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Soccer

That Couldn’t Have Gone Any Worse

Photo by Stephen Pond/Getty Images

It was a little over a month ago that I concluded a blog post about Everton manager Rafa Benítez with the line, “All this means is that Benítez better win some more games, and fast, because there’s only one other head left to roll if he doesn’t.” Well, guess whose head just tumbled out the door.

Following a 2-1 defeat to Norwich, one of the worst Premier League sides we’ve ever seen, Everton announced on Sunday that manager Rafa Benítez had left the club. Benítez’s tenure on the blue side of Liverpool lasted just six months, and it’s hard to imagine how his short stint at Everton could have been any more depressing or destructive. Everton currently sits in 16th place, and has won just one game it is last 13 league matches. The poor results on the field were enough to earn Benítez his walking papers, but the damage that has been done to the club over the last half year extends far beyond its place in the table.

Benítez must have been feeling great about himself on Dec. 6, after his squad decisively beat Arsenal at home, 2-1. That game followed a bad run of results that had led to further consolidation of Benítez’s power at the club. Director of Football Marcel Brands had just been chucked, and star left back Lucas Digne had been sidelined due to a feud with Benítez. When Benítez walked off the field after that game against Arsenal, he did so with much more power over the direction of the club than he’d previously maintained. He must have envisioned a bright future, in which he’d be empowered the reshape the roster as he saw fit, whip his underachieving players into shape and win a bunch of games, and prove to everyone that he was the right man for the job.

Benítez got busy as soon as the January transfer window opened, selling Digne, who in an Instagram post placed the blame for his departure solely on Benítez’s shoulders, while bringing in two young fullbacks in Nathan Patterson and Vitaliy Mykolenko. But the results stayed bad—losses to Crystal Palace and Brighton, a draw with Chelsea—and the final loss to Norwich was more than the Everton board could bear. In just a few short weeks Benítez went from being the unquestioned top dog to being out of work.

This has been a humiliating turn of events for Benítez, but even more so for Everton. Let’s be clear about what just happened: The Everton board appointed Benítez as manager in the summer, watched him lead the team to mediocre results through the first few months of the season, got rid of the Director of Football in order to give Benítez more power, then sold one of the best players on the team just because Benítez wanted him gone, and then sacked Benítez less than a week after that sale was finalized. Are these the sorts of decisions that a club that has any idea what the hell it’s doing tends to make?

That’s a question Everton fans have been asking themselves since Farhad Moshiri took over as majority shareholder in 2016. Since then, the team has spent more time in the state it’s in right now—leaderless, directionless, bloated, and bogged down by compounding mistakes—than it has looking anything like a functional organization. Sacking a manager midseason is a low point for any club, but hitting bottom at least allows for some hope for a bounce and a brighter future. Right now, though, it’s hard to envision any such future for Everton. Six managers have taken the reins during the Moshiri era, and not a single one of them ever came all that close to getting the club on solid ground. The cycle of hirings, firings, and false dawns is seemingly endless, and the void left behind by Benítez is bigger than those that were left by any of the previous departures. When you hand one guy all the power and then fire that same guy just a few weeks later, it leaves a lot of work to be done.

Benítez was clearly the wrong choice to lead Everton, but the question that needs to be asked now is whether a right choice even exists. Roberto Martinez, Ronald Koeman, Sam Allardyce, Marco Silva, Carlo Ancelotti, and now Benítez all failed spectacularly to save Everton. Maybe the club is just beyond saving.