Game over. Bad luck, try again. Press ‘OK’ to start a new game. Great! Now choose your character. You have selected Rafa Benítez.
Last season, Everton gripped the joystick, ready for another attempt at surpassing level 8(th) of the Premier League. Carlo Ancelotti’s character was an eye-catching choice given his appearances at the boss level in previous editions of the game; he was chosen for his high marks in ‘reputation’, ‘trophies’ and ‘man management’ but fell short in other areas to crash out at level 10(th).
Enough of the gaming. Everton hired Ancelotti in the middle of the 2019/20 season to try and calm the turbulence that swirled around the Marco Silva era, to bring in more steady and consistent success after the wild swings of the Portuguese coach. 2020/21 was Ancelotti’s first full campaign in charge, but the inconsistency continued: four wins and a draw in their opening five was immediately followed by four defeats and a win, which was immediately followed by four wins and a draw. You get the picture. Judging by performance levels towards the end of his tenure, Ancelotti's voluntary exit could've saved Everton a hefty severance package.
The good news is that Everton finished the season with 59 points, their highest tally since 2016/17. The bad news is that they were only able to finish 10th, an improvement on the 12th place the season prior but a 10th place finish all the same. But the other good news is that 59 points would’ve been good enough for 7th or 8th in eight of the nine seasons before 2020/21. So it’s not unfair to say Ancelotti finished right in the Everton zone, unable to smash through the glass ceiling to the 6th place paradise that those toffee-making hands so desperately want to get their sticky fingers on.
Following a summer of investment, Ancelotti had a squad that was at minimum above the league average in depth and quality, but the metrics he and his players delivered did not meet that level. The league average for expected goals (xG) per game last season was 1.19 in both attack and defence. Everton’s attack came in just below the average at 1.14 xG per game, and the defence also just below at 1.29 xG conceded per game. League average shots were 12.0 per game: Everton took 10.4 per game and conceded 13.2 per game. This was not a stint that made the squad better than the sum of it’s parts.
In terms of a tactical footprint, the Italian tried to implement a deeper defensive line than his predecessor, becoming less proactive off the ball and preferring to retract into a defensive shell when losing possession. PPDA rose, allowing the opposition more passes on the ball and causing less disruption to their possession chains, and the average distance from goal of their defensive actions dropped back from 44.0 metres at the end of Silva’s reign to 41.25 metres under Ancelotti.
The Italian has not stuck around to take charge of the Toffees in this campaign, seeing the offer of a return to Real Madrid as an opportunity too good to turn down - probably a wise decision given the potential damage another season of midtable obscurity might have done to his reputation.
You know who else tends to get his teams to defend in deeper areas of the pitch? Rafael Benítez. Ancelotti’s replacement comes in from left-field with an interesting profile, one that underground tactical hipsters have been observing closely during his time managing in the Chinese Super League. Billed as hot property in the Asian managerial market, Everton moved quickly to secure the services of a promising young manager that tactical analysts predict can transfer his game model implemented at Dalian Pro right to the very pinnacle of the game.
Bad jokes aside, Benítez is very much a known quantity and safe pair of hands, and perhaps the right appointment for what Everton are looking to achieve in the next season or two: namely an adherence to Premier League financial fair play rules and regulations. The transition in playing styles should be reasonably smooth, with Benítez looking to embed similar principles but with arguably a better reputation than his predecessor for setting teams up effectively. Compare Everton’s defensive activity map from last season with Newcastle’s in 2018/19, the last time Benítez was seen in the Premier League.
The other trait Benítez has a reputation for is never getting less from the sum of a team’s parts. Interestingly, Newcastle’s metrics under Benítez in 2018/19 were very similar to Everton's metrics last season, both in expected outcome numbers and stylistic ones. The key difference here is that Everton’s squad is significantly stronger on paper than the players Benítez had at his disposal at Newcastle, perhaps a cause for optimism.
Observers of Everton’s pre-season friendlies have noted three key themes: an organised defensive shape, quick attacking transitions, and crosses into the box. Everton were already pretty adept at crosses last season, looking to hit Dominic Calvert-Lewin early with the quality deliveries of Lucas Digne and generally finding him in uncrowded boxes.
In broader terms, Benítez will have to work with more or less the same squad that was available last season, with very little outlay in the transfer market occurring this summer. They relied on 16 core players to get through 2020/21, with the 17th most-used player accounting for just 677 minutes.
There will be some new faces. Jean-Philippe Gbamin surely takes the “like a new signing” award in the Premier League this summer - if he can stay fit. It’s been a rough start to his Everton career with just 160 league minutes since signing in 2019, but if or when he can return from injury, he’ll add much-needed energy and dynamism to the Everton midfield.
The three transfers that have been made this summer reportedly amount to an outlay of just £1.7 million but do address needs in the squad according to Benítez’s game model, and all are known quantities to the Premier League. Asmir Begović signs as keeper cover, but analytics-favourite Andros Townsend and Demarai Gray should both contribute minutes in the wide positions and aid the shift towards a more transition-based style of play with their tendency for direct and pacey carries.
The future of James Rodríguez seems to be causing less concern to the fanbase than you might expect. Rumours that the side’s predominant playmaker could be leaving the club would normally cause more distress, but with the fans not particularly enamoured with Rodríguez’s commitment and Benítez reportedly keen to save on his wages, it’s hard to imagine the Colombian being graced with a fond farewell.
Should they keep him, they’d be retaining a player who contributed six goals and four assists in ~50% of league minutes, and who led the team for xG Assisted in open play per 90 minutes and passes or carries into the final third per 90 minutes. Regardless of how well the fanbase took to him, there’s no denying Rodríguez is an A1 talent in this squad and contributed when on the pitch. Our new possession value model, On-Ball Value (OBV), which rates every action on the pitch by how much it positively or negatively affects a team’s chances of scoring, rated Rodríguez very highly for his actions last season: among players with >900 minutes played, he ranked 5th in the Premier League for OBV contribution per 90 minutes, behind the likes of Jack Grealish and Kevin De Bruyne. In the Everton squad, it wasn’t particularly close.
Meanwhile, Dominic Calvert-Lewin could be one of the main beneficiaries of Benítez’s appointment, not that he needs the help after a stellar 2020/21 campaign. Last season was the year that ‘DCL’ established himself as one of the Premier League’s leading marksmen and he should thrive if the team deliver the volume of crosses that Benítez desires. Calvert-Lewin is master of the danger zone between the penalty box and goal and, for players with >1200 minutes played and >40 shots, had the highest xG per shot in the league last season.
It’s been a good few seasons since expectations have been this low around Goodison Park. Frustrations at being unable to break back into the Premier League’s top seven, as well as a tightening of the purse strings this summer, has seen an apathy set in around the fanbase. Having failed to climb up the table following heavy investment before, it takes a creative imagination to envisage they might achieve it without the same spend. The points spreads have once again benchmarked them in the Everton zone; predicted to finish around 8th-9th place with a total of ~53 points, a total that reveals a belief that Benítez doesn’t really move the needle for the Toffees. In a top-half beginning to overflow with upwardly mobile teams, the levels only seem to get harder. Let’s see what the Spaniard can serve up.
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