Benítez and Rondón are symptoms, not cause, of Everton’s deep malaise | Jonathan Wilson
Derbies, if received wisdom is to be believed, can be very handy for arresting a slump. They can jolt players out of a rut, or the heightened passions can occlude differences in class. Not at Goodison on Wednesday night, though: not only did the form book not go out of the window, not only did it stay resolutely in the room, but it made itself a feature and across its pages in enormous letters was written the simple message: Everton are in trouble.
Perhaps that’s unfair on Liverpool. They tore into faltering opponents from the off. They racked up a greater xG in the first 10 minutes than Everton have managed in total in four of their matches this season. They played with great zest and verve and all four goals were the result of excellent finishes. They ruthlessly capitalised on Everton’s flaws. But still, it helped that there were so many flaws and that they run so deep.
What was perhaps most painful for Everton was that, with the exception of a few minutes after Demarai Gray had pulled one back, there was almost no stage at which this felt like a contest. Credit is due for the fact that they did not simply capitulate, that they had the fight to at least apply a bit of pressure, but why did they only start to play when they were already 2-0 down and Liverpool had perhaps eased off? The gulf of class in those early minutes threatened to become embarrassing.
And so the night ended with booing and frustration, with swathes of blue seats revealing quite how many fans gave up early, and with Everton five points clear of the relegation zone. It may seem absurdly early to be talking about Rafa Benítez being under pressure but Everton have taken a single point from their past seven league games. With Arsenal, Chelsea, Crystal Palace and Leicester to come they could easily be in the relegation zone by Christmas.
Yet Everton started the season well: 14 points represented their highest total after seven games since 2004-05. Injuries, clearly, have played their part. Although the absence of Dominic Calvert-Lewin has generated the most headlines, the downturn coincided with the loss of Yerry Mina to a hamstring injury. With the Colombian, Everton conceded 1.14 goals per game this season; without him 2.28.
The return of Abdoulaye Doucouré should help but the pairing of Michael Keane and Ben Godfrey has rarely convinced. Allan was turned far too easily by Diogo Jota for the fourth. The slump has been about more than personnel, though; there has been a breakdown of structure and morale. It doesn’t matter who is at centre-back if the ball is squandered as often as it was in that opening quarter (albeit in the face of a ferocious press), or if Gray and Séamus Coleman are going to conspire to give Mohamed Salah clear runs on goal.
That’s not to say that Calvert-Lewin’s absence has not been felt. He scored in the first three games of the season before a thigh injury and his immediate replacement, Salomón Rondón, has yet to get off the mark for the club in seven starts. The Venezuelan is clearly somebody in whom Benítez, who has managed him at three clubs, has great faith, but the days when he was arguably the best lone front runner in the world feel a long time ago. For somebody who based his career on being a willing chaser of lost causes, there has been a sadness in his sluggishness this season. Perhaps after two years away from the Premier League, it is simply taking him time to readjust to the pace of the league; the fear is that at 32, he no longer has the zest that once defined him. That is a big frame to keep lugging down blind alleys.
Far more than Sunday’s game at Brentford, when Everton’s domination of possession in the second half seemed to diminish his effectiveness, forcing him to play in tight spaces, this was a game that suited Rondón and, without ever being quite the force he was at his best at Newcastle, he did hold the ball up well before succumbing to what appeared to be a hamstring injury just before the hour. It was his run that drew Joël Matip out of position for Gray’s goal. Richarlison’s return from suspension helped in that regard but, while his deployment in a front two meant there was somebody to pick up Rondón’s lay-offs, it also meant the centre of the Everton midfield was frequently overmanned.
Given how bad it looked as though it could be when the second goal went in, given that allowance has to be made for quite how good Liverpool were in that opening 20 minutes, the temptation is to wonder if there is something to build on. But step back and the picture is far bleaker than that. This was Liverpool’s biggest win in a league derby at Goodison for 39 years.
Change the manager? It’s the familiar solution, but Benítez is already the sixth Everton manager in Farhad Moshiri’s six years as owner. Perhaps he is the right man, perhaps he isn’t, perhaps a former Liverpool manager should never take charge at Everton, but at some point it has to be accepted something more fundamental has gone wrong, that for all the money spent by Moshiri this is a club that remains marooned in mediocrity.