Rafael Benitez is no stranger to a controversial appointment.
It’s less than a decade since the Spaniard took over at Chelsea just a few years after knocking the Blues out of the Champions League twice in three years with Liverpool as part of a heated rivalry. Despite delivering the Europa League, the Stamford Bridge faithful never really took to Benitez during his interim reign with boos often ringing down from the stands.
But taking the Everton job is a different kettle of fish. This is Benitez’s former Merseyside rival and a club he caused plenty of heartache during his Anfield tenure. And, of course, he once made the bold claim that Everton, behind only Man Utd, Liverpool and Arsenal in terms of title wins, were a “small club”.
“I was really disappointed because one team wanted to win the game and one team didn’t want to lose it,” said Benitez after a goalless Merseyside derby at Anfield back in 2007. “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?”
It should go without saying that, with the Goodison Park hot seat still glowing from the departure of Carlo Ancelotti, Benitez has plenty of ground to make up with an Everton fanbase already disgruntled at the mere mention of him getting the job. The lack of enthusiasm behind Everton’s announcement on social media speaks volumes, despite being just three words long.
Our new manager. pic.twitter.com/1FulLthzyF
— Everton (@Everton) June 30, 2021
“I am delighted to be joining Everton,” said Benitez in the interview accompanying his digital unveiling. “Throughout this process I have been greatly impressed by the ambition shown by the senior representatives at the club and their desire to bring success to this historic club.
“I believe this is a club that is going places. I’m determined to play a big part in helping this great club achieve its ambitions.”
It’s much better than his comments from 14 years ago, but what else must Benitez do to win that fanbase over?
1. Forge a connection and communicate
Although the “small club” comment ruffled a flock of feathers, you cannot accuse Benitez of hiding what he really thinks. Remember his “facts” press conference? If he has something to say, he’ll say it. And although this landed Benitez in hot water with Evertonians, it is a quality he could use to his advantage at Goodison Park.
The Toffees are still reeling from the departure to Real Madrid of Ancelotti who, just months earlier, had insisted he was looking to stay on Merseyside for a number of years.
“I think we are going to win, but it takes time, a little bit longer than at other top teams I managed,” said the Italian. “But the fact is I feel good here. I would like to stay more than two or three years that I’ve usually done in the past with other clubs.
“I would like to stay a little bit more because the project is also different. The project was really clear and ambitious when I first met the owners. It’s the reason I signed the contract.”
What Evertonians want now is someone genuine who will honestly speak their mind on all topics. And they want someone to unite the fanbase. That may seem like a foreign concept with Benitez for many on the blue half of Merseyside but the fact is that he was idolised by supporters on the red side, just as he was during his tenure at Newcastle United with DeAndre Yedlin once saying: “I think everyone has seen how he has brought the city together. Even though we may not have started the season the best, we’ve ended it very well. As we all know, all the fans love him, the players love him and it would be great if he stayed.”
Besides, Benitez has already admitted his miscalculation by calling Everton a small club and does plenty of charity work for the city of Liverpool as a whole.
“I made a mistake when I said it was a small club,” he told Monday Night Football in December 2019. “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.”
2. Play attacking football
Everton’s turgid, passive style of play left some supporters wondering quite how Ancelotti has once again landed the Real Madrid job in the first place. The Toffees ranked 13th in the Premier League for shots on target (148) last season, while they were 12th for Expected Goals (46.2) and 17th for final-third passes attempted (3,993). This is also an Everton fanbase that watched their team limp to home draws against the likes of West Brom and Southampton under Sam Allardyce in the recent past.
Supporters are now crying out for a manager to come in and put their side on the front foot. Not necessarily to play free-flowing, easy-on-the-eye football, but the sort of high intensity, fully committed approach they employed in a 3-1 win over Chelsea when Duncan Ferguson took interim charge in December 2019.
Benitez is often seen as a pragmatist by nature, using defensive solidity and organisation to get the best from limited squads. But looking back to the 2008/09 season, you can see what the Spaniard is capable of with the right players. That Liverpool group was arguably the most talented he had during his time at Anfield with the likes of Steven Gerrard, Fernando Torres, Javier Mascherano, Xabi Alonso and Jamie Carragher all donning the red shirt.
Benitez struck an incredible balance with this squad, playing Gerrard just behind Torres to unleash wave after wave of ruthless attacks, while Mascherano and Alonso provided composure and stability further back. Liverpool ended the campaign second with 86 points — enough to win the title in 11 of the Premier League’s 26 38-game seasons — scoring a league-high 77 goals and conceding just 27 times, only Chelsea and champions Man Utd (both 24) allowed less.
Benitez is the sort of name that could persuade James Rodriguez to stay at Everton. He’s also the sort of name that could attract other stars to Goodison Park to complement to considerable talents of Dominic Calvert-Lewin and Richarlison, and Everton certainly have the cash. If he can cast aside his pragmatic reputation deliver the testosterone-infused football Evertonians have been craving for so long, that’ll go a long way toward winning supporters over to Benitez.
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3. Win early, win at home
Attacking football or not, nothing wins over supporters like three points on the board. On paper, and we must stress Everton rarely achieve what they should on paper, the Toffees have a pretty favourable start to the season and don’t face any of last season’s top four until matchday seven when they travel to Manchester United.
- Everton’s opening six Premier League fixtures: Southampton (h), Leeds Utd (a), Brighton (a), Burnley (h), Aston Villa (a), Norwich City (h)
Plotting their route to success, many supporters will be projecting 18 points from Everton’s opening six games. Although it rarely works out that way, going unbeaten is not out of the question.
Last season, Everton made a habit of saving their best performances for the Premier League’s big hitters. But if the Toffees can get some early momentum under their belts and prove they can turn up when the lights don’t shine quite as bright, it’ll be proof that a corner is being turned.
What’s more, Everton won just six of their 19 home games last season, finishing 15th in the Premier League on home games only. There will be discontent on the terraces if Benitez is appointed, but getting early wins at Goodison Park against Southampton, Burnley and Norwich will show the ‘Old Lady’ can once again be turned into a fortress.
4. Beat Liverpool
The first Merseyside derby of the season takes place at Goodison Park on November 30. Given their favourable opening, Benitez would hope Everton enter that match riding high in the table with some credit in the bank. The interest rate on that credit will sky-rocket if the Toffees can beat Liverpool at Goodison for the first time since 2011.
Evertonians rejoiced as their side finally ended their derby drought with a 2-0 win at Anfield last season — their first victory on that ground since 1999 — but it was tainted slightly by the fact there were no fans in the stadium.
Hopefully, that won’t be an issue come November. And if there are any fans inside the stadium still not convinced of Benitez’s credentials and commitment by that point, a win over Liverpool, which Evertonians crave few things more, would certainly do some convincing, with plenty of long-standing derby ghosts being exorcised. What more proof would you need that Benitez is now blue?
5. Deliver a trophy
The one thing Evertonians do crave more than a Merseyside derby win is a trophy. The Toffees haven’t lifted one since beating Man Utd 1-0 in the 1995 FA Cup final. In fact, they’ve rarely come close, losing the 2009 edition 2-1 at Wembley against Chelsea and reaching a few semi-finals across both domestic cups aside.
Last season, the Toffees exited both cups at the quarter-final stage and the feeling of deflation around Goodison was palpable, it was as if the balloon Ancelotti had been blowing up was sliced with a knife, let alone pricked with a needle.
At the start of every season, Evertonians will tell you their ambition is simple: win a trophy.
How curious it would be if Benitez, who won Champions League and FA Cup titles for Liverpool and beat Everton seven times during his stint with the Reds, was the man to deliver that long-craved silverware. Indeed, it’s a jarring thought but any lingering elements of dissent toward Benitez would be utterly stamped out at the sight of captain Seamus Coleman holding aloft the FA or EFL Cups, incidentally sealing a return to Europe for the first time since 2018. And we’re all well aware of Benitez’s expertise on the continent.