Koeman: Is the nomadic Dutchman ready to make his mark?

By Lyndon Lloyd 04/06/2016  0 Comments  [Jump to last]

It's been more than three weeks since the curtain was mercifully brought down on Roberto Martinez's tenure as Everton manager but while there has been plenty of fevered speculation in the media, the Goodison hotseat has remained unfilled as the club has taken stock of another miserable season and carefully assessed their options for the future.

According to increasingly well-placed reports in both the British and Dutch press, the interim period looks to have been a necessarily patient one as Farhad Moshiri and the Board have waited for Ronald Koeman to finish the season with Southampton, hold talks with the south coast club over an extension to his current contract, and take a post-season holiday to the Caribbean. Now he is on the verge of becoming Everton's seventh "permanent" managerial appointment of the Premier League era.

In the immediate aftermath of Martinez's sacking last month, Koeman was immediately installed as the favourite to replace the Catalan following simultaneous reports in almost all of the national newspapers that he was the man that Moshiri had pin-pointed as the man to lead Everton forward.

That's not altogether surprising given that Koeman has been mentioned frequently as a potential successor to Arsene Wenger at Arsenal, the club in which Moshiri held a stake before he bought his 49.9% position in Everton. With suggestions that the club could finally be taking positive steps towards resolving its long-standing stadium issue, perhaps with an enticing waterfront location back on the table, and the likes of Koeman and Unai Emery in the frame for the manager's role, the Iranian-born billionaire appears to be applying the Arsenal blueprint to his new project at Goodison Park.

Indeed, if there is any truth to the speculation that the Gunners' hierarchy had earmarked Koeman as a potential successor to Wenger, Moshiri could be effecting quite the coup if he has tempted the Dutchman to Merseyside by selling him on the ambitious plans he has for Everton.

That Koeman is talked about in those terms – he has been mentioned as a future Barcelona manager as well, despite his challenging spell at Valencia – is testament to his standing in the game, albeit one that is based as much on his potential at the top level as it is on his stellar playing career. The Zaandam-born coach, the son and brother of fellow Netherlands internationals Martin and Erwin Koeman respectively, has already helmed eight clubs in full-time roles since retiring as a player but while he has a significant trophy haul from the Eredivisie, he has yet to taste sustained success in one of Europe's top leagues.

As part of Johan Cruyff's "Dream Team", Koeman became a playing legend at the Nou Camp

A versatile defender as a player who came to embody a powerful combination of sweeper, deep-lying playmaker and goalscorer, Koeman made his name in his native Holland, particularly after moving from Groningen to Ajax in the mid-1980s where he won the Eredivisie title in 1985 before moving on, somewhat controversially, to rivals PSV Eindhoven the following year. That brought him three successive championships between 1987 and 1989 and a European Cup.

It was the recognition he earned there and on the international stage for the Netherlands Рhe was an important member of the Dutch side that won the European Championships in 1988 Рthat earned him a career-defining transfer to Barcelona and a reunion with Johan Cruyff. Bar̤a's "Dream Team" of the early 1990s would win the Spanish title four years in succession between 1991 and 1994 and the European Cup in 1992 when Koeman famously scored the only goal in extra time.

A shining example on the field, Koeman's leadership off it was recognised by Cruyff early in his time at the Nou Camp when the manager instructed Ronald to room with a raw 19-year-old Pep Guardiola on away trips. Manchester City's now new manager would recall the influence of one of his early mentors, describing Koeman as "one of the best players to have passed through this club. He was one of the first central defenders who was more than just a defensive player, and he was capable of playing in finals as if they were friendly matches – without nerves. He was great at getting over pressure."

It was no surprise that Koeman moved into management not long after hanging up his playing boots and undertaking assistant manager roles under Guus Hiddink for the Dutch national team and at Barcelona under Louis van Gaal. He took his first post at Vitesse Arnhem in 1999 and led them to Uefa Cup qualification under difficult conditions before moving on to his old club Ajax in 2001.

There, he steered de Godenzonen to the Dutch title twice in three seasons and helped bring through some of that club's – and indeed Holland's – most recognisable players from the past decade, including Rafael van der Vaart, Wesley Sneijder, Nigel de Jong, and ex-Blue Johnny Heitinga but he resigned in 2005 with Ajax well behind PSV in the race for the title and out of the Uefa Cup.

"Koeman was very nice to work with, could be very easy-going. But you could feel his ambition. That's one of the beautiful things about football, there isn't one law, one truth. Maybe Koeman has the capacity to achieve similar things to Van Gaal, but in a different way."

David Endt, journalist and former Ajax general manager

If Koeman has developed a reputation for being somewhat nomadic, it's largely down to the fact that, due to ambition or circumstance, his managerial history shows he hasn't stayed in one place for longer than three seasons. His three assignments following his departure from the Amsterdam Arena, however, were particularly short-lived.

He spent just one season at Portuguese giants Benfica, leaving after managing them to a third-place finish to take up an offer to manage his former club, PSV. He won the Eredivisie title in his only season in Eindhoven but it was a championship his team almost spurned after a collapse in form in the second half of the season and, facing criticism from the club's owner, he moved on to succeed Quique Sanchez Flores at Valencia in the summer of 2007.

It's his chastening experience in Spain that is one of the chief cautionary examples supporters cite about Koeman in the context of the Everton job, not least because he managed to take a team from near the top of the league to 15th and was sacked just days after winning the Copa del Rey following an awful run of league form. A win percentage of just 18% in La Liga and a poor showing in the Champions League were enough to have him dismissed with the locals declaring him a disaster.

Dressing room strife, a loss of respect by Los Che's players for Koeman's tactics – one player complained that the manager's preferred 4-3-3 formation had the team "running round [like] headless chickens" – and Valencia's general off-the-field chaos (The Guardian's Sid Lowe described the conditions as being akin to walking into a viper's nest, where the "president and shareholders are always at war, creating tension and instability") left him in an almost impossible position. In retrospect, it feels like a poor fit all around; Koeman's desire to oversee a fertile youth development system couldn't be sated at the Mestalla and the club just wasn't stable enough, particularly for an outsider managing in Spain in his own right for the first time.

Koeman wouldn't work for another year until he took the reins from Van Gaal at AZ Alkmaar in 2008 when the elder manager was appointed as Bayern Munich's head coach. He was gone from AZ Stadion by December that year, however, and would spend another 18 months out of the game before completing the same hat-trick of the three big Dutch clubs as he had as a player when he was hired by Feyenoord as replacement for Mario Been.

With words that will resonate with Evertonians, he described the Rotterdam club as "a real people's club – there's always something going on. But it's a club with good organisation, a talented squad and ambition. The latter is very important: I am a no-nonsense figure and completely suited to the playing style and vision of the club."

Initially hired on a one-year contract, he ended up staying for three seasons, turning Feyenoord's fortunes around in impressive fashion by shoring up their defence, getting them back to playing attractive football and leading them back to the Champions League in his first season. He wasn't able to bring the title back to the club, losing out each time to Frank de Boer's Ajax, but he announced his intention to leave in 2014 to pursue his next challenge.

That was when he answered Southampton's call following the departure of Mauricio Pochettino who had been lured away by Tottenham Hotspur and the bright lights of the Capital that summer. However, he would find himself in charge of a squad gutted of some of it's best players – most of their stars left for big fees for Liverpool, Manchester United and Arsenal – and widely tipped for a relegation battle in 2014-15.

Defying those pessimistic predictions for the Saints that season, Koeman's impact was as impressive as it was rapid. Quickly helping to bring in talented or hard-working players like Graziano Pellè, Dušan Tadić, Shane Long and Ryan Bertrand to plug the gaps and implementing a fresh 4-3-3 line-up involving two wide players and Pellè as the target man, he had Southampton up among the early pace-setters in the Premier League within weeks of his appointment.

It was a pace they were ultimately unable to sustain but Koeman still steered them to seventh place and Europa League qualification in his first season and, despite seeing midfield linchpin Morgan Schneiderlin and fullback Nathaniel Cyne sold last summer, has just gone one better by finishing sixth, just three points off the top four. In that time, he has taken his teams to places like the Emirates, Anfield, Old Trafford and won with the kind of fearlessness that Martinez could only inspire at Goodison for a brief spell in 2013-14, while recording handsome home wins over the biggest teams in the Premier League.

Ronald's move to St Mary's stadium has proved to be a very good mutual fit for many of the reasons why he struggled to make his mark in those two brief spells on the Iberian Peninsula but was so successful in Holland: the northern/western European playing style, perhaps being one; a productive youth academy being another. Saints are a club renowned for a youth system that had produced gems like Gareth Bale and Theo Walcott and while the likes of more recent graduates like James Ward-Prowse aren't yet pulling up trees at the top level, it continues to be held up as a model for other "second-tier" clubs to follow.

Ironically, it is a dip in the quality of the current produce from Southampton's farm of youngsters that is believed to be one of the factors behind Koeman hedging over signing a new contract with the south coast club. Indeed, he wrote a column for De Telegraaf this year that pondered whether he had taken the club as far as he could without significantly greater power in the transfer market. With the Saints on a sell-to-buy footing that has seen come of their most bankable stars sold over the past two summer transfer windows, they have had to rely on their academy and targeted signings but Koeman expressed his disappointment earlier this year at the level of talent waiting in the wings at the club.

Finch Farm, on the other hand, could prove to be a gold mine for the next Everton manager if David Unsworth's confident recent claims are an indication. The likes of Tom Davies, Kieran Dowell, Callum Connolly and Jonjoe Kenny have all demonstrated their readiness for first-team action and there is yet more up-and-coming talent from the Under-21s and Under-18 setups that haven't yet been given their opportunity to shine at senior level.

Koeman might well be handed a significant budget by Moshiri if he does indeed become the next Everton boss but there will be plenty for him to get his teeth into in terms of youth players if that is where he likes to put much of his energy. And yet he would arrive at Finch Farm facing a significant rebuilding job on a first-team squad that could see departures in the double figures this close season.

A number of ageing or fringe players like Darron Gibson, Leon Osman, Steven Pienaar and Tony Hibbert are reaching the end of their contracts and are unlikely to be retained while others, like Aiden McGeady, will almost certainly be moved on. Then there's the issue of Romelu Lukaku, who appears to have made up his mind to go regardless of who replaces Martinez, and John Stones who could yet be lured away by one of the so-called big four from Manchester or London.

Much of the scouting and player acquisition at Southampton has been credited to Les Reed, the Saints' director of development, his scouting network and recruitment team and it's the stability and success of that setup that makes some observers of that club confident that it will be able to weather any storm created by Koeman's potential departure.

Koeman will undoubtedly have played a significant role on that team, however, as the purchase of the likes of Virgil van Dijk (a Dutch international) and Tadić and Jordie Clasie (acquired from the Eredivisie) might suggest. And while Southampton have thrived under that model, Koeman has worked in the traditional sole manager role before and would be quite capable of building his own squad without a technical director in place if need be.

"He was an amazing player who played for big clubs, so he's got this experience inside him. He can read the game and can identify a good player. But what I like about him is that he's a calm person and good with human beings."

Morgan Schneiderlin

If reports that Moshiri is planning on restructuring the management team at Everton by bringing in a director of football for the first time are true, though, that could end up being a moot point. That hire would replace the outgoing Kevin Reeves, credited with leading the scouting of signings like Ramiro Funes Mori, Brendan Galloway, Mason Holgate and Matty Foulds, and become a more permanent appointment that would oversee the academy, recruitment and overall strategy and be more impervious to the comings and goings of the head coach beneath him.

With all of Koeman's experience and know-how, he would be an integral part of all of those processes, however, even if his attention would be more on the day-to-day coaching, tactics and team selection. Martinez's players looked like strangers at times this past season so the introduction of the Dutch style of coaching – four-a-side drills based on rehearsal and repetition, designed to increase the number of touches players receive, moving to eight-a-side and finally full 11-a-side games once the passing interactions have become instinctive – could only be a good thing to see focused on at Finch Farm.

If there's a balance the club now needs between the defensive pragmatism of the David Moyes era and the more reckless, attack-minded Martinez experiment, the younger Koeman brother would seem to be the closest fit. While an Emery or Pellegrini would bring Latin or southern Continental flair to Goodison Park, Koeman's more rounded approach is probably better suited to the Premier League and, as such, he represents a safe, reliable option who could almost guarantee progress on the last two seasons. And, again, he won't ever have had the kind of transfer war chest as he stands to receive under Moshiri.

Certainly, the kind of football on which he was raised and which was implemented by the successful teams in which he played – his pedigree is similar to that of another candidate for the Blues' job, Frank de Boer – would be welcome at Everton. Founded on solid defending, Koeman likes his teams to pass and move the ball quickly and attack at pace and, as Pellè's success shows, he isn't averse to using a typical English- or Dutch-style, muscular centre-forward as the focal point of his attack. It looks increasingly like he won't get to work with Lukaku if he takes the job – you'd think he would be the ideal mentor for Stones, though – but if he is able to draft in exciting players of Sadio Mané's ilk, then there will be less reliance one striker at Goodison going forward, which can only be a good thing.

It's not all positives, of course – no managerial candidate is without his flaws.

His management style is not suited to all tastes – Tadić has reportedly become disillusioned with what can be an authoritarian and demanding approach – but after the collective lack of discipline and focus exhibited by the Blues' players over the final quarter of the 2015-16 season as Martinez's rein finally collapsed, a man who can restore order and inspire confidence is exactly what is needed. He may be "a calm person and good with human beings," as Schneiderlin once described him but he can be no-nonsense as well.

Meanwhile, when you consider how well his team has done in the league, his record in cup competition since he arrived in England leaves a lot to be desired. He was unable to take Southampton past the fourth round of the FA Cup, losing to Crystal Palace in both seasons, while the Saints were eliminated at the fifth round stage of the League Cup in 2014 and 2015, with this season's 6-1 home defeat to Liverpool particularly alarming. In Europe, they couldn't get past the final playoff round, falling to Midtjylland.

Ultimately, however, while he has moved around a lot as a manager, it is Koeman's vast experience gleaned from coaching in three different leagues and having played at the very top of his profession that Everton would be acquiring. When they look at the final Premier League table from this past season and as they look ahead to the Europa League, Saints fans might not agree but Everton could represent a massive opportunity for him to finally settle into a longer-term assignment, particularly as he will be getting in on the ground floor of Moshiri's ambitious project.

That combination of Moshiri's resources and Koeman's steady hand and own drive has the potential to be the catalyst that Everton Football Club has been crying out for through the frustrations of 21 trophy-less years. A proven winner as a player and manager with a demonstrable record of progress made in England, the man from Zaandam could be just the man to help return the Blues to contention among the Premier League's elite.

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