Benitez’s buys provide some positive Everton legacy

HULL, ENGLAND - JANUARY 08: Rafael Benitez the manager of Everton looks on during the Emirates FA Cup Third Round match between Hull City and Everton at MKM Stadium on January 08, 2022 in Hull, England. (Photo by Alex Livesey/Getty Images)
HULL, ENGLAND - JANUARY 08: Rafael Benitez the manager of Everton looks on during the Emirates FA Cup Third Round match between Hull City and Everton at MKM Stadium on January 08, 2022 in Hull, England. (Photo by Alex Livesey/Getty Images) /

Former manager Rafa Benitez has been quoted saying his time and achievements at Everton was hindered by his past ties to Merseyside rivals Liverpool.

The Spaniard claims that his previous time at Anfield where he won the Champions League and FA Cup undermined what he was able to do during his brief and controversial spell at Everton.

Benitez says when he came in he wanted to make changes but was ultimately prevented from doing so because, he claims, of his past links to the Reds.

Well, I don’t know if what he is saying is true at all, but in the minds of most Blues’ fans his legacy won’t be particularly well regarded.

The overriding impression during his seventh months or so in charge is of obstinately negative tactics and a retreat into ever more defensive and frustratingly ineffective football as results rapidly declined following a decent start to the campaign.

And in addition, the manager fell out with one of the side’s key players, Lucas Digne, which eventually led to the Frenchman leaving for Aston Villa in the January transfer window just days before Benitez himself was sacked.

So, on the surface it was not exactly a happy or successful spell for the Spaniard. It had been a huge gamble for the club which hadn’t paid off as the team were facing a desperate relegation fight when he finally left.

And, it was only with one game to spare that Everton secured their top flight status following that famous 3-2 comeback win against Crystal Palace in front of an emotionally drained fanbase.

However, it has to be said that although the Benitez era certainly isn’t one which will be remembered well by most Toffees’ supporters, he was able to leave some positive legacy with the players he signed.

The first of these was forward Demarai Gray. The former Leicester City starlet had seen his career stall and was playing in German football having failed to fulfill his earlier potential in England.

Benitez had virtually no money to spend last summer but was able to trigger a £1.5 million release clause and signed the winger. He was the only outlay the former Liverpool boss made.

Gray started well at the beginning of last season but then as the wheels fell off Everton’s campaign his form dipped.

This season he has often played in a front three with Anthony Gordon and one of this summer’s signings Dwight McNeil in Frank Lampard’s makshift attack.

His performances have been a little up and down but he has scored goals and he had a fine game against West Ham last Sunday as the Blues’ picked up their first win of the season.

With his pace, trickery and goal threat he will surely have an integral part to play in the outcome of this campaign too especially as the Toffees’ are still lacking enough options out wide and in attack.

Perhaps though more importantly than Gray’s addition, just before Benitez left the club he signed two young full-backs with real potential in Vitalii Mykolenko and Nathan Patterson.

Full-back, and especially right-back, had been a problem position for a long time with a lack of competition generally and a declining Seamus Coleman, creating real uncertainty and successive Toffees’ managers had failed to solve the problem.

Full-back has become a crucial area of modern, successful Premier League teams, both in defence and attack. And as so often, Everton were lagging behind rivals lacking the quality and strength in depth needed in this key position.

Now, both Benitez’s signings are starting every week and have quickly become essential to how Lampard and his team are playing.

Patterson in particular has really impressed me. Everyone knew he was already regarded as a very fine attacking full-back, quick and able to deliver great balls from the flank.

But his defensive qualities were a bit of an unknown as he’d not played many Scottish Premiership matches and usually lined up as a wing-back for Scotland.

However, Patterson has been excellent in this department too since he finally got his chance to start for Everton after an irritating injury delayed his debut last term and with Seamus Coleman unavailable at the season’s beginning.

Especially against Liverpool in the recent derby he was superb, dealing with the pace and trickery of their forwards, particularly Luis Diaz, who hardly got a kick in the game.

Mykolenko has had a few tricky moments and matches since making his debut last season, but overall he has also impressed, particularly given his off-field distractions with the invasion of his country.

The Ukrainian is regarded as a naturally more defensive full-back perhaps than his Scottish team-mate but he has shown plenty going forward too.

These young players will hopefully give the Toffees’ a pair of dynamic modern full-backs who can provide the sort of all-round contribution so needed from this position in modern football as Lampard seeks to build a successful squad.

Perhaps then at the end of this season, if it has turned out well, we might well look back and acknowledge that for all the faults and needless drama of his short time in the Goodison hotseat, Benitez did make a solid contribution to Everton’s long-term revival.