Finch Farm, Thursday morning, and Everton players are putting another intense training session behind them with a game of head tennis. The mood is as lighthearted as the contest until Ronald Koeman interrupts. “One team was losing quite heavily and he wanted to know why,” Gareth Barry discloses. “He doesn’t want anyone losing their focus and with good reason. One team shouldn’t be getting beat so heavily at anything within the club, whether it’s head tennis, five-a-side or on a Saturday.”
Head tennis might not be as much fun as it used to be but Koeman has found a receptive audience since replacing Roberto Martínez in June. Five games into his tenure and the focus on not getting beaten – marginally or heavily – holds firm. Everton are unbeaten in the Premier League before Middlesbrough’s visit on Saturday, in the top four of the table following the Jekyll and Hyde performance at Sunderland on Monday and have delivered their best start to a season for a decade. As Thursday’s intervention at Finch Farm indicates, attitude and discipline are as much a part of the improvement as defensive organization and the summer’s transfer business.
Managerial appointments are often a stark contrast to what has gone before and Everton’s decision to lure the man who took Southampton into Europe is no exception. One of Koeman’s first acts upon signing a £6m-per-annum, three-year contract was to bring forward the start of pre-season training. The pre-arranged break was too long, he believed. Players were told to report to Finch Farm at 9am each day to eat breakfast together. No mobile phones are allowed at mealtimes. Baseball caps and headphones are also banned when travelling to matches. Training has a sharpness that has been reflected in Everton’s play in the final third and when out of possession.
“I still believe in ‘how you train, how you play’,” says the former member of Barcelona’s Dream Team under Johan Cruyff. Koeman adopts the straight bat of “I wasn’t here, I can’t compare” when asked what has altered since Martínez’s three-year reign disintegrated last season, although he says enough to suggest he found the previous regime too lax. “First of all, we needed to improve the intensity in training. It’s higher than it was,” he says.
“We also put attention on set-plays because they conceded too many goals from set-plays last season. I believe when you build a house you start down, not at the top, and there is more responsibility now on the strikers to support the defenders.
As Ross Barkley discovered to his cost at the Stadium of Light Koeman, unlike his predecessor, will not indulge mistakes or lapses in defensive duties and will air grievances in public when they arise. “In all aspects he needs to improve,” the Dutch coach said after the England international was withdrawn at half-time against David Moyes’s team. Honest appraisals represent blessed relief for Evertonians who, with their team compact and Idrissa Gueye flourishing in central midfield following his £7m arrival from Aston Villa, no longer sense the imminent threat of a goal every time the opposition cross the halfway line.
“He has kept things pretty simple,” says Barry of the manager’s impact. “There is no need to complicate it too much. If players know their role it is easier to keep to them. We know the schedule, we know the structure of what he wants us to do and it is pretty simple. We’ve taken on board the manager’s instructions this season and the team is playing with confidence. I’m enjoying it.”
For Barry, it was vital to restore order given the indiscipline that infected Everton’s game last season and led to Martínez’s dismissal, complete with a £10m pay-off. The veteran midfielder’s assessment of what has changed under Koeman is damning of both his former manager and team-mates, most of whom were spared the condemnation that descended on the new head coach of Belgium.
“The standards of the players were, for me, slightly slipping last season, on and off the pitch,” the former England international said. “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. That is good for everyone.
“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. Confidence had gone on the pitch, results weren’t going the right way and there was a lot of unrest with the fans. It is easy for players sometimes to get dragged along with that and all of a sudden they are being dragged along and the standards are slipping. I think you could tell from some of the performances last season that was creeping in.”
Barry will make his 600th Premier League appearance on Saturday, a remarkable feat that only Ryan Giggs and Frank Lampard have achieved previously. He is testament to why Koeman’s exacting standards are essential at the peak of the professional game. The 35-year-old describes Everton’s second-half display at Sunderland, where Romelu Lukaku announced his return to form with a hat-trick, as “one of the most enjoyable halves I have been involved in for a long time”.
But he warns: “At the minute we are winning games so this is the easiest time to let standards slip. If you win games you think things are comfortable and they are not. The best players don’t think that way and that’s why they get to where they are, they don’t worry about what has gone on and think only about the next game.”
Koeman wants European qualification and believes that is within the capabilities of this Everton squad, though he conceded another mid-table finish beckons if the first half display against Sunderland is repeated too often. New signings have impressed and their ages reflect the manager’s intent to realize the club’s ambitions in a hurry – Gueye is 26, Yannick Bolasie 27, Ashley Williams 32 and Maarten Stekelenburg turns 34 next week. The scattergun end to the transfer window, when Everton formalized their long-held interest in Moussa Sissoko too late and missed several striking targets before taking Enner Valencia on loan, also underlined Koeman’s belief that the squad is incomplete.
A fixture list that yielded West Bromwich Albion, a struggling Stoke City side and Sunderland inside the opening four games has undoubtedly helped the 53-year-old make an immediate impression at Goodison Park. But he wants much more.
“We have a lot of ambition and we like to do the best what is possible,” says Koeman. “But you have to look to the big clubs with the possibilities and the players they have. Nobody expected Leicester to win last season but that will not happen again. We have big ambition but the target to fight for Europe is realistic. We will see how we improve and if there is any chance to go for something more, we will try.”