When Carlo Ancelotti unceremoniously dumped Everton just 18 months into his tenure to return to Real Madrid in June 2021, it threw the club's plans for the 2021-22 season into disarray. The Italian had presided over an alarming slump in form, mostly at Goodison Park, since guiding the Blues to second place on Boxing Day 2020 but there was hope that with supporters back inside grounds and more work in the transfer market that the decorated coach would be able to make progress in his second full season. That ended when Madrid came calling and it forced the Blues' majority shareholder, Farhad Moshiri, back into the market for a head coach.
A protracted four-week search ensued with a number of the usual suspects, from former Everton boss David Moyes to the unemployed Eddie Howe, linked with the post along with some more progressive choices like Brighton's Graham Potter and up-and-coming Frenchman Christophe Galtier but it seemed as though former Wolves man Nuno Espirito Santo would get the gig until talks with the Portuguese collapsed.
With increasing media chatter suggesting that former Liverpool manager Rafael Benitez had had more than one interview with the Toffees' hierarchy, the Spaniard became the presumptive choice and he was duly confirmed as the successor to Ancelotti for the second time in his career, having followed him as head coach at Real Madrid in 2015.
The decision to hire Benitez was both contentious and bold. Because of his long association with the Reds and comments he once made about the Blues after a Merseyside derby in 2007, Benitez's arrival was hugely unpopular for a section of the Everton fanbase, with banners protesting the Board of Directors' decision appearing outside Goodisonand one reprehensible one left near his Caldy home with a threatening message warning him not to sign on with the Toffees.
Everton's majority shareholder, Farhad Moshiri, is reported to have pushed through the appointment despite the protests, believing that Benitez was the best of the available candidates to bring success to the Blue half of Merseyside. The former Wolves boss, Nuno Espirito Santo, was said at one stage to be close to agreeing to come on board but negotiations with the Portuguese ultimately collapsed.
Benitez had an unremarkable, injury-affected playing career between 1978 and 1986 before he moved into management in 1993 with Real Madrid's B team. Spells at Valladolid, Osasuna, Extremadura and Tenerife followed before he joined Valencia and he emerged as a noteworthy coach by twice winning La Liga while also guiding Los Murciélagos to a Uefa Cup triumph in 2004.
Those achievements caught the attention of Liverpool who hired him to replace Gérard Houllier and in his time across Stanley Park he would win the FA Cup and reach two Champions League finals, winning the first in 2005 by beating Ancelotti's AC Milan in Instanbul.
The 2009-10 season was regarded by the Reds as a campaign of decline and Benitez left Liverpool in the summer when he was picked up by Inter Milan to replace Jose Mourinho but, while he won the Supercoppa Italiana and the FIFA World Club Cup, he was dismissed just six months into the job as the reigning Serie A Champions slumped to 6th place under his stewardship.
Two years later, he was named interim manager at Chelsea where he ignored supporter discontent at his appointment to guide the Londoners to a Europa League triumph 6 months later.
Benitez returned to Italy to take the reins at Napoli where he won the Coppa Italia before a brief tenure at Real Madrid, where he managed James Rodriguez, was followed by 3 years at Newcastle United. Brought in late in the 2015-16 season, he was unable to keep the Magpies in the Premier League but he remained with the club and secured an immediate return to the top flight.
His final season on Tyneside was a middling one, dominated by reports of a testy relationship with owner Mike Ashley and disagreements over transfer policy. Though he was loved by Newcastle's fans, his contract was allowed to expire in 2019 and he took up the invitation to try his hand in China with Dalian Professional, an assignment that was curtailed by the Covid-19 pandemic and Benitez's desire to return to his family on Merseyside.
His spell as Everton boss lasted just 200 days and his ill-advised reign was teminated following a dreadful run of results that left the club hovering precariously above the relegation zone having won just once in 13 Premier League matches. Moshiri, was finally compelled to act as things reached a tipping point with a miserable defeat to lowly Norwich City in January 2022, a game Benitez had been cautioned by the owner that he dare not lose.
Benitez got off to a decent enough start as the Blues' boss, securing Demarai Gray and Andros Townsend for a combined £1.7m over the summer as Everton chafed against the Premier League's profit and sustainability rules, restrictions that meant they couldn't make the necessary squad additions to support a genuine push for the top four this season.
Nevertheless, the Toffees won three of their first four Premier League fixtures and cleared the first hurdle in the Carabao Cup, with Gray and Townsend playing starring roles along with Dominic Calvert-Lewin and Richarlison.
The warning signs emerged in September, however, after Calvert-Lewin sustained what would turn out to be a serious quadriceps injury that would sideline him for four months and Benitez's gamble on fielding a weakened team at QPR in the third round of the League Cup backfired as Everton were beaten on penalties by the Championship side.
Between a come-from-behind win over Burnley in mid-September and the calamitous loss to Norwich, Benitez presided over just two League victories, one a relatively straightforward if uninspiring win over the Canaries at Goodison Park and a stirring triumph over Arsenal thanks largely to the brilliance of Gray and Richarlison.
Benitez had been pointing for weeks to a debilitating injury list — the squad was down to the bare bones last month due to injured players and positive coronavirus tests — but he was unable to escape criticism for poor tactics, player selection and game-management, not to mention his team's frustrating passivity, particularly in the first-half of matches.
In a form table encompassing matches since week eight of the 2021-22 season, Everton sat rock bottom and looked to be heading for a desperate fight for survival given the team's inability to pick up points under his watch. There was an argument for his dismissal after the embarrassment of the Goodison derby in which the Toffees were walloped 4-1 but though he hung on for another seven weeks, the need for yet another change in the Blues' hotseat became impossible to ignore.
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* Everton deducted 10 points for PSR breachView full table