Since the 2015/16 season came to a close, I’ve found that each and every football media outlet has been talking about the newly appointed big bosses of the League and which shiny new players will be drafted into their squad this summer. Talksport, Sky Sports and even the so called football experts have continued to mindlessly pin the solution of many clubs season’s troubles, on a need for fresh faces. And this leads me to question, has anyone learnt anything from this Premier League season?
It seems to be a newfound craze in football – and more specifically the Premier League – that a solution to any hard times facing a club can always be found in the market. That if you need a goalscorer, he’s firing them away in La Liga. And if you need a tough and resilient centre half, he’s plying his trade in the Bundesliga. But this seems to be happening to many teams all too often – year on year in fact. And I don’t know about you, but when teams are persistently recruiting high performing players for a ludicrous fee that are failing to match those previous levels set, I believe it’s only logical to look at the internal factors. In short, the coaching and eye for potential from the manager.
If Leicester City and Claudio Ranieri had delved into the market for a goalscorer and needlessly replaced those who helped the club to narrowly avoid relegation, the fairytale wouldn’t have been possible. Instead, Ranieri looked at his side, analysed the qualities that the team held and created a system in which each individual player’s assets would flourish. And admittedly, Ranieri did dip into the market, but only to find the perfect player that would meet the demands of his system – there was no buying players for the lone sake of trying to better last season’s goal tally or because it was a good price, he simply recruited round pegs for round holes that needed filling.
Then, take a look at this years Champions League runners up Atletico Madrid – they serve as further proof for the resulting success of following these coaching/transfer ideologies on the big stage with years of consistency. Similarly to Leicester, Atletico are challenging for the title in their respected League despite holding a squad that is worth a fraction of the big boys. This too has been achieved through extensive coaching and development on each individual player, allowing every player regardless of their ability to be able to carry out their necessary role in the side. Diego Simeone knows the qualities needed from a player in order for his side to remain successful, and he wouldn’t dare deviate from it – this has often resulted in the Argentinian boss neglecting a technical able talent, for an intelligent and tactically disciplined mind. Through making each and every last player sing from the same hymn sheet, it allows every last drop of talent to rise to the surface and leaves no room for “superstars” who deem such work below them. Simeone’s focus remains on making every player at his disposal the most effective they can possibly be before looking to the market.
Just last Saturday on the night of the Champions League final, Simeone made the decision to drop Andres Antonio Ferreira Carrasco – one of Atletico’s most creative sparks – for the tactical shape of the team. But after the first half being a failure for Atleti, Simeone called upon Carrasco at half time. Yet there on the touchline when so many others players would have been restless about being dropped or simply shown no interest in what the manager was saying, Carrasco was looking into the eyes of Simeone and soaking in every word that came from his mouth. This respect stems from the managers ideologies in player development and removal of hierarchies within the squad.
For these same reasons of intelligent coaching, development, shrewd business and respect from players, I believe that Ronald Koeman’s achievements at Southampton have been criminally overlooked.
Rather like Ranieri and Simeone, Koeman has a clear and identifiable system that he aims on making all players within his squad accomplished to play in. To some players, this awareness of the system and ability needed to carry it out comes in an instant. But to others, it can take a while, and that’s perfectly okay for Koeman. When Shane Long first arrived at Southampton in a £12M deal, it looked as if the club had truly overpaid for a hardworking forward with little technical ability and an average goalscoring record. And to tell the truth, that view from fans remained consistent over both 2014 and 2015. But throughout this time, Koeman saw the potential in Long and continued to believe in him. Instead of looking elsewhere in the market, Koeman continued to place his focus on developing Long’s ability and boosting his understanding of his demands.
The results from doing so? The Irish talisman is now the most important figure in Southampton’s attack and was the catalyst in making Southampton the second best Premier League team over 2016 (only behind Leicester City).
Prior to this rise in form, Shane Long’s value would have been in the region of £10M. But due to Koeman’s coaching and eye for what Long could amount to, his value would now be no lower than £25M in the current market.
The Southampton boss even said “When he came, he had problems with maybe the way we play and how we do the training sessions. If I see Shane Long now compared to when he came, it’s a big big compliment to him and all the people in Southampton”
No one saw such a rise coming, so it makes you wonder just how many careers in the Premier League have been held back due to impatience and the wrong coaching approach from managers. Where is the logic in trying to solve such a key element of football like goalscoring by repeating the same short term mistakes of shipping in players again, and again, and again, without applying the correct coaching. That 15 goals a season striker that that many clubs are so desperately hunting for, may well have been sat before their managers eyes all along – this is perfectly illustrated by Koeman’s situation with Shane Long.
But whilst Shane Long’s rise in form has undoubtedly been the back page filler and the most obvious to fans, there is an improvement in one particular player that epitomises exactly why I’m writing this article. When Cuco Martina joined the club, fans were wary of the signing due to the non-existent reputation of the player outside of Holland, the low price and the hardly impressive comments from followers of the Eredivisie. And over the first few showings of Martina in a Southampton shirt, It looked as if the fans initial worries were justified. In fact, he looked horrendous. Martina was turned inside out at every defensive situation and appeared to offer next to no support at either end of the pitch. Having only cost Southampton just over £1.2M, this is where many clubs and managers would simply crawl over the line to January so that they can cut their losses and ship in a new face. But not Ronald Koeman.
Instead, the Dutch boss continued to give his time to Martina to help him further understand his role in the side, reinstall his confidence and implement a system whereby Martina’s strengths can be put into practice. By the end of the season, Martina proved to be a real attacking threat and Koeman had identified his greatest strength – the ability to find attackers from deep. Through high quality coaching and avoiding the rash approach that so many other managers would have taken, Martina has now become a real asset in red and white.
It’s a rather typical comment to pass, but I believe that many managers in the Premier League hold more money than sense. And that teams who are placing their hopes of rising up the League’s pecking order on new signings and a cash injection, need to take a page out of Mauricio Pochettino, Claudio Ranieri and Ronald Koeman’s book. Managers should be ensuring that they are providing everything possible to get the most out of each player for the sake of success, finances and the player himself, before mindlessly writing out a cheque for the same mistake to take place all over again. It sounds bizarre to suggest that managers aren’t doing so, but when you compare them to bosses with values such as those mentioned before, the difference is evident. Southampton need to do everything in their power to keep hold of this very special manager that has become a rarity in modern day management.