A side story of the past few weeks which may have escaped your attention is Everton fullback Leighton Baines’ apology for his comments after the league defeat to Manchester United. His words: “I just don’t feel as though the chemistry is quite there with the team on the pitch, and it hasn’t been for a while.”
The club’s manager, Roberto Martínez, said: “It’s very disappointing when you see a bit of a misinterpretation of certain words that a player says. Clearly this has been taken out of context in the way that it has come out. But someone with the experience of Leighton Baines — and he knows, I’ve had a chat with him — he has to take responsibility for those words. They’ve been given the opportunity to attract a meaning that is not right and for that he apologised.”
Writers have been quick to point out that Baines is merely speaking the truth — why should he carry the can for that? The answer is because one of the worst things you can do in football is give yourself away to your opponent. If one player in direct competition with another reveals his weaknesses to him, who has the immediate advantage? A famous Mark Twain quote reads: “Never tell the truth to people who are not worthy of it.” In this case the unworthy is the opposition.
I’ve no doubt that Baines’ comments came out of pure frustration rather than an attempt to undermine his manager, but it still told the outside world that something isn’t right in the Toffees’ dressing room. And the outside world doesn’t have to know, because if it does, you become an easy target. Even more so when your manager is already under pressure.
There are few things worse in football than playing in a side where morale is rock bottom and the opposition knows it — you always get a bit less time on the ball as their players react before your team does, and are somehow always outnumbered when defending. Martínez must have feared this when made aware of those comments, and has reacted with a desperate attempt to restore a believable poker face.
It hasn’t worked. Everton have since stuttered to draws against out-of-form sides and were humiliated by Liverpool on Wednesday night, managing just 33% possession and 3 shots to their rivals’ 37. As their morale was so palpably brittle, Liverpool knew that if they got one, Everton would crumble. That’s why even when 4-0 up, they never stopped attacking, and never allowed Everton to rest on the ball. They sensed weakness, and it could have been 7-0.
Saturday’s FA Cup tie against United was a similar story in the first half. The Toffees reminded me of an Under-15s side playing against a men’s team for the first time. It was an example of how to play against a team with zero morale — keep pressing until they hit it long or you intercept a loose pass and run at them when you have it. The second-half revival could well have been a response to a half-time team talk that went “get out there and score or I’m sacked,” or words to that effect. Nonetheless, the first 45 minutes were evidence of the lack of chemistry Baines spoke about.
But then again, if Martínez had said nothing in response to Baines, that wouldn’t have worked either. To do nothing when a player steps out of line is the sign of a weak manager. The Everton boss was already under fire, with more and more sections of the support turning on him.
Of course it’s unfair to lay at Baines’ door what has merely been a continuation of a poor Everton run, but it has revealed a bit too much about Everton’s team right now, who will secretly be praying for the end of the season. That’s why I completely understand Martínez’s decision to make Baines apologise, as he’s inadvertently given the game away, so to speak.
On that point, I think Martínez’s ability to defend his players is a trait that will stand him in good stead as a manager, be it at Everton or elsewhere. Toffees fans will consider me insane for writing this, but it will. His ability to not give in to media pressure and criticisms of his players will make players respect him and play for him more as a manager.
Very often managers overreact after a poor result or performance and are more critical than they need to be in post-match interviews. Or they’ll declare to the interviewer that the team is lacking confidence. That’s basically an invitation to their next opponents to come and attack them.
For example, on Boxing Day my local team Leyton Orient, in League Two, beat Portsmouth 3-2 in a topsy-turvy game, in which each side led at some point and had a player sent off. Despite the defeat, Portsmouth were 4th in the table with 40 points from 23 games, 6 points off the top and 3 off the automatic promotion places.
When interviewed immediately after the game, Pompey boss Paul Cook said: “Yeah we got beat, it’s not a good game for us, we concede too many soft goals away from home, our travelling supporters deserve better, it’s a wake-up call for the lads…unfortunately we have a weakness conceding goals away from home.”
Upon hearing that, I remember thinking he’d basically stuck two fingers up at the players who had worked hard to get the team into a good position at the halfway point. The stuff he came out with may well have been true — it sounds like straightforward, honest talk from a frustrated man. But there’s no need to air it in public. Keep it in the dressing room and let your players know certain things aren’t good enough. Don’t tell anyone who might be listening. Pompey have since fallen to 6th in League Two and out of the automatic promotion picture.
Getting back to the Everton story, Baines and his team-mates will be aware of the slip-up made and make sure it doesn’t happen again. Martínez isn’t playing the blame game, he’s differentiating between what’s appropriate to say publicly and privately. It’s fair to question him as to why his team is 11th and has won 9 games all season, but believe me that isn’t down to him always telling everyone how good his team is.
People might think he’s deluded having blamed referees, bad luck etc. for his team’s many poor results this season, but the only deluded ones are those who think that’s what he’s telling the players away from the cameras too.