The Goodison Park club is locked in a spiral of negativity and more change is required if they are to prosper
Perhaps the strangest aspect of Rafa Benítez’s time at Everton is how well it began. He may have been sacked after a dismal run of one win in 13 league games, but after seven league games Everton had 14 points, a better start than they’d had last season, when everybody was cooing about Carlo Ancelotti and James Rodríguez.
But the problem was that Benítez is Benítez and a significant part of that identity is bound up with Liverpool. Whatever Benítez’s qualities as a coach, he was never likely to be afforded much patience by fans if things went badly. Benítez will probably argue he was undone by a series of key injuries, most notably Dominic Calvert-Lewin and Yerry Mina, while Abdoulaye Doucouré has not been the same since his foot problem. Any side would be affected by the loss of its spine, but in Everton’s case, those absences exposed deeper-lying, almost existential issues. This is a club locked in a spiral of negativity and, whatever Benítez’s faults, nobody should think that many of the problems did not precede him. What is Everton?
Since Roberto Martínez departed in 2016, Everton have decided that none of Ronald Koeman, Sam Allardyce, Marco Silva or Benítez are quite for them. Given Carlo Ancelotti won only six of 19 home games last season, he might have found Goodison Park turning against him had fans been in the ground and there is some suggestion he was coming under internal pressure before jumping ship for Real Madrid.
Which poses a major question: given four of the last five managers have been deemed failures almost from the off, are Everton terrible at making appointments, or is there something in the character of the club that makes it essentially unmanageable?
For a long time Everton were a club who battled on admirably despite a comparative dearth of resources. Since Farhad Moshiri became the club’s owner in 2016, though, there has been a net spend of a little over £200m. That’s not enough to challenge for Champions League qualification, but even after the tap was turned off this summer, the first year of Moshiri’s reign when a cash profit was made on sales, it is not a level of expenditure that should see the club anxiously glancing over their shoulders at a possible relegation fight. Spotrac suggests Everton have the seventh highest wage bill in the Premier League; it’s a long time since they have played like it.
Two timeframes need to be taken into account. In the immediate term, Everton were sinking. Defeat on Saturday to a Norwich side that hadn’t so much as scored in six league games meant Everton have now lost to all three promoted clubs this season and that, understandably, came as the final straw.
Was a first relegation in 71 years a serious prospect? Perhaps not, but given how poor their form had become, how shambolic their defending, nobody could claim to be entirely comfortable with just a six-point gap to the drop zone, even with games in hand. Once middle-aged fans are running on to the pitch to berate a manager, the jig is almost certainly up. The sale of Lucas Digne a few days earlier after a falling out with Benítez suggests that there was no plan then to dispense with him but there comes a point in any poor run when the tide of negativity is so powerful that sacrifice is the only possible course of action.
So Benítez had to go. But whoever takes over will inherit an odd mishmash of a squad patched together over the reigns of six managers. It’s not that there are not good players there – there are – but too many were bought at or beyond their peak. Of course bargains can be found among those cast off elsewhere, but it feels as though there has been a fundamental failure to accept Everton’s place in the modern world. Cosplaying being a big club has simply wasted money. Clubs like Everton can thrive only by buying young prospects and then selling at a profit. It’s unpalatable, but that’s the reality of the financing of modern football for those who are not superclubs.
To do that, though, requires a proper structure and a proper philosophy. Under Moshiri there has been none of that, just a club ricocheting between approaches, from modern Dutch to old-school English to emergent Portuguese to Champions League aristocracy to the dour football of 15 years ago. The people who could have instituted a proper transfer policy, Steve Walsh and Marcel Brands, never seemed entirely happy fits. Walsh left in 2018, Brands in December citing “a clear difference in the vision and direction” with the board.
Perhaps Brands wasn’t the right man. Perhaps Walsh wasn’t. Ultimately Benítez clearly wasn’t. But who can be? What direction is there at the club at the moment? A former manager has privately observed that Moshiri is unclear in his own mind, too reactive to the shifting tides of fan and media opinion. But until there is a clear vision it is hard to see how Everton move forward, and that begins with an acceptance of their place in the world.