flawed, but it would be unwise to criticise him too heavily given the broader scale of his investment, and the importance of his wealth in completing the new stadium project on Liverpool’s dockside. Everton were desperate for an owner with Moshiri’s wallet. Sadly for him, you can’t put a price on wisdom.

The unsustainable results

For all the fall-outs, fans’ protests and contentious sales, the story of Benitez’s Goodison demise is on the pitch. On October 23, 2021, Everton were 2-1 up with 12 minutes left against Watford. A win would take them into the top four. They lost 5-2 and went on to suffer nine defeats in 12 Premier League games. Benitez, who got rid of director of medical services Danny Donachie during his time at the club, cited the injuries to Dominic Calvert-Lewin and Yerry Mina as critical. They were, as was the occasional unavailability of Richarlison and the inability to field a consistent starting XI in an effective formation.

Everton have a poor squad, many mediocre players signed by previous managers. Benitez could not get enough from them. Neither could Ancelotti, nor Marco Silva, Sam Allardyce or Koeman. They are not bad coaches. The problem is deep-rooted which is why Benitez is correct saying Everton’s problems are five years, not six years in the making. But it was never this bad under his immediate predecessor, Ancelotti, even when he underwhelmed in the second half of last season.

Defeats to Wolves, Crystal Palace, Brighton and Norwich were especially abysmal. Benitez is cut from the same managerial cloth as his long-time rival Jose Mourinho - pragmatic and analytical, playing a style which was fashionable in the 2000s but looks outdated in the world of high pressing and favourable ‘expected goals’ statistics. Benitez said he had to play using the players at his disposal, which is true. But even his famed ability to organise a defence could not prevent Everton conceding ridiculous goals.

With inescapable irony, Benitez became to Everton what his Anfield successor Roy Hodgson was to Liverpool in 2010; unwanted, ridiculed, bereft of the resources enjoyed by his predecessors and fighting an unwinnable battle as the side drifted closer to the bottom.

Now the club is in a relegation fight and in those circumstances the only means of escape is unity from the top, down to the supporters whose Goodison backing is fundamental to easing to mid-table safety. Benitez is experienced enough to know that no matter how much credence there is to his argument about Everton needing a reset, no coach can survive such a horrific sequence of results.

Moshiri’s gamble has failed miserably and whatever costs he saved on players’ salaries is negated by what is sure to be another handsome payoff to a coach six months into a three-year deal. He is looking for his sixth manager since June 2016. His first, Koeman, was meant to be the ‘superstar on the touchline’ to take the club into the Champions League. Over half-a-billion pounds and years of erosion of trust later, he needs one to keep Everton in the Premier League.

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