Koeman can kiss goodbye to top level jobs unless he fixes Everton woes
Something about Ronald Koeman has never sat right at Goodison Park. The Dutchman does not seem to understand the culture of Everton, a place where the "School of Science" self-image still lingers.
Koeman, in the style of many of his fellow countrymen, is confident. Some would say arrogant to the point of smugness. It can rub people up the wrong way. His move from Southampton to Merseyside in 2016 seemed like a stepping stone to better things. The message, never explicitly stated, was that his three-year contract was a vehicle to create other opportunities. The 54-year-old's ambitions stretch way beyond Everton.
If you bring Dutch swagger off the pitch, the team needs to reflect that in games -- but the Blues have not lived up to expectations under their manager, and the sceptics around Goodison are waiting for the Dutchman's influence to bear fruit. In his first season, they were willing to give him the grudging benefit of the doubt. After a summer spending spree of £140 million, the mood is hardening.
Koeman was one of the greatest defenders in the game's history. As a player he followed the Johan Cruyff route from Ajax to Barcelona (via PSV Eindhoven). There was always a suspicion he imagined Goodison was a staging post back to the Camp Nou. Evertonians could live with that. They needed to see signs of progression after Roberto Martinez's disappointing spell in charge.
Koeman's first season was just about passable. This time last year, Everton went on a run of just one win in 11 matches. The mutterings against Koeman were building until an unbeaten spell of nine Premier League matches after Christmas turned things around.
After the summer's rebuilding, much more was expected, but the team look worse now than in Koeman's first campaign. The summer arrivals deepened the squad and engendered optimism, but selling Romelu Lukaku to Manchester United left the side without a cutting edge. Lukaku was not admired by some fans -- they thought that his first touch was dubious and his work rate disappointing -- but hindsight is exposing that myth. The failure to replace the Belgian has left Everton toothless; Sandro Ramirez is still coming to terms with the English game, but even if he fulfils expectations, the Spaniard is no Lukaku.
There are problems elsewhere, too. Koeman has not addressed the team's lack of pace. Speed is not quite everything in the Premier League, but quickness and power can mask deficiencies in skill and technique. Everton are ponderous. They are slow at the back and lack explosiveness up front. They are pedestrian in the middle. They are largely comfortable in possession but pose little threat to opponents.
Koeman's team selection has given ammunition to his critics. The shape of the side has left observers bewildered. Against Apollon Limassol, Gylfi Sigurdsson, the club's record £45 million signing, started on the left, but he has been much more effective in a central role. The home team were too narrow -- a recurring problem this season -- even though there were three wingers on the bench. Everton's full-backs provided width last season, but Seamus Coleman is recovering from a broken leg and Leighton Baines, at 32, has been less mobile and more cautious during the first part of this campaign.
Often, players are deployed in positions that do not suit them. The use of Dominic Calvert-Lewin at wing-back is as desperate as it is confusing. Even so, the 20-year-old forward has been one of the few bright spots for the team so far.
It has been a tough start to the season. A 1-1 draw away to Manchester City produced some optimism but conceding nine goals without reply to Chelsea, Tottenham and Manchester United punctured the club's top-four aspirations. The 3-0 defeat to Atalanta in the Europa League was a wake-up call and now, drawing 2-2 against Apollon at home has set off alarm bells at Goodison.
Almost half way into his "project" on Merseyside, Koeman still does not seem to grasp the mood of the club. He is often clearly angry at the team's performance but his demeanour is still a little detached. Last season's revival after Christmas was sparked by the energy of Tom Davies and freeing up Ross Barkley to express his attacking instincts. Davies has fallen down the pecking order as Koeman has tried to accommodate newcomers Sigurdsson, Davy Klaassen and Wayne Rooney; Barkley is injured and running down his contract.
But the manager never really had faith in either homegrown player's ability. Davies was touted around on loan at the tail end of 2016 and Koeman's exasperation with Barkley was obvious.
It was never realistic to believe that Everton could crash the top four -- they are at least two years and countless millions in transfer fees away from contending at the top of the table -- yet they are underperforming. Their Europa League campaign could represent a shortcut to the Champions League but at the moment, it looks like they may not even reach the knockout stage.
Koeman needs to correct things quickly but he is running out of time. If he cannot, Everton will not be a stepping stone but a gravestone for his ambitions to manage one of Europe's top clubs.
Tony Evans has been a sports journalist for more than 20 years. He writes for ESPN FC on the Premier League. Twitter: @tonyevans92a.