Oh, Ronald. With your face like a weathered hot water bottle. Like a sentient beetroot. Like one of Neville Southall’s old gloves.
It has been a year now since bona fide footballing legend Ronald Koeman put down his last margarita, packed his bags and jetted to Finch Farm to sign his name into the Everton history books.
He arrived in L4 tasked with dealing with the strangest of beasts; a club disillusioned by two seasons of mediocrity and a steady decay of positivity, yet made optimistic by promises of unprecedented investment into the playing staff, the infrastructure and even the new stadium that has been mooted for so long.
Koeman wasn’t expected to pull up trees in his first season at the helm. Europe, it was widely agreed, would be a well-received return. A good cup run, or even a drought-ending trophy, would be better. A concerted challenge for the top four could wait, though some sign that the ‘big six’ would soon become the ‘big seven’ would do.
So, a year on, does Koeman still seem as good a fit as he did when he joined?
It isn’t necessarily a tangible managerial quality, but there is something to be said about the manner in which a person carries themselves. Take Roberto Martinez. Constantly effusive, always optimistic, Martinez tried to soak up the culture of the club. In essence, he tried to be ‘Everton’. In the end, his constant hyperbole became grating. Koeman is not that sort of person. He remains unflappable, often brutal, and always ambitious. Fans are in no doubt that he is here for the project and the money, and a better project with superior funding would see him leave with no qualms. The unique Everton culture caught Koeman’s attention, at least, when he had the gall to bedeck his Christmas tree in red tinsel. Somehow he survived the Twitter onslaught. Koeman has the sort of bloody-mindedness that gives the impression that he will relentlessly pursue a trophy, and once he secures it, will shrug his shoulders and turn his attention to the next one. He doesn’t want to be ‘Everton’, but deep down, we want Everton to be a bit more ‘Koeman’.
The first thing Koeman was to be judged on was transfers – after all, the ‘Mersey Billionaires’ needed to flex their financial muscles. He had made some shrewd deals at Southampton – of his signings upon arriving at St Mary’s, Florin Gardos and Saphir Taider flopped. The same could not be said for Sadio Mane, Fraser Forster, Shane Long, Graziano Pelle and the loan duo of Ryan Bertrand and Toby Alderweireld. His acquisitions in his first season at Goodison Park were fairly conservative; all were from English clubs, which meant settling in was not too difficult for any new faces, but seemed to lack imagination considering the combined knowledge of European football he and Steve Walsh have. His relationship with Walsh appeared fractured during unsuccessful negotiations in late August, and the protracted transfer of Morgan Schneiderlin, but the two have reassured fans that they are perfectly in sync, meaning the best may yet be to come.
The signings so far have tackled widely-perceived weak spots in the squad. Experience and nous was needed at the back, so in came Ashley Williams. Idrissa Gueye provided the legs in midfield, Morgan Schneiderlin the brains. Yannick Bolasie came in to improve Everton’s options on the wings, while Calvert-Lewin, Lookman and Sambou were drafted in with the future in mind. Maarten Stekelenburg was essentially a like-for-like replacement for Tim Howard, and so it proved; superb at first, yet found wanting as time passed. Bolasie was able to lay on four goals for Romelu Lukaku before his untimely death, and Williams was solid but lacked pace or composure on the ball at times. The real success story, though, was the midfield duo of Gueye and Schneiderlin. The diminutive Senegalese was not just a hit – he was the beating heart of the Everton side, dependable when bigger stars failed to turn up. Schneiderlin’s first few months at Everton were curtailed by injury, but it is clear he is a class act, and a perfect addition to the side. Whether Walsh or Koeman (or both) takes the credit for these signings is a matter of opinion. It is clear, though, that Koeman has successfully identified where the squad is weakest, and what is needed to fill the gaps.
Deals for Jordan Pickford and Davy Klaassen seem to be gathering serious pace, with mooted moves for a whole range of Serie A stars, plus Michael Keane and Gylfi Sigurdsson also in the offing. With transfers, it is at this point a case of ‘watch this space’ – though it is clear that squad strength is only likely to improve.
It is not always necessary to fill voids with purchases, however; Everton’s fierce pride in a tradition of bringing local young talent through the ranks dictates that youth should be given a chance – something for which Koeman was accused of failing to do at Southampton. In his trademark matter-of-fact way, Koeman explained that at Everton he simply feels the young players are good enough.
And so it has proven. Tom Davies was a revelation, and was able to hold his place in the side ahead of much more seasoned professionals. Mason Holgate performed well in what is really a secondary position. Ademola Lookman and Dominic Calvert-Lewin also got some game time, and are both promising. The fact Koeman is ready to welcome them into the fold is good news indeed, and given the work done at youth and academy level by David Unsworth and Kevin Sheedy (among others), the conveyor belt of top quality young talent will keep giving the Dutchman fine options.
A major challenge presented itself in the form of want-away duo Romelu Lukaku and Ross Barkley. While Lukaku’s wanderlust is no surprise, seeing as he has the subtlety and tact of Prince Philip at Diwali. Yet Barkley’s case is a strange one. At the first sign of waning form, Koeman publicly criticised Barkley. Eventually, he would bounce back, and yet come the end of the season Barkley and Everton have become embroiled in a contract stand-off, with Barkley now believing he is better off elsewhere. Koeman seems in no mood to stop him.
The Barkley debate has rumbled on enough, and it isn’t clear to anyone whether Barkley’s frightening potential and homegrown status is enough to offset his awful decision-making and patchy form. Here’s Joe Jones’ view on that particular situation: https://www.evertonarentwe.com/2017/05/19/barkleys-big-decision/. He may have been caught out by how different Koeman’s treatment of him has been, following the constant superlatives dished out by Roberto Martinez. Koeman is ruthless, even cut-throat, and does not mind using media pressure to spur his players on. This approach works wonders for some players, particularly those fuelled by their ego. Also, it cuts away the players who do not have the right mentality with some effectiveness. But he may find that some players need a kick up the arse, and some need a pat on the back. It’s hard and ill-advised to second-guess someone of Koeman’s experience and expertise, but the Barkley drama has been uncomfortable – perhaps even unnecessary.
Southampton produced some excellent runs under Koeman, but were also woeful in lengthy spells at times. Koeman did not seem to be the sort of manager who can mix things up to arrest poor form, which showed during a bleak period of one win in ten games between September and December. The football during that time seemed ill-thought out; the long ball became too central to Everton’s attacking plans, and all too often the Toffees appeared to be stuck. Everton failed to score four times in that spell, including toothless displays in 5-0 and 1-0 reverses against Chelsea and Southampton respectively, while they only scored twice on two occasions – a win over West Ham and the 3-2 defeat at Watford. There were some poor lapses in focus that cost goals and points, while the lack of creative talent on the field was clear. Antonio Conte and Arsene Wenger both showed a switch to a back three can reap dividends, and so it did for Everton in January. Again, Koeman was able to dispel some critics. Taking James McCarthy off after less than 40 minutes against West Brom was another sign that Koeman can make the big decisions and act on them, contrary to Roberto Martinez’s dithering over making changes. What Koeman needs to do is ensure he has the personnel and the alternative game plan to ensure a frustrating start to a game does not endure.
Everton’s away form was also not good enough. Koeman deserves a lot of praise for providing Everton’s best home points return in the Premier League ‘era’, including nine wins from the last ten at Goodison, but on the road came defeats to Bournemouth, Burnley, Chelsea, Southampton, Watford, Spurs, Liverpool, Swansea and Arsenal. It is not rare for a team to be much superior at home, but if Koeman has top-four ambitions, the likes of the Vitality Stadium and Turf Moor need to be as much Everton’s comfort zone as Goodison proved to be. Another real negative was the poor cup form – in fact, it couldn’t have been any worse, with two home eliminations at the first hurdle of the FA Cup and the League Cup. That will have frustrated Koeman – on both occasions, he put out a side good enough to win each of those games. Instilling the self-confidence and dogged determination he exudes into the players will be key to making a serious effort at winning silverware.
Ronald Koeman’s first 12 months at Everton have been good. Not great, not poor, but good. There are some clear positives. He is always ready to speak his mind, to say things as he sees them and to justify his own decisions, which is a welcome divergence from Martinez’s often annoyingly positive post-match interviews. He does not suffer fools gladly, and does not shirk from making potentially controversial choices. Like red tinsel, for instance. Everton’s fitness greatly improved, and there were some excellent performances – notably at home to Man City, Arsenal, Bournemouth, West Brom and Southampton. Yet there is work to be done. Everton cannot be as dependent on Romelu Lukaku next season, especially if he isn’t at the club, while the positive work done on set pieces and a high pressing line needs to be continued. The Europa League will bring with it its own set of challenges.
There is one thing Roberto Martinez and Ronald Koeman have in common – both were linked with Barcelona after their first season at Everton. Martinez could never live up to the hype, and his phenomenal foundations crumbled into dust. But Ronald Koeman does not do hype. He simply carries on, his rubicund features unmoving, focused on the task ahead. He may yet prove to be exactly the sort of manager Everton have been waiting a long time for.