One of Rafa Benitez’s old allies could celebrate victory in Everton’s first game since his sacking. Sadly for Everton, it was not Duncan Ferguson, the coach turned caretaker manager, but Steven Gerrard, captain of his Champions League-winning Liverpool side.
One of Benitez’s 'enemies' could savour the win, too: Lucas Digne blamed the Spaniard for exiling him from Everton and marked his first return to Goodison Park by picking out the smallest man in the penalty box, Emi Buendia, to head in Aston Villa’s winner.
Whereas Ferguson was supposed to be the charismatic caretaker who could rouse Everton, this felt a continuation of Benitez’s reign, only with the vitriol directed towards the visiting team and the board and without the players the Scot dropped.
Everton had a wretched record at home, in the first half and defending set-pieces under the Benitez. Nothing changed. It summed up their season that Buendia headed in seconds before the interval.
Perhaps it summed up their self-destructive streak that the provider was Digne. Ferguson had omitted the Frenchman’s successor at left-back, Vitalii Mykolenko, from both the side and the squad. Benitez had accused Digne of being too obsessed with his creative numbers.
There was a certain inevitability, therefore, when Gerrard’s first buy for Villa got a first assist for his new club. To rub it in for Everton, the corner was won by another former Liverpool player, Philippe Coutinho, who marked his maiden start for Villa with a header that Jordan Pickford had tipped over.
Everton’s problems extended beyond Richarlison’s poor marking, when Buendia escaped his attentions. When celebrating the goal, Digne and Matty Cash were both hit by plastic bottles thrown from the crowd. “That is bang out of order, totally wrong,” said Ferguson after one supporter was arrested.
Hundreds of others stayed behind afterwards to sing “sack the board” and the long-serving Ferguson defended their right to voice their views. “Fans can protest and say what they want because it is their club,” the Scot said. “I know how sick they are. I am gutted as much as them. I was on the floor. I was kicking every ball.”
Yet if owner Farhad Moshiri’s disastrous decision-making has taken Everton into crisis, Ferguson, who electrified Goodison in his first stint in caretaker charge in 2019, could not lift them out of it. His own choices may have backfired. He made five changes, with Allan and Michael Keane among those axed and Yerry Mina installed as captain, only to gift Ollie Watkins a golden chance to score, while Everton failed to even muster a shot before half-time.
A former player almost aided them. Digne was booed on his return, nearly set up a chance for his old side, when Abdoulaye Doucoure should have sent Richarlison clear on goal and overhit his pass, and then did create the decider for his new employers. It was a first repayment on his £27m transfer fee.
Villa looked the cleverer side, epitomised by the inventive Buendia, while Everton’s 4-4-2 system and direct tactics felt outdated, albeit tough to combat. “It was about rolling your sleeves up and standing up and being counted and put our bodies on the line,” said Gerrard. “The performance was about grit, about steel. At half-time, we predicted Duncan would put more petrol on the fire.”
It belatedly brought chances, with Tyrone Mings clearing Ben Godfrey’s header off the line and Mina twice heading wide. Richarlison and Dominic Calvert-Lewin were paired for the first time since August and the Englishman missed the best chance to equalise by shooting over the bar. “We should have stuck one in,” lamented Ferguson, but the scoreline had a justice for Villa.