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Defeat in first big test knocks Benitez’s promising start – Interview
Monday, 20th Sep 2021 14:54 by Clive Whittingham

Rafa Benitez had started to change opinions of his controversial summer appointment after convincing wins in an admittedly soft start to Everton's season, but the 3-0 loss in his first serious test at Aston Villa has the jury heading back out to consider a verdict. John Winfield is our oppo fan interview this week…

How's the season started for you guys?

It had been a very promising start prior to the weekend defeat at Aston Villa. Hard to ask for much more than three wins and a draw in the league and a (laboured) victory in the first round of the League Cup, scoring at least two goals in every game, but we rather fell apart in the second half at Villa Park which was our first real test of the season.

Everton results so far…
Everton 3-1 Southampton Richarlison 47, Doucoure 76, Calvert-Lewin 81 – Armstrong 22
Leeds 2-2 Everton Klich 41, Raphinha 71 – Calvert-Lewin pen 30, Gray 50
Huddersfield 1-2 Everton Lees 45 – Iwobi 26, Townsend 79
Brighton 0-2 Everton Gray 41, Calvert-Lewin pen 58
Everton 3-1 Burnley Keane 60, Townsend 65, Gray 66 – Mee 53
Villa 3-0 Everton Cash 66, Digne og 69, Bailey 75

Where did you stand on the controversial Benitez appointment? How has he done so far?

I wasn’t thrilled. Even if you can put aside the Liverpool connection (many still can’t), the fact his most recent job was out in China suggested his status as a top-tier manager was on the wane. Very few Evertonians were remotely pleased when he got the job.

That said, it’s hard to fault him so far. The Villa defeat looks bad on paper, but we were missing key players and played reasonably well until our collapse midway through the second half. For all his pedigree, Ancelotti had us playing some of the worst football I’ve ever seen at the tail end of last seen. Under Benitez, the players look a lot fitter and are working harder, and there seems to be more of a defined system. There’s a lot more energy in the team, and we’ve played some exciting counter-attacking football.

There are still some question marks over the defence, which continues to look shaky dealing with crosses and set pieces, and a lack of creativity in midfield. The latter hasn’t been helped by the strange James Rodriguez situation, which is dividing fans at present and seems likely now to end up with him moving to the Middle East. Some see him as a lazy, luxury player on big wages who cares little for the club; others believe he’s a supreme talent being made an example of by Benitez through his stubbornness and their past issues at Real Madrid. The latest reports suggest a move to Qatar is imminent. Personally, I can’t get my head around it.

Where does the League Cup figure in the list of priorities this season? Always a bit surprised clubs like Everton don't have more of a dig at it - trophy, Wembley, Europe etc.

For me, any chance of silverware has to be a major priority. It’s been 25 years since we won anything, which is just appalling. The League Cup is a good opportunity for a club like us, and then fans will be expecting a good crack at it.

What sort of Everton team can we expect to take the field on Tuesday?

Our squad starts to look very thin beyond the first XI, and the largely second-string side put out against Huddersfield in the last round really struggled. I think Benitez will look to play a stronger team this time, but his options will be extremely limited, with Pickford, Richarlison, Calvert-Lewin and Coleman all out of the picture.

That means Rondon, who looked like he was struggling against Villa, up front, Begovic in goal and probably Jonjoe Kenny at right back. One of Allan and Doucoure (who have both been great so far) will probably be rested in the middle, perhaps with Andre Gomes coming in or Jean-Philippe Gbamin getting a rare start. Benitez may also be tempted to rest Demarai Gray, so young Anthony Gordon may get his first start of the season.

Take us through the summer transfer business and what you made of it...

On paper, it was extremely underwhelming. I think we spent less than anybody else in the league (a grand total of £1.7m) – a massive change from the past few seasons of big buys. But again, so far, so good. Gray has been an absolute revelation, but I’m trying not to get too carried away – the warning from Leicester fans was that he’s extremely inconsistent.

Townsend looks to have lost his pace but is an extremely hard worker and seems a good lad. He’s contributed with goals and assists, including his absolute blooter against Burnley last Monday night – more of those please.

Begovic looks sturdy enough, without providing any real competition for Pickford, and Rondon is a sensible pickup as the only other target man in the squad apart from DCL.

Summer Ins >>> Demarai Gray, 25, LW, Leverkusen, £1.8m >>> Andy Lonergan, 37, GK, West Brom, Free >>> Andros Townsend, 30, RW, Palace, Free >>> Asmir Begovic, 34, GK, Bournemouth, Free >>> Salomon Rondon, 31, CF, DL Pro (China), Free

Summer Ours >>> Bernard, 28, LW, Sharjah (UAE), £900k >>> Matthew Pennington, 26, CB, Shrewsbury, Free >>> Yannick Bolasie, 32, LW, Rizespor (Turkey), Free >>> Josh King, 29, CF, Watford, Free >>> Beni Baningime, 22, CM, Hearts, Free >>> Theo Walcott, 32, RW, Southampton, Free >>> Niels Nkounkou, 20, LB, Standard Liege, Loan >>> Joao Virginia, 21, GK, Sporting, Loan >>> Moise Kean, 21, CF, Juventus, Loan >>> Muhamed Besic, 28, DM, Released

Since the takeover it's often felt like Everton have been paying top tier prices and wages for middle tier players. Is that fair? Is that changing? What's the FFP situation? And what's the overall direction of travel under this ownership?

More than fair. The Farhad Moshiri era started in earnest under the tenure of Ronald Koeman and Steve Walsh, who splurged mega money on duds including Yannick Bolasie and Davy Klassen. We’ve put a lot of very average players on high-wage, long-term contracts, leaving us with dead wood that has proved impossible to shift. The number of players skulking away for nominal fees after being bought for many millions of pounds has been staggering. And the less said about our MIA record signing, the better…

Our chickens came home to roost this summer and we clearly had zero wriggle room with FFP. I expect the club are banking on getting Rodriguez’s wages off the books, but that hasn’t materialised, while we were also probably expecting PSG to give us a decent wedge for Moise Kean.

Moshiri’s managerial appointments have been questionable. He seems obsessed with the big names, who naturally want total control of footballing matters, leaving Marcel Brands’ role as director of football looking increasingly redundant. But there’s no question he’s put a lot of money into the club, and the new stadium looks amazing.

How do you see your season going?

It’s hard to say. As mentioned, we hadn’t had a serious test until Villa and we lost there comfortably. The early signs had been promising, but the squad massively lacks quality beyond the first team. A couple of key injuries and we will struggle. Based on last season’s standings, I think most Evertonians would be pretty happy with a place in the top eight. And a cup run would be nice.

Links >>> Everton Official Website >>> Liverpool Echo – Local Press >>> Grand Old Team – Forum >>> All Together Now – Podcast >>> The Unholy Trinity – Podcast >>> Royal Blue Mersey – Blog >>> Toffee Web – Blog

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TacticalR added 18:15 - Sep 21
Thanks to John.

'Obsessed with the big names'. Sounds like us when we were in the Premiership. You need quality players but you have to find an alternative to the big names, who often don't deliver. Everton seem a club always hoping to step up a level but never quite sure how to do it.

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