When Wayne Rooney stepped up to take a 90th minute penalty, his manager described it perfectly. “Taking penalties is not the most difficult job,” Ronald Koeman said after the game, “but at that moment, if your team needs points and you keep calm, then that is experience and that is world-class.”
The problem is, that’s about the only thing Koeman appears to have done perfectly this season. What’s more, his job isn’t to describe games but to create an environment for his players to win them. Instead, Wayne Rooney’s penalty wasn’t just pressurised by the fact that a point rested on his ability to find the back of the net, but it’s entirely possible that his manager’s job depended on it. It certainly may do very soon.
Looking back over the progress Everton made last season, since the arrival of Koeman and the departure of Roberto Martinez, it’s easy to forget that it the majority of the Toffees’ good form came after Christmas. In the three months between September 24th and Boxing Day, Koeman’s side won just two Premier League games. Between then and April 22nd they lost two.
Perhaps that explains their poor form at the start of the season as much as anything else. Last time, there was some good-will towards Koeman even when things weren’t going so well before Christmas, but new managers usually get a grace period to get their ideas across. It was after a summer of spending and bringing in no fewer than nine players that means Koeman is now under pressure. It is clearly now his side, and if results are bad there’s less of an excuse. Yet this season is following the Koeman blueprint.
But the second season is always a little different. If we were sympathetic enough to allow Koeman the chance to get to know his players better last season, will the same thing apply this year? So far, the answer is probably not. Local media are already writing about who is likely to replace him, and Koeman is starting to look in more and more trouble. After eight Premier League games, form has very much settled, and although Everton will surely get better and climb up the table, eight points from as many games is the kind of form that puts you in relegation trouble. That’s why the Toffees find themselves just two places above the drop zone. They have to turn it around soon.
A more immediate worry might well be their participation in European competition. And whilst it may well be a good thing to sacrifice European football after Christmas in favour of a lighter schedule and a better chance of finishing in a respectable position in the league, it would be a huge disappointment not to get out of a Europa League group where Ligue 1 side Lyon represented the toughest test.
The French side made it to the semi-final of the competition last season and are clearly no mugs, but – like Everton – they lost their best player and top goalscorer Alexandre Lacazette in the summer. Still, two go through, and you’d have expected the Premier League side to at least be able to overcome Cypriots Apollon Limassol and Atalanta, for whom this is their first European appearance since 1991. Elimination would surely mean humiliation.
Then again, perhaps it’s that sort of pressure that will help this team to discover exactly what they’re all about. So far this season, the biggest criticism of Everton has been their summer transfer business, and how the vast majority of the attackers in the squad are, essentially, number 10s of various stripes, with Dominic Calvert-Lewin and Oumar Niasse providing the most likely outlets for counter-attacks and runs behind defences.
That’s why they’ve looked unable to penetrate so far this season, and there doesn’t look to be too much of answer to that problem. But surely Koeman, having known that both Romelu Lukaku and Ross Barkley would either be leaving the club or playing little or no part this year, had a plan for that.
Surely this is just a period of transition between two styles of play, and not a team that’s been completely ruined by a transfer window which didn’t an address an issue as glaringly obvious as the sale of their top goalscorer. But at the moment, a toothless Everton, on course – if you extend their tally so far across the whole season – to reach only 38 Premier League points and bottom of their Europa League group, don’t look like a team with a plan.
But perhaps all it will take is a few good wins to remind them of what they’re really trying to do this year, and spark a run of form just like last season’s in the second half of the campaign. You get the feeling, though, that those wins will need to come soon or Koeman won’t get the chance to mastermind that resurrection.