The Everton-Manchester City match from last Monday inevitably brought to light the relationship between managers Ronald Koeman and Pep Guardiola from their time as Barcelona roommates in the early 90s. Koeman, eight years older than Guardiola, was the mentor of the Spanish midfielder on a side that won a total of eleven trophies in six seasons. Although almost 30 years later, the dynamic of their relationship has changed as each entered their managerial career. Guardiola used to run errands for Koeman and pick his brain about the Dutch playing style, but today, Koeman admits that Guardiola doesn’t ask him any new questions. The match between the two sides ended 1-1, with a late goal from Raheem Sterling and a red card for both sides.
The result exhibited the perception of the two former teammates. While anything less than three points brings up discussions about whether Guardiola is fit to manage in the Premier League, Koeman has built a reputation in handling the physicality and risk taking of the league within the confines of Southampton and now at Everton. In terms of playing style, the Dutch manager observed that while Guardiola prefers to play out of the back in difficult situations, he has no problem playing long balls and dealing with the vaunted second ball.
There was also the focus on defensive work, which slots in easily to the narrative of a former defender. Although he showed a diversity in formation in using a five-man backline while moving through the big Dutch clubs, his central and defensive solidity showed in a 4-2-3-1 formation employed at Southampton with Morgan Schneiderlin and Victor Wanyama protecting the back line (he used a 3-4-3 formation to quiet Pochettino’s side last season, and employed a lopsided version attacking City’s left side on Monday). The rugged style of the two defensive midfielders showed Koeman’s pragmatism in a new league, while showing an ability to smooth out the rough edges of a player into an effective, final product. He scolded Wanyama over getting too many red cards. In later reuniting with Schneiderlin at Everton, Koeman wanted to build a team difficult to play against.
In finishing seventh and sixth in the league while losing players like Adam Lallana and Dejan Lovren, Koeman proved he could work within the structure at St. Mary’s. Everton was a logical next step. His over $120 million spending spree at Everton this summer, highlighted by the $58 million capture of Gylfi Sigurdsson, reveals how deeply revenue from a global television deal changed how teams build Premier League sides. A decade ago, under David Moyes, one could define the side as a contrast with city rivals Liverpool. Take the starting lineups from the 2007 Merseyside derby: Rafa Benitez had a midfield core of Steven Gerrard and Javier Mascherano. Moyes’ side was built on squeezing value from Tim Cahill, Phil Neville, and Leon Osman.
That was the era when Everton were seen as the most Moneyball club in England, using early OPTA stats to parse out value in lower leagues of England and smaller leagues around the continent. The 2008 Marouane Fellaini signing in which the club spent its entire transfer funds on one player was the crowning achievement. In the article, Moyes’ performance analyst James Smith concluded that this search for value gave the club character, and if they were richer, they would be half as clever.
That is one way of giving meaning to limited resources. But divvying up a $20 million summer transfer fund would be an impossible task for a competitive Everton side today. Thus displaying the new ambition of the Merseyside club within the new financial landscape. The connection with the Moyes era still exists in Phil Jagielka and Leighton Baines, and their eye for value was seen in summer signings of Michael Keane and Jordan Pickford - although “value” now is in the $20 million players as opposed to a lower league free signing. Koeman is an international manager who has yet to finish lower than seventh place as Premier League manager. And he’s never had more talent on a roster or financial resources than he has this season.
Koeman is the third of Barcelona’s Dream Team era we’ve highlighted as managers after Pep Guardiola (multiple times) and Eusebio Sacristan. Managed by Johan Cruyff, and taking home four La Liga trophies and a Champions League title between 1988 and 1996, several players from that side are now currently in positions of influence. After the three managers, there’s Txiki Begiristain, Jose Ramon Alexanko, and Andoni Zubizarreta, sporting directors of Manchester City, Valencia and Marseille respectively. Koeman paid tribute to Cruyff by saying that the Dutch legend made him “use his brain”.
Guardiola is the pupil who receives the most attention from that vaunted group, and rightly so. Yet his transition to the Premier League hasn’t been seamless. Xabi Alonso warned the manager about controlling the “second ball”. Koeman spent his managerial career in the Netherlands outside of his stint at Valencia. While he too had to adapt to the terrain of Premier League long balls, he could figure out a plan under the relative quiet of Southampton - with the focus on player development as much as results. In trying to persuade Calum Chambers to turn down an Arsenal transfer in 2014, Koeman said that while his club didn’t have the salary resources or Champions League matches, the center back would play every match.
A return to Barcelona appears inevitable. and it was Koeman’s free kick rocket in extra time that won Barcelona its European title during the Dream Team era. Koeman was rumored as a candidate for the the club’s managerial position last season. He expressed his desire to eventually return one day as manager - as well as hold the same position in the Dutch national team - but intended to honor his remaining two seasons with Everton. Koeman said his mentor would approve of the Everton side he’s currently built. But Cruyff’s principles are a state of mind, adapted to the rules of each club and league. In his comfort handling the pragmatic side of England while maintaining an ideal of play, Guardiola may be picking his brain once again.