It is hard to dispute that Everton were right to move on from Rafael Benitez. Tactically, socially and culturally the former Liverpool manager who labelled the rivals across Stanley Park a "small club" was always fighting an uphill battle. The issues at Goodison Park, though, are far from solved.
Saturday's defeat to Norwich City left Everton in 16th, six points clear of the relegation zone and though they have a squad that would suggest they are too good to go down it is not so solid that you can avoid double checking. Are you sure they are not going to West Ham in 2003 this? Could three from Burnley, Newcastle, Norwich and Watford get better than them (if they are not already)?
Anything even close to relegation would be a damning state of affairs for this grand old club, one that has the second longest streak of top-flight seasons and expected far more than 1990s-esque scraps at the bottom of the table. In February 2016, when Farhad Moshiri began a new regime that would see his side spend three quarters of a billion dollars on new signings, worrying about avoiding relegation was supposed to be a thing of the past. The list of misses from that gluttonous spending is vast with precious few hits to counterbalance it. Everton have a profile of signing and it is not one that many other shrewd clubs follow: players in their last 20s or early 30s, many of whom have been wracked by injuries in recent years but whose illustrious pedigree comes with sizeable wage demands. James Rodriguez, Theo Walcott and Wayne Rooney are among those who can attest.
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Indeed, if Lucas Digne played for any other team one might assume Everton would be leading the way for a 28 year old whose output has begun to slow before his reputation has. Equally, it says everything about the Toffees that selling him to Aston Villa while bringing in 22 year old left back Vitaliy Mykolenko does not seem to be the rational move of a club ahead of the market, but instead pandering to Benitez, who had fallen out with Digne, days before sacking him.
So lengthy is the list of errors made by the current regime that it seems safer to assume error, even when a case can be made for the decisions that have been made. Everton fans are not blind to this. The chants of "sack the board" in defeat to Norwich make that plain. This is a club that has gone through managers superstar (Carlo Ancelotti), pragmatic (Sam Allardyce), promising (Marco Silva) and experienced (Benitez). None of them have really worked.
Underlying none of it has been a unifying vision. Director of football Marcel Brands departed because his vision clashed with that of ownership and coaches, Steve Walsh for much the same reason; he would subsequently go on to claim that he had attempted to sign Andrew Robertson, Harry Maguire and Erling Haaland only for those above him to block the moves.
Any club with a sense of what it was trying to achieve would not sign four number 10s as they did in the summer of 2017; only one of them is still playing semi-regular Premier League football and Nikola Vlasic is doing that for West Ham after impressing on his departure from Goodison Park. Everton have brought in more playmakers since, yet to look at their squad now is to see a startling dearth of players who might fashion chances for their team mates.
That is rather where those questions about the trap door rear their head again. Can a club whose chief creators are the ageing Andros Townsend and Demarai Gray, a promising player but one who failed to convince at Leicester or Bayer Leverkusen, really believe it is too good to avoid relegation? Those two have been indisputable hits for a combined $2.7 million dollars, Townsend having created the 15th most chances in the Premier League this season and Gray the 29th.
The issue is rather that after them no other current Everton player is in the top 100 for chances created (Digne ranks 35th). The next best, Richarlison, has managed just 924 minutes in an injury plagued season. Those three are also the only players with more than one expected assist (xA) in the Premier League this term. A Benitez side is never going to be the most aesthetically pleasing, its midfielders will always be more focused on winning and retaining the ball than forging chances but they have to offer you a slither of something going forward or be exceptional without the ball.
They have been neither. According to fbref, Allan has been dribbled past more frequently than any player in the Premier League this season. His tackle success rate has dropped from the high 30s at Napoli to 27.2 percent this season; a player who once hoovered up possession in Serie A is now averaging his lowest number of interceptions per 90 minutes over the past five campaigns.
Even if the 31 year old is on the decline, Everton's issue is he might be their best option. Andre Gomes impresses his teammates off the bench but rarely excels when entrusted with a start while Tom Davies did not look like he was about to kick on before undergoing hamstring surgery. The same is true in other areas of the pitch. There are numbers across the squad but is there quality? As senior defenders Michael Keane and Yerry Mina's most consistent trait is that you never know what you are going to get from them.
There are enough center forwards -- Salomon Rondon, Cenk Tosun -- who are paid to plug the hole left by Dominic Calvert-Lewin's injury but would you really want to play any of them? You have little choice when the generous pay packets that attracted them to Goodison Park in the first place have made the latter in particular so unshiftable since.
For all the doom and gloom there is cause to hope that this might at least be the nadir. Richarlison and Calvert-Lewin are both available again. When those two play, Everton do well. In Premier League matches where the strike duo start together the Toffees have a 33-15-25 record (16-7-8 since the start of 2020-21) and a positive goal difference. It is a partnership with the quality to swing tight matches their way. Get those two back together and results might turn around quickly over what looks like a favorable fixture list.
Calvert-Lewin, in particular, could be the difference maker. Certainly his presence would have made it easier for Benitez's brand of football to be a success. Everton rank sixth in the league for crosses attempted per game and third for successful deliveries. Their chance creation map is the sort that might be entitled aerial bombardment. Get one of the best 'headerers' in the game on the end of these, hope that new signings Mykolenko and Nathan Patterson offer a Digne's worth of chance creation from fullback, and you might start adding to that tally of 11 goals in the last 12 league games.
Equally it seems wise for Everton fans to not even let themselves think what might happen if either or both of their front two go down with further injuries. Take those two out of the equation and the next highest scorer in Everton's squad from the past four seasons is Michael Keane (seven).
No guarantee of goals, a mutinous atmosphere in the stands that may not have been quelled, precious little money to improve the squad and no one in the dugout to take a handle on things. For almost any other club this would look like a recipe for relegation. In the end all that might keep Everton safe is that there are three or more teams in worse shape than they are.