The Intransigent Mr Martinez

Lyndon Lloyd 10/03/2015   Comments  [Jump to last]
(Chris Brunskill/Getty Images)

His disposition in front of the cameras may be perpetually sunny but Roberto Martinez's face at the end of last Wednesday's 2-0 defeat at Stoke betrayed the pressure that is mounting on his shoulders as Everton's unfathomable fall from last season's grace shows no sign of slowing.

Everton lost just eight times in the Catalan's first Premier League campaign in charge; they've lost eight of their last nine away games alone this season, part of a harrowing sequence of results that has shattered any hopes of repeat qualification for Europe via the League and put them in danger of being sucked into a fight to stay in the top flight.

The contrast with last term couldn't be more stark. A year ago, the Toffees had just embarked on a seven-match winning streak that would, briefly, put them on course for that long-coveted place in the top four and another crack at the Champions League. They missed out, thanks in part to some performances that, with the benefit for hindsight, foreshadowed some of the problems this season, and a powerful finish to the campaign by Arsenal. But, having racked up a record points tally in the Premier League and with Martinez apparently representing the new principal at the re-opened School of Science, hope sprung enternal that cracking that infamous glass ceiling was surely just a matter of time.

In Europe, of course, where they comfortably won Group H and beat one of the Europa League favorites, Wolfsburg, handsomely home and away, Everton have largely looked every bit the team we expected them to be on the domestic front this season. For a number of reasons, however, they've not been able to translate their impressive form on the Continent to the Premier League, with the situation reaching a point where the team's problems are as much pyschological as they are tactical.

In the eye of a gathering storm, of course, stands the manager, his outward demeanour to the media unruffled, his rhetoric unchanged and his adherence to his footballing philosophy unwavering. As Greg O'Keeffe pointed out in an editorial piece for the Liverpool Echo a few days ago, Martinez will not be steered from his belief in the power of positivity and argued that the man should be judged on his actions and not his words.

Ordinarily, that would be the natural position to take. The Catalan has a propensity to be hyperbolic and the fact that English is his second language requires that linguistic license be afforded for words like "phenomenal", "perfect" and "pristine". But while the Blues were going "eye to eye" with more fancied opponents and, apparently, shedding the inferiority complex that seemed pervasive under his predecessor, his over-statements were largely seen as an expression of his enthusiasm.

Recently, however, there has been as much to be concerned about in what he says as there is in what he does – or, more accurately, what he isn't doing to reverse Everton's declining fortunes. As laudable as that relentless positivity is, it has become a little irritating in the face of the team's nose-diving domestic fortunes and some of that hitherto charming hyperbole – which surely crossed into farce with his recent assertion that Tim Howard is having "a strong season" – now paints a picture of a manager increasingly detached from reality.

"Fine Margins"

On a number of occasions in his first year in charge, his assertion that the quality of the Blues' performances was not being reflected in the team's results had some merit. The fine margins that he frequently references these days were an important factor last season; they haven't often applied this time around (or if they have, it's because of Everton's general under-performance). Gareth Barry's vital intervention on his debut against Chelsea to deny Samuel Eto'o a certain goal was lauded as the spark that lit the Blue touchpaper in 2013-14. Bryan Oviedo's goal at Old Trafford, Steven Pienaar's wonderful cameo against Hull at Goodison, Gerard Deulofeu's equaliser at Arsenal and the Spanish winger's role in Wes Brown's own goal at Sunderland were all decisive moments that narrowly won vital points or tipped crucial games in Everton's favour and helped continue momentum and – perhaps most importantly of all – confidence. Take out Leon Osman's error against the reverse fixture against the Black Cats and Tim Howard likely doesn't get sent off and the Blues win the match. Fine margins on both sides of the equation.

This season, that the margins are fine and Lady Luck seems to be looking the other way is largely down to Everton's own shortcomings and those of a rigid system that is demonstrably failing. The margins are fine when you only create a couple of clear chances in the span of 90 minutes, when you don't practice taking or defending set-pieces (a staple in the Premier League), when you don't consistently put enough men or enough deliveries into the opposition area, and you don't shoot from distance. In football, you make your own luck – and can widen those margins – and Martinez's Blues simply haven't been making enough of their own lately.

It's worth noting that Everton have faced plenty of challenges this term that were not as prevalent last season. Serious injuries to key players like Ross Barkley, John Stones and James McCarthy severely disrupted the first half of the campaign, while the absence of Osman and, in particular, Pienaar, have robbed the team of some of their most creative elements – players who could have consisently provided the imagination and guile that has been so lacking in the Blues' play. Kevin Mirallas' campaign has also been affected by niggling injuries, although his faltering form now seems to be more symptomatic of an unsettled player rather than an injured one.

The likes of Gareth Barry, Sylvain Distin and Tim Howard are a year older and really starting to show their age, while the gamble on Eto'o's Premier League swansong being a spectacular one backfired, with the Cameroonian rumoured to have been more of a nuisance in his own dressing room than he was to opposition defenders.

Where almost all of those veteran players are concerned, though, Martinez has been his own worst enemy. While Liverpool are phasing out their over-the-hill midfield steed before putting him out to pasture in the MLS next season, Everton signed a 33 year-old Barry to a three-year contract and have played him in virtually every match for which he has been eligible this season. Few could have predicted the decline in his effectiveness this season but he remains one of the first names on the team-sheet and was rushed back from injury earlier this season when he could have used another two weeks to fully recover.

In what has been arguably the manager's most unforgivable decision so far, Howard continues to hold on to the first-choice spot between the sticks despite ranking among the top flight's worst goalkeepers and Eto'o was, mystifyingly, not replaced, leaving Martinez with the same limited attacking options that appeared so problematic during that horrendous run of results over Christmas and the period of marginal improvement that followed in January. Having failed – whether due to lack of foresight or a financial straitjacket imposed after the acquisition of Romelu Lukaku – to adequately strenghten his squad in either of the last two windows, even as his team's League fortunes were deteriorating, Martinez has found his options severely limited up front and on the wings, two areas in which his side are currently found especially wanting.

All of these factors, posited by the manager, fans and media pundits alike as reasons for the team's struggles, are not enough to explain the alarming drop-off from a year ago, though. Everton's infamous lack of investment and an ageing squad would help to explain why we're not chipping away at the glass ceiling again this season; they're not the reason why we’re hovering six points above the relegation zone with our worst points tally after 28 matches for 88 years. Complaints over transfer budgets and the ownership question are more valid for discussions about what is preventing us from making the step up to top 4, not about us clinging to our Premier League status.

Nor is it solely down the demands of Europe. Everton were at their worst when the Europa League was on hiatus and, if anything, the team's relative success on the Continent should have provided the players the confidence they've needed to turn their Premier League fortunes around. They have found a freedom and openness in European competition that is far harder to come across at home, particularly now that opposition managers have figured out how best to counteract the Martinez pass and possession game.

Adapt or die

Therein, of course, lies the problem. Opponents have found a way to reduce the Blues to threatless sideways and backwards passing by pulling men back, pressing the ball and double-marking Barkley or Lukaku, safe in the knowledge that there aren't enough supporting players to capitalise on the resulting space.

Much of last year's success came down to balance and width, with the inventive Pienaar-Baines partnership on the left counter-weighted on the right by the rotation of Mirallas and Deulofeu, while this season he has continued with a fundementally unbalanced and narrow formation in the South African's absence. Where before quick passing and neat interchanges could stretch and unlock entrenched defences, this season Everton's forward momentum routinely suffocates on slow, hesitant passing trying to blunder through the centre of opposition defences or at the feet of an isolated Lukaku ill-suited to the "target man" role he is being asked to play.

Success in the Premier League demands that you adapt or fail and Martinez has actually shown himself in the past to be resourceful in out-foxing opposition managers and "finding ways to win". He was universally praised for the masterstroke of deploying his two Belgians on either side of a "false number nine" in Steven Naismith as his team comprehensively beat Arsenal and United at Goodison, matches that were won by striking early and then stifling the rest of the contest with possession football.

He has shown a perplexing stubbornness towards using further experimentation this season to get his team out of its current rut, though. Nowadays, it's a case week in, week out of him putting the same round pegs in square holes – Barkley and Naismith (for example) can be put into the same team but that doesn't mean they properly fit – and the result has been the footballing equivalent of banging one's head repeatedly into a brick wall. Opportunities to deploy two wingers, drop one of the defensive midfielders or try 4-4-2 with two strikers – anything to deviate from the same tired formation – have been ignored.

After last season's euphoria, the manager's second-season syndrome has come as an almighty shock and supporters are now scrutinising the manager's words and deeds to see if he has the power or the willingness to make the changes required. While the likes of Brendan Rodgers and Mauricio Pochettino have both come through difficult spells earlier this season by identfying the problems and adapting tactics and personnel to turn their respective campaigns around, Martinez has remained intransigent, seemingly trapped within his ethos and methods.

He unquestionably has a long-term view and a plan for Everton that will take a long time to implement but he will also continue to face myriad challenges along the way and the club can't afford to be languishing in the wrong half of the table while he does it. That he refuses to change to find a way to grind through adversity now casts serious doubt on his ability to weather future storms... and there will always be rough seas in England's top flight. We will likely stay up this season – perhaps only because of the points we have already accrued; few would bet on our survival if we were currenlty in the bottom three – and could extend this wonderful run in Europe a good while longer but the question then becomes, what happens next season?

In all probability, we will find out. Martinez will get the chance to reshape his squad somewhat over the summer and, free from the distractions of an international tournament, hopefully atone for the shambolic pre-season of 2014. Much of the current uncertainty and doubt will be forgotten if he can demonstrate an ability to adapt over the remainder of this season and then show progress at the start of the next.

From the vantage point of this frustrating season, however, it remains a big "if". The currency he accrued last season has been spent; he is, in many ways, back at square one and needing to prove himself all over again. With faith in his abilities as the long-term steward of Everton's fortunes rapidly diminishing, he doesn't have long and for some it may already be too late. Over to you, Roberto.

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