Following a hugely disappointing 11th placed finish under Roberto Martinez last season, Everton's decision to sack the Spaniard and bring in Ronald Koeman has proved a masterstroke.
Arriving after two fantastic years at Southampton, Koeman immediately set about changing the culture at the club, which he believed was too relaxed and lacked intensity. Citing problems with their attitude, structure and discipline, the Dutchman wasted little time in stamping his mark and imposing his own methods.
Gareth Barry summed up the positive impact Koeman's regime has had aptly in his interview with the Guardian, saying: “The standards of the players were, for me, slightly slipping last season, on and off the pitch.
“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.”
Koeman's influence has been as impressive as it has been rapid, as the club won four of their opening five games for the first time since 1978-79. More than that, though, they're now playing their football in a well organised, balanced and exciting fashion, which has pleased the fans tremendously and brought a smile back to faces of the Goodison Park faithful.
Although Koeman's changes have been swift, he hasn't undertaken a complete overhaul. Instead, he's thoughtfully and thoroughly addressed the club's most pertinent issues. “First of all, we needed to improve the intensity in training. It’s higher than it was,” he said.
“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.”
Making some astute, necessary signings in the transfer window have been vital in the Toffees' upturn in fortunes too. Bringing in well seasoned, proven performers in the form of Idrissa Gueye, Yannick Bolasie, Ashley Williams and Maarten Stekelenburg has paid dividends, for all of them have adapted nicely.
The form of Gueye has been especially striking, however, as the man signed from Aston Villa for £7.1 million has been nothing short of exceptional. Alongside the revitalised Barry, Gueye has formed a brilliant partnership with the Englishman. Gueye's fantastic reading of the play, innate positional sense, exemplary judgement when to make his challenges and tidy distribution has seen him add some real quality, determination and intelligence to their midfield. The fact he leads the league in tackles and interceptions beautifully illustrates his worth.
“Idrissa’s the kind of player that puts a lot of energy [into his game], he’s aggressive and he wins second balls,” Koeman explained.
“He can play good football. With Gareth and the second balls of Idrissa, that makes the team strong. The cleverness on the ball in midfield comes from Gareth but one of Idrissa’s qualities is to put that energy into the team, to win second balls and to press at the right moment.”
Furthermore, the way the demanding tactician's getting the best out of and improving some of the players he inherited, such as Romelu Lukaku, Phil Jagielka, Tom Cleverley, Seamus Coleman and even the enigmatic Ross Barkley, has been very encouraging indeed.
Even though Everton's superb Premier League form has fallen away slightly in the last couple of weeks, with them suffering a loss to Bournemouth and a draw with Crystal Palace, they still possess fifth place on the table, just four points of leaders Manchester City. Koeman's stated aim of qualifying for Europe next season is certainly looking on track, but he knows his team won't have things all their own way in their quest to make their goal a reality.
“We have a lot of ambition and we like to do the best what is possible,” he insisted.
“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.”
All in all, the 53-year-old manager deserves all the plaudits he's receiving, for he's added some much needed unity and discipline to this previously wayward side, both on and off the pitch. Moreover, his ability to so rapidly instill a strong winning desire into his players speaks volumes for his powers of motivation and how highly his players respect him.
Achieving so much at this early stage is unquestionably a real testament to his methods. But the challenge now will be getting his men to sustain their high level over the length of what's going to be a grueling Premier League campaign.
If his outstanding time at Southampton is anything to go by, expect Everton to be right in the mix to claim one of the coveted European places come season's end.
Koeman's managerial excellence should see to it.