Casting my mind back to the summer, there was an overwhelming sense of optimism. After years of fallow transfer windows, we burst out of the blocks with gusto, with barely a day going by without a new signing coming in. It made everyone sit up and take notice and made all of us look forward to what the season would bring.
Of course, as we now know, that optimism has been shattered by the worst start to a season in over a decade. What’s more, the new signings that made us so excited a few months ago have all largely flattered to deceive, and with European football seemingly over and done with, the inevitable has happened and Koeman has been shown the door.
Whilst I wouldn’t put myself as a Koeman supporter, I was initially writing this post barely an hour before he was officially sacked, as I felt there are a number of factors that significantly hampered our progress this season that will also hamper whomever our new manager is.
A team of strangers
The summer was really something to behold. For almost as long as I can remember transfer windows would be full of naff rumours, gallows humour and the inevitable signing of a young eastern European goalkeeper on deadline day. This summer was different though, and different in a huge way. I believe we officially signed 25 players, which put us comfortably at the top of the signings league table. It’s not quite as prestigious as the 7th place trophy, but given our past is still something.
Of course, not all of those players were for the first team, and a good number were signed very much with the under 23’s in mind, but nonetheless, we made a significant overhaul of the first team squad. I’m nothing but an armchair critic, so have no idea how long it takes to integrate new signings into a team, but I can’t personally recall any team make such a comprehensive overhaul of their squad and have a strong season afterwards. The likes of Liverpool and Spurs, after the Suarez and Bale windfalls respectively, both struggled to integrate a host of new signings, and we’ve gone further than both. It isn’t clear quite how long we should realistically wait for the team to play like they know one another, but it wouldn’t surprise me if we don’t see the best of them until next season.
A glut of games
This was compounded by an incredibly heavy fixture list in our season to date. With Europa games plus the League Cup, we’ve barely had a single week without at least two games to play. This inevitably means that training sessions are devoted more towards recovering from the previous game than they are helping the squad know what to expect, both from their new team mates and the tactics Koeman wanted them to play. Throw in a couple of international breaks and it resulted in precious little productive time on the training pitch for the players to familiarise themselves with each other. Of course, it’s quite possible that by the time we appoint a new manager full-time we won’t have either Europa or League cups to worry about, but that seems scant consolation.
Fixtures from hell
Another factor that underpins performances on the pitch is confidence. Not only do you need to know the strengths and weakness of your colleagues, and the tactics of your coach, but have the confidence in both yourself and the aforementioned. This comes largely from success on the pitch, and the fixture computer gave us an incredibly challenging start with which to build such confidence. Indeed, with a run of heavy defeats, you could visibly see the confidence draining from the players.
A new manager could undoubtedly help by selecting a more consistent lineup, but confidence only really comes via wins, and we’re in something of a vicious cycle at the moment that will take some getting out of.
The cavalry not arriving
It seems peculiar to be bemoaning absentees given the huge outlay on new players, but we’ve nonetheless missed a number of players that would make a real difference to our squad. Arguably the biggest absence has been Seamus, who is arguably irreplaceable on the right flank. Koeman tried three different players, and even a change in formation, to try and fill a void that never really looked like being filled. Likewise Ross, whose stock has risen with each week out of a team that was crying out for the kind of ‘productivity’ that he’s provided regularly over the years. Even Bolasie and Funes Mori would both offer attractive options over the likes of DCL and Williams respectively.
Whilst all four of these are due to be fit before too long, it remains to be seen how long it will be before they’re 100% fit and back to their best. It’s no guarantee, therefore, that the new manager will benefit from their return to the squad for a little while yet.
I certainly wouldn’t want to be an apologist for a manager that never really built up the emotional backing of the fans during his short time at the club, but I feel the above would have challenged far better managers than Koeman, and it is probably not realistic to expect whomever our new manager ends up being to come in and instantly turn us around.