Long before he was sacked, a criticism of Ronald Koeman at Everton was that he seemed to regard the club as a stepping stone. “He called us Everton, he never called us ‘us’,” as the former Everton captain Kevin Ratcliffe put it on Monday. Koeman’s ultimate ambition, as he has made clear since he took his first steps in management with Vitesse in 2000, is to manage Barcelona.
That seems ridiculous as he slinks away from Goodison Park after an unprecedented summer spree with Everton in the relegation zone. Perhaps now there have been too many failures for him ever to be taken seriously as a candidate at the Camp Nou. But he was once a contender and may be again: he has the right heritage – which may be part of the problem.
As a player Koeman came through at Groningen but joined Ajax when he was 20. It was a move that had long seemed inevitable. He looked like an Ajax player, talked like an Ajax player and played like an Ajax player. He was a defender who was far better at passing the ball than at winning it back. Ajax was his finishing school; his ideas on the game were confirmed and reinforced when, after a hugely successful stint at PSV, he joined up with Johan Cruyff again at Barcelona. There was always a streak of pragmatism about Koeman but there was no doubt about his philosophical inclinations. “He was very much of the Ajax model,” said Ryan Babel who made his debut under Koeman at Ajax in 2004. “4-3-3, wingers, a playing style on the ground, a lot of movement, a lot of changing of position.”
It has come to dominate European football over the past decade – albeit emanating more from Barcelona than Ajax. It is easy to see why Koeman’s ambition was directed towards the Camp Nou. He had, after all, taken his first steps in club coaching at Barcelona, when he was assistant to Louis van Gaal. Pep Guardiola and Luis Enrique were in the team and José Mourinho was on the coaching staff. Mourinho, it is true, has turned radically away from the Barcelona approach but it is against that that he is rebelling and in that sense he is more of a post-Cruyffian than the likes of Mauricio Pochettino, Jürgen Klopp or Diego Simeone, who approach football from very different backgrounds.
The problem for post-Cruyffians is what happens when they arrive at a club that has not been schooled in the Ajax method. Van Gaal had the strength of personality to turn Bayern to his will, preparing the ground for Guardiola, but even there he was working with a club that could remember the variant of Total Football it had practised in the 1970s. Others have been far less successful.
Frank de Boer, perhaps, is the most striking example: he won four league titles at Ajax but his reigns at Internazionale and Crystal Palace totalled 19 games.
Frank Rijkaard’s record is extraordinary. After his Holland side, playing at home, lost on penalties in the semi-final of Euro 2000, he led Sparta Rotterdam to the first relegation in their history and was on his way to manage the Dutch Antilles when he got the call from Barcelona. There, amid a style of football with which he was familiar, he won two league titles and a Champions League. Subsequent spells with Galatasaray and Saudi Arabia have gone less well. Luis Enrique, similarly, had only a disappointing year with Roma and a moderate year with Celta Vigo on his CV before taking Barcelona to two league titles and a Champions League.
Post-Cruyffians work best at post-Cruyffian clubs. Different managers have different attributes that flourish in different situations. Just because a manager has failed at one club does not mean he cannot succeed at another more attuned to his outlook and, similarly, just because a manager has been a success in one place does not mean those skills are automatically transferable. A great racing driver may not be the best fit for the school bus. It’s telling that in the whole history of English football, only four managers have ever won the league with two different sides.
In a sense Koeman’s failure at Everton says little about how he would fare at Barcelona, but scar tissue tends to accumulate and it will, understandably, count against him. It’s not a coincidence that he has never looked better as a manager than he did at Ajax when they won the league in 2004. In that regard, his career has never fully recovered from a tackle by Zlatan Ibrahimovic on his Ajax team-mate Rafael van der Vaart in a friendly between Sweden and Holland in August 2004. Van der Vaart was injured and blamed Ibrahimovic, exposing fault-lines in the dressing room and placing pressure on the already fraught relationship between Koeman and his sporting director, Van Gaal. Ibrahimovic was sold to Juventus in the ensuing mess and, without a striker, Ajax collapsed.
Koeman resigned the following February and, although he won the league with PSV two years later, it feels as though he has been seeking another Ajax ever since.
The Guardian Sport