Analyzing a club is all about direction. Nothing is stagnant in the world of football, and every team is either moving forward or moving backward.
There are multiple ways that the direction of a club can be tested. One is about money, and Everton is without question spending and earning money in ways never before attained by the club. Another is about vision, can you see where the squad is headed in terms of its shape, its idea, its philosophy.
That’s where Ronald Koeman is currently making his greatest contribution to the direction of the Toffees by building a team that stylistically fits a very specific vision he has about the game.
Let’s think for a moment about 2014/2015 Southampton. They had Morgan Schneiderlin, who completed 73% of his attempted tackles and 89% of his passes, including 72% of his long balls. Partnered with him they had Victor Wanyama putting up similar defensive stats but without the involvement in the passing game. Saints also had Toby Alderweireld only getting dribbled past 0.7 times per 90, Graziano Pelle scoring almost all his goals from inside the penalty area, and Sadio Mane as a powerful athlete crashing in from the wing to join him.
Now, let’s pause briefly and thank heaven that we aren’t Southampton, because none of those guys play there anymore and all but one of them would certainly still start rather easily.
We can think, too, about Koeman's 2013/2014 Feyenoord. Graziano Pelle was again eating up the penalty area, while Jordy Clasie and Tonny Vilhena were the midfield duo (Clasie was the long ball specialist, completing 73% of them - 4.1 per 90, whereas Vilhena was more focused on defending than passing). De Vrij was only getting dribbled past 0.6 times per 90, and Lex Immers was that second forward.
I bring these comparisons up because one of the great things about Ronald Koeman is that he is a man with a clear idea about football that he truly believes in.
He’s not the simple, pragmatic, “anything for a result” kind of guy that some managers are - he thinks the game should be played a certain way and he’ll do what he can to build his team to play in that style.
It is a character trait he inherited from Johann Cruyff, his countryman and coach at FC Barcelona. We can see his philosophy taking shape yet again at Everton. Schneiderlin revisits his role as the midfielder who is both a strong defender and insightful passer, Idrissa Gueye is the no nonsense defensive mid for whom the passing game is of secondary concern, and new man Michael Keane is the ball playing, reliable center back (dribbled past only 0.3 times per 90!).
Sandro is actually the interesting character in the new signings, because while he is thought of as a CF like Pelle, he actually plays more like Koeman’s wingers. Sandro launches from deep often, something Pelle never did as Koeman’s striker. Some of this is due to the areas he received the ball in at Malaga. Improved service at Everton should see him closer to the goal more often and his shot selection will probably mirror Mane’s from the latter’s time with the Saints. Sandro will sub in as a CF but get a lot of his starts out wide.
In his last years at both Feyenoord and Southampton, Koeman had three 10+ goalscorers in the league, and the assists were well distributed, too. The singular dependence on one goal scorer seen in his first season at Goodison flies directly in the face of what the Dutchman wants to implement. In that regard the loss of Lukaku, while certainly a blow, can actually be considered a step in the direction of a balanced multi-faceted attack like the one Koeman has deployed throughout his career. This mindset was alluded to by Koeman himself just recently, where he talked about having multiple solid scorers being better than having one 25 goal man.
Knowing this, we can begin to anticipate what sort of moves the Dutchman will want in the future. Signing a poaching striker like Edin Dzeko would fit perfectly with his tactical nous, and may result in Sandro spending more time on the wing in the ‘Mane’ role. Or, if Koeman does seek that extra wing, it is likely that it will be someone that is more of a finisher than a creator, which may partly explain why Deulofeu never quite fit in his plans. It should be noted that nearly all of Yannick Bolasie’s goals since 2013/2014 came inside the penalty box, enlightening some of the thinking there as well.
There have been many teams over the last ten to fifteen years who have seen their fortunes change via a rich owner, but few have done so with as coherent a purpose and philosophy as what is being built at Everton, and that is reason for optimism not just for next season but for years to come. Ronald Koeman is making Everton in his image, and there is a lot of reason to be optimistic about that. He has been fairly successful in the past with fewer resources playing the same model, and the brand of football is attractive and balanced. I am glad we have Koeman on our side, and I look forward to Everton being the best version of this team vision yet.