In stark contrast to the toxic turmoil engulfing the club after a run of one win from 12 games, Rafael Benitez was positively jolly ahead of Everton’s FA Cup third round tie with Championship side Hull City on Saturday.
The manager even had time for a chuckle when he playfully suggested the solution to Everton’s recent spate of falling behind was simple: “Don’t do it.”
43 seconds after Kevin Friend blew his whistle, that smile was wiped off Benitez’s face by Tyler Smith’s opening goal.
Sneaking between Vitaliy Mykolenko and Salomon Rondon, Smith had to beat his teammate Di’Shon Bernard, rather than a royal blue shirt, to George Honeyman’s free kick as he nodded Hull into a first minute lead.
Only two sides in England’s top flight have conceded more goals from set pieces than Everton this season. Yet, this isn’t a relic from Carlo Ancelotti’s tenure – no, this is a problem that has emerged under Benitez’s watch.
In 20 fewer Premier League matches, Everton have already conceded more goals from set pieces (eight) this season than they did in the entirety of the previous campaign (seven).
Smith swiftly won first contact from the next dead ball opportunity and City’s imposing forward Tom Eaves had the chance to level the tie in the dying embers of extra time as a corner rebounded into his path. Only Asmir Begovic’s razor reflexes preserved a patchy 3-2 victory for the struggling visitors.
Rather than jolting the Toffees into life, Hull built upon their early advantage, dominating proceedings with shocking ease. Effortlessly playing their way through Everton’s limp trot towards the ball, each breezy pass to a teammate in space from Hull made a mockery of the division-wide gap between the clubs.
Benitez has had Everton hunkered in a painfully reactive low block this season. Yet, perhaps given the perceived strength of their 19th-placed Championship hosts, Everton crept out of their shell on the weekend – but with all the reluctancy they may show when presented with the post-game ice baths following two hours of football.
Just as Brighton bamboozled the Toffees two days into 2022 by outnumbering Everton’s midfield duo, Honeyman dropped from his more advanced number ten role to give Hull’s central three the numerical edge over Andre Gomes and birthday boy Allan.
Chants of, ‘You’re getting sacked in the morning’, rang around City’s MKM Stadium as the dread of Premier League results began to creep in once more. However, for all the inadequacies in defence – which aren’t aided by fielding a waning Seamus Coleman as part of the back three – Everton can call upon genuine quality at the other end of the pitch.
Throughout a match Benitez later revealed he was playing with pain, Demarai Gray was a menace. Carving open a pair of chances for his teammates, Gray rattled off a game-high five shots, thriving particularly as City legs tired after the interval.
An outrageous piece of control foreshadowed Gray’s swiftly taken equaliser after 20 minutes. Everton’s leading scorer dovetailed with Anthony Gordon inside a crowded penalty area to silence the suggestions that Benitez would be going anywhere.
Gordon was again involved as Andre Gomes nodded the visitors into a lead ten minutes later that underlined their manager’s position, which – admittedly – has repeatedly been reaffirmed by the club’s hierarchy.
By the time Ryan Longman curled Hull level in the 71st minute, Everton had carved open the chances to be home and hosed, but lived up to their billing as a side with the 18th-worst conversion rate in the Premier League since October (7.9%).
Second half substitute Andros Townsend, who Benitez flatly described as ‘injured’ following the match, belted the Toffees ahead once more.
But the fact that it took an audacious swerving strike from range – aided by questionable goalkeeping – in extra time for Everton to scrape into the next round, hardly does much to lift the gloom gathering over the club of late.