As part of my quest to get the views of Evertonians on Everton’s season so far and their first impressions of Ronald Koeman, I recently spoke to Richard Buxton, a freelance football journalist, to get his thoughts.
Everton are currently 6th in the league, based on what you’ve seen so far this season, will we be above, below, or in the same position come May?
If things stay the same as they are in terms of personnel and performances, it’s more likely to be a place or two beneath that. A lot will hinge on the moves Ronald Koeman makes in the January transfer window, assuming he does aim to strengthen. With the right additions, you’d have to back Everton for sixth spot or even a shot at the final European places.
Which player(s) have impressed you most so far this campaign?
With the exception of Enner Valencia, who’s flitted between cameos, you could pinpoint virtually all of the players signed over the summer, however Idrissa Gueye earned a lot of the early-season plaudits and you can see why. Any reservations supporters had about bringing in a player from a side recently condemned to the Championship were blown away in the opening day draw with Spurs. His ability to read situations and take hold of them is his biggest asset in my opinion. When you consider that James McCarthy, another player plucked from a relegated side, cost £13 million then you have to say that over half that price for Gueye is, so far, an absolute bargain.
Although Everton paid far more for him than Gueye, Yannick Bolasie has also impressed. He started off well enough but is now finally off the mark with a first goal and linking up well with Romelu Lukaku, which has proved timely given the slumps in form of the other attacking options within the side. Admittedly he needs to contribute more goals per season than he did at Crystal Palace – something which Koeman has made crystal clear – but he and Lukaku have already contributed a combined four goals so it appear an increasing case of when rather than if he realises that.
Which player(s) have failed to impress you as yet?
As with the signings, you could pick out quite a few of this category but there appears to be little disagreement as to who the biggest underperformers have been to date. Ross Barkley’s been the greatest disappointment and you now find yourself questioning whether he will actually live up to the billed expectations of him. He’s clearly a very emotional footballer but neither an arm around the shoulder nor tough love have worked for him. It’s frustrating because he’s in danger of creeping towards the tokenism status that sees home-grown players restricted at other clubs. You wonder how much the end of Roberto Martinez’s reign – and especially the half-time reception at Wembley.- has affected him.
Gerard Deulofeu is another and i’d say he’s struggling to justify his starting place even more than Barkley at the moment. It’s hard to be too critical of Bryan Oviedo given his injury history and Everton’s lack of capable left-backs to deputise for Leighton Baines, but his performances in the latter’s absence have not been great.
What are your thoughts on Ronald Koeman and Everton’s style so far this season?
It sounds cliché but it really has been a world away after the dirge of the Martinez era. There’s a greater emphasis on substance and results than there is on what fans used to lament as ‘tippy tappy’ football. Chasing down the ball is the intention but not always the outcome, as we saw in the Palace game at the end of last month. Unfortunately the old habits of his predecessor rise to the surface from time to time. The expectancy is that £6 million a year will guarantee European qualification, and it should in the long run, but Koeman’s been dealt a far worse hand than his predecessor inherited. Granted it’s not quite in the same ballpark as the deadwood David Moyes had to sift when he took charge but it’s still a squad that lacks quality in depth.
From a media perspective, he’s similar to Moyes in that he’s straight-talking albeit without the occasional death stare when a question isn’t to his liking. That doesn’t mean he hasn’t had his moments in press conferences – the one after Burnley was probably one of the shortest in Everton’s recent managerial history – but after four years of manager’s who loved the sound of their own voice, on both sides of Stanley Park, his no-nonsense approach mirrors his philosophy.
Strengths and weaknesses of the current Everton team?
Having a team which does not trigger panic stations whenever the ball moves anywhere across the back four is an obvious upside. So, too, is having a more commanding goalkeeper than the one he replaced, although Maarten Stekelenburg won’t be planning to look back on that Burnley game in a hurry. Lukaku’s return to form, after failing to score between March and September, is also an obvious bonus, but the pitfalls again come down to the lack of alternative options. McCarthy’s facing another spell on the sidelines and deploying either Darron Gibson or Tom Cleverley in the event of Gueye or Gareth Barry also succumbing to injury or suspension would give any Evertonian a restless night. That dearth will also be felt when Gueye and Bolasie head off to the African Cup of Nations in January.
If anything, what would you change at the moment in terms of formation, players involved?
Formation-wise, the system is getting the best out of the team. Personnel remain the greater issue. Deulofeu and Kevin Mirallas aren’t excelling at the moment and now is probably the right time to draft in Aaron Lennon to offer something more in the wide areas. The Barkley issue is more difficult as there aren’t any outstanding candidates – it probably comes down to a straight swap with either Enner Valencia and Arouna Kone – again, a nightmare scenario but one which may need to be broached if Barkley’s form continues to fluctuate.
What areas do you think we need to strengthen in January if we dip into the market?
Koeman’s taken a very short-term view on signings if events of the summer are a reliable indicator, which suggests that his managerial ambitions may see him moving up to the next level of clubs in a few years’ time. But Everton have been guilty of looking too far ahead rather than focusing on the here and now. The goalkeeping situation is set to be on hold until the summer at least but Baines’ successor at left-back should be a priority. Cuco Martinez has put paid to any hopes of him joining with his performances for Southampton but Mason Holgate is more than a capable deputy for Seamus Coleman. A midfielder who can serve as an interim back-up to Barry and Gueye and, going forward, succeeding the former is imperative. The same applies to Lukaku with another inevitable ‘will he, won’t he’ saga on the horizon.
Overall assessment of the season so far?
Based on the start and current position, compared to how the previous campaign ended, you would have to say that the club is back on course in playing effectively and having results to show for it. Cynics will argue that it’s only a two-point improvement on the same stage as last season but the only teams who featured in both of Everton’s opening nine-game runs are Tottenham, Manchester City and West Brom. If you compare the results with the same corresponding fixtures last season (swapping Watford and Norwich with Middlesbrough and Burnley), it’s actually a mark-up of four points so, statistically at least, Koeman appears to be on the right track. Backing that up with something tangible will be the next challenge and you’d hope that he will set about with that after his success at Southampton.