23 October 2017
An ideal appointment on paper, Ronald Koeman's tenure as Everton boss has come to an ignominious but needed end
In the end, his Everton team scored just seven times in nine Premier League matches this season but there is a twisted irony that the last goal of Ronald Koemans doomed tenure at Goodison Park should be scored by Oumar Niasse. Almost inconceivably, the Senegalese striker, quickly written off by the Dutchman in pre-season last year, has outlasted the man who cut him from the first-team squad, transfer-listed him and then was forced to bring him back into the fold as the Blues desperate lack of striking options bit hard.
Goodison Park was half empty by the time Niasse rolled the ball into Petr Cechs empty net in stoppage time of Sundays 5-2 loss to Arsenal, many supporters having trudged through the exits having witnessed a third successive home defeat in all competitions and a result that put the club back in the relegation zone for the first time in 12 years.
Together with a distraught Bill Kenwright, Farhad Moshiri, Evertons major shareholder and off-the-pitch Talisman with the promise and apparent means of putting this great club back on the footballing map, remained to the last whistle. Long enough to see Koemans porous defence breached once more as Alexis Sanchez hammered the final nail into the managers metaphorical coffin. You sense they knew a decision had to be made and, unlike the Roberto Martinez debacle which many Evertonians bitterly regard as one that cost the club the 2016 FA Cup, it was made quickly.
On the face of it, Koemans rein at Goodison appeared to unravel in dramatically rapid fashion, the failings in his side that ultimately led to his downfall explained away by the man himself as a consequence of a pre-season disrupted by the Europa League and an unusually tough run of fixtures to start the 2017-18 Premier League season.
There was plenty under the surface of 2016-17s season of consolidation, modest improvement and seventh-place finish, however, to suggest that Koeman and Everton werent quite the good fit they seemed to be when he was hired to much fanfare by Moshiri on a massive £6m-a-year salary 16 months ago.
What would become a hallmark of his team this season — the lack of identity, consistency, set-up or plan — was a worrying theme of his first few months in charge at the club. He started life in the Goodison hot-seat with a five-game unbeaten run but once the “new broom” effect wore off, his Everton side toiled through an 11-match sequence in which, beginning with an awful 2-0 home defeat to lower-league Norwich City in the League Cup, they would record just one victory in all competitions.
A turning point seemed to have been reached with a stirring 2-1 home win over Arsenal in mid-December and despite stumbling in the Merseyside derby the following week, the Blues would go on to record six successive victories at Goodison, including that memorable 4-0 drubbing of Manchester City in January.
It was enough to put them within touching distance of fifth place heading into the final month of the campaign but it masked problems on the road that eventually bled into all their displays after that. A sequence to close out the season that yielded just one more victory reeked of a collective giving up or satisfaction with “our lot” rather than a push to at least grab sixth off Manchester United and avoid Europa League qualifiers in pre-season that Koeman used as an excuse for poor performances so much in his recent interviews.
Statistical red flags like the fact that no Everton player other than Romelu Lukaku scored more than five goals in 2016-17 lay under the surface while the advancing years of key players like Leighton Baines, Phil Jagielka, Ashley Williams and Gareth Barry pointed to some significant rebuilding work being required if Koeman was to be successful in what he described as his three-year “project”.
Still, a seventh-place finish represented progress on the 13th-placed berth that Everton occupied when Martinez was axed and with the prospect of significant investment in the team to come in the summer, there were high hopes among supporters that, with his feet now under the table and with director of football, Steve Walsh, also settled into his role, Koeman would be able to oversee a genuine tilt at the top four in 2017-18.
“Significant investment” ended up being an under-statement. By the time Everton kicked off their Europa League qualifier against MFK Ruzomberok at the end of July, the club had splashed out what could eventually total £85m in transfer fees.
In came Dutch international and Ajax captain, Davy Klaassen, for £24m, Jordan Pickford and Michael Keane for an expected total of £30m apiece and Sandro Ramirez for just £5.2m from Malaga in Spain. Exciting young Nigerian striker Henry Onyekuru arrived for £8m and was loaned out to Anderlecht while Wayne Rooney made his much anticipated return to Goodison from Manchester United for around £10m.
With a solid foundation of youth and a heavy dose of veteran experience, the feeling was that the Blues had the right blend with which to be serious contenders if they could just add some cover on the left side of defence, some pace and width to one of the flanks and sign a viable replacement for Lukaku who departed for United in July for what will in all likelihood be a club record £95m fee.
Crucially, while a protracted effort to prise Gylfi Sigurdsson away from Swansea for a massively inflated £45m churned on through August (how many cheaper players could have been bought to plug gaps instead with that money?), none of those positions were filled. The lack of a target man and goalscorer, the one player needed to justify the expense of the Icelandic set-piece specialist, has been held up as the biggest factor behind Evertons poor form and the main reason why pundits in the general media have, until very recently, argued that Koeman should have stayed but the Blues problems ran much, much deeper.
Indeed, the striker argument, while valid, was something of a red herring where Koemans failing tenure was concerned. There is no doubt that having a physical focal point up front would have helped Everton this season — after all, Dominic Calvert-Lewin has offered all of those traits at times this season when played in his natural role, which, lets face it, hasnt been often — but the teams frustrating inability to sustain a simple passing game, the lack of genuine wing play, over-lapping full-backs, balance or flair in the side meant that they just werent creating enough chances.
Players chopped, changed and played out of position did little to foster any consistency and there were plenty of fans pointing out that these were issues even while Lukaku was in the side, particularly away from home where Everton won just four times in 23 attempts under Koeman.
Even with the acknowledged caveat that it was still effectively pre-season, Koemans team was listless and uninspiring in those Europa League qualifiers against teams they should have been beating handsomely. Even when the rubber met the proverbial road with the kick-off to the Premier League season, Everton looked bereft of shape and incisiveness but they edged Stoke in the season opener and nearly pulled off an improbable victory at Manchester City.
By the time of his sacking, it was hard to look back at the 17 games over which he presided this term and recall a single performance that could have been regarded as good from start to finish. Embarrassed by Atalanta and Tottenham, buried by four goals at Manchester United and beaten at home by Burnley for the first time in half a century, Everton under Koeman looked rudderless.
Increasingly, the Blues problems spoke of a dearth of imagination at the coaching level and a lack of energy to change. That would still have been the case had Lukaku stayed. At best, a striking alternative to the Belgian would likely have Everton hovering in mid-table mediocrity. Having a player capable of holding the ball up and creating space for other players around him would undoubtedly have improved matters but theres very little to suggest from the performances that Koeman could have overseen a team capable consistently winning matches.
While the clamour for Koeman to be removed from his position as manager has grown with every poor result, there was still, until very recently, a holdout section of the fanbase who had sympathy for the Dutchman and had plenty of criticism for the board and the players.
Those arguments had some merit and in the case of the former, the opaque nature of the recruitment setup at Finch Farm doesnt help when it comes to accurately apportioning the blame for what was, in the final reckoning, deeply flawed summer transfer business by Everton.
Things dont appear to be as cut and dried as Walsh handling all transfer matters and Koeman simply getting on with the job of coaching the players. Indeed, the former Southampton boss was telling the press only this past week that he alone was responsible for selecting transfer targets. If true, he has suffered a just fate in losing his job, and not a moment too soon.
There does appear, however, to have been a shared responsibility when it comes to identifying new players, with some — young up-and-coming talent like Ademola Lookman, Sandro Rarimez, Michael Keane, Henry Onyekuru and Jordan Pickford — bearing the hallmarks of Walsh and others — Davy Klaassen (obvious for the Dutch connection; 2017s Jordie Clasie?), Gylfi Sigurdsson and Wayne Rooney — seeming to fit Koemans intended style of play a lot more. Others, like Idrissa Gueye would probably have ended up on both mens shortlists.
Wherever the responsibility lay, there is no question that too much attention was focused on certain parts of the team and not enough on others. Seven central midfielders on the clubs books at the end of 2016-17 were augmented by another three during the summer transfer window (Barry was released to offset one of those acquisitions) while adequate cover for Baines, injured trio Ramiro Funes Mori, Yannick Bolasie and Seamus Coleman and, once again, the outgoing Lukaku was neglected – criminally so – until Nikola Vlasic was brought in on deadline day to at least add some creativity, albeit raw and youthful.
In fact, when viewed at it in the cold light of day, as plenty of Evertonians have as this season has plumbed new depths, its hard to see how the management and recruitment teams felt they could muster a challenge for the Champions League places, particularly with the demands of European involvement putting extra strain on the side.
Koeman, with his detached view of a three-year project that he, no doubt, envisioned all coming together in 2017-18, might have thought that he could keep the team around the top six and, perhaps, improve marginally on seventh place this season but its hard to see how he could have engineered success in any of the cup competitions with such an unbalanced squad.
Meanwhile, Moshiri, having consolidated the clubs debt and secured a £60m credit facility with the Industrial and Commercial Bank of China, perhaps expected more progress but he could have stretched his patience if there were signs of further consolidation and a team coalescing into something genuinely exciting. Unfortunately, the reverse has occurred and the Iranian-born businessman was forced to act.
Wherever the buck stopped where it came to transfers — and it behooves Everton to provide some clarity on the structure of this part of the operation — Koeman was ultimately responsible for the squad over which he presided. If he wasnt insistent on certain glaring gaps being filled before the deadline then he should have been. But when the club appeared to give up after being turned down by Olivier Giroud in late August, there was nothing to suggest that a man not especially known for reticence was deeply unhappy with his lot. No doubt he was confident that in Rooney and Ramirez, with young Calvert-Lewin as support, he had sufficient options but he couldnt have been more wrong.
Everton Never Touched Him
While few Evertonians will genuinely be celebrating Koemans sacking, underlining as it does what was ultimately a failed appointment and a drastic fall from the dizzying heights of optimism of just three months ago, there wont be many shedding a tear either.
The unflappable Dutchman always carried an aloof air about him during his time with the Toffees and, unlike his predecessor, never seemed to truly grasp the soul of the club. Alan Ball opined that youre never the same after Everton has got under your skin but the Blues didnt ever seem to penetrate Koemans aloof exterior.
Having seen how little Martinezs more passionate but softer managerial style had translated into tangible progress, though, many supporters were only too happy to see a manager with an icier, more business-like demeanour come in and make the tough decisions to which the Catalan seemed more averse.
Instant decisions over the likes of Niasse were cheered even if the manner of his ostracisation left a sour taste in the mouth and there was support for the manager when, having tried, tested and ultimately dismissed them as unsuitable for what he was trying to build, players like Gerard Deulofeu were sold on.
That kind of approach was something that many felt was long overdue at Goodison but it quickly becomes unpopular if it has overly negative effects on morale. Rumours of discontent at Finch Farm among first-team players emerged during that rough spell between September and December during Koemans only full season in charge of Everton.
Reports of the Dutchmans arrogance and penchant for disappearing from the training ground at four oclock jarred with the more attentive habits of Martinez. His apparent falling out with two players who could, with the right man-management, have been key players for him in the form of Kevin Mirallas and Ross Barkley only caused more problems; echoes of his collapsed relationship with Dusan Tadic at Southampton. More murmurings concerning Lookmans low morale only fuelled speculation that Koeman was struggling with the more emotional members of his squad.
Indeed, the actions of Barkley in recent weeks that were seen as so uncharacteristic may well come to be seen as the salient bell-weather of a doomed tenure if his relationship with Koeman was the primary driver behind his decision not to sign a new contract.
As long as the results were good, however, these complaints would largely have fallen on deaf ears. When they werent, it was easy to see a lack of faith in the managers methods and a concurrent collapse in confidence manifesting in the teams on-field displays.
The appointment of Ronald Koeman as Everton manager was seen at the time as a powerful statement of intent and ambition by the new Farhad Moshiri-led regime. Touted as a possible successor to Arsene Wenger at Arsenal or even a future boss at his old club, Barcelona, the Dutch legend was regarded by many as a coup for the Toffees.
Here was a man who had followed up a glittering playing career by winning three league titles in his home country, leading Valencia to the Copa del Rey and guiding Southampton to back-to-back qualification for the Europa League. An enticing mix of Hollands Total Football ethos, Continental experience and demonstrable ability to coach in the English Premier League, Koeman was, on paper, the ideal candidate.
The club invested serious money in prising him away from the south coast, installing him on a three-year deal, the biggest in its history and then backing him with around £200m worth of new players since. Ultimately, however, his time at Goodison was more evocative of his awful and abortive spell at La Mestalla than the steady progress he made at the St Marys.
Its with that in mind that Moshiri and his team must set about trying to find a suitable replacement for Koeman and, as this recent experience shows, its far from easy to get it right. The first order of business is getting the teams form back on an even keel, stabilising the side, getting back to basics and instilling a measure of consistency and balance.
The next phase will, obviously, involve the new man partnering with Steve Walsh to plug some of the gaping holes in the squad. The realities of the January transfer window might necessitate much of that rebuilding being put off until the summer but you would imagine that a striker would be the top and unmissable priority when the next window opens.
Since the days of Howard Kendall (mk I and II) and Colin Harveys tenures, Everton have tried a wide variety of approaches when it comes to head coaches, with varying degrees of relative success — the up-and-comers in the form of Mike Walker and David Moyes, the true Blues like Kendall (mk III) and Joe Royle, the tried and tested like Walter Smith, and Continental/English fusions like Martinez and Koeman.
The shortlist of replacements for the Dutchman will, of course, contain names that answer to those descriptions and a good many more that, like all of the managers currently presiding over the current top six as well as Liverpool, are a good deal more foreign in terms of their heritage, pedigree and managerial style.
Moshiri is nothing if not ambitious and if he is not so chastened by his experience with Koeman, he will likely aim high once more. Who exactly would fit the bill and whether they are the man to take Everton forward under this developing new regime remains to be seen… and often, you wont know the answer until long after he has been appointed. Such is the dice-roll of choosing managers in the modern-day Premier League. Koeman was the perfect man on paper; reality proved to be quite different.
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