Rafa Benitez is gone from Goodison Park, but reminders of him remain. Everton began life after their most controversial managerial appointment with defeat to a side managed by his greatest captain, with a goal made by a player he sold and conceded in a manner that felt all too familiar on the blue half of Merseyside.
Steven Gerrard had an excellent record against Everton as a player. A first visit in management brought Aston Villa victory, aided by an assist from Lucas Digne, the left-back Benitez dropped, criticised and sold, and from a corner: Everton’s habit of being breached at set-pieces did not depart with the Spaniard and the diminutive Emi Buendia headed in.
It ensured that Duncan Ferguson could not repeat his galvanising impact from his first spell in temporary charge. That began with a stirring win over Frank Lampard’s Chelsea. A sequel featuring Gerrard was an anti-climax for Everton, who failed to even muster a shot before the break.
They still have the worst first-half record this season and there was a subdued start, not the bombardment Chelsea faced in 2019. There was an early chorus of the caretaker’s name, but Goodison did not reverberate to it. Rather, the occasion may be remembered for an ugly incident when Matty Cash and Digne were hit by plastic bottles thrown from the crowd as they celebrated Villa’s winner. This was not the aggression Ferguson had called for. He had paid for pints before kick-off, putting his money behind the bar for fans. This was not the use of drinks he had in mind.
Steeped in Everton history, Ferguson was nonetheless a break with the recent past. He made five changes, with Digne’s replacement Vitalii Mykolenko omitted from the squad. He may be the opposite of the manager Everton sacked in other respects, more Robert the Bruce than Rafa Benitez in persona. He went for an old-fashioned 4-4-2, the retro feel in a meeting of founder members of the Football League completed by the sights of Gerrard and Ferguson in the technical areas, but it allowed Villa to outnumber and outmanoeuvre Everton in midfield.
Buendia had looked the classiest player on the pitch even before scoring. Alongside him, Philippe Coutinho made his first start since joining from Barcelona and an indirect contribution to the opening goal. Jordan Pickford tipped the former Liverpool player’s header over. From the subsequent corner, Buendia evaded Richarlison to loop a header in. It was taken by Digne, whose first return to Goodison brought boos from Evertonians, even though he had blamed Benitez for his sale. A player the Spaniard accused of being overly interested in his own statistics registered a first assist in Villa colours. It was one more than he mustered for Everton this season.
Ferguson had selected his biggest player as captain, in Yerry Mina, but the giant Colombian was error-prone and at fault when Ollie Watkins could have put Villa ahead; instead he prodded a shot wide. The stand-in skipper was at least prominent at the other end after the break as Everton belatedly threatened. Ben Godfrey had a header cleared off the line by Tyrone Mings, Mina twice headed wide and Dominic Calvert-Lewin, paired with Richarlison for the first time since August, skewed a shot over the bar from Anthony Gordon’s fine cross. But their 10th defeat in 13 league games was deserved. Just as he did in many a Merseyside derby, Gerrard could celebrate beating Everton.