Rafael Benitez has formally agreed a three-year deal at Everton
When anyone who has worked with or knows Rafael Benitez heard about a face-to-face interview with Everton owner Farhad Moshiri, the reaction was unanimous: “He will get the job, then.”
Never mind how contentious the appointment, now formally agreed with a three-year deal. There could be no more persuasive interviewee, and no candidate who will have studied so hard or been so overloaded with (dare one use the word) ‘facts’ about potential employers.
Moshiri will have gone into those initial discussions with reservations, warned about fans’ hostility against the first ex-Liverpool manager to coach Everton, and directed to old, provocative Benitez quotes about “small clubs” made in the crucible of Merseyside derby battles.
He would have left asking “how can I possibly ignore him?” and convinced emotion had to be swept aside for logic.
That is the effect Benitez has on those meeting him for the first time.
To understand the man you must picture a footballing obsessive who – on his specialist subjects – would reason the Oxford Union Debating Society’s most prolific speakers into submission.
Consider someone with the most extraordinary capacity to recite games, players, and switches in tactical formations which changed a result in any low key La Liga 2 fixture over the last 20 years; a manager who will speak with candour about what is wrong with his (or indeed any other) club and what needs to be done to reconstruct it, even if it leads to uncomfortable truths.
That is what Moshiri and his business partner Alisher Usmanov will have experienced over the last few weeks – they will have felt instructed as much as wowed.
Benitez is a coach who, during the days when Jamie Carragher and Gary Neville were still at loggerheads on the field, was not adverse to hosting what is best described as his own version of what we now know as the first hour of Monday Night Football at Liverpool’s Melwood training ground, dissecting a performance to guests in order to counter any contrary opinions, backing observations supportive and critical with video clips.
A personal highlight was in 2005 when Benitez wanted to demonstrate why everyone criticising his new centre-forward, Peter Crouch, for failing to score in his first 19 games did not know what they were talking about.
“I stake my reputation on this player,” was his fearless on-the-record quote as he pointed to a multitude of examples from those fixtures in which the striker was fundamental to his side’s improving form. Benitez had spent his first 12 months in England realising Liverpool needed a target man, not necessarily a prolific goalscorer, to keep his team higher up the pitch and evolve from the predominantly defensive strategy which improbably won the 2005 Champions League.
Steven Gerrard and Benitez with the European Cup in 2005
With Crouch outstanding and transformed into a Kop idol, Liverpool went on to collect 82 points and win the FA Cup in 2006, a far better team than that which secured Benitez’s legendary status in Istanbul.
On another occasion, Benitez offered a brief presentation about what made his goalkeeper target, Pepe Reina, so good when compared to those he said needed replacing.
He was not, as one might expect, highlighting a series of spectacular saves.
“Watch his feet,” Benitez said. Reina’s instinct as a goalkeeper was always to edge forward when preparing for a shot or cross while others’ was to slightly retreat. Reina would win the golden glove in his first three seasons. Instant judgement on the quality of a keeper based on his trigger movement has been unavoidable for this correspondent ever since.
Over his first two years in England, Benitez signed Xabi Alonso (23), Reina (23), Crouch (24), Daniel Agger (21) and Momo Sissoko (20). What Everton would do for a series of young, up-and-coming, value-for-money talents like that.
It ended badly at Anfield in 2010.
Five consecutive Champions League qualifications and the calamitous impact of Liverpool’s first American takeover in 2007 failed to yield conditions in which they regularly challenged Manchester United and Chelsea for the Premier League, Benitez coming closest in 2009. Off the field, the final years were debilitating, nobody spared from collateral damage.
At least Benitez knows what he is walking into at Goodison. For as long as he has his board’s backing, a few distasteful banners protesting his appointment will feel like afternoon tea after his last toxic few years at Liverpool under Tom Hicks and George Gillett Jr. Newcastle fans will say likewise about having to work under Mike Ashley.
Not that Everton in 2021 is a symbol of a fully-functional, well oiled machine.
The club’s internal philosophical differences were stark throughout a haphazard recruitment process in which factions lobbied for alternate coaching profiles.
Ultimately, this is Moshiri’s Everton, aided and abetted by silent partner Usmanov. Here is the People’s Club as sponsored by USM, where the negative opinions of many of the people were somewhat inconvenient.
Moshiri said when he brought his millions to Merseyside he wanted a superstar manager. Benitez is certainly that. His availability added to the attraction, Moshiri having been stung by paying in the region of £30 million in compensation or pay-offs to those sacked since 2016 (it cost £4m to take Marco Silva from Watford and another £6.6m to dismiss him and his staff). Given financial fair play rules and stadium costs, Moshiri cannot afford to keep making such expensive mistakes.
To bring Benitez in, Moshiri had to dismiss the objections of the more abstract, romantic Everton who many see embodied by Bill Kenwright, a chairman whose heart is in the right place but is to Goodison now what David Moores was to Liverpool prior to and immediately after his ill-fated sale to Hicks and Gillett.
Kenwright is often portrayed as a representative of Everton fans’ perceptions of where the club once was and still expects to be – full of colourful tales about Dixie Dean, the Golden Vision and Howard Kendall’s great 80s side. Even this view of Everton is complicated. There is no single, cohesive idea of how the club should go about challenging the top six.
The responses to the wide-ranging list of candidates when Carlo Ancelotti left confirms that – the majority picked apart for their flaws so no unifying figure emerged. Of the early frontrunners, ex-manager David Moyes – the man who coined that People’s Club slogan which is so cherished – was the preferred choice but stayed loyal to West Ham and was regarded by some supporters as “too much of a step back”.
Wolves coach Nuno Espirito Santo’s football was ultimately regarded as too negative by the Everton board, while the candidacy of Eddie Howe, widely respected in the coaching community, never went far this time. He was mercilessly ridiculed by some fans, his CV lacking the necessary stardust.
The same treatment was afforded Brighton’s Graham Potter. He was dismissed by some as “too much like Roberto Martinez”. Martinez, now bossing the No 1 international team, was the target of matchday protests in his latter days at Goodison but has since been shortlisted for the Barcelona job. He was sacked with a £10m pay-off in 2016, yet was considered for a return this time.
Such indecision has been reflected in all four Moshiri managerial appointments, every plan ripped up as the unrest made the hostile matchday mood unsustainable.
Director of football Marcel Brands was supposedly brought to the club to lead the headhunt for senior coaching staff and guide Everton down the road of slow and steady progression, targeting – to quote Moshiri – “younger players on low wages“.
Even though he has just signed a new three-year contract, Brands’ job title looks more misleading every year, more like one of many consultants rather than an empowered ‘director’ of football operations.
Moshiri is beguiled by stellar names. He was thrilled when Ancelotti was receptive to calls in 2019, and when the Italian asked for older players on high wages like James Rodriguez, the transfer policy was hastily tweaked.
James Rodriguez had a mixed first season at Goodison
Credit: NMC POOL
It means one of Benitez’s first jobs will be the same as his predecessors, establishing what to do about ageing players who are absorbing the wage bill and transfer kitty despite failing to offer a return on the investment.
It also means the most pertinent question is what blueprint of the Everton future Benitez has sold to Moshiri, and how much it depends on expensive signings for a quick fix rather than shrewd recruitment and long-term development?
If it is the latter, as it should be, how patient will Benitez’s new employers and supporters be in allowing him to do what he does at his best – making his sides a nightmare to play against while incrementally improving them?
Unlike at Liverpool, where Benitez inherited a flawed but still Champions League qualifying team and was welcomed having just won two La Liga titles and the Uefa Cup, he will need time and diplomacy to win over the Gwladys Street.
Some say his style of football is too pragmatic, outdated in the world of Jurgen Klopp’s high press or Pep Guardiola’s technical dominance of possession.
The Newcastle fans who so adore Benitez and wish he could come back with an owner of Moshiri’s wealth will disagree. Not unlike Ancelotti – a fellow student at the university of Arrigo Sacchi – Benitez’s primary focus is organisation. But he has a chameleon-like style as a coach, varying approach depending on the calibre of opponent.
Others say his emotional bond to Liverpool is too strong and will be hidden, not severed.
Any Everton fans worried about that ought to watch Newcastle’s efforts to try to derail Liverpool’s title push at the climax of the 2018/19 season. Klopp often namechecks that game as a symbol of the integrity of England football. Benitez’s past will have zero impact on professional duties on the next derby day.
By the end of his Goodison tenure, no Everton manager will have ever worked harder, nor planned every step of the next fixture so determinedly and meticulously. Sufficiently persuaded of that, Moshiri believes Benitez to be worth the current flak.
Convincing the less enamoured among the Everton fanbase will be tougher. There are flames of discontent raging at Goodison Park. Not for the first time, inadvertent or otherwise, Benitez will be seen as a fire-starter as much as a fire-fighter.
Whether he shines or burns, you can’t question his nerve in striding purposefully into the blaze.