Rafa Benitez knew the answer to the question he was posing. “What is the feeling of the last years for any Everton fan: success or frustration?” he asked. “They know the problems are not ones we can fix in just five months.”
Yet as he returns to the previous Premier League club where his past at Liverpool made him a controversial appointment, in Chelsea, Benitez’s talk of the long term, both past and future, comes in the context of the short term.
A Champions League winner faces the reigning European champions on Thursday with Everton favourites for an eighth defeat in 10 games during two months of troubles. The success of a wonderful comeback against Arsenal has been surrounded by frustration.
“I have been in all the situations you can think of,” said Benitez, argues the breadth of his experience equips him well. But, while his time at Anfield was expected to be the issue, he believes Everton’s recent history is more pertinent. His inheritance from Carlo Ancelotti consisted of a squad with a dubious fitness record.
Now last season’s top scorers and talismen, Dominic Calvert-Lewin and Richarlison, are both sidelined. The Englishman has not featured since August. The Brazilian played in both the Copa America and the Olympics in the summer but his body then broke down at Brentford on Sunday.
Benitez said the job was not bigger than he had expected but countered: “I will say more difficult.” He elaborated: “Last year the squad was around 16 [fit] players during the whole season. That means you have a lot of players that are not available and a lot of them were injury-prone, they were losing 30-40 per cent [of players] because they were injured.
"Dominic was playing 85 per cent [of games] last season and now he is playing 18 per cent. Now Richarlison is injured because maybe he has been overloaded. If you have Dominic Calvert-Lewin for three or four months fit, I am sure the team would be higher in the table and the fans would be happier.”
Instead, they displayed dissent when Richarlison was taken off at Brentford, little realising the severity of his calf problem. “We wanted to protect him,” said Benitez, but that that aim failed. He harked back to Everton’s encouraging start to the season. “Then we lost [Abdoulaye] Doucoure when he was playing really well,” he added.
Crystal Palace 3 Everton 1: player ratings
Everton’s results can be traced to the injury bulletin. They have won 67 per cent of league games with Calvert-Lewin, 23 without. They have won 42 per cent when Doucoure plays, zero per cent when he doesn’t. A lack of depth exacerbates the reliance on a small core.
“We will try to improve in January in terms of positions and names,” Benitez pledged. But it will a budget overhaul in a rebuilding project planned for several transfer windows “A lot of players are improving but some of the problems are the same problems,” he added. “You cannot solve them all just by signing three players and two keepers and spending £1.7 million.”
The midfield may be bolstered on Thursday. Allan – “a warrior, a fighter,” according to Benitez – has declared himself fit for an evening of adversity. “Nobody can expect we will go there and have 70 per cent of possession, it will be impossible,” the Spaniard said.
The exiled Lucas Digne was in the starting 11 in training on Tuesday but reported ill yesterday and is out, while the captain Seamus Coleman is a doubt. “The senior players think we are going in a right direction but you have to win games,” said Benitez. “We have to have a plan to get the best of our players and take advantage of the weaknesses of Chelsea. There are not so many.”