Rafael Benitez is not afraid of repeating himself.
Everton’s impressive start to the Premier League season has already raised expectations that had reached new lows among supporters, the controversial turn to a former Liverpool manager further tempered by a summer of austerity.
Constrained in the transfer market by the club’s losses – approximately £265m over the past three financial years for little in return – Benitez knew there would be no scattergun spending afforded to him in his bid to assuage some of the unease surrounding his appointment.
And yet, his unbeaten Toffees are fourth in the table after four matches – level on points with leaders Manchester United.
A draw at Leeds represents the only points dropped, and the Everton boss is hoping his side can maintain their momentum when they travel to Aston Villa on Saturday, live on Sky Sports.
Benitez is answering his detractors but refuses to be swayed from the ‘one game at a time’ motto that has been the early soundtrack of his tenure.
“If you want to achieve something, you have to set yourself objectives that you can achieve and that you can get,” he exclusively tells Sky Sports.
“It is too far away at the start to think in terms of a position in the table. It’s not something you can see in front of you every week.
“That’s why I say, ‘one game at a time’. It is better to tell a player how he can improve one thing and a team how they can improve two things. After two months, you may have improved five or six things and then you’re getting stronger.”
Speaking on Monday Night Football, Jamie Carragher said this week that Benitez has used his knowledge of the city and its supporters to identify the brand of football wanted at Goodison Park.
He said: “So far, they’ve played in the manner I associate with Everton. I’ve always thought they’re a team who should look to get the ball forward quickly, involve the crowd, play with intensity and get the ball in the box.
“Not playing from the back so much or being a Barcelona-type. They’re a utopia for a certain type of team but I think Atletico Madrid should be the example Everton look to follow. Rafa has tapped into that.”
So is Carragher right in his assessment?
“We know what the fans in general want,” Benitez responds. “In the end, they want the team to win playing good football.
“This can vary depending on the country – in Spain, there was the period of passing football, the tiki-taka, because Barcelona were doing so well so everybody wanted to copy it.
“Here, you have Manchester City spending a lot of money on good players to play in a certain way and a lot of people naturally feel they have to copy their playing style because that is perceived to be the right way of playing. But it’s not the right way for everyone.
“You have to have a mix of things. You need to control the games and you need to pass the ball properly when you have it and sometimes you have to be direct as you have to attack. Going forward is what the fans expect, and here the fans are expecting crosses, headers, tackles and positive football.
“At the same time, you have to keep the ball in order to manage games. A good team and a winning team is one with balance, both in possession and out of possession. We strive to play a brand of football that the fans appreciate, in one way or another way, but winning games normally means you have to be offensive.”
‘It’s easy to give praise but players must want to improve’
In many ways, Everton are already mirroring the man in charge with players hungry to prove a point following a summer that left a fanbase divided by his arrival and underwhelmed by modest recruitment.
Following Monday’s latest recovery act at Goodison Park, Andros Townsend reiterated his manager’s renowned preference for being instructive with his feedback in victory – as opposed to heaping praise on his players.
It is the only way the team can improve, argues Benitez, who has taken the same stance wherever he has managed. With that in mind, how has he found the reaction of this group of players to his tough love approach?
“I think the players are quite happy at the moment,” Benitez said. “It’s easy to praise them for the things they’re doing well.
“Andros maybe scored the goal of the season the other night and I told him later but at the moment the game finished I wanted to tell him other things.
“As a manager, you need the right mix. Of course, I’m praising them as they’re doing very well but at the same time, I’m explaining to them that we can improve. The players appreciate that and are keen to learn.
“Against Burnley, one of the areas we didn’t do well was at corners in the first half. That is something that was clear to me, so when I say we have plenty of room for improvement it relates to this among other aspects of our game.
“We have to continue learning and improving. Maybe in six months’ time, the things I am trying to correct now will have been fixed and so we’ll be able to praise those improvements and focus on other areas.”
Doucoure the driving force
A standout performer in Everton’s rise into the top four has been Abdoulaye Doucoure.
Embarking on his second season at the club, the midfielder recently collected an in-house award for August’s goal of the month, a rifled finish in the victory over Southampton on the opening day.
Doucoure hasn’t looked back, thriving in his preferred role as a box-to-box midfielder under Benitez.
The 28-year-old has been involved in four goals in his four Premier League games for Everton this campaign (one goal, three assists), just one fewer than he managed in 29 appearances last term under Carlo Ancelotti (two goals, three assists).
So, what does Benitez put his greater attacking output down to?
“In general, it comes down to him wanting to do well,” he said. “He has the motivation, the desire and his work rate is fantastic. You can see in every game that he is working so hard.
“Whenever you talk to him, it’s very clear that he wants to improve. He’s listening to you and is taking on board the messages very well. Yesterday, I had another conversation with him and told him to continue playing to his strengths.”
Allan has not shared the same spotlight, but the performances of Doucoure’s midfield partner haven’t gone under the radar in the eyes of Evertonians.
The Brazilian was Ancelotti’s mouthpiece on the pitch but following concerns over how he would cope following his mentor’s departure, the player has returned to his best form under Benitez.
Allan has the right character to be a leader on the pitch.
Often the pair are seen deep in conversation on the touchline during breaks in play and the importance Benitez has placed on his role as the team’s protective screen has been very apparent in the opening month of the season.
“It’s true I used him a lot to get my messages across to the team,” Benitez said. “It’s normal to do this with a player who plays in the middle but it’s even more important to use those with experience. He has the right character to be a leader on the pitch.
“When your team scores a goal or are attacking, it’s the right opportunity to try to fix some issues defensively. With the noise of the fans, sometimes it’s not easy to get the message across. To pass the message from one wing to the other isn’t easy so Allan knows he has this extra responsibility.”
Finding solutions without Calvert-Lewin
Everton are set to be without Dominic Calvert-Lewin again this weekend as the England striker continues to nurse his way back from toe and quad injuries which will rule him out for at least another fortnight.
Calvert-Lewin’s absence meant that Richarlison was deployed more as a focal point in the Burnley win, but the Brazilian’s tendency to drift wide meant a lack of options in the box during a flat first hour from the hosts.
That all changed during a frenetic seven-minute period which tipped the balance in Everton’s favour, capped by Demarai Gray’s third goal in as many matches.
Gray was even involved in the build-up to Townsend’s stunning finish as he linked up with Doucoure and having shown a versatility across the forward line, Benitez admits he wouldn’t hesitate in using the winger through the middle moving forward.
“Demarai is certainly someone who I feel can play a more central role,” he continued.
“He has the ability, the pace and the understanding of the game in these areas to be a threat. It would be totally different to Dominic but it’s another option that we have.
“Even Alex Iwobi was playing in this position for his country so we need to find solutions. That might even mean playing with two strikers – with [Salomon] Rondon and Richarlison – so we have options.
“The risk as you progress through the season is that you can collect injuries that leave you short, but at the moment I feel we can manage with these three.”
Benitez anticipates stern Villa test
The resilience shown in securing maximum points from his two home games having fallen behind will certainly encourage Benitez, but the flipside to gaining the most points in the Premier League from losing positions this season is that the team must improve on the manner in which they start games.
The trip to Aston Villa will provide a good measure of the early progress under Benitez, who heads to the Midlands knowing a win would make this the best start by an Everton manager since Ronald Koeman in 2016.
Turning his attention to his 550th game in English football in all competitions, Benitez said: “Aston Villa are very good team who have spent money in the last couple of years, bringing in a lot of offensive players with quality and with pace.
“Against Chelsea, they did well for a while and even from the bench they had players with ability so I think it’s a good team and the atmosphere will be difficult for us.
“We have to enjoy the fans in the stadium and I’m sure our supporters will be there pushing the team. Hopefully the team can continue the good form away from home.”
How to follow Aston Villa vs Everton
Aston Villa vs Everton is live on Sky Sports Premier League from 5pm; kick-off 5.30pm. Sky Sports customers can watch in-game clips in the live match blog on the Sky Sports website and app.
Highlights will also be published on the Sky Sports digital platforms and the Sky Sports Football YouTube channel shortly after the final whistle.