In Focus: Benitez facing bleak winter unless Toffees end sticky run
Everton’s 1-0 defeat at Brentford yesterday made it two points from a possible 21 for the Toffees — and Rafa Benitez is feeling the heat.
The Spanish boss, 61, arrived under scrutiny due to his former Liverpool links and recent results have quickly dissolved any credit built up from an impressive start.
With a Merseyside derby to negotiate this Wednesday before tough clashes against Arsenal, Crystal Palace and Chelsea, could Benitez soon be facing the pre-Christmas axe?
Ahead of their trip to Old Trafford at the start of last month, Benitez and Everton had been one of the season’s surprise packages.
Convincing wins over Southampton, Brighton, Burnley and Norwich along with a plucky draw at Leeds saw the Toffees take 13 points from their opening six matches.
Summer signings Demarai Gray and Andros Townsend were at the heart of all things good in those outings — racking up eight direct goal involvements between them.
For 25-year-old Gray, signed for under £2million from Bundesliga side Bayer Leverkusen, it seemed to be an indication that the once highly-rated youngster was finally ready to start delivering on his undoubted potential.
Meanwhile, Townsend had wasted little time showing his doubters that he still has plenty to offer at Premier League level despite his departure from Crystal Palace on a free transfer.
The 30-year-old winger’s equaliser in the 1-1 draw with Manchester United epitomised the quality, precision and determination of Everton’s early performances under Benitez.
At that point, it would have been outrageous to suggest that Benitez could find himself under such pressure so quickly.
However, injuries were mounting among key players and by the time West Ham travelled to Goodison Park after the October international break, the key trio of Yerry Mina, Richarlison and Dominic Calvert-Lewin were all sidelined.
The Hammers’ 1-0 win did not trigger any immediate concerns — but a shocking 5-2 home defeat at the hands of Claudio Ranieri’s Watford a week later certainly did.
Leading 2-1 with just 12 minutes left before spectacularly combusting, the loss was described as "difficult to explain" by Benitez but has since ended up being the catalyst for a dire run.
Defeats to Wolves, Manchester City and Brentford and a goalless draw with Tottenham have caused the Toffees to plummet into the bottom half ahead of what looks a very challenging December.
Could a failure to pick up points in the next few weeks really see Benitez relieved of his duties?
Following Sunday’s defeat at Brentford, away supporters voiced their disdain at Benitez and his struggling troops — but the Spaniard is remaining composed.
Asked about the reaction in his post-match interview, Benitez said: "We can understand the frustration of the fans but we are also frustrated.
"Today you cannot complain about the effort and intensity the players put in.
"They try until the end, we had a lot of crosses and shots, so you cannot complain about the effort but you can be disappointed because obviously we do not want to lose.
"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.
"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."
Despite intense media speculation, Benitez is thought to retain the support of the Everton hierarchy for now.
However, in an era where a bad run of results can quickly spell the end for any manager, concern over the veteran’s Goodison Park future is not unfounded — especially when considering upcoming fixtures.
A heavy home loss to local rivals Liverpool on Wednesday would take discontent among the Toffees fanbase to a new level, while a glance beyond that clash also sparks cause for concern.
They host a rapidly improving Arsenal side before embarking on a daunting London double-header against improving Crystal Palace and league leaders Chelsea.
Leicester then lie in wait before two crunch clashes against struggling Burnley and Newcastle bring the curtain down on 2021.
Though returning stars should theoretically boost prospects in the coming weeks, it is not hard to foresee Everton’s rough patch going on for a little longer yet.
Ultimately, the coming weeks look set to be a test of the Everton board’s nerve.
Benitez inherited a squad thin on quality beyond the first XI and after years of fruitless excessive spending, purse strings have unquestionably been tightened.
Though the situation has been unsatisfactory for all concerned in recent weeks, there is nothing concrete to suggest that a change of manager would resolve things.
Until key figures return, fringe players and untested youngsters will continue to fill gaps and any manager will be unable to address that issue until the January transfer window at the earliest.
With enough quality to steer well clear of a relegation battle over the course of the season and the ship for European qualification having virtually already sailed, mid-table obscurity seems inevitable.
While it may not appease fans, sticking with the status quo until summer looks to be the most logical option.