Koeman makes Everton click
Dutchman's hard-line approach inspires Everton's revival
Two England players, two poor performances and two very different outcomes underline a tale of two managers.
Wayne Rooney, the lost lion of tournaments past, has kept his place at Manchester United.
Ross Barkley, the great white hope of future tournaments, was dropped, suffering the indignity of a public dressing down.
BOLD MOVE: By daring to drop Ross Barkley (above), Everton boss Ronald Koeman has instituted some steely fortitude in the Merseyside team and also inspired the promising youngster to step up. PHOTO: REUTERS
Ronald Koeman is succeeding where Jose Mourinho is currently flailing, displaying a steely fortitude that now runs through Everton's side.
The Manchester circus has overwhelmed other compelling narratives, particularly the refreshing story being written at Goodison Park.
So it's time to hail the quiet achiever.
Koeman inherited sticky toffee puddings from Roberto Martinez, a squad that was far too sweet for its own good. But the uncompromising Dutchman has pulled them from the brink of irrelevance and hoisted them to second position.
They may not stay there - talk of a repeat of Leicester City's heroics feels a tad premature - but enthusiastic Toffees followers are muttering something about European qualification and no one's laughing at them.
And that's the crucial difference.
Last season, Martinez's Everton were laughable, a number of brittle-boned stars in search of consistency, durability and, most of all, a spine.
The Merseysiders' form mirrored that of their mercurial midfielder. When Barkley was good, he hinted at his potential to be the best.
When he was average, he was abject.
Against Sunderland a week ago, he veered alarmingly towards the latter. His sporadic brilliance deserted him, leaving behind a befuddled 22-year-old struggling with his distribution and basic reading of the game.
Koeman hauled him off at half-time.
It's impossible to imagine Mourinho doing the same with Rooney, even though recent performances were arguably just as inept as Barkley's at Sunderland.
But Koeman wasn't done. He used his press conference to further pummel Barkley's bruised pride, emphasising the pointlessness of potential if it isn't maximised.
Barkley was no longer gliding across the turf like England's Sundance Kid. He was a man in a muddle. He had to rediscover his rhythm or he wouldn't return.
By the time Middlesbrough came around, he was a skulking, caged animal, waiting for his keeper to open the gate. The end result was thrilling.
He marshalled the midfield superbly, often collecting the ball from Gareth Barry as the two men made the most of their contrasting resources.
Barkley has the legs, Barry the intellect; together, they are forming a formidable understanding under Koeman's wily guidance.
Barkley's recovery was steeped in fear, a precious commodity entirely lacking under Martinez's regime. Everyone liked the Spaniard and admired his attacking principles. But no one feared him.
Towards the end, there was an open revolt in the dressing room as Martinez failed to compromise his idealism in favour of parking the bus once in a while.
Phil Jagielka has already referred to that healthy fear since Koeman's arrival, speaking as if a discipline master has taken charge of a class of wayward talents.
There's no doubt that Martinez's Everton would've buckled had an early, controversial goal been awarded against them, but Koeman's squad are made of sterner stuff.
Rather than panic against Middlesbrough, the goal galvanised them. And once they went 3-1 ahead, they held the fort rather than chased a fourth.
Pragmatism, rather than risky attacking for its own sake, dominates their collective thinking now.
Of course, the ability to retain an advantage depends on the physical and mental attributes of their men in the middle. Under Martinez, they displayed less resilience than ice-creams left in the sunshine.
But there is now a sinewy slab of lean muscle scampering around the centre circle.
Idrissa Gueye's role for Everton looks remarkably similar to N'Golo Kante's role at Leicester last season, an unheralded enforcer nipping at ankles, pinching the ball and dashing around like a beeping Road Runner.
Koeman might have picked up the bargain of the season in Gueye. He cost just £7 million ($12.5m) from Aston Villa.
Sitting in front of a settled, experienced back four, Gueye has vastly improved Everton defensively.
With only three goals conceded in five games - the second-best record in the EPL - and still undefeated, the Toffees are stable, focused and capable of hanging around the top four for some time at least.
Most of all, they are afraid of failure, acutely aware of the consequences.
After Martinez's carrots, Koeman has equipped himself with plenty of sticks. And no one in the dressing room is immune to the pointy end.
Just ask Barkley.