11 June 2011

Mr. Manager

A strange thing happened on Wednesday 8th June, sometime between midday and mid-evening. At some point during this period, it was decided that Roberto Martinez was a fantastic manager, the most promising young coach in the Premier League, and as such was the first and best choice for the vacant Aston Villa position. Rent-a-quote chairman Dave Whelan admitted that it was only so long before one of the ‘Top Six’ clubs in the country would come in and snatch this precocious talent from them. Martinez’s star was, apparently, on the rise. I must admit that this came as a complete shock to me since during the two years of watching Wigan under Martinez I had always assumed him at best to be an average coach and at worst one slightly out of his depth. But perhaps I had made a mistake. Perhaps it was just that I hadn’t noticed the quality evidenced in work done by the affable Spaniard in the Lancashire rugby town. Reflecting on this for all of a minute I reverted to my original stance. A top six club? Roberto Martinez? No.

Roberto Martinez (Excellent Manager)

It isn’t that I don’t like Roberto Martinez, I’m just not sure how good a job he has done at Wigan. When Martinez inherited the team from Steve Bruce, Wigan had just finished 11th in the league. The next two seasons would see them finish 16th on both occasions, leaving it until the last minute to avoid relegation (unsurprising given Martinez’s underwhelming win ratio of 26% - amongst the lowest in the league). Indeed it has taken Martinez two seasons of football to win two Premier League games in succession. Why the dip in form and results since Bruce’s departure? The narrative that many subscribe to is that Martinez has done a fantastic job considering the fiscal constraints upon him. It is certainly remarkable that Wigan have remained in the Premier League for so long given their comparatively dreadful returns from match day and commercial revenue. Should Martinez be given credit for this then? To an extent. We should remember that his predecessors, Jewell and Bruce (apologies to Chris Hutchings), had similar constraints. In his final season at Wigan, Bruce signed players whose fees amounted to around £13.5 million, but sold key talent such as Wilson Palacios and Emile Heskey in order to make a profit in the transfer market. Martinez too has had to sell his top talent in order to recruit. At the very beginning of his tenure he lost Luis Antonio Valencia to Manchester United (£16 million) and Lee Cattermole to Sunderland (£6 million). The following year Titus Bramble was reunited with Bruce at Sunderland. So, like Bruce, Martinez has been forced to sell top talent. Yet, unlike Bruce, the quality of those players brought in (and, consequently, their resale value) seems much lower. All the aforementioned players who left the club for large fees were Bruce’s signings. If Charles N’Zogbia or Hugo Rodallega leaves this summer their fees will represent further returns on the investments made by Bruce. And if/when these players leave, who will replace them? Martinez’s recruitment policy has seen far more misses than hits. Whilst James McCarthy’s signing from Hamilton Academical was a good investment and additions such as Caldwell, Diame, Stam and Moses have all done ok, it seems hard to justify signings such as Boselli (£6 million), Jason Scotland (£2 million), Franco Di Santo (£2 million), and Jordi Gomez (£1.7 million). For a club that has, to an extent, depended on selling star players in recent years, it is troubling that Martinez has not better identified players with the potential to replace the departed. The Wigan team sheet looks more and more like that of a 2nd Division Spanish team each year. Indeed, once the last of Bruce’s players is sold off, will there be much left for Wigan? Who will save them from relegation once the likes of N’Zogbia, Rodallega and Figueroa have departed? 

"Wigan is a place, A place where nothing, Nothing ever happens"
Now previously I said that it wasn’t the case that I didn’t like Roberto Martinez. I may have been lying. Or at least bending the truth. Whilst I don’t dislike the man, I do find him somewhat annoying. There is something about him that evokes the image of a poor man’s Arsene Wenger (although he might argue that this is only literally true). Anyone who has watched Wigan play under Martinez’s stewardship will be familiar with the sight of him hovering awkwardly by the touchline during a defeat, like a nervous schoolboy waiting to be disciplined. Perhaps it is here where he, like the errant pupil, constructs his colourful excuses for his team’s often pitiful showings. Chief amongst these excuses is his appeal to the attractive football that Wigan are trying to play. Now, I’ve watched Wigan in a number of games over the last two years and have seen no consistent evidence of this. Perhaps what Martinez is confusing is the idea of playing good football and the idea of playing a formation and style that your players are completely unsuited to in an attempt to ape teams such as Arsenal. If you don’t have passing players don’t try to play a passing game. If your defence is vulnerable then don’t leave them exposed all the time. Wigan do not play good football knowingly – they play bad football naively. I’m not saying that they don’t try to play well (or even that they don’t occasionally play well), but it would be disingenuous to ameliorate and absolve their deficiencies by appeal to (or virtuous endeavour towards) aesthetic superiority when this aesthetic is neither evidenced nor realised. I would suggest that the idea to which Martinez in equal parts appeals and subscribes is that which The Guardian’s Barney Ronay recently identified:

‘There is among some English football consumers a mildly onanistic televisual reverence for the current brilliant Barcelona team, with their possession fetish and their annihilating roster of Velcro‑touch midfield gnomes. At the same time there is no way of describing the anglophone muscle-football style that doesn't make it sound at best sweatily unglamorous, at worst an inexcusable tribal hangover, like cannibalism or the bagpipes. Hit and hope. Hoof. Punt. We simply don't have the vocabulary.

So Barça-style is in the ascendancy, not just in terms of excellence on the field, but in a perceived moral righteousness, a sense of being not just better but better, more upright, more academic.’

But neither style is more inherently fun to watch. What we should be celebrating, rather, is the diversity of styles and tactics played. As pleasing it can be to watch Arsenal or Barcelona pass the ball around the pitch ad infinitum, it can be equally enjoyable to watch the carnivalesque chaos that ensues when balls are launched into the most dangerous areas of the pitch. Indeed, one of the most entertaining games I watched this season was Birmingham 1 - West Brom 3 which, despite neither McLeish nor Hodgson being lauded for their respective styles, was a thrilling end-to-end game. So a fitting contrast to Martinez might be the man who may yet get the Villa job that Martinez turned down: Owen Coyle. Coyle’s Bolton received plaudits for their style this season, not only from the media but also from the fans who watched them week-in week-out. Despite their modest league standing and terrible latter half to the season the fans were content with Coyle and this was due to the football being enjoyable to watch. Yet as Zonal Marking has pointed out, they have not really changed their ethos insofar as they are still a physical team that are partial to the long ball. The point here, then, is that it is not just style that matters, but also the spirit in which the game is played. The spirit with which Coyle’s Bolton play the game is in no way similar to the cynicism of Sam Allardyce’s Bolton. Irrespective of results I would rather have watched Bolton this season than Wigan, as whilst the latter were merely said to play attractive football, the former were actually enjoyable to watch. Perhaps Martinez and those in his corner would argue that it is better to be Socrates dissatisfied than a pig satisfied. What is less clear here is who is Socrates, and who is the pig.

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