Fifth in the league after one defeat, the second best defence in the Premier League and an improved squad morale. How is Ronald Koeman doing lovely things, and what has changed?
1) Off-field discipline
“The standards of the players were, for me, slightly slipping last season, on and off the pitch,” said Gareth Barry in August. “If standards are slipping off the pitch it can impact on your form on the pitch and the whole team was losing the level that is expected to compete at the top end of the Premier League.
“The manager doesn’t want to come across as some sort of headmaster but he has been quite keen to let anybody know if they go underneath the standards expected. Everything slipped last season, really: timekeeping, dress codes, training. The confidence and everything had gone and things were maybe going away from what was expected.”
Barry’s comments were backed up by Seamus Coleman: “I think you always get a reaction when a new manager comes in and just sets a few standards that should have happened in the previous campaign, by the players as well, just timekeeping and that, making sure people are in on time. They are little standards which should be the case, and it has just sharpened the place up all round.”
The word “standards” appears five times in those two quotes. Both Barry and Coleman, two of Everton’s longest-serving players, may have made the point of insisting that they were not having a pop at Roberto Martinez but the insinuation was clear: Everton had got sloppy.
Koeman has not stood for such nonsense. A disciple of the Johan Cruyff school of management, he expects players to give their all; how you train is how you play.
As the Guardian’s Andy Hunter reported last month, one of Koeman’s first acts was to make tweaks in the behaviour expected of players. The squad now eats breakfast together every morning, and are banned from using mobile phones and wearing headphones. The link with Guardiola’s banning of WiFi at Manchester City – also a Cruyff disciple who was mentored by Koeman at Barcelona – is obvious. Happiness can only be found if you can free yourself of all other distractions. The ludicrous thing is that it was ever any different.
Koeman could hardly have failed to ignite an improvement in Everton’s defence, having conceded 55 goals last season. Martinez oversaw Everton’s worst defensive league season since 2004.
The most miserable part of that shambolic record were the drops in concentration. Everton allowed 22 shots through individual errors last season and conceded ten goals as a result. Only two teams fared worse on the first statistic and three on the second. This season, Everton have allowed one shot and conceded no goals through error in their seven games. It’s a small sample size, but the difference is obvious.
Last season, Everton allowed 4.84 shots on target per league game, but Koeman has reduced that figure to 2.0 and only Tottenham have conceded fewer goals. It’s easier to avoid injury when you’re not the one holding the gun and shooting it into your own feet.
It’s a simple point, but noteworthy. Under Koeman, Everton have conceded the first goal of the game on three occasions, but have won two of those matches. That’s in sharp contrast to Martinez’s Everton, who fell behind in ten league matches between December and May and lost every single one of them.
This resilience is something that Koeman has carried over from his Southampton tenure. Only two clubs (West Ham and Tottenham) took more points after conceding the first goal of the game last season. By contrast, Everton conceded the first goal in 18 of their 38 games last season; they won only once.
The standout statistic is this: In seven games, Koeman’s Everton have conceded first and won. That’s as many times as in Martinez’s last 90 league games.
The criticism thrown at Martinez’s Everton is that they became a creation of his own image, a friend first and a boss second; probably a guy who dances at Jason Derulo concerts third. This is a manager who, during the middle of an awful defensive run, said: “My philosophy and my way of working is not to keep clean sheets, my philosophy is to win games.”
“It’s a very general assessment to say we don’t defend well,” Martinez continued. “If you look at our defensive record away from home this season and our record at home, it’s completely the opposite.” I’m sorry Bobby but that sounds like management speak, and I know how much you hate that.
Koeman is not averse to playing attractive, passing football, but crucially he is aware that balance is necessary for sustainable improvement. Everton are making 15.1% more tackles than last season, and are also committing more fouls. From the lowest-ranked team by fouls last season (8.3 per game), Everton are now up to 11.0, and ranked 11. And that’s not always a bad thing.
5) Stopping Lukaku getting so isolated
It was one of the biggest frustrations of last season for Everton fans. They possess an excellent striker in Romelu Lukaku and yet were struggling to support him in his task, instead regularly asking him to receive the ball, shield the ball and beat a man before a chance was fashioned.
Everton’s system did not help. The most regular trio behind the striker was Gerard Deulofeu (who stayed out wide), Ross Barkley (who was the closest to Lukaku but likes to drop deep) and Tom Cleverley (who is certainly no natural attacking midfielder). Lukaku’s isolation up front meant he too tended to drop deeper in search of the ball. That’s an awful lot easier to defend against.
The signing of Yannick Bolasie has changed all that. A graphic of Everton players’ average position this season show Bolasie extremely close to Lukaku, far closer than any player got last season. Bolasie was picked as a forward to support Lukaku against Crystal Palace, but even when selected on the wing has clearly been told to drift in and support the Belgian. No longer does 4-3-2-1 or 4-2-3-1 have to mean ‘lone’ striker.