The best Rafa Benitez could realistically have hoped for at Hull was an FA Cup third-round win to paper over the cracks at Everton. The former, however, could not achieve the latter.
The Toffees have been wretched of late, sitting bottom of the Premier League form table over the last dozen matches. Their problems extend far beyond and above Benitez, but the manager’s input, and just his mere presence, isn’t providing Everton with reasons for optimism.
If Benitez was looking for some respite from his side’s Premier League woes, it was nowhere to be found on Humberside. Everton eked out a win, but not one that offered any encouragement for either the immediate or long-term future.
After Benitez had said in his pre-match interview that ‘we have spoken about it and we must start better’, Everton’s opening made you question whether the players were doing it on purpose.
The Toffees kicked off and 45 seconds later they were gearing up to do it all again. Within 30 seconds, they had conceded possession and a free-kick on the left, which was headed past Asmir Begovic by Tyler Smith, who penetrated the visitors’ defensive line with appalling ease.
Smith span off the right side of the towards the centre, wandering in between Salomon Rondon and debutant Vitalli Mykolenko. The new signing looked well-placed to meet the delivery but seemed to pull out or duck when the ball was there to be attacked. Smith didn’t hesitate and Everton were behind even earlier than the three minutes they held out against Brighton last weekend.
Smith had another headed opportunity as did Tom Eaves, who was denied by a fine save by Begovic. Each of the first three balls into the Everton box resulted in a header on goal, the third of which was greeted by prolonged boos from the visiting fans.
That, and the subsequent agreement with Hull fans’ prediction that Rafa would be sacked in the morning, was certainly not the first show of open dissent seen from Evertonians in recent weeks, and despite Peter Reid urging the supporters to park their grievances for 90 minutes twice a week, the players were fair game after a shocking yet unsurprising opening 20 minutes.
The familiar flaws were starkly evident. Benitez’s midfield pairing, today consisting of Andre Gomes and Allan, were passed around and through by the Championship side. Brighton highlighted last week the folly of Benitez’s system and his stubborn refusal to tweak it, and for the first quarter of the game, the Portugal and Brazil internationals were given a chasing by Hull’s central trio.
Everton’s defence looked no more comfortable, with the back five apparently strangers. Which, to be fair to Mykolenko, was literally the case. Once Hull had passed through the first two blue lines, they took the same route, down the channel behind the wing-backs, and each time it took them where they wanted to go.
Then, out of the blue, an Everton goal changed the game. For 50 minutes, at least.
Unsurprisingly, it came via Anthony Gordon and Demarai Gray, the two Toffees who might be excused any culpability for the team’s recent failings. Gray’s penetration and Gordon’s wall-pass put the winger in on goal and the confidence of his finish belied the hopelessness that had up to then engulfed the Everton performance.
The shift in momentum was the result of the shot in the arm administered by the equaliser. Suddenly and simply, Everton began to compete and match the intensity of their hosts. The Toffees belatedly started to feed Gray and Gordon, and the latter teed up Gomes to head Everton into a lead most unlikely from the way they started the game.
Everton fans at Hull City with a banner: “Benitez get out of our club.” pic.twitter.com/XHXo51Drje
— James Nalton (@JDNalton) January 8, 2022
They had chances to extend their lead. Michael Keane should have done so on a foray forward before the break, while Gray picked on Di’shon Bernard on the Everton inside-left in the second half. But in the absence once more of Dominic Calvert-Lewin, given a breather after his return from injury last weekend, Benitez’s side carried little other threat, especially when Gordon was replaced on 66 minutes for reasons unknown.
It was a like for like change involving Andros Townsend, but Grant McCann was more decisive with a triple substitution three minutes earlier, and the Hull boss was rewarded within eight minutes with an equaliser in which all three replacements played a part. Tom Huddlestone went through a hologram of Jonjoe Kenny in a 50/50 challenge before feeding George Moncur, who in turn teed up Ryan Longman to bend in a shot which would have beaten two Begovics.
What little confidence Everton had taken from leading drained as soon as their advantage was relinquished. Benitez hooked Kenny and threw on Abdoulaye Doucoure to match up with Hull in midfield but the Premier League side still finished the 90 minutes hoping most for extra-time.
Perhaps because they could sense that Hull’s energy reserves had been expended but you wouldn’t credit this Everton side with such nous. The extra 30 minutes looked like a pair of punch-drunk boxers, with the bout settled by Townsend’s knockout blow which caught Hull stopper Nathan Baxter with his guard down.
Might this be a turning point? Almost certainly not. The trip to Hull and back served to take the Toffees into the fourth round but it also reinforced the discontent among the supporters judging by the banner unfurled as the clock ticked down on Everton’s win and, perhaps, Benitez’s tenure.