Rafael Benitez understands the feelings of some Everton supporters, who have made it be known they are against his appointment as manager.
But, in applying and taking up the role, the Spaniard feels he can win his doubters over with results on the pitch. Benitez’s arrival comes 11 years after he left Liverpool, where he spent six years as manager, winning the Champions League and FA Cup.
Everton owner Farhad Moshiri has ignored supporter unrest, with the 61-year-old agreeing a three-year contract to become Carlo Ancelotti’s successor after the Italian resigned from his post to return to Real Madrid on June 1.
Benitez replaced Ancelotti as Madrid manager in 2015, only to be sacked barely seven months later, and in becoming the Toffees’ fifth permanent boss in as many years, his bond to the red half of Merseyside has led to him receiving a mixed reception from the Everton fanbase.
Benitez was sold on the club’s history and ambition, reportedly rejecting approaches from two Serie A clubs with a return to the Premier League his priority. Sky Sports assesses the checklist that awaits him at Goodison Park…
Win over fanbase
Everton fans will be pleased to finally see an end to a long-running saga which saw a host of names linked with the vacancy. For many, it has reached an unsatisfactory conclusion.
Benitez, who has been out of work since leaving Chinese club Dalian Professional last January, becomes the first man to have managed both Liverpool and Everton since William Edward Barclay in the 1890s.
Nuno Espirito Santo held initial talks and David Moyes was also considered before he committed his future to West Ham while former Lille boss Christophe Galtier was also tipped to take charge.
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But, after Ancelotti demonstrated why he is not a project manager, Benitez will have the opportunity to show he can guide Everton into their state-of-the-art new stadium in 2024, and a bright new era for the club.
Benitez knows this is a city in which he will be judged quickly, and while time will be required for him to get his methodology and playing style across to his players, his ties to Liverpool mean the supporters are unlikely to afford him much leeway.
Sinister banners have been held up by disgruntled fans both at Goodison Park and outside his Wirral home. Everton go into the new league campaign without European football once again after a year that promised so much under Ancelotti.
Supporters will be looking for a sustained challenge after those hopes faded and the Spaniard will know about those demands soon enough.
Rafa Benitez CV
Valencia: La Liga (2002, 2004), UEFA Cup (2003)
Liverpool: Champions League (2005), Super Cup (2005), FA Cup (2006), Community Shield (2006)
Inter Milan: Italian Super Cup (2010), Club World Cup (2010)
Chelsea: Europa League (2013)
Napoli: Coppa Italia (2014), Italian Super Cup (2014)
Newcastle: Championship (2017)
Benitez in words: How he made his bed
The Benitez family came to see Merseyside as their home from the moment they arrived in 2004, and have held residence ever since. His emotional attachment to the city is reflected in his community work in helping fund projects for children, as well as his enduring support for the Hillsborough Families.
But his comments in February 2007 after a 0-0 draw between Liverpool and Everton at Anfield have been widely circulated once more since news of his pending appointment…
“I was really disappointed because one team wanted to win the game and one team didn’t want to lose it. Everton put eight or nine men behind the ball and defended deep but that’s what small clubs do.
“When a team comes to Anfield and only want a point what else can you call them but a small club?”
As a special guest on Monday Night Football in December 2019, when he was out of management, he sought to clarify his views…
“I made a mistake when I said it was a small club. What I wanted to say was they are a small team because in this game I remember they had one chance.
“Liverpool fans, they were happy and the Evertonians were upset. But I didn’t want to say they were a small club, I wanted to say they were a small team.
“Some Evertonians, they come to me and say about what I did for the city, we have the charity, and all these things, so I have a very good connection with the city, not just the Liverpool fans.”
Create an identity
Make no mistake, Ancelotti’s departure pulled the rug from underneath Everton’s lofty ambitions and came as a major blow to Moshiri, who had viewed the Italian as the perfect figurehead to lead the club and the ‘Hollywood’ manager he craved.
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But, when you strip away his reputation as one of the most respected and decorated figures in world football, the three-time Champions League winner struggled to impose a clear identity on the first team. There were marginal improvements but pinpointing his legacy is far from obvious to those outside the club.
Everton’s hierarchy were left reeling by the speed of events which saw him depart, but Benitez will be tasked with bringing stability and success following five years of vast outlay with little to show for it.
Of the club’s previous five managers, Roberto Martinez was the man whose identity resonated most with supporters and aligned itself with the club’s core values of promoting youth through an attractive playing style.
Having been handed the keys to Everton’s future, Benitez will be expected to create a clear identity that has been somewhat neglected in place of short-termism.
Turn Goodison into a fortress
Everton produced some inexcusable performances at home last season, with the 1-0 reverse to rock-bottom Sheffield United seen as the nadir. That Everton finished in 10th spot was largely thanks to their impressive 11 away wins, but Ancelotti rarely looked like correcting the issues at Goodison Park.
Despite his previous allegiances, Benitez will hope to use the benefit of having supporters back in the stands from the off next season, meaning that should the poor home results continue into his reign, the new manager will be unable to offer any such excuse to offset any early scrutiny.
The performances were so often disjointed when the emphasis was on Everton to take the game to their opponents, so addressing the creative void is an essential part of the squad surgery still required.
Transform the squad
Ancelotti had sat down with the board for a transfer strategy meeting shortly after the season finished, and many of those transfer targets should at least remain – irrespective of Benitez’s arrival if the model of a director of football is fully functioning.
Ultimately, the present incumbent will have to decide which of last season’s underperformers should be cast aside.
Allan, Abdoulaye Doucoure and Ben Godfrey were all bought last summer and are likely to be part of the core that remain, but the new manager must make his own judgment on others who have yet to convince they are of the required quality; Alex Iwobi, Fabian Delph, Bernard and Andre Gomes fall firmly into this category.
Then there are those the new manager has to assess who are returning either from injury or from loan deals, including Cenk Tosun, Anthony Gordon, Ellis Simms and Moise Kean.
There has been talk of the latter extending his stay at Paris Saint-Germain, but generating additional funds from offloading more of the collateral deadwood on high wages from previous regimes has proven a tough task for previous Everton managers.
Sort the backroom staff
When Ancelotti departed Finch Farm, he took with him six members of Everton’s coaching staff. His son, Davide Ancelotti, as well as Francesco Mauri, Luca Guerra, Simeone Montanaro, Manuel Morabito and Mino Fulco also headed out to the Spanish capital.
There are a number of new relationships to forge, from chief executive Denise Barrett-Baxendale to the chairman Bill Kenwright – and Benitez will want to bring in his team in the same way Ancelotti did in order to create a more familiar working environment.
The Spaniard will be joined by his long-serving fitness coach Paco De Miguel and assistant Antonio Gomez. Decisions will need to be taken but first-team coach Duncan Ferguson and goalkeeping coach Alan Kelly have been kept on to help with the transition period and beyond.
Benitez has tended to appoint assistant managers with a connection to previous clubs, having called upon Sammy Lee at Liverpool and Bolo Zenden at Chelsea. While Ferguson was considered for the No 1 position, the Scot has been the one constant during the five previous incumbents under Moshiri and his presence will go some way to pacifying a divided fanbase.
Make a fast start to new season
There is little time to waste. Members of the first-team squad not involved at the European Championships are expected back at Finch Farm on July 5 ahead of their pre-season tour of the United States.
Benitez will want to have as many of those who take part at Euro 2020 at his disposal by the time he and his squad head to Orlando. Everton will compete in the Florida Cup at the Camping World Stadium on July 25 and 28 against Arsenal, Inter Milan and Millonarios FC.
Everton were the surprise early pace-setters last term, winning their opening seven games in all competitions as Ancelotti earned the manager of the month award for September.
Identifying what worked 12 months ago and replicating those conditions will be difficult with a new man at the helm, but the players have a responsibility to communicate the lessons learned through the conditioning and preparations that served them so well.
Build a working relationship with Brands
One of the drawbacks of the old regime that only became more apparent with the passing of time was that Ancelotti did not always agree on transfer targets with Marcel Brands. Put simply, the new manager and director of football must be singing off the same hymn sheet if Everton are to bridge the gap to the elite.
The board cannot be criticised for Ancelotti’s exit, but Brands was at times stifled during his 18 months at Everton. Doucoure was a long-term target, but James Rodriguez and Allan were recruited on the Italian’s say-so despite both nearing the age of 30.
It was clear that Joshua King was not a player Ancelotti approved of from the start when he joined on loan until the end of the season, and the forward subsequently made just 11 substitute appearances, amassing 137 minutes.
Speaking to Norwegian outlet Dagbladet this week, King said: “He lied to me. I had no relationship with Ancelotti. I had never thought that in 18 games I would not be allowed to start one.”
For supporters, it was an unsurprising revelation but one that didn’t reflect well on the club. The locals will demand more joined-up thinking with Benitez now in charge.
Get the best out of Calvert-Lewin
One of the biggest successes of Ancelotti’s tenure was how he managed to help Dominic Calvert-Lewin develop into an established England international having netted a career-high 21 goals for Everton last season.
The striker hit the ground running under his former manager, scoring the winning goal in his opening match against Burnley, and he made a blistering start to the 2020/21 season – scoring 16 in his opening 18 games for club and country.
But he only scored another nine goals in his subsequent 30 matches, a drop-off which coincided with him often drifting deeper to link the play with midfield. He has only played one minute at Euro 2020 and was left out of Gareth Southgate’s squad entirely for the victory over Germany.
Having been transformed into a penalty-box predator, Ancelotti’s successor should look to get Calvert-Lewin back to his best, using him as the focal point around which to build an exciting new team.
James Rodriguez resolution
One way or another, Benitez must decide what to do with James Rodriguez.
At times last season, the former Real Madrid playmaker was on another level to his peers, demonstrating why he was once one of the most coveted players in world football. He sprinkled his stardust in the early stages of the campaign, helping Everton win their opening four league fixtures.
His cross-field diagonals and ability to see things others could not meant a generation of Evertonians were treated to a style of play they had not witnessed before.
The issue Everton have found with Rodriguez is not what happens on the pitch, but rather off it. And Benitez will hope the Colombia international remains fit if he decides he wants to keep him. But there can be no passengers.
Rodriguez started just 21 from 38 league games, with Ancelotti having to manage the gifted technician through repeated calf trouble.
The rigours of the Premier League are something the 2014 World Cup Golden Boot winner has so far struggled with, and it remains to be seen whether he can indeed hack the pace as he approaches his 30th birthday.
Pace, pace, pace
Everton were crying out for pace last season. Far too often, their approach play was painfully slow and predictable. They became a counter-attacking side, but without the zip, spark and dynamism associated with such play.
As a result, their form suffered – particularly at home. Ancelotti admitted late last season that Everton struggled to win games when the onus was on them.
“The analysis of the season will be important in terms of recruiting new players,” Ancelotti said with two games remaining.
“We also have to consider the away run we had. We planned 21 games to be strong defensively, to use the counter-attack and to be strong on set-pieces. Of these 21 games we won 14, with sacrifice.
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“And 15 games we tried to play a little bit different – build-up, put more players in front, more players in between the lines – and of these 15 games we won only two.”
One explanation for this is a lack of pace in the attacking third. Everton struggled to unlock teams at Goodison, and finished with the league’s 15th-best home record; winning just six games.
Everton ranked 12th in the Premier League last season for metres per second progressed upfield in open play sequences (1.39), reflecting that there is plenty of room for improvement when it comes to injecting more urgency into building up attacks.
Along with a right-back, pace in the attacking third is one area Brands will be looking to prioritise during his summer recruitment drive.
‘Rafa should expect short honeymoon period’
Sky Sports News reporter Alan Myers:
‘Of course, football fans are overly passionate at times, the Merseyside rivalry is intense to say the least and this is the first time that anyone has managed both clubs.
‘This appointment was always going to be controversial, and it was always going to encourage a fierce backlash from a vocal Everton fanbase.
‘However, if we take the heat and emotion out of the decision, the more considered opinion of many around Everton Football Club is that it is an unnecessary appointment, there were other candidates who would not bring the level of scrutiny and pressure that this one undoubtedly will.’
Read Alan Myers’ reporter notebook here
Everton’s summer transfer plans analysed
The transfer window opened on June 9 but after seeing early promise fizzle out, what do Everton need to do this summer?
Everton will be looking to provide more cover for Calvert-Lewin this summer following the limited impact of King after his January move from Bournemouth.
The club will make a decision on the future of forward Kean, whose successful loan spell at Paris Saint-Germain was agreed without an option to buy.
Robin Olsen has returned to Roma following his season-long loan. The Sweden international deputised well for Jordan Pickford when called upon last season, but the club will need to press ahead with now finding another understudy.
Ancelotti had also targeted a successor for club captain Seamus Coleman since last summer, with Norwich right-back Max Aarons on their shortlist and available for around £30m.
Theo Walcott has made a permanent switch to Southampton but Everton have offloaded Yannick Bolasie this summer to make way for another attacking wide player to provide competition across the forward line.
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