Comedy defending, a never-ending cycle of injuries and a bargain bin summer have left Rafa Benitez on a slippery slope at Everton after three straight defeats... and with fan frustration rising and a tough run of games, it could get even WORSE

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Three straight defeats, eight goals conceded in those games and a number of mounting concerns perfectly encapsulates the turmoil Everton are currently experiencing.

Rafael Benitez's men conceded their 15th and 16th goals of the season in their 2-1 defeat at Wolves on Monday, and after a bright start to the campaign are sat in the top 10 by the barest of margins.

The Toffees have just a win over rock-bottom Norwich to show from their last six matches, and their performance at Molineux continued a worrying trend.

Everton suffered their third straight Premier League defeat away at Wolves on Monday night

Everton suffered their third straight Premier League defeat away at Wolves on Monday night

Everton suffered their third straight Premier League defeat away at Wolves on Monday night

Sportsmail analyses the issues boss Rafael Benitez (centre) is facing at Goodison Park

Sportsmail analyses the issues boss Rafael Benitez (centre) is facing at Goodison Park

Sportsmail columnist Chris Sutton warned the Spaniard he has 'got real issues' which will 'grow and grow and grow', while spelling out his fears 'the Benitez factor' could see the club's season unravel.  

But what exactly are the concerns Benitez - who replaced Carlo Ancelotti in the summer after the Italian returned to Real Madrid - is currently facing amid the club's dramatic slump in form? 

Sportsmail analyses what has and is going wrong at Goodison Park, and why the former Liverpool and Newcastle boss needs to turn their fortunes around quickly.

Injuries, injuries and injuries

Benitez admitted his side only turned up for the second half at Molineux - in which Alex Iwobi scored to reduce the deficit - but there was a more pressing frustration he wanted to get off his chest.

'I think we are close but missing the players that can make a difference,' he said after the game.

'I think we have all the players available we will be much better and will be doing similar things like we did in the second half.' 

Bemoaning injuries can often divide fans but the Everton faithful are acutely aware their start has been impacted severely by the absences they have had to deal with so far this term.

Dominic Calvert-Lewin - Everton's top goalscorer in the Premier League last season with 16 - netted a goal in each of the first three games of the new campaign before he suffered a thigh problem.

Toffees and England striker Dominic Calvert-Lewin remains sidelined following a thigh injury

Toffees and England striker Dominic Calvert-Lewin remains sidelined following a thigh injury

The England striker was a guest in the Sky Sports studio on Monday rather than out representing his club in the West Midlands as his battle to return to fitness continues, and he has been joined by midfielder Abdoulaye Doucoure (stress fracture) and towering centre-back Yerry Mina (hamstring) on the sidelines.

Together with Jordan Pickford, the trio form the spine of the Toffees' starting XI, but Benitez has had to do without three of his most important players in his last two games, with Calvert-Lewin also having missed the previous five top-flight games.   

Benitez was also without Calvert-Lewin's partner in crime Richarlison from the middle of September to the end of last month due to a knee injury, while captain Seamus Coleman missed the defeat by Aston Villa, win against Norwich and stalemate at Manchester United with a hamstring injury. 

Goalkeeper Jordan Pickford was forced to sit out the reverse at Villa Park with a shoulder problem too, while left-back Lucas Digne is the latest confirmed absentee after missing the defeat at Wolves with a muscle problem. 

He is joined on the sidelines by Abdoulaye Doucoure (right) and Yerry Mina (back, centre)

He is joined on the sidelines by Abdoulaye Doucoure (right) and Yerry Mina (back, centre)

The overbearing concern, however, is that the return date is still not fixed for the current absentees. 

'They are improving but still Doucoure, Yerry Mina and Dominic we don't know exactly how long,' Benitez added in his post-match interview on Monday.

'With Digne, we will see how he prepares. He was uncomfortable for this game, so didn't play. I am quite confident we will do better [when we have our players back].'

Benitez most likely meant what he said with the utmost conviction, but his job could well be on the line if that final assertion fails to bear fruit. 

Set-piece woe

Probably linked to 6ft 2in Calvert-Lewin, 6ft 5in Mina and 6ft Doucoure's absences is Everton's worrying set-piece record so far this season.  

Wolves defender Max Kilman's opener from a corner was the seventh goal the Toffees have conceded from set pieces in the Premier League this season (excluding penalties).

That number is as many as they conceded in the whole of last season under Ancelotti, when more often than not one of the aforementioned trio would attack the ball towards or away from goal depending on which box they were in.

Everton use zonal marking - to the annoyance of some fans - under their Spanish boss, who has preferred to adopt that system at set pieces throughout his managerial career.

Max Kilman's opener was the seventh goal Everton have conceded from set pieces this season

Max Kilman's opener was the seventh goal Everton have conceded from set pieces this season

And while he lamented not having Calvert-Lewin, Mina and Doucoure available on Monday given their height, he stated in his pre-match press conference that he will be vindicated in forcing the system on his players in the long-term. 

'When I came here in 2004, we were doing zonal marking and people were criticising the system. Two years after, we were the best team at defending set pieces with the zonal marking, it's just how you do it,' he said last month.

'If a player is coming and running against you, you have to react. We have to make sure we're attacking the ball, and we show some character when we have to challenge.

'We're not doing that. It's not just the zonal marking, if it's man-to-man they block your defender and there could be a man free with more chances and more space.

'I think it's about how you defend, showing character and showing the aggression you have to show in these situations to defend a corner or whatever.' 

Angelo Ogbonna (above) has also taken advantage of Everton' struggles with zonal marking

Angelo Ogbonna (above) has also taken advantage of Everton' struggles with zonal marking

The issue for Benitez is that his side have not prescribed to any of those defensive qualities at set pieces, and West Ham's Angelo Ogbonna and Watford's Juraj Kucka have been among the beneficiaries with headers past Pickford. 

Benitez has built a reputation as a manager who very much aligns with the cliche of building from the back.

But so far his ideas have yet to resonate with Michael Keane and Ben Godfrey, who have struggled in the absence of Mina in open play and from dead balls.

Their poor form was highlighted by a clip doing the rounds on social media from the second half against Wolves, when Raul Jimenez only had to shimmy inside to beat Keane, while Godfrey lost out to Trincao seconds later before the latter somehow dragged his shot wide. 

Everton conceded 48 goals last season in the Premier League and are already a third of the way there this term, and that will no doubt have sent alarm bells ringing around Goodison Park. 

Midfield muddle

Another alteration Benitez has made since arriving has come in midfield, but this one - for as long as it lasted - appeared to prove more successful.

Instead of building from the back and receiving the ball from the centre-backs, Benitez emphasised the importance for central midfielders Doucoure and Allan to be on the end of any loose balls in and around the opposition penalty area. 

'The manager wants me to be more offensive,' Doucoure said at the start of this season. 

'We have spoken a lot on the training pitch, he told me I have to go forward and score more goals. It is one of my main qualities as a player and I want to enjoy that this season.

Allan (right) and Doucoure formed a solid midfield partnership before the latter's injury

Allan (right) and Doucoure formed a solid midfield partnership before the latter's injury

'I can be in the box more, create a lot of chances and be in the final third to score more goals.'

However, Benitez has been unable to find a suitable replacement for the Frenchman since his injury, and the system as a result appears to have totally collapsed in his absence.   

Wolves won the midfield battle handsomely against the Toffees and enjoyed more than 60 per cent possession, while Watford managed to score five goals partly because the Merseyside outfit were too easy to play through. 

A change at Wolves saw Jean-Philippe Gbamin make his first Premier League start of the season, with the 26-year-old having made just four appearances in two years following horrendous luck with injuries.

Transfermarkt claim he has missed 86 games for the Toffees since joining from Mainz in 2019, and he looked far off the pace and intensity of a Premier League game at Molineux. 

Jean-Philippe Gbamin (right) made a torrid return to the Everton starting XI at Molineux

Jean-Philippe Gbamin (right) made a torrid return to the Everton starting XI at Molineux

The Ivorian's torrid return to the starting XI was ended when Fabian Delph - missing since August with a dislocated shoulder - was brought on as his replacement at half-time, even though he was not 100 per cent fit.

Benitez did not go into what Gbamin had been lacking in his performance 807 days after his only other Premier League start, but said: 'The reason why [we made the change] was we were looking for a change of something and to get possession of the ball.

'Delph has experience, he was not fully fit because he was away for a while. He can pass the ball, receive the ball and make people around him play.

'We were needing this and apart from the intensity to challenge for first and second balls, but he gave us this on the ball and he was quite good for us.'

Delph - as Benitez hinted - did make a positive impact on his return from injury, but has only managed to play 26 matches in the Premier League for the Merseyside outfit since joining from Manchester City in 2019.

Fabian Delph (right) came on for Gbamin but has also suffered with injuries and is out of contract in June

Fabian Delph (right) came on for Gbamin but has also suffered with injuries and is out of contract in June

Moreover, Spaniard Benitez went public to confirm he was ready to sell the 20-cap England international in the summer, and he is out of contract at Goodison Park in June next year in any case. 

But the move to start Gbamin was the second midfield experiment to have failed for Benitez in recent weeks, as Tom Davies' lack of mobility alongside Allan against Watford was cruelly exposed, with the 23-year-old having struggled to progress after breaking through into the first team in 2016. 

Andre Gomes is also unavailable due to a calf injury and has missed the last five top-flight games, with Benitez admitting the injury history of a number of his stars means he cannot afford to rush them back. 

It leaves Benitez struggling with a far from ideal pairing at both centre-back and in central midfield, and with return dates for current absentees unclear, the worry may only increase. 

Tom Davies (left) was another failed experiment as his lack of mobility was exposed by Watford

Tom Davies (left) was another failed experiment as his lack of mobility was exposed by Watford

Lack of summer spending

Undoubtedly conditioned by Financial Fair Play rules, Everton's failure to invest in the squad - or rather Farhad Moshiri's inability to dip his hand into his enormously deep pockets during the summer transfer window - is now coming back to haunt them.

Everton still recruited five players but only one, Demarai Gray, commanded a fee, and that was a low £1.7m handed to Bayer Leverkusen. 

Such a limited summer came as the club attempted to reduce their losses which have reportedly amounted to more than £250m in the last three financial years, with the Premier League only allowing for a £105m deficit in the same period.

Those rules were relaxed due to coronavirus, but it did little to help Benitez rebuild and improve the squad, which has resulted in some glaring holes in certain areas. 

Demarai Gray (right) was the only Toffees summer signing that commanded a transfer fee

Demarai Gray (right) was the only Toffees summer signing that commanded a transfer fee

Jonjoe Kenny spent the second half of last season on loan at Celtic

Niels Nkounkou joined Standard Liege on loan in the summer

Niels Nkounkou's loan move to Belgium has left Everton short at left-back, while Jonjoe Kenny (R) is out of favour

Digne's recent muscle problem and Niels Nkounkou's loan move to Standard Liege has left no natural left-back cover, with the struggling Godfrey having to fill in at Molineux.

There is also a similar issue on the opposite side of defence. Coleman was also criticised for his defending in the aforementioned Trincao chance as he made no attempt to help out.

The Republic of Ireland international has been a fine servant to the club, but at the age of 33 is no longer capable of bombing up and whipping crosses in from the right all the while not shirking his defensive duties, as he used to.

However, the alternative is underwhelming academy graduate Jonjoe Kenny, who was not fancied much by Ancelotti and was therefore shipped out for a disappointing loan spell at Celtic for the second half of last season.

Benitez also appears not to have warmed to the 24-year-old having given him just 10 minutes of game time in the Premier League this season, and as a result full-backs ought to have been a priority for director of football Marcel Brands in the summer.

Attempts were made to recruit one of Rangers' Nathan Patterson and versatile Arsenal star Ainsley Maitland-Niles, but once they were rejected they appeared out of ideas.

Salomon Rondon has filled in for Calvin-Lewin but has yet to net his first goal for the club

Salomon Rondon has filled in for Calvin-Lewin but has yet to net his first goal for the club

Donny van de Beek was another missed opportunity but Benitez claimed 'the deal was not easy for us'. However, there are mixed reviews for those who were brought in.

Gray has dropped off in recent weeks after a storming start to the season which saw him next three goals in their opening four games.

However, former Newcastle striker Salomon Rondon has yet to find the net after following Benitez from Dalian Professional to Everton, a drought which takes on even more significance in Calvert-Lewin's absence.

Andros Townsend has netted three goals this season including the equaliser at Old Trafford, but is another player who entered his thirties in the summer, while goalkeepers Asmir Begovic and Andy Lonergan were the only other recruits.

Recruitment appeared structured and intelligent under Ancelotti, with the likes of Doucoure and Allan signed under the Italian, but even with their financial constraints, the Toffees took a step backwards in that regard in the summer. 

Everton made approaches for players like Ainsley Maitland-Niles (above), but seemed to lack ideas once they were rejected

Everton made approaches for players like Ainsley Maitland-Niles (above), but seemed to lack ideas once they were rejected

Nightmare run to come

Perhaps the most concerning aspect is Everton's recent rut has come during what many would consider to be a less daunting set of fixtures against the likes of Watford, Wolves and Aston Villa.

Therefore, their bid to try and emerge from the mire begins against Tottenham, who will no doubt display some sort of new manager bounce with Antonio Conte now officially named as Nuno Espirito Santo's successor. 

That is followed by a trip to top-flight champions Man City straight after the international break, before facing Brentford - who have already beaten Arsenal and drawn with Liverpool on home soil this season - on another away day. 

Those matches serve as preparation for the Merseyside derby at Goodison Park to begin December, before a resurgent Arsenal visit five days later.

Everton face Tottenham next, who will be boosted by the appointment of Antonio Conte

Everton face Tottenham next, who will be boosted by the appointment of Antonio Conte

Away fixtures in London at impressive Crystal Palace and European champions Chelsea precede the visit of Leicester, their final game before Christmas Day.

The Toffees took nine points from the seven corresponding fixtures that took place last season, but Benitez will be fully aware the pressure will continue to pile on if he suffers defeats like the 5-0 at the Etihad Stadium last term.

The Spaniard was an unpopular figure at Goodison Park before he was even appointed due to his links with the red half of Merseyside, with those unedifying banners against him put up outside the ground.

Now the fans are already growing impatient at their current slump, and should it continue in this difficult set of fixtures - which currently looks a realistic prospect - the crowd could turn even further, potentially having a devastating effect on his future at the club.

December begins with the Merseyside derby at Goodison Park before the visit of Arsenal

December begins with the Merseyside derby at Goodison Park before the visit of Arsenal

Benitez was unpopular before his appointment, and if results continue to go south the crowd may turn further

Benitez was unpopular before his appointment, and if results continue to go south the crowd may turn further

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