It’s sometimes difficult to understand managerial appointments. In this country especially, there’s a habit of basing recruitment on fleeting trends or star power. Maybe that’s a by-product of the game’s short-termism in this country? Chairmen seem content to chase short-term bounce with their appointments rather than trying to create ideological matches.
It’s very fashionable to praise Southampton at the moment. Their weekend victory at Old Trafford was a glorious validation of their rebuilding process and, with hindsight, it’s easy to laud the decision to appoint Ronald Koeman.
The former Feyenoord coach has bought very well, the speed with which his players have adapted to his tactical approach is clearly very impressive, and manager and club look like a perfect fit.
Because we’re used to hiring and firing culture and because that seems to suggest that a lot of these decisions are made on whim, the temptation is to assume that Southampton have got lucky and that they and Koeman are just fortunate to have found each other.
That’s really not true - and to see that, you have to go back to three or four years.
When Tottenham appointed Mauricio Pochettino on the 27th May, Southampton found themselves without a manager and under pressure to sell almost every high-performing player within their first-team squad.
Because of the revenue that was expected to be raised through those sales, that process was never quite as daunting as the British media pretended that it was, but it was a sizeable task nonetheless. Between them, club chairman Ralph Krueger and executive director Les Reed recognised that they needed someone who had experience of a similar situation and who was equipped to coach a team through periods of high turnover both now, and in the future should something similar reoccur.
Prior to last Summer, most fans in this country probably just associated Ronald Koeman with England’s failed attempt to qualify for the 1994 World Cup. In Holland’s 2-0 win in Rotterdam, Koeman had not only miraculously escaped a red card for denying David Platt a clear goal-scoring opportunity, but also stayed on the pitch long enough to put the Dutch ahead - and ultimately through - with a clever free-kick minutes later.
As an aside, it’s ironic - given his ‘breath of fresh air’ persona now - that he was briefly one of the most hated men in England twenty-one years ago.
By 2011, however, Koeman was a decade into his coaching career and had been appointed as Feyenoord’s manager. The Eredivisie club were under severe financial pressure at the time and an estimated €40m debt was rendering them completely impotent in the transfer-market.
What Koeman achieved at De Kuip - 2nd place in 11/12, 3rd place in 12/13, and 2nd again in 13/14 - is impressive enough superficially, but even more so when the circumstances he was working under are considered. Over the course of his first two years, he lost Leroy Fer, Luc Castaignos, Georginio Wijnaldum, Ron Vlaar, and Karim El Ahmadi, and yet managed to sustain the club’s level of performance with a net twenty-four month spend of just over £1m.
Because of their financial peril, Feyenoord were heavily reliant on their youth system. Ironically, being forced in that direction was ultimately to their benefit and their academy, under the direction of Stanley Brard, has produced a healthy proportion of the blue-chip Dutch talent currently in European circulation. Jordy Clasie, Tonny Vilhena and Jean-Paul Boetius are all still at the club, but Stefan de Vrij and Bruno Martins Indi both played under Koeman before being sold last Summer and the similarly homegrown Wijnaldum and Fer had both departed in 2011.
Player-development is a multi-faceted process: academies may be responsible for identifying and cultivating talent, but the responsibility of maturing it within the professional game falls to a first-team manager. With the exception of Wijnaldum and Fer, all of the players listed above were, to some extent, moulded by Koeman.
Looking at Feyenoord’s transfer records between 2011 and 2014, you immediately notice just how much turnover they experienced. Valuable assets were typically sold-off - presumably to service the club’s debt - and new teams were cobbled together with a mixture of loans, free-transfers, youth players, and the occasional paid deal.
That Feyenoord were able to sustain a stable, high league position during that period reflects very favourably on Koeman. It suggests that not only was he a very accomplished team-builder, but that he was also very astute at using whatever minimal resources were made available to him.
To maintain continuity of performance amid such obvious flux is really quite impressive.
Now consider Southampton’s position in English football.
They, like all other Premier League sides, are the beneficiaries of the extravagant broadcasting contract, but they are still a selling club. If they succeed and move forward up the division, their players will inevitably attract attention - as they did this Summer - from more financially-muscular teams.
That isn’t just a problem experienced by Southampton, it’s a peril faced by Tottenham, Everton, Liverpool or any other side who dares to challenging the status quo. It’s a reality of the footballing food-chain and while there may be no way of preventing a developing squad from being picked apart by well-monied vultures, the remedy for it is to employ a manager capable of re-assembling whatever pieces are left.
And that’s what Koeman essentially proved himself to be at Feyenoord.
Ralph Kreuger and Les Reed made a very, very smart decision. They didn’t simply evaluate their club’s position last Summer and make an appointment which suited that short-term reality, they chose someone who suited the circumstances which were likely to exist in the future.
They saw his work with youth, his prudent and effective recruitment, and his ability to coach teams into a collective unit quickly and successfully, and they recognised that he ticked every box on their list.
This was no flip of the coin, this has been a triumph for due-diligence.