Deep down, Liverpool supporters would tell you they didn’t want to do this to Rafa Benitez when he was announced as Everton’s manager before the season. Or, to put it more accurately, they didn’t want to have to do this. Benitez is still, and will always, be loved by the red half of Liverpool for bringing the club’s 5th European Cup home in 2005, their first in a couple of decades. The fact that he did it while engineering the greatest comeback seen in a major final doesn’t hurt either. But Rafa chose his path, and when that path is in the way of the unholy attacking machine that Liverpool are right now (two or more goals in 18 straight games after yesterday’s 4-1 deboning of Everton), everyone gets turned to paste.
And it made for one of the more awkward moments of Benitez’s professional life, as he turned to the card he had mocked Everton for some 12 years ago that always made him a poisonous choice to manage the Toffees now, to Everton fans. Not only did Benitez, due to the roster he has on offer thanks to injuries and front office buffoonery, have to play incredibly defensive and just hit long balls in hope more than plan, but in the postgame presser he felt compelled to say this:
“We have seen how much money Liverpool have spent and how successful they have been in recent years.”
Decrying the difference in expenditure between a manager’s team and their opponent is the hallmark of what-can-I-do, small club thinking. Which is exactly the kind of thinking that made Everton fans hate Benitez so much in the first place. It’s also a lie.
In the five seasons before this one, Everton have had a net spend in the transfer market of somewhere around $400 million, according to Transfermrkt.com. vs. Just because that money was spent stupidly doesn’t mean it wasn’t spent (also, Liverpool’s net-spend in that same time frame: $230 million. Tee-hee). If Benitez really wishes to cast Everton as some sort of upstart try-hard that has to punch way above its weight just so mom and pop can fix the out of date wiring in the ceiling, he’s going to have to try a lot harder.
But there is a growing suspicion that this is exactly why Benitez was hired. Yes, he was able to keep Newcastle afloat when they were run on a shoestring/asshole budget by Mike Ashely. And thanks to Everton’s coked-up stock broker in Vegas type spending the previous years, they didn’t have anything left for this season (and had FFP rules to abide by) and would have to get the best out of what was around. Benitez should have been that guy.
What really might be at play here is that he makes for an excellent shield for the higher-ups. Director of football Marcel Brands, chairman Bill Kenwright, and owner Farhad Moshiri are facing their fair share of ire from the fans as well, but are only too happy to hide behind Benitez. And the more bile thrown at the manager’s way is less focus on the glitzy but empty purchases of the past. Like Carlo Ancelotti as manager, who came with a glittering trophy cabinet but little scrutiny as to how he’d do with a team lower down the totem pole than the aristocracy he had only managed before. Ancelotti has always been a manager who will make the team exactly as good as the one you give him. Give him the best team, he’ll keep them there. He got Everton to 10th. He’s currently in 1st in La Liga with Rea Madrid, but thanks to Barcelona’s self-immolation and Atletico Madrid’s malaise, it’s hard to see Madrid as anything other than Spain’s best team. Before the Italian it was simply a revolving door of whatever flavor of the month they could identify without any sort of real plan (Martinez, Koeman, Silva…)
Everton’s transfers in the past few years haven’t actually been disastrous, as most of the more expensive players range from fine to useful (Andre Gomes, Allan, Yerry Mina). There were a couple hardcore whiffs in Alex Iwobi and Moise Kean. Richarlison flashes being absolutely world class to being absolutely unhinged, sometimes in the same half. But together they have all been unable to lift Everton above the rest of the rabble, and are currently below it.
Injuries are impossible to ignore. Everton were without Dominic Calvert-Lewin, Gomes, and Mina yesterday, and have missed just about everyone else at some point this season. But when you’ve spent down to the lint in your pockets and your injury replacement for Calvert-Lewin is Solomon Rondon, the villain is in the mirror, friendo.
Benitez will probably be fired soon, which it feels like he was hired to be, just to buy a little more time and be the hey-look-over there so no one will notice that Everton are out of money and without a plan. And the landscape is getting colder in the second tier, which Everton really should be at the top of. Newcastle have all the Saudi gold (though with a more and more likely detour to the Championship first). Aston Villa are promising new manager Steven Gerrard a huge transfer budget. Spurs have one of the best managers in the world. Arsenal are on the upswing too, as stuttering as it might be. West Ham are still in the Champions League places now. Brighton have passed Everton at this point. You can only use Benitez as a human shield for so long.
It wasn’t so long ago that Benitez told Everton supporters he was above this. Now he’s up to the neck in it, and the water level is only rising.