Ronald Koeman's demise at Everton down to a squad that just didn't click
Ronald Koeman knew that the end was coming. He's no fool. He has been in football long enough to know how these things work. Asked to highlight any positives from Everton's humiliating 5-2 defeat at home to Arsenal, he shook his head dismissively. "Don't talk about positives," he said. "Because the final result is 5-2. Defeat at home." He paused and stared hard at the gathered press pack. "Write what you like to write tomorrow," he sighed.
He knew it was over. The press knew it. The Arsenal fans who had sung "you're getting sacked in the morning" knew it, and the Everton fans have known it for some time. Emboldened by the heaviest summer of spending ever seen at the club, there were high hopes in July of pushing for a European spot, perhaps even a Champions League place. Hopes of overtaking their neighbours Liverpool, at the very least. But it was obvious as soon as the campaign began that something was amiss.
Everton won their Europa League ties against Ruzomberok and Hajduk Split but did not impress at all. They were slow and disjointed. They flitted between a back four and a back three. Players were shuffled around the park in the hope that a perfect combination would present itself. Those early performances were easily shrugged off; it was still the summer, no one is ever sharp in the summer. But in those performances lay all the clues of what was to come. Koeman never did find that perfect combination.
As late as Aug. 27, after a one-sided defeat at Stamford Bridge, it was still possible to be optimistic. After all, Everton had beaten Stoke on the opening day of the season with a fine Wayne Rooney header. They had held Manchester City, and remain the only team to have done so this season, but the Stoke game was a grim attritional affair, and City played the second half with only 10 men. Then Tottenham delivered a heavy thrashing at Goodison Park, and nobody could pretend anymore. It wasn't working.
The situation grew desperate with alarming swiftness. Oumar Niasse, ostracised by Koeman on arrival, was hurled back into action, and his surprising brace secured the manager's final victory at the club, a 2-1 fightback against Bournemouth that came exactly one month before his dismissal. It proved to be no turning point. Burnley came to Goodison Park and won, demonstrating the admirable combination of tireless work and deft skill that used to be Everton's style in better days. Brighton very nearly triumphed over Everton two weeks later. Hopes for a triumphant Europa League campaign crashed and burned against Lyon, and then Arsenal arrived to end the misery.
In the last days of Koeman's reign, well-sourced stories began to appear citing his unpopularity at the club. He was described as being too tough with the players, too arrogant and distant. These were the very qualities that were welcomed and lauded when Koeman arrived to replace the warm, approachable Roberto Martinez. How often it proves to be the case in football that the attributes that deliver the manager the job are the failings that eventually cost him it.
But Koeman wasn't sacked because of his personality. He was sacked because someone had to pay the price for a transfer window that started so well and ended so poorly. Everton upgraded their goalkeeper by bringing in Jordan Pickford. They added defender Michael Keane and highly rated midfielder Davy Klaassen. It was the spine of a top-eight team and while everyone expected Romelu Lukaku to leave, they also expected him to be replaced at great expense. But it never happened.
If Rooney was ever considered an adequate replacement for Lukaku, it was a mistake. He has impressed at times during his second spell at Everton but not in the way he used to. He fights hard in the middle of the park, dropping back to help his teammates. He cajoles and enthuses his team, urging them on and directing their efforts, but he is no longer a world-class striker. Sandro, fleet-footed and eager, is not that man either. Everton needed to spend big to fill that hole up front. Instead they spent big to buy yet another attacking midfielder.
The problem with the signing of Gylfi Sigurdsson was not that he is not worth £45 million; it was that £45m could have been invested almost anywhere else on the pitch to better effect, but especially up front. Everton have Rooney in attacking midfield. They have Klaassen. They have Ross Barkley waiting in the treatment room. They have Kieran Dowell out on loan impressing at Nottingham Forest. They didn't need Sigurdsson. His presence only obligated Koeman to play too many natural No. 10s and therefore robbing the team of pace and balance. He couldn't find the perfect combination of players because it just wasn't there. And for that, everyone at the club connected with recruitment, especially the much lauded Steve Walsh, should be answering some awkward questions.
That should be the real concern for Everton now. Because while Sean Dyche, whose Burnley side so impressed at Goodison Park earlier this month, would seem an ideal replacement, this is not a Dyche-style squad full of grafters. And while David Moyes might be the choice of those who yearn for the security of yesteryear, he has never been comfortable with this many luxury players. There is no easy answer here. Someone will have to come in and rebuild this team all over again.
Iain Macintosh covers the Premier League and Champions League for ESPN FC. Follow him on Twitter @IainMacintosh.