As Everton were booed off by their supporters after a frustrating stalemate at home to West Brom, it signified the latest increase in pressure on their manager Roberto Martinez. I don’t feel he’s currently in danger of losing his job, but the scrutiny over his and his team’s performance is disproportionate to the actual gravity of the situation. When I look at Martinez, what he has achieved and what he is now trying to achieve, I can’t help but feel that the comments directed at him on how to improve his team’s form is a damning indictment of the ingrained short-termism in football.
Managers such as Martinez who get teams playing an open style are very popular when things are going well. But when they’re not, people are very quick to jump on them. When their team is losing, the fans think the players and manager should do the opposite of what they’re doing, but in cases such Martinez’s, it gives rise to debates which fail to address longer-term objectives. It’s easy to sit on Match of the Day and throw around clichés such as “the team wants to score the perfect goal”, “it can’t hurt to mix it up a bit”, or my personal favourite “overplaying”, but it doesn’t help people understand what the team is trying to achieve and how sticking by their approach can help that.
It is often argued that a manager compromises results by sticking to his philosophy of stylish football at all costs. During a tough period, the critics come alive. The reality is that this kind of project is bound to have peaks and troughs while it is being built, which is why more patience is required with it. This is interpreted as a manager being stubborn. Admittedly, when you consider that Martinez was an instant success at Everton, having almost got them into the top four in his first season which would have been way beyond his remit, it does sound strange. At some point, though, opposition were always going to work them out. It is part of the cycle of football – teams go on a good run playing a particular way before other teams work out how to stop them.
In the case of Martinez and Everton, the drop in results has arrived at a point which means the team is closer to relegation than Europe going into the second half of the season, hence people panic. Make no mistake that Martinez himself will have planned for this at some point, but he maintains his belief that this approach is his best bet for achieving his long-term targets, and he will continue to accept this dip while attempting to find a way out of it. That questions are now being asked about his refusal to change his approach is evidence that this is fundamentally not being understood.
The situation Martinez is currently facing certainly demonstrates the fine line between sticking with something you believe in and showing blind loyalty to it. Some people say he should abandon his trusted system and opt for a more solid approach to pick up points. There is some truth in this; if Everton tightened up their play it probably would bring about an upturn in form. It’s a short-term view, however, as it fails to look beyond immediate improvement. We’ve already established that football works in cycles, what would happen if the momentum from a run of results caused by a change of approach wears off? Answer: more changes, the club loses stability and consequently finds itself in a worse position. The only justification in Martinez’s eyes for changing things around would be if it began to look like Everton were in serious danger of relegation. The chance of that, though, is practically nil.
Everton are currently an easy target; that much should be obvious. Teams will (or should) very much back themselves to pick up a point or three against them. If they start the game well and can capitalise on their frustration at playing poorly and dip in confidence, it’s likely they will pick up a result, a bit like West Brom did on Monday evening. But football, in terms of both form and systems, does not remain constant. That is to say, if one tactic for a period of time is easily countered so it doesn’t work, it doesn’t mean that it can never work.
The obvious counterargument for this is that managers should be able to adapt their tactics to suit a given situation, and players should in turn be able to adjust accordingly. To a point, that is true, as inflexibility goes a long way to hindering your potential progress in football. If so much adapting is so easy or manageable, however, why aren’t successful managers regularly changing their approaches over the course of a season, and why do teams who chop and change a lot tend to struggle? The answer is because players can’t be trained in this way, as it requires more than a week’s training in between games to perfect a system.
It is true that, at times in a season, teams will train differently for a week to prepare for a game against certain opposition, and it can work. But for the reasons mentioned in the previous paragraph, this doesn’t happen regularly. Martinez clearly sees his philosophy as the cornerstone for long-term success at Everton, which is why he will at best tweak it instead of deviating from it.
I harbour very little doubt that Martinez will always be in employment in the upper reaches of the Premier League or any division in which he manages. His progression as a manager reflects the way he gets his teams to progress, and he’s capable of going further. That includes his work at Wigan, where the club truly did hit a ceiling. People may say he got them relegated, but to keep them up without a short-term rescue mission on a budget that was always comfortably bottom two in seasons prior, playing an open game, often 3-4-3, was an excellent achievement. Of course he’s made mistakes, much like any other manager, but history tells us he learns from them, and he doesn’t need to do that by changing his beliefs.
He started very well at Everton and is now struggling with a few tests, but I trust that he’ll overcome them by using his same principles without compromising the club’s stability. He’ll have to make sacrifices, but in a different way. In short, do sacrifices have to be made in football? Yes. But when people think about the word sacrifice, they should think about taking a short-term hit in results for the good of long-term sustainability rather than the other way round.
by Louis Bacon