Everton fires “Agent” Benitez

When Everton hired Rafa Benitez as its manager last summer, I felt he already had three strikes against him. First, he was the former manager of Liverpool, the enemy across the park.

Second, while with the Red Shite, Benitez had gone out of way to insult Everton. Once, he compared us to Extremadura, a Third Division Spanish side he managed early in his career.

It was possible to view Benitez’s trash talk as showing respect for the Merseyside rivalry. After all, other Liverpool managers tended simply to ignore Everton. But that was not how most Everton supporters, including me, took it.

Third, Benitez hadn’t been particularly successful in recent years. He spent three undistinguished seasons at Newcastle, before moving to the wasteland that is Chinese football.

Everton started this season smartly, though, and Benitez seemed almost to be winning over the supporters. One successful season would have won me over.

But then came a series of dismal results, culminating on Saturday with a loss to Norwich City, an awful side. The defeat left us in 16th place, just six points above the drop zone.

By now, some fans were calling the manager “Agent Benitez.” The insult harked back to Peter Johnson, the wealthy Liverpool fan who purchased Everton in the late 1990s.

In a match against Liverpool during a particularly dire time for Everton, a fan of the Shite held up a sign saying “Mission accomplished, agent Johnson.”

Johnson wasn’t actually trying to sabotage Liverpool’s rivals. He made a number of quality, big-money (for the era) signings to help the club. Among them were Marco Materazzi, later (and infamously) a World Cup winner for Italy; John Collins, who played for Scotland in the 1998 World Cup: and Olivier Dacourt, who played 21 times for France.

Benitez wasn’t a Liverpool agent either. By all accounts, he tried desperately to improve the club.

Benitez was undermined in part by injuries to key players. But he also seemed ill-equipped to manage in the contemporary English game.

Under Benitez, Everton tried to play defensive-minded football favored by top managers fifteen years ago, but eschewed by the top ones (e.g. Pep Guardiola and Jurgen Klopp) these days. I’m no connoisseur of soccer tactics, but something seemed off about that approach given the shakiness of our back line and the use of only two central midfielders most of the time.

Benitez clashed with Lucas Digne, an attack-minded left back. Digne, a star for Everton a few seasons ago, was still good enough to make France’s Euro 2020 team last summer.

When he balked at Benitez’s instructions not to push forward, the manager exiled him. Benitez’s old captain, Steve Gerrard, brought him to Aston Villa and Digne looked good on Saturday attacking Manchester United down the left flank.

Who will replace Benitez? One rumor is that Everton has contacted Roberto Martinez, one of the club’s many recent former managers.

It was only six years ago that Everton fans staged a post-match sit-in to agitate for Martinez’s sacking. Since then, Martinez has had considerable success managing Belgium’s national team, though some Belgian fans complain that the team hasn’t fully lived up to its considerable potential.

One thing’s for sure. Under Martinez, there would be no complaints about playing too defensively. Everton fans turned against him for not being sufficiently defense conscious.

I assume that Belgium’s never-ending potential will keep Martinez with the national team for this year’s World Cup. Everton, while better than a 16th place team, is short on potential.

Two Everton legends are being mentioned as possible managers — Duncan Ferguson and Wayne Rooney. Ferguson inspired Everton to success in a few matches as interim manager in late 2019.

Rooney has impressed managing in England’s second tier trying, against all odds, to keep Derby County afloat. He says he is “happy and focused” in his role at Derby but he would find it difficult to turn down an opportunity to manage Everton given his association with the club.

I think that, if selected, either legend would have the “interim” tag. I think that Everton would prefer a manager who has enjoyed more success than either legend managing a first tier club — someone like Frank Lampard, Graham Potter, or Niko Kovac. But I think it may be difficult to lure such a manager to Goodison Park in the middle of a season that has gone pear shaped.

If that’s the case, I would try to get by with Ferguson or Rooney on an interim basis, since I believe we’re probably too good to be relegated and probably too buried to have any real success this year. In the summer, we should be able to bring in a more experienced, more accomplished manager, assuming the interim guy is still deemed not up to the job on a permanent basis.

In all events, I’m glad Agent Benitez is out.

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