Rafa Benitez goes, where next for Everton?

IT WAS a marriage of convenience that was doomed from the start, a former Liverpool manager taking over at Goodison Park, a red setting-up camp in the blue zone. “Get out of our club,” almost became a mantra at Everton in recent weeks and it was only a matter of time before the relationship between Rafa Benitez and the club would come to an end.

From scaling the heights at the start of 2020-21 under Carlo Ancelotti, Everton just a season later, are in a relegation battle and they may have to be thankful that there are worse teams in the Premier.

False dawns rise over Goodison every couple of seasons, but it is difficult to see how they can get out of their current mess without taking a long-term view. Everton have lost their way again and the manager’s job is looking anything but attractive in the current circumstances.

Benitez was the wrong appointment on many counts. Firstly, he represents the past rather than the future and given Everton, on and off the pitch, are lagging behind all the top clubs by a distance, they need a dynamic, transformational coach to try and shrink the gulf.

Like José Mourinho, the Benitez style has been overtaken by the Klopp-Conte-Guardiola-Tuchel school. In the early 2000s, his approach worked and he took Liverpool to that dramatic 2005 Champions League success. Since his time at Anfield, his career has increasingly been characterised by short, aborted stints with big name clubs. He was in charge for 22 games at Everton, 25 at Real Madrid and 25 at Inter Milan. His Chelsea role, as an unpopular interim appointment that actually turned out rather well, comprised 48 games. 

His professionalism has always been admired, but will he be in demand now he’s out of a job? Benitez has cited his love of the city and its people to explain his decision to take the Everton job in the first place. Liverpool fans still have a place in their hearts for him and at the Anfield game on the day he was sacked by Everton, the Kop sang his name. A nice touch. 

Everton look absolutely ragged on the field at the moment, one Premier win in 13 games and their latest setback, losing 2-1 at Norwich, underlined the predicament they find themselves in. They are still in the FA Cup and they face Brentford in the fourth round, but relegation is just not worth thinking about.

You have to question the savvy of the Everton board in hiring a former Liverpool man. But equally, are Everton still able to command top, cutting-edge coaches? It would seem not. Carlo Ancelotti suggested they still had it in them, but he didn’t hang around, lured back to Real Madrid. Increasingly, his decision is fully understandable. Bringing in Benitez, a decade ago, would have been a real coup (although still an ex-Liverpool employee), but in 2021, it seemed a little desperate on the part of the club to try and send a message it was still a “player”.

It really isn’t all down to Rafa why Everton are lurching from crisis to crisis. Their transfer market record has been abysmal in recent years, and they’ve spent a lot of money. In 2017-18, their gross spend approached £ 200 million as they tried to deliver a statement of intent. Over the past five years, they have been the fifth highest spender in the Premier with expenditure totalling £ 484 million and net spend £ 220 million. But too many of their signings, such as Davy Klaasen, Theo Walcott and Moise Kean, have been a let-down. 

And yet Everton do have some very good players, they are not in the same category as that other moribund giant, Newcastle United. When you consider they have England’s goalkeeper Jordan Pickford, Richarlison, Dominic Calvert-Lewin, Michael Keane and André Gomes, there’s no shortage of talent when it is fit and working well. 

The club also needs a new director of football after Marcel Brands left in December after three and a half years at Goodison. He looks to have initially carried the can for the current malaise, but now Benitez has followed. 

Who will they find to take over? They would be foolish to install Wayne Rooney or Frank Lampard, the former is not really proven as a coach and the ex-Chelsea midfielder would find it hard to be accepted on Merseyside. There’s talk of Roberto Martinez returning and Brighton’s Graham Potter being on the list of possibles. Duncan Ferguson, who has become Everton’s Ryan Giggs, has been mentioned as a candidate to take the now fashionable interim manager’s role.

Owner Farhad Moshiri took something of a gamble when he appointed Benitez and Everton can ill-afford to make another mistake. More importantly, they need fresh direction to ensure they don’t slip through the trapdoor.

Manchester United: Who will want to sip from the poisoned chalice?

EIGHT YEARS after the club’s most glorious and prolonged era of success, Manchester United are still looking for a manager that can live with the past while moulding a new, contemporary future. 

The departure of Ole Gunnar Solskjær, far from being a bolt from the blue, was always a case of “when, not if”. It would have been an uncomfortable decision to make, the dilemma of hiring favoured sons and then discarding them is never an easy situation once the goodwill and friendship tokens run out. Nobody ever wanted to criticise Ole too much, especially as coaches don’t always select their new squad members at some clubs, but the biggest problem was the cherubic Norwegian being one of United’s own. 

It’s a warning to clubs in this hire-and-fire world of instant gratification that employing guys that were once part of the furniture and much-loved figures is not a good idea. It invariably ends in tears, even if those tears manifest themselves in the form of emojis on social media that include multiple hearts and kisses!

And who do United turn to now? Succession has long been a subject to avoid at Old Trafford by all accounts, going back to the days of Sir Matt Busby. United took almost a decade to compensate for the loss of the guiding hand of Matt and it’s heading in that same direction now in the post-Ferguson years. Since Sir Alex retired in 2013, United have had four permanent coaches and have won three prizes. By their own standards, this is a lean period, although they did go from 1968 to 1977 without a trophy. Two of the three were won by that lovable pantomime villain José Mourinho in 2017, the last time anything remotely gilded was placed in the trophy cabinet at Old Trafford.

Solskjær’s future was judged almost on a game-by-game basis. His appointment had the look of an interim holding job, but United got carried away by six consecutive wins and rather hastily gave him the job full-time in March 2019. For a coach to be on the brink for so long and for a rabbit to be pulled out of the hat at the 11thhour so very often tells its own tale – nobody was ever too convinced about Ole. Watford 4 Manchester United 1 was never going to look good for him.

It didn’t help Solskjær that Manchester City have been harvesting trophies like over-zealous farmers. Since 2013, City have won 11, including four Premier League titles, six Football League Cups and the FA Cup. As Morrissey once sang: “We hate it when our friends become successful, and if they’re northern, it makes it even worse.” Certainly, as City have taken over, United have had more than a hint of Morrissey melancholy about them. Meanwhile, Chelsea, the other thorn in United’s side, have lifted six, Arsenal four and reborn Liverpool have won two in that period. 

When Ferguson left the job, he had won everything – 13 Premier Leagues, five FA Cups, four League Cups, two Champions Leagues and the European Cup-Winners’ Cup. It was always going to be impossible to follow such a record which, incidentally, was built on the back of 1,500 games in charge.

But United’s relative lack of success since Ferguson moved to the comfy seats is also down to their very average record in the transfer market. United cannot complain that they’ve lacked transfer market clout because since 2013-14, they have spent £ 1.22 billion gross and £ 855 million net. Only City and Chelsea have spent higher. Since 2018-19, United have spent more than City (£ 487m versus £ 474m) and are among the top six across Europe in terms of transfer activity.

But as well as some disappointing signings, they’ve also, rather curiously, become something of a retirement home for big-name players – Cavani, Ibrahimovic, Ronaldo – which hasn’t been a disaster but smacks of desperation and seems rather demeaning for one of the world’s biggest and richest football clubs. Cristiano Ronaldo’s signing now seems like a publicity stunt rather than part of a team-building strategy. He’s scored and kept his side of the bargain but United’s team doesn’t look better for his presence.

So who will want a job that should be one of the most coveted in world football? United have missed out on some big names who have recently found new employment, the most recent being Antonio Conte, but Allegri, Pochettino, Ancelotti, Benitez, Mourinho, Howe, Nagelsmann, Flick, Tuchel and Gerard have all moved into new jobs over the past year or so. Zinedine Zidane is out there, but apparently, he’s not interested. If United want or need a huge name, they may struggle, but others, such as Unai Emery, Roberto Martinez and Ajax’s Erik Ten Hag, will surely be mentioned in the coming days. Of these, Ten Hag may prove to be the favourite, but United’s board will be only too aware, they cannot afford to get it wrong and slip further away from clubs like City, Chelsea and Liverpool. Equally, they may decide to play safe and lure someone away from their club in mid-contract. Leicester’s Brendan Rodgers has been tabled as a possibility, but after leaving Celtic halfway through a season, will he risk being torn apart in the media for doing it again?

It’s not only United that have to make the right decision, the man who takes the job also has to be sure where he stands in terms of resources, transfer targets and long-term objectives. The club should not be as far away as it is from the main title challengers or lack the vision of most of its peer group at home and abroad. Not everything can continue to be blamed on an iconic manager’s long reign coming to an end. One possibility is that United’s success under Ferguson in the latter days of his career possibly masked other problems within the structure. In the coming months, United do not just have to make the right choice for the dugout, they also have to ask themselves what else is really wrong at Old Trafford?

Did Tottenham know their man and do they know who they really want next?

NUNO Espirito Santo has been shown the door by Tottenham Hotspur after just 10 Premier League games and a 50% win rate. Admittedly, they were woeful against Manchester United in their last game, a 3-0 defeat at their gleaming new stadium, but has Nuno been given a fair crack of the whip?

Spurs, embarrassingly, had difficulty filling the job after they saw José Mourinho on his way in April 2021 and they finally got Nuno after a long list of names were thrown into the hat. Some turned them down and they may find they have the same trouble in seeking a replacement for their latest coach.

Since Mauricio Pochettino was relieved of his duties, Spurs seemed to have lacked direction and purpose. The players probably know it, hence Harry Kane expressed his desire to leave and the hangover of a summer of “will, won’t he”, has translated into one Premier League goal in nine games and a mysterious pre-season episode that seemed like the player had gone AWOL.

It’s time to acknowledge that the Pochettino team is now shot, the players have either become disillusioned or gone elsewhere. Look at Dele Alli, once one of the great hopes for English football, but now a shadow of his former self. That Spurs team, which was a joy to watch at times, is not going to win prizes now, at least what’s left of it. Kane will surely go now and Spurs will cash in, although after a mixed start to 2021-22, they may not get as much for their star striker as they would have in the summer. A big name motivator could still turn Kane around if Spurs want to keep him.

But the most worrying aspect of Nuno’s departure is the fact that Spurs didn’t like his style of play or his methods, at least that’s the word coming out of the north London woodwork. This is pure and utter nonsense as the Nuno style was there for all to see at Wolves. Had Spurs not done their homework, if they had why was his approach a surprise? This smacks of the same syndrome that has inflicted Manchester United and, to some extent, Chelsea. How many times has Roman Abramovich been unhappy with the style of his manager? And United, they moaned and groaned at the Mourinho way, yet surely they knew he would take to Old Trafford a style that had been successful for him in the past. The very thing that makes managers attractive – their results – is achieved by their own take on what makes a proficient coach. If that comes as a surprise when he turns up, then the club’s system of recruitment is clearly sub-optimal.

When Pochettino left the club, he had generated a win rate for league games of 56% in his time at Spurs. Mourinho’s win rate was 46.6% and Nuno’s exactly 50%. A few draws would have made a big difference, for Spurs also had a 50% loss rate in the Premier League.

Who will Spurs turn to now? Daniel Levy may feel that Spurs have lost their way and they are being upstaged by Arsenal, Chelsea and West Ham in London. Furthermore, their record against the so-called and rather shaky “big six” members is poor, a win rate of 25% since 2019-20.

There’s an interesting situation developing now that may also include Manchester United. If Solskjaer’s position is under threat (and it changes week-by-week), then there may be a battle for the available talent involving United and Spurs. If, for example, Antonio Conte is the man they want, the fact Spurs are now in the market could force United to act quicker than they might have and deal with their own managerial problems.  If that happens, Spurs may find they are back to square one.