Everton: What has changed under Koeman?
By the end of his tenure, Everton were playing such miserable football that sacking Roberto Martinez became the merciful, as well as the necessary, thing to do. A fine manager in many ways, particularly with regard to youth development, his failure to compromise his beliefs and find a balance between attack and defence lost him the dressing room first and his job soon afterwards. Such was the disparity between the talent on the teamsheet and the performances on the pitch, few doubted that his replacement Ronald Koeman would improve results. But no-one expected them to improve quite this much.
For three whole minutes, Middlesbrough led Everton at Goodison Park through a contentious goal, the result of Alvaro Negredo smashing into Martin Stekelenburg and forcing him to drop the ball into his own net. But Everton hit back with a contentious goal of their own and never looked back. Middlesborough didn’t have a shot on target. Koeman’s side were aggressive, ambitious and well worth their victory. They are a team reborn.
Koeman had started the season with a back three, drawing with Spurs, before switching to a 4-2-3-1 during the following game against West Bromwich Albion. Like Martinez, he’s quite prepared to make wholesale changes to shape, as he frequently demonstrated at Southampton. Unlike Martinez, he is also comfortable with changing the style. There is no ‘right way’ for Everton to play now. If they need to go long, they go long. If they need to keep it short, they’ll pass amongst themselves. But most of all, if they haven’t got it, they’ll go and get it. With extreme prejudice.
This new Everton is evident just after the half hour when Lukaku, a shuffling, sad-faced shadow of a striker in the last days of Martinez, comes clattering back into his own half to win the ball. Then he turns and powers up the pitch, piling through Marten de Roon only to lose the ball to Jamie Forshaw.
But as Lukaku falls away, Idrissa Gueye appears to take up the battle, flying in and winning the ball back. Middlesbrough boss Aitor Karanka told the press afterwards that he felt his team were, “a little bit lost,” towards the end of the first half. Efforts to find themselves were clearly hampered by Everton’s combative style.
Everywhere across the team, there is urgency. Yannick Bolasie sets the tone early on by shoving Ben Gibson off the pitch and then shrugging as if he doesn’t know what he’s done when the referee approaches. He is magnificent, particularly in the first half. He links up nicely with Lukaku in the eighth minute, playing the ball back to Seamus Coleman and then running on so that when the right-back chips the ball up to the Belgian, he’s accelerating ahead of him for the knock down. Everton might even have taken the lead after quarter of an hour when he smartly turns Daniel Ayala inside out, but then overhits what might have been a wonderful through-ball to Lukaku. Bolasie was considered a bit of a gamble, given his varying performances at Crystal Palace, but if he keeps playing like this he’ll be adored.
It’s Lukaku again who runs backwards to play a smart pass into Seamus Coleman for his outstanding goal and then the Belgian just about gets a toe on Bolasie’s cross to put the game beyond Boro. He’s been rejuvenated under Koeman. And there’s never any sense that Everton are going to relinquish their lead in the second half. They may not be quite as expressive and cavalier as they were in the past, but Everton’s supporters are more than happy to see games shut down and points claimed.
Bournemouth are up next for the Toffees and, given that they’re conceding at the rate of nearly two a game since they arrived in the Premier League, you do fear for them. It’s too early to say that Everton are challengers, and all concerned would do well to remember how well Martinez did in his first season, but all the signs are encouraging.
Last week, Gareth Barry, imperious here, compared Koeman to a strict headmaster taking over a failing school. It’s a good comparison. Every player is playing as if they’re terrified of being singled out at the front of the class, as Ross Barkley when he was hauled off against Sunderland. But Barkley was far better here, far more disciplined on the ball. We await Everton’s end of term report with interest.