Ronald Koeman was an extraordinary footballer. Whether as an unlikely three-time European champion with PSV, Barcelona and the Netherlands or as a defender who amassed almost 200 career goals, he specialised in the spectacular. Not that you would know it to hear him speak. Though he is now established as a successful, top-level coach, Koeman’s demeanour betrays neither the arrogance of some Premier League counterparts, nor the unflinching assertiveness of his mentor, Johan Cruyff.
This has been noted, and appreciated, by his Southampton players. “However good a career he has had on and off the pitch, he’s very humble,” was Ryan Bertrand’s take on his famous coach. “He’s approachable, you can talk to him. Yes, he’ll tell us if we’re messing around in training too much or it’s not going quite right. But he has got this humble aura about him.”
Were Koeman the type to crow, he would currently have ample cause. His Southampton side have, after all, defied expectations to become one of this Premier League season’s great success stories, setting a new record points tally with four matches of the campaign remaining. Their efforts have been all the more impressive because they began the season the subject of gloomy predictions and a degree of ridicule, having cashed in on almost every one of their prize assets.
Koeman, having arrived to a club in the process of offloading Luke Shaw, Adam Lallana, Dejan Lovren, Rickie Lambert and Calum Chambers for a combined £91 million, inadvertently added to the mockery when he tweeted a picture of an empty pitch with the caption: ‘Ready for training’. Faced with a decimated squad and a seemingly certain relegation battle, Southampton’s fans failed to see the funny side.
It didn’t take long, though, for the mood to change. By late October, Southampton were second only to Chelsea, stunning the prophets of doom and vindicating Koeman’s unruffled acceptance of a perceived poisoned chalice. “I was always quietly confident,” he told FIFA.com. “There was a lot of focus on the players who were leaving, but I always felt calm and prepared for what lay ahead. Through all the negativity, it was very important that I transmitted that calm and confidence to the players. But it was genuine - I always believed we could have a good season.
“It might seem strange, but the crucial game was probably when we lost 2-1 at Liverpool in our opening match. The result went against us, but our performance that night was very good and laid down a marker. Everyone could see that there were positive things happening. It also gave the players confidence. From that moment, we grew in belief from game to game. And I’m sure we can keep building. I think there’s a lot to look forward to.”
It’s never easy. I don’t think Ronaldo, for example – though he is clearly a great player - would be scoring 40, 50 goals a season if he was still playing here.
With Koeman in charge, fans and pundits are now similarly optimistic about Southampton’s prospects. Yet while the Dutchman has received plenty of well-deserved praise – with peers and pundits alike declaring him a worthy candidate to become England’s manager of the year – he declined the opportunity to accentuate his own contribution. Instead, he chose to pay tribute to a club which, at the time of his appointment, was widely considered unworthy of his talents.
As he said: “People asked me, ‘Why Southampton? Why not a club with a bigger name?’ But I never saw it as coming to a small club. That’s not the way I see Southampton at all. What I wanted was to be part of a club that is forward-thinking and focuses on developing young players; building from that foundation. That’s what I had been used to and had enjoyed in Holland. There is a framework here – the academy is fantastic, the facilities are amazing – and it is good club with a long-term strategy. I enjoy being part of that and find it exciting as a coach. My feeling was that this was my kind of club.
“I must say, too, that the people here were very straight in their discussions when I first came in. They said their ambition was to compete for the higher positions in the league and that they would allow me to reinvest the money from the players who were being sold. And they have been good to their word.”
Backing was certainly provided in the transfer market, with the void in Koeman’s squad quickly filled by the arrivals of Bertrand, Fraser Forster, Florin Gardos, Shane Long, Sadio Mane, Graziano Pelle and Dusan Tadic. The result was a Southampton not weakened by the close-season upheaval, but stronger and better-rounded. “I knew a few of the players already from Holland, so the fact they’ve done so well in their first season hasn’t been a surprise to me,” Koeman reflected. “I always had confidence in their ability to adapt.”
Acclimatising to the Premier League represented a challenge for the manager himself, with Koeman arriving without any prior experience of the English game. His playing career had been split between Spain and the Netherlands, while in the dugout he had taken charge of Ajax, PSV and Feyenoord – becoming the first man to play for and coach his country’s ‘big three’ – as well as enjoying stints with Vitesse, AZ, Valencia and Benfica. So, 11 months on, how has English football met with his expectations?
“I’d say it’s been very close to what I expected, in a good way,” he said. “Everything that is said about the football culture here – the atmosphere in the stadiums, the respect for the players – is true. The games are all real physical battles, but high quality too. It’s never easy. The top team can lose to the one at the bottom and most matches are very, very tight. Everyone knows that the Dutch league is at a lower level, but even in Spain that level of competition just isn’t there. I don’t think Ronaldo, for example – though he is clearly a great player - would be scoring 40, 50 goals a season if he was still playing in England.”
Koeman’s contentment in England can also be partially explained by another of his summer signings - arguably his most important. Older brother Erwin has most often been in opposition during the siblings’ careers, which aligned only during their early playing days with Groningen and, later, with the national team. Now they are finally working together again, with Erwin assistant to a man who recently described him as “not only my brother, but my best friend”.
“I’ve really enjoyed that and it’s made this season all the more special,” said Koeman Jr. “And Erwin’s not just there because he’s family. He is a very good coach who adds something different and valuable to the staff. Plus, we’re quite different characters and our personalities are very complementary. We work really well together.”
When the two were wide-eyed, aspiring footballers, Erwin was considered the more promising. But though he enjoyed a distinguished career, representing his country on 31 occasions, it would be the younger Koeman who would go down in history as one of his generation’s true icons. A master of the 60-yard pass, the booming long-range shot and the inch-perfect free-kick, he defied the traditional constraints of his defensive role to become one of his teams’ most potent attacking weapons. It is now impossible to watch footage of Koeman's extraordinary exploits without wondering whether his like – a roaming, free-scoring defensive libero – will ever be seen again. Who could imagine, for example, a modern-day defender finishing top scorer of the UEFA Champions League, as Koeman did in 1993/94?
“The thing is, I was a defender who wasn’t really a defender,” said the man himself. “I scored so many goals because I used to step forward out of defence a lot, and my coaches asked and expected me to do that. My set pieces were a big strength too but, even in general play, I would be in the kind of positions – able to take long-range shots – that you don’t often see defenders in these days.
“Will we see another player like that? I really don’t know. Football’s always evolving and you always have to look at a player’s individual qualities and maximise those. But I do think that, generally speaking, there is much more pressure on defenders these days to defend above all else. It’s almost all about clean sheets for players in that position now.”
Koeman benefited from having mentors who saw the value in his contribution at both ends, and those coaches included two of the all-time greats: Rinus Michels and Johan Cruyff. Under the former, he helped end the Netherlands’ long wait for a major trophy by triumphing in some style at the 1988 UEFA European Championship in Germany. With Cruyff, meanwhile, he was a key cog in the beloved Barcelona ‘Dream Team’ that also included the likes of Romario, Hristo Stoichkov and Pep Guardiola. Yet there is no debating which of these two legends shaped him more.
“Both were fantastic coaches, but Cruyff was undoubtedly the biggest influence on me,” said the Southampton boss. “I had some great years with Rinus Michels: one at Ajax, the rest with the national team. But Cruyff was the coach in my career. He was someone I spent a lot of great years with – my best years. Being part of that Dream Team at Barcelona was without doubt the highest point of my career and all the successes we had, the football we played, was down to him. It’s the most difficult way to be successful – by playing that kind of beautiful, attacking football – but Cruyff was able to make it possible.”
Though celebrated primarily as champions of total football, Cruyff and Michels have also become pioneers for fellow Dutch coaches. In their illustrious footsteps have since followed the likes of Louis van Gaal, Guus Hiddink and, more recently, a generation that includes Frank de Boer, Phillip Cocu and, of course, Koeman himself. So what makes this nation of 16 million people such a prolific exporter of successful coaches?
“I think it’s just in our nature,” said Koeman. “You can put a Dutchman anywhere in the world and he will try to adapt, learn the culture and become successful. Plus we all love the game and have the same basic principle of playing good, attacking football. I think that’s why you see so many Dutch coaches – and so many successful Dutch coaches – across the world. The fact that we normally believe in ourselves a lot... that can help too!”
Such belief tends to be justified. Koeman is proving, though, that self-assurance and humility need not be mutually exclusive. And Southampton are reaping the benefits.