If Ronald Koeman makes his expected move north to Everton, eight of the ten clubs that finished between fourth and 13th in the Premier League last season will begin this summer transfer window with a different manager than 12 months ago. Of the five under-achieving clubs who ended the season unhappy with their league position, Koeman is taking over the team with the most enviable resources and the least pressure. Everton are the Premier League’s ultimate blank canvas in a league of new managerial starts; it’s little wonder that the Dutchman was tempted by a move five places down the table.
Pep Guardiola and Jose Mourinho will be given more money but significantly higher expectations, Jurgen Klopp will need to deliver more than failure in cup finals and Antonio Conte – without the distraction of European football – will see the top four as a minimum requirement for Chelsea. And then there is Koeman at Everton, who will reportedly be given £100m to buy half a new team and then deliver what should actually be par for the club: A top-eight finish and a modicum of entertainment.
Koeman has quietly worked small miracles at Southampton. As I have written elsewhere, ‘it seems absurd that Southampton could in two seasons sell – deep breath – Rickie Lambert, Dejan Lovren, Adam Lallana, Luke Shaw, Callum Chambers, Nathaniel Clyne and Schneiderlin – and not just survive, but thrive’. Each time it seems like Southampton have looked up at a glass ceiling and got dizzy, they have taken a small hammer and made a crack just wide enough to squeeze through.
There will always be those who question the logic of Koeman joining a club further down the table (presumably the same people who scoff at Jamie Vardy potentially leaving the champions for Arsenal), but the combination of a bigger transfer budget, a larger fanbase, the promise of a new stadium and a squad already containing three young footballers valued at more than £40m would tempt all but a handful of Premier League managers. In this job, Koeman will need no hammer because the ceiling is far, far above where Everton are sitting uncomfortably close to Swansea and Watford.
Everton could sell one or perhaps even two of their crown jewels – it looks increasingly like Ross Barkley will be the man left behind – and Koeman would still have the money to create a team to compete with Stoke, West Ham and Southampton rather than trail in their wake like a sulking child. He could build a side with a view to a weak top-four challenge in three seasons’ time and become a hero at a club desperate for a manager to deliver more than ‘phenomenal’ words.
For all the plaudits piled on Barkley, John Stones and Romelu Lukaku, Everton’s fans are so disillusioned that the last two players anointed Player of the Year were Phil Jagielka and Gareth Barry, now 33 and 35. The message is clear: All that glitters is not gold. They have heard enough bulls**t and watched enough predictable football that steady, quiet progress will be welcomed and appreciated. Evertonians will not expect to win a trophy in the next two seasons but they do expect not to be laughed at or ignored.
Everton could conceivably start the season with not just a new manager but six or seven new first-team players, which will be a relief to all those who watched Arouna Kone start 16 Premier League games last season. Even their 18-goal striker and the next Rio Ferdinand leaving the club will not prick the balloons of those celebrating the exit of a naked Spanish emperor and the injection of real money unlikely to be spent on a £13.5m striker from Russia who barely looks like a footballer.
Nil satis nisi optimum? Right now, most Everton fans will settle for better rather than best. Those reduced expectations, coupled with significant resources, make this a very attractive proposition for an ambitious manager ready to put down his hammer, pick up a paintbrush and start making marks on that vast blank canvas.