I have never taken any pleasure in seeing the last days of an Everton manager. It will always seem a gruesome sight, seeing a man who has done his utmost to make your club successfully flailing in a punch drunk manner from game to game, unable to make any noticeable difference to the team performances or results. Ultimately these are men who are exceptionally well paid and I can well understand why sympathy is at a minimum though if you take the salaries out of it and view them as people I take little enjoyment from the spectacle.
The immediate question that should be answered is where did it all go wrong for him? It would seem bewildering after beating Pep Guardiola’s Manchester City side under 10 months ago 4-0 that Koeman would be out of a job and Everton would be in the relegation zone. At halftime away at the Etihad this season, winning against 10 men to go top of the league it would have also seemed unthinkable things would unravel to the extent they have within two months. It should illustrate to us that football is a fickle sport, prone to dramatic shifts with the men at the centre of it (it’s managers) in no small part beholden in no small part to good fortune in order to be successful. If you are only ever 2 months away from the sack, what chance does any manager have?
There are some (albeit a minority) who hold the view Koeman was unfairly removed from his post. It’s a view that has been well articulated from local journalist Tony Scott who has pointed out the seemingly knee-jerk reaction to a poor run of results. I have sympathy with the view and I also have great sympathy with a competing view that supporters don’t massively help the situation by allowing ourselves to be whipped into a frenzy any time a string of bad results come together. Is it not madness to ditch a manager who had led us to a previously good finish of 7th place on the back of two months of underwhelming performance and have the calls for his head detrimentally affected his ability to lead a recovery from this position? The reality
One area I do feel sorry for Koeman for is I think finishing 7th will be underestimated as an achievement. While the history books will show he moved a team from 11th to 7th (which looks a moderate increase) there is more of a context to it than that. Had it not been for a late-season falling away Everton could have finished in the top 6. Likewise even with the poorer results in the last half dozen games there remained clear water between Everton and the sides below them. In truth while we weren’t bottom of the top 7 we were also not best of the rest, but rather sat on an island on our own, 13 points ahead of our nearest challengers, who were closer to the relegation places than to catching us. To have climbed so far ahead of champion Leicester (albeit with an underwhelming defence) and clubs like Southampton and West Ham who had finished well ahead of Everton the season before was itself a sign of progress.
Likewise the team he inherited from Martinez was ladened with potential but also strewn with difficulties. The raw numbers showed Everton finished with 47 points though this is bookended with a positive start to the season and caretaker manager pulling off a victory that seemed unlikely before we moved manager Martinez on. Martinez’s final 18 league games gave us just 18 points, while his last 29 we took just 31 points. Had we replayed the final 9 games we would have faced home fixtures against Manchester City, Chelsea and Liverpool with away fixtures at Southampton and Spurs fixtures if played again we would have likely lost you can see the mess the team was in when Koeman took over. It had been boosted by a positive start against the better teams but for the majority of the season had displayed form more akin to a side in and around the relegation places. Fitness as well as confidence was nowhere near where it needed to be, and Koeman’s achievement in taking Everton to 7th from where it had been left the previous summer shouldn’t be underestimated.
When you begin to see crucial turning points though, the Manchester City home fixture seems a useful reference point. To my memory it was the last time I remember us playing well in a game. It seemed to sum up what a “Koeman team” looked like, in that we played with an intensity, quality but also a ruthlessness at both ends of the pitch that led to us getting a result that was better than the performance had been. Having come through a difficult autumn where we experienced the sort of run we were now on it felt the corner had been turned and we would kick on. We had seen a batch of younger player (re) introduced to the side (Davies, Calvert Lewin & Holgate) while signings Schneiderlin and Lookman both looked good acquisitions to help maintain this momentum.
After this game we ended up collecting 28 points from 16 games or if this seasons results are taken into account 36 points from 25 games. You could make an argument that last season the 28 points showed how we kicked on but it’s difficult to think of any games we really played well after Manchester City. Underwhelming displays at the Emirates, White Hart Lane and Anfield put paid to any hopes of moving up the league beyond 7th and the former two games came at crucial moments where a big win could have moved us within touching distance of the sides above us. Had we won the derby we’d have been within a point of Liverpool and had we beaten Spurs we would have gone above them, albeit having played 2 games more. It may seem an unusual game to pinpoint but we have been used to seeing Moyes’s Everton teams using a particular game as a turning point in a season and once into that groove fully utilizing that momentum for the entirety of the season. Everything was perfect against Manchester City and there was a concern for me that while we had displayed we could beat anybody if we performed in that way we were again back to being outplayed in the weeks that followed.
Much like Moyes who’s problem could be summed up by failing to connect the momentum built up at the end of a previous season into the start of a new one. This has undoubtedly been the case for Koeman although he has a legitimate excuse that he has had to bed a lot of new players in, which is never easy. As a rule, I am in favour of giving managers time through difficult periods as the cycle of changing managers every 2 or 3 years rarely ends well, particularly for a club like Everton where limited resources have to be targeted towards the playing staff.
With that in mind, a big part of why he had to go, particularly after the Arsenal game for me is not just about the loss of form but more that he was never really the right fit and it was difficult to imagine a longer term renaissance coming to Koeman. He himself had made it explicitly clear he wanted only a 3 year deal and that he didn’t intend staying much beyond that period. He had similar at Southampton, and understandably as he got to the end of his second year his tenure was ridden with speculation of him leaving. This was the best case scenario for Everton, that he would turn it around and we would be left with a manager unwilling to date to extend his stay beyond 18 months further. In all likelihood we would be looking to have to offer him a new contract over the coming months, to a manager who is not performing particularly well and has long term ambition to be at the club. Koeman’s own personality, and arguably arrogance had boxed him into a corner where it made increasingly less sense to “play the long game” with a manager who was promised to make shorter success.
Much now will be made of Koeman not getting Everton, his arrogance and aspects of his personality that are unpleasant. They say history is written by the winners and we should be cautious in writing off such attributes, as what is arrogance and aloofness today was ambition, ruthlessness and a desire to maintain standards 6 months ago. I have no real difficulty with Koeman’s approach or not seeing himself as part of the Everton fabric, that level of ambition of coldness is needed at all levels of the club, but you have to deliver on that approach or it very quickly wears thin amongst supporters and players. There was always a feeling Moyes and Martinez appreciated the club more than him and at difficult moments both were given more time in the eyes of supporters because of this. Not only this, but Koeman’s own confidence/arrogance in signing a 3 year deal always meant the 2nd year would be the most critical of his project. It was the year real progress would need to be demonstrated and a commitment from both sides would need to be made. In allowing himself an easy get out due to the length of the contract he also made himself susceptible to dismissal.
While there was little doubt the possibility of him turning it around existed you were also left wondering to what ends would that be? With previous managers Moyes and Martinez you felt had they had turned it around the club would have benefited from their longer term management, whereas with Koeman he would be given time to likely move on and benefit the next team he went too. The question then became, who would be more likely to get Everton our of their current rut, and for all concerned the appointment of Unsworth as Caretaker seems a reasonable one as the players look in dire need of some fresh ideas.
A final point worth noting in this piece is the timing of this incident. It is very difficult to make any concrete statements regarding the regime of Farhad Moshiri as there seems to be very little said from the club to indicate what is happening. Perhaps some of the speculation (including from myself) has been overly optimistic, and of late may well have been overly pessimistic on insisting nothing has changed. The club before Moshiri would not have sacked Koeman at this point. It gives us some indication of the ambition and ruthlessness of Moshiri to have made the decision and there is little doubt we will get an awful lot more information about the ambition of the project by the next appointment.