Early winner: Rafa Benitez passes first test amid Everton apathy

Date published: Saturday 14th August 2021 5:29 - Ian Watson

A superb second-half fightback from Everton helped Rafa Benitez begin the task of winning over his Goodison sceptics…

 

Everton needed that. Rafa Benitez needed that.

No club in the Premier League is kicking off their new season this weekend amid more apathy than the Toffees. Goodison Park was as loud before kick-off as you would expect with home supporters fully represented for the first time in 17 months. But that noise was a by-product of the novelty rather than any expectation around Everton after a hugely underwhelming summer.

Benitez’s appointment is the biggest move they have made, one not universally welcomed by those who occupied the Gwladys Street End the first time since a 1-1 draw with Manchester United in March 2020. Everton faced the same opposition last weekend in their final warm-up friendly: a 4-0 defeat which led to the first public calls, voiced by a minority, for Benitez to go.

So already low on credit and new signings, a come-from-behind win over Southampton will serve as a great relief to Rafa as he begins in earnest the job of winning hearts and minds at Goodison.

That is certainly true in the context of the situation Benitez found himself facing at half-time. Everton trailed at the break to Adam Armstrong’s debut goal for Saints and while it came as a result of a gift from Michael Keane, the visitors were looking dangerous enough to plot their own route to victory without being given a huge steer by the beleaguered centre-back.

Everton actually started brightly, with Demarai Gray playing through the middle off Dominic Calvert-Lewin. The Toffees offered the illusion of intent early on, playing through the Saints lines.

Then Keane gifted Armstrong the ball and the opening goal. With parity went Everton’s confidence and their intensity. Richarlison saw yellow for a hopeless dive – though you can’t blame the Brazilian for seeking a lie down after his summer schedule – while his team-mates reverted to playing hopeful long balls in the general vicinity of Calvert-Lewin, prompting boos at the break as Benitez prepared to deliver his first half-time address.

Whatever he said, it worked. Part of Benitez’s instruction was aimed at Gray and Richarlison, who swapped central and left-sided positions, and the change reaped almost instant reward.

Everton again began the half brighter, faster, more incisive but this time they claimed tangible reward in the form of Richarlison’s volleyed leveller. Saints hardly buckled; they responded to their first concession with a rally of their own, but Everton, buoyed and no longer booed by their supporters, suddenly discovered the Goodison grit that was absent for most of last season.

Another Benitez intervention worked wonders to help Everton claim the lead for the first time. It was a simple like-for-like change involving Andros Townsend’s withdrawal and Alex Iwobi’s entrance. Townsend enjoyed a creditable debut so replacing him with Iwobi – hardly a darling of Goodison – was a substitution initially eyed with mistrust. But the Nigerian, evidently keen to prove a point, teed up Abdoulaye Doucoure for Everton’s crucial second goal, which served as a shot in the arm for Calvert-Lewin to quickly add a third with a trademark header.

Everton

Benitez sent his players upon a post-match half-lap of honour to receive the acclaim of a crowd evidently not expecting the resilience they witnessed from a group so brittle last season. The new manager followed almost reluctantly, receiving plenty of applause of his own. During his stroll on the turf, Benitez took the opportunity to bring Iwobi back down to earth with some coaching points immediately in the wake of a game-changing cameo.

That’s why Everton hired Benitez. Not to play to the crowd, but to get the best out of what under-performing talent the club already has on its books. Many sceptical Evertonians may well reserve judgement, but for Rafa and his new club, their opening-day triumph was an encouraging indicator that this marriage of convenience could well work.

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