LONDON – It cost Everton £10 million ($13.2 million) to fire manager Roberto Martinez after three years in charge in May. It then cost the Merseyside club £5 million in compensation paid to Southampton to appoint Ronald Koeman.
Everton, which has made its best start for a decade, believes it is money well spent and if it beats Middlesbrough on Saturday it could top the Premier League.
Koeman may not have the stardust of Pep Guardiola or Jose Mourinho, the energetic charisma of Jurgen Klopp or Antonio Conte, or the staying power of Arsene Wenger, yet any of these managers would have been proud to have equaled Koeman’s achievements during his two seasons with Southampton.
“Over the past two years, no manager has done a better job than him,” said Sky Sports’ Jamie Carragher, the former Liverpool defender. Praise indeed.
When Koeman took over from Mauricio Pochettino, Southampton was apparently in meltdown. Pochettino had led the team to the eighth spot, its highest league position since 1989-90, while also recording its highest points tally since the Premier League began. The Saints had sold the backbone of their side including Rickie Lambert, Luke Shaw, Dejan Lovren, Adam Lallana and Calum Chambers, and some even tipped Southampton to be relegated in Koeman’s first season.
In fact, Koeman led the Saints to seventh place, beating Pochettino’s record while winning their highest-ever points tally. Last season, Southampton did even better with a sixth-place finish, its highest ever Premier League points total — 63 — and qualification for the group stage of the Europa League. Southampton’s net spending in those two years was £20 million. Koeman is a good team manager and bank manager.
It wasn’t the finances that made Koeman’s time at St Mary’s so impressive, it was the refreshing brand of attacking football. Southampton’s front three of Graziano Pelle, Sadio Mane and Dusan Tadic were electrifying.
Liverpool fans will point out that Everton’s opponents so far have been Stoke and Sunderland, which is in the bottom three, West Bromwich and Tottenham. Such is the force of Koeman’s personality, plus his track record as a manager, that Everton supporters have a right to believe the club’s reputation of being a nearly team can be discarded.
Koeman’s target is to bring European football back to Goodison Park. “I think we will be one of the teams challenging for Europe, it is a realistic aim,” he said.
His priority was to strengthen a defense which had lost Tim Howard and John Stones. Goalkeeper Maarten Stekelenburg, who he had worked with at Ajax and Southampton, was his first target. Stekelenburg is hardly a glamor signing, but the type of understated acquisition Koeman has specialized in. Stones’ replacement was Ashley Williams from Swansea, who had captained Wales at Euro 2016. At 32, Williams brings a wealth of experience while his leadership qualities make him invaluable on and off the pitch.
Idrissa Gueye was a typical Koeman bit of business — the Senegal midfielder had, like many at Aston Villa, lost his way, but his tackling and interceptions make him a crucial shield for the defense. The 10 points from Everton’s first four games is impressive, but the most significant stat which tells how the team has improved under Koeman is that it has conceded only two goals in those matches.
Koeman has learned from some of Europe’s best coaches. He started as an assistant, first to Guus Hiddink with the Dutch national team, then to Louis van Gaal with Barcelona at a time when Jose Mourinho was also on the backroom staff. However, at Ajax, Koeman’s relationship with Van Gaal changed when he was appointed director of football. The pair fell out after Van Gaal’s decision to sell Zlatan Ibrahimovic. “I liked Koeman,” said Ibrahimovic. “Van Gaal was a pompous ****.”
Koeman became the first man ever to serve as both a player and head coach at all of the traditional big three of Dutch football — Ajax, PSV and Feyenoord — and to be accepted by all three sets of fans is some achievement.
Koeman sees management as the collective rather than the individual. He said: “If you manage at the highest level, you have great football players. It’s not to teach them how to shoot or how to pass, it’s that they play together as a team, and using the strengths of the players and supporting that. That’s very important if you manage a big team.”
Nevertheless, his two biggest challenges at Everton are Romelu Lukaku and Ross Barkley. Lukaku and his agent were pushing for a move for the Belgium striker, but he remained at Goodison and is thriving under Koeman. Lukaku scored an 11-minute hat-trick in last Monday’s 3-0 win at Sunderland, his first goals in 12 league games.
Koeman said: “He’s a fantastic striker and of course sometimes it’s difficult. When you are a long time not scoring for your club, everybody is talking about that. You need to support the player, the player needs to be comfortable and confident in himself and he showed again (at Sunderland) that he is one of the best strikers you can have.”
Barkley’s career is at the crossroads. Martinez was blamed for not helping the midfielder’s career flourish; Barkley went to Euro 2016 but did not get off the subs’ bench. He was left out of Sam Allardyce’s first England squad and at Sunderland he was replaced at halftime following a torrid 45 minutes against one of the worst sides in the Premier League.
“He did not show the level I expect,” said Koeman. Where Barkley used to be confident, dribbling past opponents, finding teammates with pin-point passes and scoring spectacular goals, he now loses possession too easily — at Sunderland he did this 11 times, once every 4½ minutes — and gives the ball away too often.
Barkley was overindulged by Martinez who was always ready to make excuses for the England international. Koeman will not play such games and though Barkley has played every match so far he is unlikely to start against Middlesbrough. No one would doubt Barkley’s talent, but he must show it consistently and at 22 he will soon lose the “potential” tag.
Christopher Davies was a longtime Premier League correspondent for the London Daily Telegraph.