What we want and what we need are often very different things. You get home weary in the evening and look around the kitchen. You probably could knock something reasonably tasty together from the vegetables and the brown rice, but you feel the urge of the delivery. Perhaps you go for the familiar pizza, the comfortingly big easy flavours. There’s the greasy satisfaction of feeling full, but in the morning you feel bloated – and then a glimpse at the receipt provokes another wave of regret.
Or maybe you try the fashionable new German or Swiss place everybody’s raving about. It arrives and you don’t really get it. You pretend you’re sophisticated enough to appreciate it, but you don’t enjoy it and it doesn’t fill you up. You’ve wasted your money.
You’re the owner of a football club. What you really fancy is a big name everybody’s heard of. It would cost a lot, but imagine if you could get José Mourinho. Imagine the excitement, the publicity, the salty kick of the soap opera. But you know that’s bad for you. Maybe one of the new wave of trendy Bundesliga managers? Could Gerardo Seaone or Sebastian Hoeness do a job, secure your hipster credentials?
The temptation to seek instant gratification is huge. You’ll get a dopamine hit signing the deal, showing how important you are recruiting this famous man, or showing how clever you are recruiting this unfamous man. There will be a couple of months of largely favourable chatter on social media before the realisation strikes that the celebrity boss is superannuated, or the introverted intellectual is a bad fit for the Premier League, and then the reckoning begins and you realise you should have just cooked the rice and vegetables. You should have appointed Rafa Benítez.
Benítez is not glamorous. Although he can energise a fanbase, as his stints at Liverpool and Napoli in particular demonstrate, he can at times seem a little cold. He prioritises control over entertainment. Strategy is everything. He favours the team over individuals, no matter how gifted, which is perhaps why the only club where he has really failed has been Real Madrid. But he is good for you.
When he was appointed at Everton this summer, there was a sense of anticlimax. He seemed a step back from Carlo Ancelotti, even if two league titles with Valencia and a Champions League with that Liverpool were greater achievements than any titles claimed with Milan, Juventus, Real Madrid or Paris Saint-Germain, even though Benítez’s successes seem far more relevant to Everton than anything Ancelotti had done since Parma.
Benítez’s identification with Liverpool, of course, added a layer of complexity to his reception, but the mood of vague dissatisfaction was enhanced by Everton’s summer business. And after bringing in Allan, Abdoulaye Doucouré and James Rodríguez the previous summer, perhaps Demarai Gray, Andros Townsend and Salomón Rondón did seem a little underwhelming.
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But while Allan and Doucouré have clearly strengthened the midfield, Rodríguez, after a start in which he sparkled without ever breaking into anything as unseemly as a jog, soon came to seem distracted and uninterested. Gray and Townsend have both excelled so far this season and, if at 32 he is beginning to creak a little, Rondón is a wholehearted and reliable lone frontrunner Benítez has worked with before and clearly trusts. It may be quotidian, but seven games in Everton have 14 points, one more than they had at the same stage last season – despite the sense then that they had started the season brilliantly.
Sustaining that is unlikely: two points a game would almost guarantee Champions League qualification. After the promising start, the second half of last season brought just 26 points – which offers a cautionary tale not merely for Everton but also Newcastle. Dragging a club to the next level is difficult.
Saudi Arabia’s Public Investment Fund has far, far more resources than Everton’s owner Farhad Moshiri and, depending how seriously it takes financial fair play regulations – and how seriously financial fair play regulations take them – they could effectively buy whatever they want.
Everton have brought in Richarlison, André Gomes, Allan, Doucouré and Lucas Digne, sensible signings who have by and large worked, they have tried managers such as Marco Silva and Ronald Koeman with Premier League experience and toyed with more ambitious acquisitions and appointments such as James and Ancelotti, and yet they still pootle around eighth. Breaking into the Europa League and beyond is tough.
It may be Everton again end up succumbing again to the limitations of their squad – and Sunday’s meeting with West Ham will be a test of their depth given the doubts over Dominic Calvert‑Lewin, Richarlison, Gomes, Séamus Coleman, Digne, Fabian Delph and Alex Iwobi. But there is at least a sense that Benítez has begun the process of imposing a proper structure.
Already the changes between his approach and Ancelotti’s more carefree, less didactic methods are apparent. Average possession per game has dropped from 47.3% to 40.1%, and dribbles from 9.5 per game to 6.3. Everton are less proactive than they were, happy to sit in and absorb pressure, hitting more direct passes and running with the ball far less often. But so far, it’s working: Everton are averaging 13.3 shots per game compared with 10.5 last season, conceding 12.3 this season against 13.3 last.
Everton are, in other words, demonstrating the classic Benítez traits. They’re compact and well-organised. They break efficiently. Benítez is, to an extent, a throwback, a survivor from the period 15-20 years ago when football went through an attritional phase before the coming of juego de posición and Gegenpressing. But he seems to have handled that evolution with far better grace than many of his contemporaries.
His football may not necessarily be thrilling, it may be efficient rather than beautiful, but then what do you want your team to do? To entertain, or to win? That’s a whole other discussion of ethics and aesthetics, and will inevitably be to an extent subjective, but sometimes you’re just better off just eating the rice and vegetables.