Everton manager Ronald Koeman has his team all fucked up. Going into this weekend’s game against Bournemouth, his squad had lost its last three league games by a combined score of 9-0. They were headed for another loss on Saturday, until Oumar Niasse, the man who was eagerly thrown out into the cold by Koeman last year, came on to save the day.
Niasse was signed by Everton’s previous manager, Roberto Martínez, in February of 2016. He only played 152 minutes under Martínez, and when Koeman took over that summer, Niasse was told in no uncertain terms that he had no future with Everton. But it wasn’t just that Koeman didn’t want Niasse on the team that caused us to dub him “the saddest man in the Premier League,” it was the cruelty with which the manager went about communicating the message. Niasse, a seemingly kind and eager 26-year-old ready to live out his Premier League dreams, was instead banished to the reserve team and wasn’t even given a locker.
Niasse was eventually loaned out to Hull City last January, where he actually got to play and score some goals. A possible transfer this summer to Crystal Palace fell through, though, and it appeared that he was doomed to spend yet another season in exile.
But then Everton failed to sign the flashy striker they were after in the transfer window and started the season playing like a team physically incapable of scoring goals. In an act of desperation, perhaps, Koeman put Niasse in the squad for Saturday’s game. With his team trailing 1-0 in the second half, Niasse came on in the 55th minute. In the 75th minute, he tied the game up:
In the 80th, he won it:
It’s not at all a stretch to say that Niasse saved Ronald Koeman’s ass, or at least provided him with a (temporary) reprieve from the “Koeman out!” shouts that were sure to echo around the stadium had his team fallen to Bournemouth. The rough start to the season (the Toffees currently sit in 14th place in the table, just three points out of the relegation zone) could partially be excused by a difficult schedule and the necessary bedding-in time Koeman’s numerous new players would need before everything jelled, but a loss to Bournemouth—precisely the kind of lower-tier team an ambitious club like Everton is supposed to beat up on—would have planted Koeman’s feet squarely in the fire.
Whether Koeman can actually make use of the lifeline Niasse tossed him remains to be seen. Win aside, Everton did not look much better against Bournemouth than they have against better teams this season. They still managed just three shots on target, bringing their season total to a piddling 13. This is a slow, toothless squad that has a lot more problems than can be solved by occasional heroics from a player like Niasse.
Those problems are of Koeman’s making. The Dutchman all but remade the squad over the summer, splashing £140 million in the transfer window and bringing in seven new first-team players. Three of those players—Gylfi Sigurdsson, Davy Klaassen, and Wayne Rooney—all are basically slight variations of the same player: No. 10s who thrive in that space just in front of the opponent’s defensive line, where they can orchestrate quick passing combinations and attempt to score. Koeman has insisted on trying to play them at the same time, which only serves to clog up the central attacking midfield area as those three waste their best talents in an effort to stay out of each other’s way, all while struggling to find attackers with any real speed or power around them to open up attacking lanes for themselves and their teammates.
Perhaps the greatest indictment of Koeman’s vision is the group of players who have actually played well for him this season. Dominic Calvert-Lewin, who would probably be playing with the reserves had Koeman been able to land the striker he wanted in the summer, has been the team’s only source of consistently competent forward play. Tom Davies, another youngster who should have lost most of his minutes to Klaassen and Sigurdsson, has been the team’s most aggressive and creative midfielder. And then there’s Niasse, the guy who wasn’t even deemed worthy of a locker, doubling Everton’s season goal total within a few minutes and saving the first must-win game of the season. If Koeman can’t figure this mess out in time to save his job, maybe his players will do it for him.