The euphoria felt as we walked down the endless stairs at St James' Park on Boxing Day, singing , smiling and laughing and feeling the long journey had all been worthwhile, was quickly replaced by the despondency and anger felt as we walked down the single flight of stairs in the Park End after yesterday's match.
In many ways these two results sum up the anguish we are all feeling. The result (NOT the performance), at Newcastle was very Moyesesque in terms of a clean sheet and a single late goal. The Stoke result and performance was typical Martinez, pleasing on the eye, threatening in attack but woeful at the back and herein, I think, lies the dilemma for many of us. Perhaps more than any other established club, we recognise we have no God-given right to success – 20 years without a trophy shows that – but are we progressing under Martinez and are we any nearer to having a winning team that will lift a trophy?
In terms of squad and personnel I believe by common agreement, we have the best set of players we have had for many years. The balance of youth and experience looks good and one or two have the potential to be exceptional players, who when played in a team of generally good players, could make us a real challenger for trophies and European places. The downside is that we don’t seem able to field a team that utilizes those strengths and creates a side that knows how to win games. We all have our opinions about who should play and who should be dropped – is Howard past it? Is Mori good enough? Will Jagielka make a difference? Is Mirallas worth a starting place? Should Naismith start? Does Kone offer anything? Is Barkley the answer? Etc etc. Being a supporter (of any club), I believe gives us the insight to argue about, challenge and question team selection, something we have all done since we started watching football and will continue until we stop going to the match. So for me, this leads to the questions: are the erratic performances and results down to selection or tactics or something more fundamental with the manger?
I for one do not want to return to the "Moyes" football of yesteryear, and whilst pulling what’s left of my hair out at the recent performances, I have enjoyed some of our current football more than any over the last 10 years. BUT the results are just not good enough and as we are told constantly this is a results game. So how do we balance the two and where does it leave us with the current manager? As I listened to the phone in on the way home, calls for Martinez to go were loud and regular but offered no solutions for a realistic replacement. Equally, few seemed to recognise the current position we are allegedly in with potential new owners in the background. If this is true then changes will be few and far between until it is sorted and the new owners take stock.
So immediate change is highly unlikely and we are left with Martinez, but where will he take us? Some have said from day one, and others have joined the chorus, that we are an upmarket Wigan – good football, good players, enjoyable to watch but can’t defend properly – and given some of our recent performances (Bournemouth, Palace, Norwich, Leicester and Stoke), it is hard to argue against that. Watching Alan Curbishley last night he even drew the same comparison. So, is that down to coaching and tactics or a philosophy from the manager?
Monday, more than perhaps any other recent game, highlighted his philosophy and our dilemma. Stoke are no mugs and having fought back to score three against one of the meanest defences in the league what should Martinez do and what did he do? We all know what he did – he went looking for a fourth goal and kept to the same attacking philosophy. What should he have done? Taken off a forward / attacking midfielder and adopted a pragmatic approach to win the game? The ‘purist’ in Martinez seems unable to accept the reality of football in the Premier League: that at times you have to win ugly in order to win, and winning is essentially what it is all about. Moyes would have put up the shutters, but in reality no Moyes team would have scored three against Stoke so the argument is a little futile.
However, what Matrinez did, or in my opinion didn’t do, indirectly led to the defeat. His philosophy on one level is admirable but his inability to win matches is his Achilles heel. For me, unless he learns how to close out a game we will continue to see results like yesterday. Expecting Howard to pass to Stones from a goalkick, with 10 minutes to go, leaving him close to our own corner flag is something no ‘good’ manager would tolerate – imagine the reaction from Ferguson or Mourinho if that had happened. Will Martinez learn or will he continue to repeat the same mistakes?
For me, if he can become more pragmatic and realistic in his approach during games we have a squad good enough to challenge the current crop in the Premier League. If he continues with his purist philosophy then I suspect we are doomed to more results like yesterday and the chances of winning a cup will be down to the draw rather than performances, very much like what happened with Wigan. If we want to progress in the league he must learn how to win games from winning positions, can he adapt or is it doom and gloom?