After a rancorous start to his Everton career, Rafa Benitez is grateful that pre-season action is underway. The team played their second friendly at Finch Farm on Saturday, beating Blackburn Rovers 1-0, and this week head off to the United States to take part in the Florida Cup with a game against Millonarios, the Colombian club.
The winners face the victors of the meeting between Arsenal and Inter Milan, another of Benitez’s former clubs.
It is not quite the calm before the storm. It may be the lull between hurricanes. The 61-year-old is aware that he needs a good start in the Premier League campaign and any faltering of momentum will lead to a clamour from the Goodison Park crowd for him to be replaced.
The mood on the training ground is positive. The Spaniard is a top-class coach and the players have been impressed by the quality of his sessions. Benitez believes that there is plenty of room for improvement in the squad. Ben Godfrey, in particular, has a huge scope for development and should benefit under the new regime.
Benitez has been less excited by other team members. Everton have spent more than half a billion in the transfer market in the past five years but the expenditure has not brought the success the fans crave.
Andre Gomes, Bernard and James Rodriguez are likely to be surplus to requirements.
Rodriguez, who earns £250,000 per week at Goodison, is the symbol of a flawed recruitment programme. The Colombian is hugely talented but has a questionable work ethic in training. The pressure is on Marcel Brands, the director of football, to find a way of offloading Rodriguez and the others who do not suit Benitez’s system.
That will be difficult in a market depressed by the pandemic. Brands, whose performance had been under scrutiny during Carlo Ancelotti’s tenure, needs to produce.
There have already been signs of friction between the Dutchman and Benitez.
Not everyone at Goodison was happy when the former Liverpool boss was handed the reins of the club. Most of the staff, with a couple of exceptions, have responded in a positive manner. Benitez is conscious of the sensitivities around his appointment and is still trying to win over the people who are resisting his methods. That will not last long.
The manager is not expecting to make any big-name acquisitions before the window shuts but he has resisted the suggestion of loan signings. He needs cash to buy players he believes will put Everton in contention for the top four. That sort of money may not be available this summer and no one can predict how long Benitez will be around.
The main question is whether he can improve the team quickly enough. He is aware that the only way he can win over Evertonians is with results.
It took Alisher Usmanov’s intervention to get Benitez the job. The oligarch is a significant sponsor of the club and has a strong influence on the owner, Farhad Moshiri. Since Moshiri bought into Goodison five years ago the businessman and Bill Kenwright, the chairman, have sometimes embarked on different strategies, especially in the transfer market. Usmanov has suggested there needs to be a better clarity of thought going forward.
There are other changes ahead, too. David Unsworth has earned plaudits for his work in the academy and coaching the under-23 side, who have won Premier League 2 twice in the past five seasons.
Benitez is keen for the emphasis to change and is more interested in producing players who can have an impact on the senior team rather than winning at under-23 level.
The new manager’s working style differs considerably from his predecessors during the Moshiri era. Benitez is convinced he can take the club forward but, because of his Anfield past, understands that things could turn sour on the flimsiest pretext. For now he is throwing himself into the job. He is determined that whenever he leaves Everton, Goodison will be in better shape than when he arrived.
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