Rafa Benitez insists Everton will improve despite slump in form and fan fury

Spanish manager under increasing pressure at Goodison Park after eight defeats in 11 matches

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With around 15 minutes left on the clock at Goodison Park, Rafa Benitez readied his impact substitute. The plan was greeted with loud booing. Salomon Rondon is becoming accustomed to his roles as a punchbag for supporters’ frustration and as the easily identifiable ambassador for their feelings about the manager.

Benitez and Rondon go back a long way, allies at Newcastle United, at Dalian Yifang in the Chinese Super League. At Everton the worldly Venezuelan centre-forward was earmarked as the summer signing to bring guile and muscle to the forward line by the newly appointed Benitez. Rondon has never been a prolific goalscorer but he is an appreciated partner for other attacking players to feed off. He is industrious and always studiously responsive to the Benitez game plan.

His burden at Everton is to have scored just one league goal in 12 matches in a season when the first choice centre-forward, Dominic Calvert-Lewin has been mostly missing with injury.

Before the groans for Rondon, bought on just after Everton pulled back a goal in Sunday’s 3-2 home defeat to Brighton, Calvert-Lewin had already ballooned a first-half penalty on to the crossbar, one of a series of mishaps that peppered Everton’s first fixture of 2022 and leaves them too close for comfort to the relegation zone.

Calvert-Lewin could at least cite some rustiness. He was making his first appearance since recovering from the toe fracture injury that had kept him out for four months. Everton could have cited collective rustiness, too, given they had not played for 16 days because of various Covid-associated postponements, although Benitez said he was not seeking excuses for a performance against Brighton that bordered on the chaotic at times.

Besides, two weeks confined to the practice pitch without the interruption of matches and travel ought to be a blessing for a coach as Benitez. His first false step in terms of planning for the visit of an intrepid Brighton team was to report in his notes in the match day programme that “we have used the time to prepare as intensively as possible for the challenges Brighton present”.

His next wrong move was to have decided, during that time, that he needed a back three with Seamus Coleman, a career right-back, at left wing-back. Brighton established early command of midfield and had the lead after three minutes.

Last summer Everton hired Benitez, despite hostility among fans because of the manager’s long, storied past with rivals Liverpool, because of his tried-and-tested tactical acumen and a strong record applying it to the Premier League. Benitez accepted certain budgetary constraints, but the initial impressions were positive. They dropped just two points from their opening four matches of the campaign.

But the wheels have come off since. Everton are on a run of eight defeats from their last 11 league matches. The cushion between them and the bottom three is eight points, but Burnley, in 18th, have played a match fewer and Benitez, manager of Newcastle for more than three years, knows full well that the Magpies, 19th, intend to recruit widely this month, backed by their new Saudi investors.

Everton have secured one winter signing already, Ukraine left-back Vitaliy Mykolenko, who should spare the veteran Coleman from being misused on the flank where he is less effective, and puts further scrutiny on the strained relationship between Benitez and France international left-back Lucas Digne. The manager and player clashed last month, and Digne, left out of the match day squad for the previous three fixtures, sat out the 90 minutes against Brighton on the bench.

Addressing the slump in form, and noisy disapproval from home fans, Benitez still confidently forecasts an sharp rise in the second half of the campaign.

He has a back-catalogue to support that forecast. In his long distinguished career, the careful use of squad rotation has yielded some effective post-new year runs, most famously when he guided Valencia to a historic Spanish Liga title in 2002. After 18 fixtures of the 38-match campaign they were seventh in the table. They ended up winning the title by seven points.

At Liverpool, the later campaigns of his six in charge showed improvements after the turn of the year, as did his two full Premier League seasons at Newcastle. But he knows full well that no manager, however confident in his bank of experience and rigorous planning, is immune to abrupt midseason removal.

Inter Milan sacked Benitez just before Christmas in 2010, less than six months into his tenure there. And Tuesday marks the sixth anniversary of being fired by Real Madrid after just 18 league games in charge.

Updated: January 04, 2022, 2:37 AM