In May 2013, Everton FC and their fans were at a crossroads. Their former manager, David Moyes, had just moved on to supposedly greener pastures in Manchester, and most fans wondered what direction their beloved club would go in. Enter Roberto Martinez, the suave Spaniard who in the previous year had simultaneously guided Wigan to the FA Cup and relegation at the same time.
In his time as manager at Swansea and Wigan he had developed a reputation as a soft-spoken yet passionate and positive man, one who set up his teams to play with an attacking verve that reflected his natural optimism. Indeed passing out of defense to retain possession is a key part of his philosophy. This often led to football that was easy on the eye, but the approach also supplied more than the occasional fatal defensive error by defenders that weren’t used to being ball players.
Supporters understandably wondered what they were getting. He had achieved mixed results, so the reaction from the fans was understandably mixed, as well. They were not sure if he would lead them to a trophy (something that had eluded David Moyes for 10 years at Everton) or to relegation (something that had also eluded Mr. Moyes).
Martinez was seen as a dreamer, positive but firm in his views. An extoller of the virtues of the passing game with attacking intent, he would literally follow his football principles all the way to relegation if necessary. According to Everton chairman Bill Kenright, Martinez had promised to deliver the Holy Grail: “Almost Roberto’s first words to me were ‘I’ll get you in the Champions League.’”
In his first season in charge, Martinez’s Everton impressed, coming a more than respectable fifth in the Premier League, above teams such as Tottenham Hotspur and his predecessor’s struggling Manchester United. They showed a strong attacking appetite that was a hallmark of Martinez teams, but they also had the steel that some people say David Moyes instilled in them. It was the almost perfect harmony of organization and flair.
Fast forward two seasons and Everton are sitting in 12th after 23 games, a year after they finished a dismal 11th in the league. So far there has been no Champions League spot; no trophies, FA Cup or otherwise; not even the pretense of one.
That is not to say there are no positives. His side are playing football with an attacking flair that is easy on the eye; the product of inventive, incisive attacking intent, involving slick, quick passing and accurate crosses into the box. However, there is also a defensive frailty, and dare I say a naiveté that is all too reminiscent of Martinez’s relegated Wigan side.
As an example, look at Everton’s dismal home record. They’ve conceded the most goals at home currently, dropping 23 points at home in the process, a feat bested only by 20th place Aston Villa and 19th place Sunderland.
They also have a poor habit of conceding late goals at the end of both halves. Indeed, Everton lead the league in goals conceded in the last 15 minutes of each half (tied at 17 with Chelsea) and have dropped 11 points in games where they had taken the lead. As well as other high scoring games, they’ve been involved in two near identical 3-3 draws, where their over-exuberant celebrations and poor game management have cost them valuable points.
At home, it almost seems as though they feel like they have a duty to entertain, to create a spectacle. Ironically, in his attempt to please the crowd, Martinez has instead unwittingly ensured that sometimes the only pleasure Everton fans can get at home games is masochistic.
Even though he was a very good defensive midfielder in his time, when it comes to defending, his Wigan and Everton teams have been poor at the basics. The intensity they have in attack is missing defensively, which inevitably means they are often caught flat-footed in defense. If Martinez is to be successful at Everton, he needs to teach his teams to earn the right to play by placing a higher emphasis on team shape without the ball, defensive solidity and set piece defending.
The mistakes don’t help either. Martinez has made 21-year-old John Stones his primary ball playing defender, especially while Phil Jageilka was unfit. While Stones is a player of huge potential, a defender at that age is still very raw and sometimes error prone. Stones has made multiple mistakes that have led to goals, partly because he is still learning when to try to pass the ball out of defense and when to treat it like an astronaut and send it out of his team’s defensive stratosphere. In their last match against Swansea, his sideways pass to goalkeeper Tim Howard led to the penalty Everton conceded, a decision that is more commonplace than unique in this team. Such choices are another unwanted throwback to Martinez’s Wigan days.
It would be premature to see Martinez’s as a failure at Everton, but so far he has certainly underachieved. He needs to address these pressing concerns if he is to win a trophy or at least move up the table and eventually realize his much touted desire to bring Champions League football to Goodison Park. Pyrrhic FA Cup victory aside, Roberto Martinez still has a lot to prove as a manager. He seems unwilling to compromise his principles, even slightly, for something as presumably banal as accumulating points.
Winning a trophy would be a good way to boost the confidence of his squad and to renew the fans’ faith in him as a manager. He has shown strength in keeping Stones away from the clutches of Chelsea and decisive courage in spending as much as he did on Romelu Lukaku. He will need both characteristics now more than ever. He has a lot of work ahead of him, and the Capital One Cup semifinal second leg game against Manchester City would be as good a place to start as any.
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