The rebirth of Andros Townsend: His bond with Benitez, playing more central and being a mentor to Anthony Gordon
By Patrick Boyland, Greg O'Keeffe and more
Additional reporting: Mark Carey
It was a video designed to focus minds and get Andros Townsend back to what he does best. A necessary moment of introspection during a temporary pause.
During September’s international break, the new Everton winger finally sat down to pore over highlights from his career so far, compiled by his mum Katerina as a belated 30th birthday present.
The footage took Townsend right the way through from his very first senior goal to the present day. Spectacular goals were interspersed with key milestones, including his England debut. If one message was to be gleaned, it was this: you can still do it.
“It was a long time in the making but dropped at just the right time,” Townsend’s father Troy tells The Athletic. We wanted to get him to recognise his contributions. It was: ‘This is you and what you’ve done in the past’.
“He’s watched it and, lo and behold, he’s popping one into the top corner days later against Burnley.
“That was a great family moment — we’ve all been on this journey with Andros.”
Townsend has hit the ground running on Merseyside.
With five goals and three assists in nine appearances, he has been a resurgent force. The turnaround so far at Everton has been nothing short of dramatic.
But rewind to the summer and the player’s future was shrouded in uncertainty after his contract expired at Crystal Palace.
There were offers on the table, including some from European clubs competing in the Champions League, but Townsend preferred to remain in the Premier League. There was a feeling that he had unfinished business.
When it became apparent that Benitez was set for Everton, Townsend began to hope.
“From the first inkling of Rafa being appointed, we felt something would or could happen,” says Townsend Snr. “I think Andros would have parked outside the stadium and waited for Rafa to be unveiled, to be honest!”
Once Benitez was appointed and contact had been made, there was no doubt in the 30-year-old’s mind about where he would head.
“It’s an easy one, to be honest: it’s the manager,” says Townsend Snr on the near-instant decision to head for Goodison when Benitez called. “He was producing the same kind of form under Rafa at Newcastle. Rafa knows what to expect from Andros and what he can deliver. The relationship has remained. Rafa knows how to trigger his good bits, his qualities on the ball. He’s obviously a more mature player now.
“While he maybe struggled a bit in the last few years at Palace, there were contributing factors: niggling injuries, then not playing regularly. It wasn’t long ago that he scored nine goals in 2018-19. Him on one side and Wilf on the other scoring spectacular goals. This is an extension of that period. Injury-free, a manager who trusts him. He’s in a confident space.
“It’s also your family. Making sure they transition as well as you do. Moving to a new area with two young kids. They’ve settled just like that and that helps your performance, being stable at home.
“The status of the football club always helps. Wanting to achieve for a fanbase absolutely intertwined with the club and wanting people to respect him again as a footballer.”
A source close to Benitez confirmed that Townsend has felt a “quick bond” with Everton supporters and is excited at the size of the club’s fanbase.
His father agrees that it’s a factor in Townsend’s flourishing. “It’s realising that this is another chance to excel at the highest level of the game,” he explains. “This is an Everton team that should always be looking at Europe. You can see that mentality and quality of player that he hasn’t played with for a long time.
“He had six months at Newcastle and hit the ground running there too. He’s had nine loans and has never had to worry about being stable. All those experiences, particularly as a younger, mean he can acclimatise very quickly. It’s about trust. Managers have a feeling for a player, and if a player carries out their instructions and produces that bit of stardust, that’s what relationships are made of.
“Knowing that the manager understands the way you play and wants to squeeze that last little bit out of you. Knowing that it’s not always pats on the back when you’ve scored a goal, it’s more about, ‘Do you remember in the 15th minute when you gave the ball away?’. It’s those things that keep you on your toes.”
Those working with Benitez agree.
“In the summer when he realised he needed better options out wide, Rafa looked at the stats and Andros’ were still very good,” says one source close to the Spaniard. “His fitness and running numbers were high too — and being a free transfer made him a strong option given the circumstances.
“His goalscoring has been impressive so far and Rafa is even on him about that: ‘Put it in the bottom corner instead of the top left’, etc.
“He knows he’ll react in the right way to his constant pushing. Andros is a nice, grounded, driven person. A bright lad. You only have to look at his parents to see he’s from a good background; how his dad conducts himself.”
“When Andros first came, everyone spoke about his crossing. How it was a match made in heaven with Dominic Calvert-Lewin,” says Townsend Sr. “I think there was a bit of kidology from Rafa because he knows Andros is about much more than that. There was a focus on crossing but, particularly with Calvert-Lewin and Richarlison out, there was a space to go and play inside too.
“Andros hasn’t had that for a very long time. It was always, ‘Stay outside and cross or come inside and do one of those shots you do’. What Rafa has done is say, ‘This is where you belong — I want you to be an important part in getting between a full-back and a centre-back’. That’s where Andros thrives. Rafa knows it’s there but it hasn’t been utilised in the last few years.”
Everton are seeing a revitalised Townsend largely because he is being asked to perform a different role to the one at Palace. His equalising goal in the recent draw against Manchester United is a case in point. After a 90-metre run to join a rapid counter-attack, the 30-year-old finished with aplomb from a central area. There is more scope to come inside and influence and arguably less defensive burden than under Hodgson.
“He loves the way Rafa frees him to play,” says a source close to Benitez. “He doesn’t overburden the wingers with defensive responsibilities and there was perhaps a feeling that at Palace, Andros had been almost a high full-back more than a winger.
Townsend is averaging fewer touches per 90 minutes at Everton (47) than he did last season (55) but as the below graphic shows, the proportion of those touches are in more advanced areas closer to goal.
The strong work ethic fostered in the earlier stages of his career remains. He ranks in the 98th percentile among his positional peers this season for tackles attempted, tackles won and successful pressures. Yet the extra freedom has resulted in a spike in his non-penalty expected goals per 90, an indication that he is getting into better positions. While last season Townsend was getting chances worthy of a goal in every 10 games, this time that ratio has fallen to one in six.
“Benitez wants him to contribute more in attacking play,” says Townsend Sr. “It’s instilling him with confidence so his contributions can be valuable to Everton this season. Rafa has provided that detail and examples as to where he could be doing better higher up the pitch, enabling him to take it on board and contribute in the way he has so far. It’s being in the right places at the right times, knowing when to come off the line and inside.
“Anyone that knows Andros is aware that he’s loved doing stepovers and smashing the ball in from any angle since he was young. That needs to be refined and as you grow older you do that.”
Townsend takes on extra responsibility on the training ground and away from the pitch. Over the summer, he completed his UEFA B coaching badge. At Selhurst Park, he became a mentor figure for Aaron Wan-Bissaka in particular, guiding the promising young full-back through games. That side, as dad Troy puts it, is now “ingrained in his game”. Benitez has already asked him to help mentor some of the younger players, including fellow winger Anthony Gordon.
“Andros isn’t an in-your-face type but Rafa knows he’s the sort of player to lead by example, to have conversations with his team-mates and be a positive person,” says one source close to the group. “Rafa felt Andros would be good for Demarai Gray too. A good influence on setting the standards and showing him how players are expected to prepare and train under him.”
Those close to the set-up believe Gordon, the 20-year-old academy graduate, is already starting to improve as a result. He is not the only one. Every manager — particularly someone new to the job like Benitez — needs a trusty lieutenant. In Townsend, he has exactly that.
It has all resulted in a start even the player himself could scarcely have imagined. After coming to a crossroads over the summer, the move to Everton and the reunion with Benitez has paid dividends. While a change in role has helped, so too has the way he and his young family have seamlessly settled into life on Merseyside. Wherever he plays, relatives are in the crowd to support him.
“They’re all contributing factors,” says Troy.
“If one of the cogs isn’t working, maybe you don’t see the player from the last couple of weeks.”
Everton will hope that player, the Townsend of the last few months, is here to stay.