Ronald Koeman has Everton on the right path despite EFL Cup exit
Tuesday's exit from the EFL Cup at the hands of Championship side Norwich City was a disappointment for Everton. Since replacing Roberto Martinez in June, Ronald Koeman had delivered an almost instantaneous improvement at Goodison Park.
Until that 2-0 loss, Everton had exhibited a freshly competitive edge. They are unbeaten in the Premier League, in which they sit second after five matches with 13 points from five games. But, more importantly, had seemed a world away from the soft underbelly that became ever more exposed during Martinez's three-season regime.
Even while tasting defeat for the first time at the club, Koeman appeared anathema to the Spaniard. "We must recover and react now," he said after the game. "We don't organise parties when we win a game at this club and we don't cry when we lose."
Koeman had made six changes from the team that beat Middlesbrough 3-1 on Saturday, but that was no excuse for defeat given that Norwich's Alex Neil made 10 himself. None of those brought in by Koeman did much to aid their candidacy for a Premier League place, which may aid his thinking for Sunday's trip to Bournemouth and Crystal Palace's visit to Goodison next Friday.
"Their second [goal] was really bad defending by four or five of our players," Koeman said, bad news perhaps for Mason Holgate and Ramiro Funes Mori, though regular starters Ashley Williams and Seamus Coleman were also part of the back four.
Tom Cleverley was once labelled "one of the most sensational you are going to see in Premier League history" by Martinez, a pronouncement he has never been close to matching, and he struggled in midfield against Norwich, as did Aaron Lennon on the wing. That pair were brought to the club with the Spaniard looking to salvage careers that had gone awry at Manchester United and Tottenham respectively.
Koeman, far more ruthless, is unlikely to award them too many more chances should they perform like they did on Tuesday.
Hard-won tough love, rather than indulgence, is now the order of the day, with Koeman's substituting of England midfielder Ross Barkley at half-time during the 3-0 win at Sunderland last Monday a prime example. Credit is only offered when it is deserved.
"The reaction I got from him today was very good and that's the Barkley I expect," Koeman said after the player's fine performance at Middlesbrough. After again failing to deliver against Norwich, Barkley should be no under no illusions about his right to a starting place.
Koeman has few loyalties to his new charges, and significant changes can be expected, even if a summer overhaul did not happen. Wales captain Williams ended up being the highest profile recruit during a transfer window in which new club owner Farhad Moshiri's funds did not bring in the star names that many Evertonians might have craved.
Striker Enner Valencia's loan from West Ham was the sole deadline-day arrival, as Newcastle midfielder Moussa Sissoko joined Tottenham when Everton had a medical booked, with director of football Steve Walsh, barely bedded in after arriving from Leicester in July, struggling to land targets.
Forward Yannick Bolasie, signed for £20m from Crystal Palace, is yet to take flight in the manner he often did in south London, though defensive midfielder Idrissa Gueye, rescued from Aston Villa after their relegation for a fee of £7.1m, has swiftly become a fans' favourite.
"He was one of the players last season with the best record in interceptions and pressing in the midfield," Koeman said on Gueye's signing, and those facets have visibly improved an Everton spine that was far too brittle under Martinez.
On Tuesday, Valencia failed to repeat a rested Romelu Lukaku's recent goal scoring potency but it looks as if he will have to settle for life as an understudy.
The Belgian had scored a hat trick at Sunderland and notched against Middlesbrough -- his first goals in an Everton shirt since March when his form dried up while Martinez's regime went into its terminal tailspin -- and seems revitalised after a stressful summer.
Lukaku's failure to secure a move away from the club in the transfer window saw John Stones cashed in to Manchester City for £47.5 million instead, as Koeman reconfigured the defence with the addition of Williams from Swansea.
Where Stones could be overly improvisational in an Everton shirt, Williams, at 32, is a highly experienced pro, fulfilling a similar no-nonsense function to that served by Jose Fonte at Southampton for Koeman.
Despite being one of the world's great ball-playing defenders with Barcelona and the Dutch national team during his career, Koeman has always favoured his defenders being stoppers first and foremost.
Goalkeeper Tim Howard was also replaced by Maarten Stekelenburg to complete a fairly low-key set of additions though each recruit offers a level of solidity beyond Martinez's team, which could dazzle on its day yet failed to make enough of the rich talent within the ranks.
Everton eventually came to be personified by an inherent flakiness but, despite Tuesday's reverse, Koeman's orderliness and realism now look to be changing Everton for the better.
John Brewin is a staff writer for ESPN FC. Follow him on Twitter @JohnBrewinESPN.