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 Roberto Martinez.
I don’t feel that he’s in danger of losing his job, but the scrutiny over his performance is disproportionate to the actual gravity of the situation. When I look at Martinez and his achievements, 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 like Martinez, who get teams playing an open style, are very popular when things are going well. But when they’re not, people are quick to direct the blame 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 as this one, it gives rise to debates which fail to address long-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” or my personal favourite “overplaying”, but it doesn’t help people to understand what the team wants to achieve and how sticking by their approach can help that.
It is argued that a manager compromises results by sticking to his philosophy of stylish football at all costs. In reality, 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 achieved well above his remit in his first season, it does sound strange. At some point, though, the opposition were always going to work them out. It is part of the cycle of football – teams go on a good run playing one 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 the panic. Make no mistake that Martinez himself will have planned for this, 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. The fact that questions are now being asked about his refusal to change his approach is evidence that this is fundamentally not being understood.
Martinez’s current situation demonstrates the fine line between sticking with a belief and showing blind loyalty to it. Some say he should abandon his trusted style 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. With football’s cyclical nature, 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 finds itself worse off. The only justification for an overhaul would be if Everton were in serious danger of relegation. The chance of that, though, is practically nil.
Everton are currently an easy target; that much is obvious. Teams 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 from playing poorly, it’s likely they will pick up a result, much 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 that it doesn’t work, it doesn’t mean that it can never work.
The obvious counterargument is that managers should be able to adapt their tactics to suit a situation, and players should be able to adjust accordingly. To a point, that is true, as inflexibility goes a long way to hindering your progress. If this is so easy or manageable, however, why aren’t successful managers regularly changing their approaches over 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 teams will sometimes train differently for a week to prepare for a game against certain opposition, and it can work. But for reasons already mentioned, not regularly. Martinez clearly sees his philosophy as the cornerstone for long-term success at Everton, which is why he will at best tweak it and not deviate from it.
I harbour little doubt that Martinez will always be around at the top level. His progression as a manager reflects his teams’ progressions, and he’s capable of more. That includes his work at Wigan, where 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, was some achievement. Of course he’s made mistakes, but history tells us he learns from them, and he doesn’t need to do that by changing his beliefs.
He started brilliantly at Everton and is now struggling with a few tests, but I trust that he’ll overcome them using the same principles that he has stuck with throughout, without compromising the club’s stability. He’ll have to make sacrifices, but in a different way.
Sacrifices need to be made in football, But when people think about the word sacrifice, they should think about taking a short-term hit for the good of long-term sustainability rather than the other way round.