When Rafael Benitez reaches for his glasses in his top pocket at 8.10pm on Wednesday night, he will most likely hear his name being sung at Goodison Park for the very first time since taking up the position as Everton manager.
The only problem for Benitez is that those chants will come from the away end as Jurgen Klopp’s high-flying Liverpool side make the short trip across Stanley Park to face their former manager.
“Agent Rafa” is back trending.
Benitez is not under any immediate pressure just 13 games into his reign as Everton boss, but concerns among supporters who were not behind his appointment are certainly intensifying.
The injury-ravaged home side have not won in seven matches, taking just two points from a possible 21, and have slipped to 14th – six points off the bottom three.
Despite registering their first win at Anfield since 1999 in their behind-closed-doors last meeting in February, Everton are desperate to halt their current run which saw travelling supporters react angrily after Sunday’s defeat at Brentford.
There’s no quick fix, with Benitez intimating he will have to sell in order to buy this coming January transfer window. The Spaniard must be as creative as he was over the summer to strengthen his squad, but he must come up with an even more cunning plan to prevent further scrutiny.
Abdoulaye Doucoure’s return to fitness at the Brentford Community Stadium was one small crumb of comfort, and the Frenchman acknowledges just how significant a result would be against the club’s fiercest rivals in front of a packed Goodison Park – the first time since March 2019 that a home Merseyside derby for Everton has welcomed spectators.
“We need a result in the derby and if we can have it against Liverpool, it will be great for the fans and we can come back and have a strong run,” he told evertontv.
“I have never played a derby with the fans and they will very important for us. It is not so easy for us at the moment but we need them and can have a great result on Wednesday.
“We know the fans are demanding more, that is normal – you play for Everton and have to get results. At the moment that is not the case. Every player has to show more character and aggression and achieve results to make the fans happy.”
Among the myriad issues at Everton, supporters have cited the need for change at boardroom level – claiming that the problems run much deeper than the manager. ‘Unqualified and out of touch’ has been the verdict from fans who feel root and branch reform is needed.
A banner in the away end on Sunday reflected this message – “We demand Nil Satis Nisi Optimum (‘nothing but the best is good enough’), it’s about time our club did too.”
What followed was a nothing display, but in finding a new way of losing by virtue of a needless penalty concession, the clear lack of quality in the absence of key personnel has now been compounded by shredded confidence.
The side that were beaten by Brentford on Sunday was composed of players signed by the club’s past five permanent managers, so a lack of identity will not mystify majority shareholder Farhad Moshiri.
Under his stewardship, Everton have spent over £500m in trying to assemble a squad capable of competing regularly in Europe but when Moshiri admitted there would be “defeats along the way” upon his arrival in February 2016, surely even he didn’t forecast such mediocrity.
It is a cautionary tale for Newcastle, as Everton were seen back then as having the financial clout to buy big and keep their best young talent. And yet, they are no closer to what they set out to achieve – and now run the risk of falling foul of the Premier League’s profitability and sustainability rules.
Under Moshiri, the outlook would be even bleaker were it not for construction work starting on the club’s new £500m stadium at Bramley-Moore Dock. With each passing week, new images and even a CGI time-lapse video of how the new 52,888 capacity ground is taking shape lands in the inboxes of disgruntled Evertonians.
But the deepening crisis on the pitch makes the pessimist wonder whether it will be Championship football that welcomes the new dawn come the start of the 2023/24 campaign.
For now, Benitez can understand the frustration of supporters but remains confident about turning around the current predicament – at a time when visits to Chelsea and Crystal Palace are sandwiched between home games with Arsenal and Leicester.
It represents an uphill task. Everton’s run without a win stretches back to September 25, and it’s not hard to chart the team’s slide towards the wrong end of the table.
Injuries have hampered their cause, with Dominic Calvert-Lewin and Doucoure among several to be absent for the majority of that period. Yerry Mina is yet to make his return having missed the last six league games, so Benitez can justifiably claim to have been denied the spine of his team. Richarlison was also suspended against Brentford but will return for Wednesday’s crunch clash.
The summer appointment of Benitez was met with criticism due to his history with the Reds, but it should be remembered the Spaniard made a good start to life at Goodison and won four of his opening six league games.
Benitez has often spoken during this run of reproducing those same performances, but it was too small a sample size to say with any conviction that an identifiable style was being formed.
He is positive they can get back to a winning brand of football, with the club currently languishing in 14th position.
“We didn’t deserve to lose but the reality is the team is giving everything on the pitch and you can see the togetherness of the players,” the 61-year-old said after the Brentford loss.
“If we consider what we did at the beginning of the season, we saw enough quality to know we can be doing much better. But even the games we draw (against Manchester United and Tottenham), the team was doing enough to get more from these games.
“It is a question of confidence, missing players but you could see what we were capable of doing at the beginning of the season. When we have everyone available, I am confident we will do it again.”
Benitez wasn’t brought in to be a meat and potatoes, eight-men-behind-the-ball-at-all-times manager. Everton already had that with Sam Allardyce and he wasn’t long for the job. At times even under Carlo Ancelotti, the football felt directionless.
Supporters of clubs outside the runaway top three in the Premier League don’t see winning trophies as a rite of passage – not least those of Everton who are without silverware since 1995 – but having an identity that runs through the academy to the first team is something that Marcel Brands as director of football is belatedly trying to implement.
That will take time, but Benitez knew when he took up his position that he needed quick results. Wednesday’s derby is about finding a way of stopping the rising tide of uncertainty surrounding his position in taking the club forward.
Patience that is already being stretched to the limit is in danger of running out if things turn ugly against a Liverpool side that has scored two of more goals in 17 consecutive games – the first top-flight team to do so since Sunderland in the 1920s.
Speaking after Liverpool’s 4-0 win over Southampton, Jurgen Klopp turned his focus on the derby and said: “It’s always a completely different game, so I really very often don’t like the intensity of the game, it’s too much for me.
“I like physical football, I have no problem with that, we play that, other teams play that, but in that game very often people put too much in. I can’t say it’s my favourite game of the year to be honest, because of that.”
Liverpool are currently a team that is functioning beautifully, made up of a group of individuals who are right at the top of their game. Decimated by injuries, Everton have suffered five defeats in six and are now winless in seven. Klopp cannot expect his next opponents to play straight into Liverpool’s hands.
The German is right – the Merseyside derby is a football contest with a difference. Benitez knows that winning such a single occasion would make the world of difference to his plight, and he hasn’t looked to sugar-coat what is his biggest involvement in the fixture of his life.
“Every game is important for us. Obviously the next one is more important, because it is the derby,” he said.
Benitez will be judged in time over the course of the season, but as he seeks to reverse a downward spiral Everton’s direction of travel could well be defined by the events of Wednesday night.