Rafa Benitez takes his Everton side to Leeds this weekend
Richard Jolly assesses how Rafa Benitez has made an instant impact at Everton

How has Rafa Benitez started so well at Everton?

When Everton’s comeback against Burnley was complete, Rafa Benitez already had as many league wins at Goodison Park in 2021 as Carlo Ancelotti mustered.

If that meagre tally of two reflected badly on the Italian, it showed a transformation in their fortunes at home. Perhaps Benitez is putting the “good” back into Goodison Park.

Four games in and Everton are level on points at the top of the Premier League table.

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More creative but wonder goals unsustainable

Given the mixed reception the former Liverpool boss received after being appointed in the summer, he needed to make a fast start.

Undoubtedly, he has been helped by a relatively kind fixture list - home games against Southampton and Burnley sandwiching away trips to Leeds and Brighton - but so far, Benitez appears to be the antidote to the other former Real Madrid, Chelsea and Napoli manager he replaced.

They have scored more goals in their first four matches under this Champions League winner than in their last 12 under the previous one.

If that reflects the way Everton’s form tailed off at the end of Ancelotti’s reign, some other numbers suggest they have improved, too. It is a small sample size but Everton’s average expected goals difference (xGD) per match is +0.78. Over the whole of last season, it was -0.15.

Benitez’s Everton have made relatively little possession go a long way. They have the third most shots on target (23); accuracy matters too, with Everton’s ratio of 40.4 percent of their attempts actually being on target bettered only by Tottenham.

Everton shot map - Premier League 2021/22
Everton shot map - Premier League 2021/22

They are fashioning good opportunities: their xG of 7.42 is the fifth highest and 0.24 more than Manchester United’s. But as their total of 10 goals show, their finishing has also been excellent: they have overperformed their xG by 2.58 and only United and Chelsea have been more clinical.

Five of their six scorers (Dominic Calvert-Lewin is the exception) have bettered their xG, in four cases dramatically. It is partly a product of wonder goals: Everton have scored four goals from shots with an xG value of under 0.10 so far and logically that might not be a repeatable formula.


Old school midfield with no No. 10

Benitez has also made infrequent scorers more attacking. Abdoulaye Doucoure had five shots on target in the whole of last season (an average of 0.18 per 90 minutes). He has four already. Andros Townsend averaged 0.44 shots on target per 90 for Crystal Palace then. He is at 1.36 now.

Demarai Gray is not shooting more, but shooting better, scoring from all three efforts on target. He has never averaged more than a goal every 0.10 shots in a season, but he is now at 0.38.

But it is also notable how few efforts Everton had last season, which was camouflaged by Calvert-Lewin’s finishing: the sixth fewest. Only four players had more than six attempts on target in the whole season. Now there are more contributors. That is apparent in the creativity, too.

Average Premier League shots on target

So far Everton are sixth for shot-creating actions, whereas last season they were 15th. They have gone from 16.97 shot-creating actions per match to 24.25 and from 2.05 goal-creating actions to 4.50. To put it another way, they are making more opportunities without James Rodriguez. That has not come from one player, but the team: Doucoure has the eighth most in the league but Everton have nine players in the top 99. Last season, they only had four in the top 103.

Tactically, Benitez has started with only two central midfielders in each game. Everton have looked to the flanks more.

Only 21 percent of their attacks have come from the centre of the pitch – only Newcastle have fewer – compared to 27 percent last season when either Rodriguez or Gylfi Sigurdsson spent time in the No. 10 position.

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Surrendering possession and defending from the front

Defensively, Everton have improved.

They ranked ninth for expected goals against last season and sixth this. Their tally of 123 clearances is the most in the league.

Allan has won the joint most tackles in the division (13) and has made the joint most in the defensive third (10), but it is also notable that Townsend is Everton’s second leading tackler. He has already won half as many tackles as Rodriguez did in the whole of last season.

The importance of the midfield workhorses is also clear: Allan and Doucoure rank fourth and fifth in the division for pressures. As Allan was sixth last season, it is a continuation of his efforts but Everton may see a contrast between Townsend (32nd this season) and Rodriguez (189th last).

Average Premier League possession

But Everton’s midfield have needed to work off the ball. They are not a possession side: they have had just 41.1 percent of the ball, a lower share than everyone except Burnley. Their pass completion rate of 72.2 percent is the second poorest. They play the second lowest number of short passes per game.

That may make it harder to sustain their start.

Everton have been here before...

There are a couple of cautionary notes.

They took 12 points from their first four fixtures last season and so are two down now. They took eight from the equivalent fixtures then, so they are two better off in that respect. They led the league last autumn; after four games they had the best expected goals for (xGF) and the best expected goals against.

The challenge now is to stop history from repeating itself.

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