The search for the managerial surprise package of this Premier League season surely has to start and end with Southampton manager Ronald Koeman.
To be sure, the Dutchman took over the St Mary’s club in adverse circumstances. After losing manager Mauricio Pochettino to Tottenham, the summer of 2014 was marked by a mass player exodus.
Adam Lallana, Dejan Lovren, Rickie Lambert, Luke Shaw and Calum Chambers all departed (and Morgan Schneiderlin tried his best to get in on the act), while striker Jay Rodriguez struggled to return from a knee injury sustained at the end of the previous season.
To top it off, Koeman’s managerial credentials were received by many in England with indifference, since his success came almost exclusively in the Eredivisie with Ajax and Feyenoord.
So with his new club sitting in third after 21 Premier League games – higher than Manchester United, Arsenal, Tottenham and Liverpool – we must ask the question, just how has Koeman managed it?
As a player, Koeman enjoyed a long, successful career, twice winning the European Cup – once each with PSV Eindhoven and Barcelona.
As a center-half, he was notable for his attack-mindedness, his rasping long-range right-footed shots and for scoring the winning free-kick in the 1992 European Cup final against Sampdoria.
While Koeman has enjoyed success in fits and starts, his managerial career pales in comparison to his body of work as a player.
His football life is an almost perfect mirror-image of another new Premier League manager, Louis van Gaal.
The pair are widely known in the Netherlands as sworn enemies, yet it was Van Gaal who gave Koeman his start in management, allowing him to join his coaching staff at Barcelona only a year after he called time on his playing career.
A season after leaving Van Gaal’s team, he was appointed as Ajax boss, where he won two Eredivisie titles with a squad chock-full of talented youngsters, including Zlatan Ibrahimovic, Rafael van der Vaart and Maxwell.
Frequently dipping into the academy system, Koeman is credited with guiding the transition of Wesley Sneijder, Thomas Vermaelen and Nigel de Jong from youth team to starting XI.
Incidentally, this was the point at which he and the current Manchester United manager fell out. Van Gaal, after being sacked by Barcelona, became the director of football at the Amsterdam giants, where he frequently butted heads with Koeman.
Koeman, realizing the situation was untenable, is thought to have engineered Van Gaal’s exit by turning Ajax’s ‘higher-ups’ against him and getting the media onside.
The two still refuse to speak to each other to this day despite their summer homes in the Portuguese resort of Vale do Lobo being less than 100 yards apart.
Since Koeman left Ajax, his record is decidedly mixed. In 2005, he took over at Benfica, but was sacked after just one season when his third place league finish was deemed unsatisfactory. Then in 2007, he returned to Iberia to take the reins at Valencia, where he was fired before the end of his first season, despite a Copa del Rey triumph.
Koeman clearly enjoys coaching young teams; he’s always done well when able to harvest a strong youth system for first team players, and is a mediocre manager otherwise.
He joined Feyenoord in 2011 and despite not winning any silverware, he managed to keep them in competitive with an Ajax side boasting such talent as Christian Eriksen, Jan Vertonghen and Daley Blind.
The Dutchman received plaudits from Feyenoord players and fans alike for the faith he placed in academy graduates.
Twenty-two-year-old midfielder Jordy Clasie recently said he “taught me to be a leader and how I could be the best tactically. He basically raised me.”
So even though Southampton have already surpassed all pre-season expectations, in one sense his success isn’t that much of a surprise.
So here we are, at the start of 2015, with Southampton on course for a UEFA Champions League spot and in with a shout for the FA Cup. And most impressive is that he seems like a genuinely nice bloke; few would begrudge his success. Apart from Louis van Gaal.
If he maintains this level of performance longer, the whispers of a move to a bigger club will surely become louder. Indeed, there’s already talk of a switch to former club Barcelona to replace the under-pressure Luis Enrique.
But having just moved to the south coast in the summer, you doubt he’d be ready to leave at the drop of a hat. No, you suspect Koeman’s here to stay, for a few seasons at least, to the joy of Saints fans and the chagrin of everyone else.
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