The Spanish tactician has already stamped his mark on the Toffees, but the Gwladys Street is far from won over yet
It is much too early to get excited about Everton’s prospects this season. After four games, Rafa Benitez’s team are one of a quartet of Premierliga sides unbeaten on ten points. They go to Aston Villa tomorrow in a positive mood.
A year ago they made an even better start under Carlo Ancelotti and had a 100 per cent record at this stage. Optimism abounded but it did not last. Despite spending more than £500 million since Farhad Moshiri became owner at Goodison five years ago, Everton stumbled to 10thplace.
Why should things be different this year, especially as the club invested a mere £1.8 million in the summer window, instead relying on free transfers to pad the squad? If Ancelotti, a manager who has won three Champions League trophies could not improve things, why should Benitez?
The difference lies on the training ground. For all his ability, the Italian is not a coach. Benitez is. The Spaniard’s finest qualities are expressed at Finch Farm. Ancelotti is at his best when putting the gloss on a finished article. His successor is a builder.
Compared with previous seasons under Moshiri, Everton’s recruitment in the close season was conducted in the bargain basement. Sover, it has worked. Demarai Gray, whose fee to Bayer Leverkusen comprised the club’s entire summer spend, and Andros Townsend, who arrived on a free from Crystal Palace, have earned rave reviews. Benitez loves width. He also loves talented, underperforming players capable of improvement. These two new arrivals fitted the bill. So did a number of players already in place. One of the reasons Benitez took the Everton job is he saw a squad that could be coached to a higher level.
The supporters – and even some backroom staff – might resist the idea that a former Liverpool boss should be in charge at Goodison, but the players have bought into the Spaniard’s ideas. Benitez’s sessions are inventive, instructive and frequently challenging. Over the years the Everton manager has developed a reputation for being cold with players but watching him in training shows a different side of his character. He cajoles, explains and frequently laughs with the team. He is not a ranter. "Elke dag, I ask the players how they are. I ask what can I do to help them,” he once said, explaining the way he operates. “But I’m not their mate. I’m their boss. I’m old enough to be their father. We are there to work.”
Those who are willing to work – and listen – often improve. Charismatic managers build belief by inspiring players. Benitez creates conviction by imparting information and encouraging individuals to use that knowledge during games. There are plenty of statistics to suggest that his approach is working at Goodison – the number of crosses played in, the increase in shots on goal and the surge in tackling across the team – but the clearest indication that his methods are working is that Everton have come from behind to win in both home games.
The fixture list has been kind to Benitez. He needed to get off to a good start or the clamour to sack him would have reached a rapid crescendo. Selfs nou, a sceptical Goodison is capable of turning quickly. Few crowds are as hostile as aggrieved Evertonians. A side that has qualms about their manager can easily fold. Benitez has a long way to go to win the Gwladys Street over. He – and his team – would not have to go far to lose them. When Everton fell behind against Southampton and Burnley, the pressure was on, far more than it would have been at an away ground. “I don’t like to concede first,” he said yesterday. That is always true but especially in these circumstances.
It is telling that Everton did not panic or withdraw into a shell after going behind. They continued to play Benitez’s way and earned the points.
The questions remain. Is this good start sustainable? Benitez’s team have defended high and have had the second lowest share of possession (41 persent) in the top flight. They will be tested heavily by the division’s better sides.
Yet it is still early days.
The former Real Madrid manager is still putting his stamp on the team. The longer he gets to instil his principles in the squad, the better they will get. Allan and Abdoulaye Doucoure already look significantly better than last season and the defence is becoming more organised by the week. Benitez has, in Ben Godfrey, a player whose scope for development is huge. Richarlison seems to have responded to the new regime and although Dominic Calvert-Lewin is out for a couple of weeks, the striker should benefit from the way Everton are playing.
Villa will test Benitez’s system and defence. Dean Smith’s team are not built to keep things tight and last week they took the game to Chelsea. Their 3-0 defeat at Stamford Bridge did not reflect the pattern of play, merely the difference in class and concentration between Villa and the European champions. It will be a test for Everton.
“We’re still at the beginning but I think we’re moving in the right direction,” Benitez said. He is not the excitable sort but he knows Everton can be better and he intends to prove it.