It is 2.30pm on a Friday afternoon. The low-lying winter sun is already setting at Finch Farm but for Everton manager Rafael Benitez, it is never too late for a lesson on the merits of one tactical system over another.
“I have a tricky question for you,” he starts professorially, turning the interview on this writer. “What is the difference between 4-1-4-1 and 4-3-3?”
Benitez had spoken of it being a “perfect” night after his side’s winless run came to an end in dramatic fashion with a 2-1 come-from-behind victory over Arsenal at Goodison Park on Monday Night Football.
Having trailed after half-time, Benitez’s decision to bring on Andre Gomes for his first appearance since September due to a calf problem tipped the balance in the hosts’ favour. At least, that is how it has been perceived among many Evertonians.
The Spaniard moved to a three-man midfield, a slight variant on the previous formation, but a minor alteration that was viewed by onlookers of a Royal Blue persuasion as having a defining impact.
When put on the spot, I stumble and suggest the difference depends on when the team is in or out of possession and is partly down to what responsibilities you place on the wide players in pinning back the opponent’s full-backs – certainly something Anthony Gordon showed against Nuno Tavares, who won’t forget his first trip to Goodison in a hurry.
“You are right,” responds Benitez. “But also, if you move the two wingers a little bit deeper, it’s a 4-1-4-1 and if you move them a little higher, it’s a 4-3-3. The difference between the two systems is just what you do on the pitch, the tactics, not the system.
“You have said – as I have said – that it is more important the way that you play rather than just the system. When you have three players in the middle of the pitch in a 4-2-3-1, the player behind the striker used to be an offensive midfielder. So in reality, even in that system, you have three midfielders.
“So the system is not so important. It’s about how the players analyse the game and how they take on your message. I am considering any system, as the main thing is to have the right players on the pitch. At the same time, to play one system over another, you have to work on that.
“It’s not that we can go to Crystal Palace on Sunday and play 5-4-1 without having worked on it in training. It’s why when we were successful at the beginning of the season, we kept repeating a system that was getting us results.
“We used a 4-2-3-1 which converted into a 4-4-2 when we were defending. We always consider any change to the system if it’s necessary.”
Benitez’s point is proven by the bare numbers. Everton ran 118.3km against Mikel Arteta’s side – the third furthest by any team in a Premier League game this season and their furthest in any game in the last two seasons since September 2020.
Talking tactics with Benitez wasn’t at the forefront among several topics to be discussed but it is one the Everton manager feels most at ease with, and so having been taken in this direction, it felt only natural to ask him what he wants from a No 10 whenever he calls upon a system that facilitates such a role.
The sale of James Rodriguez has left the current senior squad without a traditional playmaker not long after a period when the club were heavily stocked in this department.
“We have some players who can play in this position, but we don’t have a specialist,” Benitez admits. “We can play [Demarai] Gray, we can play [Alex] Iwobi or [Andros] Townsend. They can play there, but they are not specialists in this position.
“When you think of the No 10 and look at those who back in the day wore the number – you think of Pele, Maradona so usually a really good, high-quality player who plays in this position. We’re maybe sometimes looking for this kind of player, but it’s not easy to find anyone in the market. At least at a good price.”
‘We must choose the right players in market’
Benitez is a manager with over 25 years of experience, and even he knows he has left the door slightly ajar to move our conversation onto the club’s vision both in the short and long-term.
With January now around the corner and Everton having parted company with director of football Marcel Brands last week, being as creative in the transfer market as he has had to be with his depleted resources this season is already on Benitez’s mind.
The 61-year-old reiterated that next month will be a difficult time to do business, but the Everton boss hopes the club will be in a position to provide an update on the strategic review taking place in the coming weeks. He has a clear idea of where he would like to strengthen.
“We’re looking for a right full-back all the time because Seamus [Coleman] last year had more injuries and this year, touch wood, he’s doing well. We know we have to improve in some areas and now we’re looking at different positions.
“Sometimes, you’re looking for a No 10 but then you can’t find one so you then have to sign a winger. January is quite a difficult window so we have to be sure that we choose players that can give us something different.”
Maturing Gordon and recharged Richarlison
Gordon is a player Benitez clearly likes, having started him in four of the last five games, and his willingness to fulfil his duties both offensively and defensively pleased the manager against Arsenal, with no player making more tackles or interceptions.
Following a meteoric rise to prominence which culminated in a first senior appearance towards the end of the 2019/20 season, the England U21 international is yet to register his maiden Premier League goal but Benitez has been encouraged by the winger’s development.
“I’m happy with him. He’s a young player who when he started playing with us, to be fair, we were thinking what we could do with him because he was still not ready.
“But his mentality was good and he knew from the beginning that he needed to change a little bit. He had to improve his work rate on the pitch because he’s a talented player. His attitude was so good that even when we were thinking about bringing in another winger, I was telling the club that I wanted to keep him.
“I wanted to see how he could develop and he’s done very well. He’s training hard and he’s improving every day. I have confidence in him, which doesn’t mean he will play every game but he is an important player for us.”
Richarlison was another player who impressed in the victory over Arsenal, having recently returned from a one-match suspension.
Benitez admitted he spoke to the Brazilian forward about his discipline following a fifth booking of the season which ruled him out of the Brentford loss last month, but hailed his character in scoring against the Gunners having had two goals ruled out by VAR for offside.
“I’ve seen a big difference,” added Benitez. “The level we saw him play at the other day when he technically scored three goals with two disallowed is what we’re expecting from him.
“He’s a very good player and he has to be focused like he was the other day. It’s how he can help the team and how he can help himself as he’s a player who is desperate to score goals. If he continues to play at this level, he’ll score a lot of them.”
Digne the latest to feel Rafa’s tough love?
It was Steven Gerrard who said in an interview as Rangers manager in November 2020 that Benitez was the “absolute master of tough love” and his inclination to provide constructive criticism of his players even in times of success was echoed by Andros Townsend earlier in the campaign.
Lucas Digne found himself out of the matchday squad against Arsenal despite not being injured, which sparked speculation of a falling out with the manager and it remains to be seen whether the France international is part of Benitez’s plans moving forward.
Ben Godfrey impressed in marking Bukayo Saka in Digne’s absence, and Benitez stressed that the team must always come before the individual.
“Lucas is a good worker and I don’t have any issue with that,” the Everton boss said. “But the priority is the team. I am not comparing the stats [of him and Godfrey as left-back] after one game or even after a month, but for me the most important thing is the stats for the team and the score at the end.
“The difference between last year and this year is that we have wingers with ability and pace who can make the difference on their own.
“Demarai is an example and he usually plays on the left, coming inside scoring goals, so the full-back we used has to take up a role depending on the players around.
“Every year as a manager, you have a little bit more experience and the way that you treat your players is changing. It depends on each player. You can be closer or you can be more distant. Some require more contact than others.
“If you take Gray as an example, he’s someone who is improving partly because of the relationship he has with the manager. Every situation between a player and a manager is different but the most important thing is that they realise that you want to improve them.”
Benitez seeking solution to strategic review
The win over Arsenal came a day on from Brands leaving his role, and the club saying Benitez would continue to receive owner Farhad Moshiri and the board’s “full support”, in the aftermath of last Wednesday’s painful 4-1 derby loss to Liverpool.
Brands cited a “clear difference in the vision and direction” having agreed a severance package, but Benitez refused to rule out the possibility of a new director of football being appointed – although there is no timescale on the results of the ongoing strategic review.
“The club are trying to decide what is the best way to move forward. We are talking all the time, and they listen to me.
“The owner and the board are talking about different options but my job is to try to concentrate on the games. We have constant communication and then we can sit down and talk about players and possible names in every position. We’re working together in trying to find the right solution.”
Can Everton build momentum at Palace?
Palace are the next opponents for Benitez’s side, at Selhurst Park live on Super Sunday, and it is a ground where Everton have enjoyed plenty of success in recent memory.
The Toffees are unbeaten in the last 10 away league meetings since a 1-0 defeat in October 1994, winning five – their longest-ever unbeaten Premier League away run at another opponent.
The relief was tangible inside Goodison as Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang stroked his shot wide with virtually the final kick of the game against Arsenal to confirm a first win since late September, but the challenge now for Benitez is to build momentum heading into the festive period.
“Arsenal was a massive victory for us but that will only really still be the case if we now win against Crystal Palace. The reality is that after a bad run and the way the team was playing, we saw an intensity, a commitment and a connection with the fans on Monday.
“Everything felt so good, and then to finish the game by scoring two goals and the celebrations between everyone, it was really important for the team spirit. We need this cohesion with the fans and it’s so important we stick together during games so the players feel their support.
“After games, if they are not happy because they see something that they don’t like, they can express their opinions.
“I was watching some of our games last year and Goodison Park is nothing like the same place as when it is filled with fans supporting the team. They create a massive atmosphere and it’s very intimidating for the other team so I think they realise how important they are.
“What they want are for the players to be giving everything. Even when they were losing, I felt they were doing that. Hopefully, we can keep this until the end of the season.”
The Arsenal result was a great advertisement for Everton Football Club, with everyone pulling in the same direction in the face of adversity. Whatever the system, Rafael Benitez knows he is back on the right track to finding his winning formula.
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