Rafael Benitez and Everton’s credibility under threat as Liverpool loom

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·5 min read
Rafael Benitez and Everton’s credibility under threat as Liverpool loom
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  • Everton
    Everton
    LiveTodayTomorrowvs--|
  • Rafael Benítez
    Rafael Benítez
    Spanish association football manager and former player
  • Thomas Frank
    Danish association football manager

The coming Wednesday was always going to put Rafael Benitez in a peculiar position. Liverpool’s visit to Goodison Park for the first Merseyside Derby of the Premier League season carried the potential for both crowds to sing his name.

Even after the early resistance from Evertonians to hiring a manager who used to work on the other side of Stanley Park, sitting fifth after four wins in the opening seven games felt as good a time as any for acceptance. But after a fifth defeat in six on Sunday at the hands of Brentford, it is fair to say blue and red will not be united in song or sentiment towards Benitez.

Boos cut through the blaring of “Hey Jude” at full-time after the 1-0 defeat at the Brentford Community Stadium. The away end had tried to hide their frustrations during a match that lacked any real thrill. It was only when it was over that groans morphed into something more as Everton players walked over to applaud and probably mime a few apologies.

Aside from perhaps the 5-2 capitulation against Watford on 23 October, this was the most dispiriting loss. If only because on paper this looked an ideal match-up to get out of their funk, against a Brentford side who were also in the midst of a similarly poor run of one point from five games. What was supposed to be a return to winning ways and a necessary ego boost ahead of Wednesday night has knocked Everton down another few pegs into 14th. What thoughts they had of replicating their feat in the 1984/95 season of beating Liverpool for consecutive times in the league after winning 2-0 at Anfield in February will now be on embarrassment limitation.

Brentford were certainly not at their best and, in hindsight, the tactics adopted by Thomas Frank against them were relatively simple. The home side sat back, at times to the frustration of their supporters, soaking up whatever Everton could muster from the 60 per cent of the ball they had.

Given the Toffees are third-bottom in terms of average possession this season, it was little surprise they were so tacky and laboured with so much more of it to chew on. Rather than lean on a raucous home crowd to fuel their buccaneering ways, Brentford used it to power their low block, which stood firm for 90 minutes plus stoppage time.

Brentford goalkeeper David Raya wasn’t put under that much pressure against Everton (Getty Images)
Brentford goalkeeper David Raya wasn’t put under that much pressure against Everton (Getty Images)

The risk for Brentford was making the most of the chances that came their way, which hardly looked thought out given how they have underperformed on expected goals (xG) this season. But they shaded the match on that metric in the end by 1.2 to 1.17. And, most importantly, by one to nil on the scoreline.

Who knows how things might have panned out had they not taken the lead after Ivan Toney converted a penalty following Andros Townsend’s high boot to the face of Frank Onyeka? But aside from Salomon Rondon’s saved shot a minute after the 24th-minute winner, Everton conjured little of note despite being afforded plenty of time and space in front of Brentford’s box.

Off the back of a dressing-down from those who had travelled to west London, it was only natural for Benitez to defend his players. “You cannot complain about the effort of the players or the intensity they put in the game. They tried from beginning until the end.”

Perhaps most dispiriting for Benitez was it was harder to gauge what the effort and intensity was going towards. Beyond positioning, the aims of the XI out on the pitch was indecipherable. Whatever patterns there were looked disjointed, with passes going astray under little pressure. Alex Iwobi, Townsend and Anthony Gordon were willing runners but could not navigate through the red-and-white traffic ahead of them.

Iwobi, centre, has struggled to be a consistent performer for Everton since moving from Arsenal in 2019 (Getty Images)
Iwobi, centre, has struggled to be a consistent performer for Everton since moving from Arsenal in 2019 (Getty Images)

Even during the height of Everton’s dominance on the hour, as Brentford looked ragged, an overload in favour of those in blue – led initially by Abdoulaye Doucoure, who found Townsend with more coming forward – came and went. Brentford then shored themselves up and a similar opportunity failed to materialise again. Everton might have outshot their opponents 14 to six, but it was hard to agree with Benitez’s sentiment that his side were unfortunate to be on the losing side here.

He had hoped Brentford away would be the start of an upturn rather than a new low. Now suddenly December’s programme looks that little bit more treacherous for Everton’s hopes of a reasonable finish come May. The visit of Liverpool is the first of seven games that month, which includes Arsenal and Chelsea, and finishes with Burnley and Newcastle. Right now they are further away from the former two than the latter, who are in the relegation zone, in terms of points and satisfaction. That could likely exacerbate by the end of the year.

The return of Doucoure from a broken foot was a silver lining on Sunday, the midfielder growing into the match and lasting the course. Demarai Gray was able to overcome an abductor issue against Manchester City last weekend to play the final 20 minutes and was arguably the most creative player to take to the field, even if his crosses from out wide went unmet. Richarlison will also be available after serving a one-match suspension for picking up five yellow cards, back to add some necessary bite in attack.

Dominic Calvert-Lewin and Yerry Mina remain key absentees, though the Colombian has returned to training. Nevertheless, Benitez is right to cite how injuries have impacted a squad thinner than most.

But however grounded in truth, it is an excuse that grows weaker with each under-performance. While remedies may come in the January transfer window, Benitez will have to find some as soon as possible, if not within his squad then in the margins of his playbook.

Benitez’s job may not be on the line just yet from the hierarchy at Goodison Park, but his and Everton’s credibility is under huge pressure.

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