The Runner Sports

Is Roberto Martinez Overseeing A Silent Regression?

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Few managerial appointments in recent times were accompanied by the brazen and assertive stance of Roberto Martinez when he replaced David Moyes in the Everton hot seat; the suave Spaniard promising to bring Champions League football to Goodison Park. Certainly more ambitious than the words  ‘I’ll keep you up’ uttered by his predecessor Moyes when he took over relegation-threatened Everton back in 2002, and one that perhaps outlined the progress Everton had made since under the Scot.

Ironically, it was Moyes who almost got them into Europe’s elite competition in his second full season at the club, eventually falling short in the qualifying round. During his tenure, Everton have solidly built themselves a reputation, couple of lowly finishes aside, as a solid top eight team. As Moyes made the step up to managing Manchester United (although terribly, in hindsight), Martinez was making a similar career advancement of his own in replacing him.

A handy player in the lower rungs of English football, Martinez enjoyed mixed managerial success with Swansea and later Wigan, who he bizarrely lead to FA cup glory and relegation in the same season. His Wigan side had made almost a routine of putting together last-ditch mini winning runs to stave off relegation threats in the previous two seasons before the inevitable happened. The biggest criticism of the way he set up his Lactics side was that their defensive organization was close to nonexistent. Little wonder, then, that this seems to be the precise quality holding Everton back in the last couple of years.

None of these problems were a cause for concern in his first year with Everton, when they romped to fifth in the league in style, narrowly missing out on Martinez’ promise of taking them into the Champions League. The Toffees’ highlights reel for the season included wins with clean sheets against the likes of Chelsea, Arsenal and Manchester United, giving credence to Martinez’ pre-season assertions that he could organize a meaner defense with players of a higher caliber than those he had access to at his previous clubs, something that Everton could definitely provide. A few cynics had their suspicions, however, that the man, under whom Wigan shipped in over seventy goals, could not have suddenly become a genius capable of implementing the sort of gritty defensive discipline Everton displayed. The well-drilled backline that defined Everton that season, they argued, was simply the residual Moyes effect and by keeping it intact and adding his own dash of flamboyance and imaginative attacking onus to it, Martinez had created the best of both worlds, albeit briefly. Like often happens, it was the pessimists who were right.

The next season, Everton slowly started to show frailties in defense, conceding nearly as much as they scored and briefly flirting with the relegation places before recovering to finish a respectable eleventh. Sound familiar? There were fears that the Martinez of Wigan was resurfacing, or to put it more accurately, had merely been screened by his penchant for attack temporarily complementing the existing defensive doctrines at the club. That season represented a quite underwhelming return on a summer where they broke their transfer record for Lukaku, and were expected to push on and better their previous return of fifth. Most of the problems stemmed from the fact that the team was conceding soft goals and failing to hold onto healthy leads, issues synonymous with the manager’s stint at previous clubs. Nevertheless, there was absolutely no reason to start panicking yet, with Martinez presumably learning on the job and his teams continuing to play swashbuckling football in victory and defeat.

Murmurs of discontent from the fans, however, have steadily risen this season. The problem is, the league this year has gone total bonkers. So crazy, in fact, that Leicester sit top of the table while the likes of Chelsea, Manchester United and Manchester City are floundering. Liverpool, with a change of manager, are flattering to deceive yet again while Arsenal continue their long-standing tradition of post-December stasis. In a season where unfancied Watford and West Ham are pushing far beyond their means, one single reason has stopped Everton joining the ones upsetting the status quo: Martinez’s stubborn refusal to look beyond his rigid principles and philosophy.

They say a good team is one that can win while playing badly, but Everton have become the antithesis of it, in that they often play well only to end up losing. The amount of times they’ve let two-goal leads slip is staggering, with West Ham the past weekend the latest debacle of that sort. Although they followed that up with a performance that has now become the exception rather than the norm (an impressive win in the FA cup against Chelsea, with a clean sheet surprisingly), they reverted back to type by conceding twice again in a league defeat to Arsenal this weekend. However, the most frightening thing about it is that if you listen to Martinez, he will still tell you his lack of defensive strategy is the last thing responsible for Everton’s woes. Everton have lost half their home games this season, conceding more goals at home than Aston Villa, a side that have done their best to stretch the definitions of being rubbish this year. Whichever way you spin it, that’s gross underachievement for a club with the type of squad Everton possess, and inexplicably the only person who cannot see what is wrong seems to be their manager.

Too often this season, Everton have shipped in the simplest of goals, let opposition run through them unchallenged and carve out the back 4, demonstrated a stubborn failure to defend leads, and generally displayed shocking off-the-ball work. Too often the excuse of ‘easy on the eye’ football is thrown back at the critics, but there’s no reason one has to come at the expense of the other. Martinez doesn’t need to turn into Jose Mourinho or Tony Pulis overnight, but his refusal to acknowledge the importance of a healthy balance is alarming.

The bigger danger for Everton, though, is the possibility of other clubs overtaking them, when they should be the ones leading the assault on England’s elite. With arguably one of the best squads outside of the traditional top 5 (maybe even with better depth than the likes of Liverpool and Tottenham), and the booming TV revenues enabling more clubs with enough purchasing power to attract players previously deemed beyond their economic means, it is possible the board might echo their fans in thinking that a more rounded manager might take Everton to the next level in a couple of seasons. The damning indictment of Martinez if that happens, though, is that a couple of years ago, he was the one viewed as exactly that.