So far in January, Everton’s best right-back of the current millennium, Seamus Coleman, has played predictably a game unconvincingly as a left wing-back because Rafa Benitez had fallen out with Lucas Digne, the France and former Barcelona player who was a natural for the position.
Everton’s new right-back, Nathan Patterson, meanwhile, was yet to debut for the club when the manager who bought him was sacked. Vitaly Mykolenko at least made two unimpressive appearances before Benitez was axed, the day after the marginalised and then sold Digne made a terrific bow for Aston Villa.
Welcome to Everton, where joined-up thinking can be conspicuous by its absence. Their sixth manager of the Farhad Moshiri era will inherit £27 million ($26.9m) of new full-backs, and perhaps wish he still had Digne. Benitez’s rebuilding job was aborted after he had won more power battles than games.
In six months, he hollowed out the club. They parted company with director of football Marcel Brands, head of recruitment Gretar Steinsson, manager of scouting Dan Purdy, head of medical Danny Donachie and vice-captain Digne. If the intention was to allow an all-powerful manager to exert more influence, a 12-game run that brought just five points and culminated in defeat to Norwich sent the fans into outright revolt.
Which, given Benitez’s indelible association with Liverpool, was something that perhaps only the stubborn Spaniard and the eternally misguided owner Moshiri could have failed to predict. The billionaire appointed Benitez against the advice of others at Everton, including chairman Bill Kenwright and chief executive Denise Barrett-Baxendale. He backed him and ultimately backed himself into a corner.
Benitez’s departing statement included the words: “It is only when you are inside that you realise the magnitude of the task.”
But factor in Moshiri’s inherent impatience with Evertonians’ visceral dislike of him and diabolical results and he was never going to get the chance to implement the long-term rebuilding the club needs. In retrospect, it feels surprising supporters accepted his decision to dispense with James Rodriguez.
In Demarai Gray, he made a terrific signing at a cut-price fee. Mykolenko and Patterson are at least young. Benitez cited injuries as a mitigating factor and the loss of Dominic Calvert-Lewin for four months hamstrung him and highlighted the shortcomings of Everton’s hugely expensive squad which, beyond the first 11, is largely inadequate. Even the inherently political Benitez could not find a way of shifting deadwood like Cenk Tosun, Alex Iwobi and Jean-Philippe Gbamin. Perhaps no one can.
If Moshiri underestimated the toxicity of Benitez’s appointment, perhaps an owner with a big-name fixation also failed to recognise how much the game has moved on. That he apparently approached Jose Mourinho, another who peaked in the 2000s, suggests a repeated inability to notice that football has changed.
That Everton sit 17th for both possession and pass completion rate shows how poor they often have been on the ball. Benitez’s two-man centre midfields have been repeatedly outnumbered and outmanoeuvred; all too easily by Brighton this month.
But Benitez at least arrived with the promise of defensive excellence. Instead, Everton kept on conceding from set-pieces and courtesy of individual errors. There were occasional hints of the Benitez of old, the strategist supreme – his last six points came against Manchester United, Tottenham, Arsenal and Chelsea – but Everton lost to everyone else.
He departed, to borrow the word Everton used in a brief, 40-word statement, with them in a mess. Roberto Martinez, who steered Everton to fifth in 2014 with some terrific football before being sacked by Moshiri two years later when supporters turned on him, could make a remarkable return. But whoever he appoints, few should trust Moshiri to make the right decision.