Does Koeman have room yet for Everton's youngbloods?

Lyndon Lloyd 13/10/2016  48 Comments  [Jump to last]

When you talk to Evertonians about Ronald Koeman, there appears to be a near-universal acceptance that the Dutchman probably won't be at Everton beyond the terms of the three-year contract he signed when he agreed to become Roberto Martinez's successor in June. After all, due to ambition or circumstance, that's the longest tenure he has managed as a coach to date.

From a club that rewarded David Moyes's relative success with 11 years at the helm at Goodison Park and handed Martinez what was, with the benefit of hindsight, an expensive and ill-advised five-year contract extension in 2014, the Toffees are now operating on a different model — one of pragmatism born of the need to regroup following two bottom-half finishes and quickly get back to competing for European qualification with a manager with a track record of doing just that.

There is always the adage about how things aren't ever the same once Everton touches you, but you get the sense that Koeman, he of the icy veins that made him such an effective defender and brilliant dead-ball specialist and the dispassionate air with which he departed Southampton for Merseyside, would be fairly resistant to Alan Ball's near-truism about the Blues.

Having endured such a jarring setback over the past couple of seasons, marked as it was by nadirs like the displays at Anfield, the King Power Stadium and the Stadium of Light earlier this year that were unimaginable in 2013-14, Everton fans appear to be similarly unemotional about Koeman's apparently near-term horizon. This time you feel it is strictly business — allow the manager to implement his two-year plan and see if he is able to deliver on the prospect of Champions League qualification before his deal is up.

On the one hand, being so sanguine while effectively being treated as a stepping stone should be anathema to a club of Everton's standing and ambitions but, on the other, if Koeman's plan is successful, it will be win-win for both parties: he gets his dream assignment at somewhere like Barcelona and the Blues are in a much more attractive place in terms of attracting a successor of equal prowess and the players to match.

Koeman's transfer policy over the summer offered more than a nod towards quickly addressing Everton's key problems over the past couple of years as he saw them. The acquisitions of Idrissa Gueye, Ashley Williams and Yannick Bolasie — not to mention the failed bid for Moussa Sissoko — all spoke to the need to bring in robust, fit, energetic and effective players with Premier League experience.

It has made the side far more difficult to beat — just one Premier League defeat in the first seven games is a significant improvement on those three awful aforementioned losses in the run-in last term — and much more able to last the distance in games, all of which bodes well for a season that is still in its relative infancy.

Has the manager's “short-termism” come at the expense of youth, though? And, given the focused footing that Everton are on at the moment, can we afford to be too worried about it? In the final game of 2015-16 against Norwich, all three of Tom Davies, Kieran Dowell and Jonjoe Kenny looked to have announced themselves as being ready to be part of the first-team picture on a regular basis. Callum Connolly, too, had made an accomplished debut a month earlier.

Since Koeman's arrival, however, all three of Dowell, Kenny and Connolly have dropped back to full-time duty with the Under-23s and Davies has been restricted to the bench in the Premier League. None of them were involved in either of the League Cup ties against Yeovil or Norwich even though Koeman made six changes for the latter.

In the context of the manager's need to stabilise the side and justify his club-record salary by getting off to a solid start to the his first season, it's perhaps not surprising that he hasn't risked such inexperienced heads. There has, however, been concern raised among fans specifically where Davies is concerned given the long-term injury that struck Muhamed Besic down in pre-season, Darron Gibson's chequered fitness record, and Tom Cleverley's inconsistency.

The 18-year-old has demonstrated all of the apparent pre-requisites for a Koeman player — energy, confidence and fortitude — with the added ability to get up and down the pitch from box to box but has merited just two substitute appearances so far. Perhaps the manager is being cautious with his development but an argument might also be made for Dowell's involvement in light of the team's lack of guile and creativity over the past couple of games, not to mention what many felt was a premature move in dropping Mason Holgate back to the bench once Seamus Coleman regained fitness. Then there was the decision to send Brendan Galloway out on loan for an entire season with question marks over the depth of cover at left back.

Nevertheless, Koeman was credited with bringing through some of Ajax's finest players while he was in charge in Amsterdam, including the likes of Rafael van der Vaart, Wesley Sneijder, Nigel de Jong, and ex-Blue Johnny Heitinga so there is precedence on his CV. Furthermore, his unfulfilled desire to oversee a productive youth system has been cited as one of the reasons why his short-lived spell at Valencia was such an uncharacteristically marked failure.

And a fallow period in the recent history of Southampton's fabled farm of talented youngsters was one of the reasons to which his decision not remain on the south coast was attributed this past summer. The Saints' sell-to-buy model meant that they relied heavily on their academy but Koeman is reported to have fallen out with that club's head of player development, Les Reed, over the dip in quality of youth after which he took the step of temporarily banning all youngsters from the first team as a sign of frustration.

The situation at Finch Farm is very different, of course (as is Everton's budget). Indeed, Koeman arrived at Everton at a time when the Blues' Academy was bearing the fruits of years of groundwork, development, coaching and savvy recruitment, with a crop of promising youngsters reaching the Under-21 and Under-23 level at the same time.

In addition to all of the young players already mentioned, Tyias Browning and Matthew Pennington are other players with first-team experience who are soon to return from injury, while Liam Walsh and Joe Williams are being talked about in terms of an imminent break-through into the senior side. When remains an open question, particularly given the fact that together with Steve Walsh, Koeman will be drawing up a shortlist of established transfer targets to bolster a push for Europe over the second half of the season.

In the interim, it's perhaps the striker position where there is a growing clamour for Koeman to throw a younger player into the mix should — God forbid — Romelu Lukaku be out injured for any significant length of time because none of Arouna Kone, Enner Valencia or Oumar Niasse look remotely capable of deputising for him. Callum Dyson has been enjoying a hot streak for the Under-23s this season and Dominic Calvert-Lewin is attracting more and more admirers with his goalscoring exploits for England's Under-20s.

Whether Koeman turns to youth at any point remains to be seen. It is, of course, early days in the Dutchman's tenure but it's hard to escape the feeling at the moment that if he is indeed working on the basis of perhaps making another move in 2019, then most of what he does will be geared towards that time horizon. That his signings and targets were all around 27 years old didn't go unnoticed over the summer and it further cemented that idea of a three-year cycle in some supporters' minds.

Ultimately, Koeman will be judged on results and performances and his primary focus will be achieving that in a way that will most likely see him hit that goal and meet the expectation of having Everton consistently challenging for Europe over the next three seasons. That may or many not include blooding youth from the Academy but it's understandable to a large degree the hasn't turned to youth in these early weeks when getting the team back on an even keel was the priority.

At some point, another old adage of “if you're good enough you're old enough” could make some of the younger players hard to ignore. And the longer David Unsworth's U23s and then Kevin Sheedy's U18s below them keep performing and topping their respective leagues the more they will be knocking on the door of the first team and coming to Koeman's attention.

For now, it would appear as though he and Walsh will continue to scout experienced and established players to keep Everton competitive in what is this season a particularly challenging Premier League. The hope is, however, that as the younger players continue their development and grow in age and stature, they will start to get a look-in and have the opportunity to prove they're good enough to cut it in the top flight.

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