As featured on Guardian Sport
“I THINK IT’S GOING TO BE FANTASTIC FOR THE LEAGUE. He’s going to bring a very successful football philosophy, without a doubt it will affect a lot of young coaches and managers in the country and bring a completely different tactical approach in the British game.
“He’s Catalan, so of course I should know exactly what he is as a person, as a winner. He’s got an attention to detail very, very difficult to find in another manager.”
Roberto Martínez was practically glowing. Sat in the bowels of Everton’s state-of-the-art Finch Farm training base, the former Wigan boss waxed lyrical about managerial idol Pep Guardiola ahead of the former Bayern Munich coach’s summer move to Manchester City.
Martínez, it must be said, exudes positivity to such an extent that he’s often criticised by both his own supporters and the wider public for a general lack of realism, yet this was different; there was an unmistakable glint in his eye as he praised his fellow Catalan’s credentials.
Truth be told, the whole conference felt very much like apprentice serving up semi-automatic platitudes about master, with Martínez’s footballing philosophy coming from the very same place – both geographically and ideologically – as Guardiola’s unique, meticulous brand of Barcelona-inspired possession-based football.
The two are bound by an intrinsic link – a desire to turn their teams into relentless passing machines that stifle opposition teams to death – and share many of the same beliefs when it comes to how the game should be played. They are, after all, two peas in a pod, even if the end result is often markedly different.
Modern football’s contrasting theories of being
IT IS OFTEN SAID THAT IN FOOTBALL two schools of thought prevail over all others. Loosely speaking, when it comes down to it, most managers can be divided into two broad categories: pragmatists and idealists.
Pragmatism, as defined by the Collins Online Dictionary, is ‘the action or policy dictated by consideration of the immediate practical consequences rather than by theory or dogma’, and necessitates, above all else, a desire to adapt to best meet the needs of the team. Rather than any sort of long-term holistic vision, winning football matches in the short-term is the raison d’etre, and everything else, such as style of play and how pleasing it is on the eye, is secondary.
A brief glance at this season’s Premier League shows that pragmatism, as a footballing dogma, is alive and well. Managers such as Tony Pulis and Sam Allardyce immediately spring to mind when thinking about current practitioners in the British game and although the football played by their sides is not always pretty, the two, for better or worse, largely achieve what they set out to do; take struggling Premier League sides of inferior quality and make them harder to beat.
Pulis and Allardyce, for all their virtues, are almost diametrically opposed to the likes of Guardiola and Martínez; men who strive for total perfection as they attempt to turn football into something approaching a form of art.
The Catalan duo’s mantra is, in its purest form, a type of idealism: a steadfast ‘belief in or pursuance of ideals, the tendency to represent things in their ideal forms, rather than as they are’.
It’s interesting to note that, for managers of this ilk, aesthetic principles are of supreme importance, and are practically non-negotiable. Furthermore, there’s a pervading sense from Guardiola and Martínez that, at its best, with top quality players all well versed in their duties, this possession-centric brand of football is approaching unbeatable.
This may well be the case – think Guardiola’s Barça team from 2008-2012 and you’ve basically got the blueprint to which the current Bayern boss’ disciples aspire. However, as Martínez and other members of the unofficial Guardiola fan club can testify, problems come when the system is not correctly implemented or if the players are not good enough to adhere to the game-plan stipulated.
Introducing the flawed work of Guardiola’s disciples.
Roberto Martínez’s Barça-inspired monomania
MONOMANIA: An excessive mental preoccupation with one thing, idea etc.
Ardent readers of American fiction will no doubt be familiar with Herman Melville’s timeless classic, Moby Dick. The cautionary tale has its roots in biblical allegory and focuses on one man’s fastidious pursuit of the eponymous whale Moby Dick.
One of the central themes in the novel is the reckless nature of Captain Ahab’s quest to enact revenge on the whale, which not only fails but also puts others in grave peril. Throughout Melville’s narrative, Ahab’s insanity is frequently referred to as a form of monomania; an unshakable obsession with one singular goal. The phrase is derived from the ancient Greek word ‘monos’, meaning ‘single’ or ‘alone’, and here perfectly encapsulates how one person’s quest can simultaneously alienate others and appear to border on insanity.
Those familiar with the current zeitgeist surrounding Everton Football Club will no doubt be aware of the growing feeling of unrest engulfing a section of the blue half of Merseyside. You’ll also have heard a famous quote from Albert Einstein bandied about from time to time.
Indeed, ‘Insanity: doing the same thing over and over again and expecting different results’, is routinely used as a stick to beat Roberto Martínez with during times of woe. Among his detractors, the theory goes that Martínez lacks the nous needed to successfully implement his Plan A in the Premier League, and is not sufficiently adaptable, or pragmatic enough to change his system when things don’t go to plan.
• • • •
Read | Analysing the Roberto Martínez system at Everton
• • • •
For some associated with the Goodison Park club, if Ahab’s monomania in Moby Dick centres on the pursuit of a whale, then the Everton manager’s own weakness is most definitely the seemingly endless attempt at replicating Guardiola’s Barcelona model.
“Barcelona is probably the closest football club to my hometown [of Balaguer in Catalonia]. I always follow that club,” admitted Martínez in an interview with The Guardian back in 2009.
“I’ve met Pep a couple of times, he’s a very impressive man, he knows exactly what he wants and he’s worked extremely hard for it. He’s a great example not only for me but also for many chairmen to take the harder decisions.”
It’s clear that the man from Balaguer stringently follows Barça’s system. He’s obstinate in his belief of passing football’s merits and sees it as his duty to hone the technical side of players’ games. His is a style of play that gave Swansea and Wigan a crucial edge in their promotion battles and helped the latter win the FA Cup in 2013, but Martínez’s success in leading unfancied Wigan to cup glory was tempered by relegation in the very same season.
Earlier this year, the Liverpool Echo published an overview of his two-and-a-half year tenure at Everton. Martínez’s Premier League results at Wigan and Everton were juxtaposed and compared with those of Tony Pulis.
“Martínez’s tally now stands at played 254, won 70, drawn 74 and lost 101 while Pulis is played 272, won 87, drawn 79 and lost 106,” the Merseyside paper wrote.
“This equates at Martínez: won 31%, drawn 29% and lost 40% with an average of 1.22 points per game; Pulis: won 32%, drawn 29% and lost 39% with an average of 1.25 points per game.”
It’s a record that adds fuel to the fire as far as his critics are concerned. Proof, they would say, of his inability to turn style into substance and forge a successful long-term career at the top of the game.
So how did it get to this point? And is it retrievable?
Martínez joined Everton back in 2013 following predecessor David Moyes’ move to Manchester United. Hopes were high that he would offer an improvement on the solid, if unspectacular, football served up in the Moyes era, while at the same time maintaining or even bettering the Scot’s results.
His first season at Goodison Park was largely a productive one as the Toffees finished in a respectable fifth position. Fans, for the most part, were happy with the progress seemingly being made yet did, occasionally, grumble about the lack of intensity and forward passes evident in some of Everton’s play.
What has transpired since has ultimately been a period of stagnation on the pitch. After narrowly missing out on Champions League qualification in that inaugural campaign at the helm, Martínez, it is claimed, has failed to adequately address the flaws that have plagued his side over the past two seasons.
Speaking to Bwin News, club legend Neville Southall asserted that Everton are currently underperforming due to a lack of defensive solidity.
“Our problem is balancing attacking prowess with defending. I’ve got no problem with our attacking play, it’s old school in that it’s outscoring your opponent rather than keeping it tight. But to be honest, they’ve got international players in goal and across the backline. They’ve got a good back four and if you can’t defend with five internationals, you shouldn’t be playing in the Premier League.”
A side containing a whole raft of top quality players currently lies in mid-table. Worryingly, a defence containing England internationals Phil Jagielka, John Stones and Leighton Baines, as well as highly-rated Ireland right-back Seamus Coleman regularly leaks goals, conceding the most in the league on their own turf. Individual errors have been commonplace – particularly when building from the back against teams that press high- while, as a unit, defending crosses and set-pieces remains a significant flaw.
A clue to understanding what appears to be unexplainable lies in Martínez’s own attitude to defensive planning. Back in February 2015, the Everton boss gave a telling insight into his methodology on the training ground.
“I believe the way the game should be played is in a specific manner,” he said. “[I like to see players] Taking risks, and getting on the ball and relying on the talent of the players to score goals rather than systems and dead ball situations, keeping clean sheets and not taking risks.
“Unfortunately you get too many managers achieving success with another type of football. You can analyse teams over history, and there are parasite teams. There are certain styles that guarantee you 40 points, that’s success. Unfortunately you have other young managers trying to play the right way and they get relegated.
“Football is not right in those moments.”
Quite simply, the 42-year-old refuses to compromise when it comes to style and his contempt for those that eschew technical play is palpable. The goal is clear: Martínez wishes to outscore the opposition and hopes to do so by ‘out-footballing’ them. He will rarely focus on corners or set-pieces in training, believing those elements to be unworthy of his brand of technical, passing football. For him, playing to percentages is tantamount to a lack of control on the trajectory of the match itself.
Unfortunately for Everton, and Wigan before them, Martínez’s teams still tend to leak an alarming number of goals from these sorts of situations as a result. Let’s not forget that in 2012-13, Wigan were relegated after shipping a league-high 73 goals in 38 games and for all of the current Everton side’s attacking flair, they are still vulnerable defensively.
• • • •
Read | Pep Guardiola: The thinker who reinvented the modern game
• • • •
Another aspect that is synonymous with Martínez and other Guardiola disciples is the endlessly positive rhetoric. Whether it’s describing Gareth Barry as “one of England’s greatest ever players” as he did recently, or in praising his players after an avoidable defeat or draw, managers like Martínez tend to fall into the trap of frequent hyperbole.
Southall maintains that the aforementioned rhetoric is not endearing the former Wigan boss to the Goodison club’s fan base: “One thing I’ve noticed amongst the fans is that they are fed up with the manager coming out and praising the players and the performance when we lose 3-1, it gets a bit wearing.”
The former Everton and Wales custodian insists, however, that Martínez can turn things around on Merseyside if he’s given the time to learn from his mistakes and make subtle changes to his blueprint.
“I personally wouldn’t get rid of him as I think he’s a fantastic manager but in the summer he needs to sit down and see if he can find someone to work on the defensive side of the game.
As Southall suggests, all is not lost for the Catalan tactician. In mitigation, his philosophy in based on long-term gains, with the emphasis on bottom-up regeneration of the club over short-term spikes and gains. Moreover, in Romelu Lukaku, Ross Barkley, John Stones and Gerard Deulofeu, Everton possess some of the best young talent in the league, which is being carefully nurtured by Martínez. Some players do indeed buy into his vision for the team, hence the calibre of player he’s able to attract and also keep at Goodison Park.
Elsewhere, Everton’s Finch Farm academy is widely recognised as one of the best in the country. Martínez, taking inspiration from Barça’s La Masia, plays a hands-on role in the club’s youth development programme and has helped introduce European coaching concepts such as futsal and rondos into the mainstream at academy level. The results have been impressive, and it’s clearly paying dividends for Everton’s age group sides.
For now, Martínez is still a flawed entity at the top level of English football. Time will tell if he’s able to learn from his mistakes and make the next step in achieving consistent results in the Premier League. Maybe a touch more pragmatism wouldn’t go amiss after all.
The downfall of Brendan Rodgers
“I DON’T CHANGE in relation to how we want to work and play.”
April 27, 2014, was a watershed moment that would come to define Brendan Rodgers’ Liverpool tenure. Liverpool, playing a system that drew its tactical inspiration from Pep Guardiola’s Bayern Munich team, had won 11 in a row and were on a role. Finally, the Anfield giants seemed destined to win the one title that they so craved; the only one that had, up to now, eluded them.
The Reds welcomed third-placed Chelsea to the famous old stadium believing, rightly or wrongly, that they would sweep José Mourinho’s side aside as they had done Arsenal (5-1) and Everton (4-0) before them. Backed by a traditionally vociferous home support, Liverpool started as clear favourites.
With Liverpool’s closest rivals for the league, Manchester City, still to play their crucial game in hand, Rodgers’ side had the opportunity to open up a six-point gap at the top of the table; an almost unsurpassable lead which Manuel Pellegrini’s men would, no doubt, have struggled to overturn.
They hadn’t, however, reckoned on football’s chief party pooper proving once again that he’s the master of the game’s dark arts.
Chelsea sat deep in a compact low-block and deprived Liverpool’s pacey attacking players of the space in which they usually thrived. The home side, nervous to secure a vital three points and thus move closer to the league title, stretched the play, went too gung-ho in search of a crucial opener, and were promptly punished by the savvy visitors.
It’s a poignant football anecdote with a didactic message. When gaps failed to appear a Liverpool team striving to achieve something akin to Total Football fell short. As is so often the case with teams attempting to play in this way, players not of the calibre of your Messis, Iniestas and Xavis were unable to counter and passes became overly lateral.
Rodgers, like Martínez, sought to draw on Guardiola’s success and implement a similar system in England. The Catalan was an icon for the Northern Irishman, but here that preoccupation with playing ‘perfect football’ backfired as Rodgers was unwilling to mix things up when it mattered most.
“I was due to fly out to spend a few days with him when he was at Barcelona but my trip was cancelled because of the ash cloud,” noted Rodgers while at Liverpool. “His love and passion of football, his great principles and ideas and the confidence he gives to people. I’ve admired him from the outside looking in, at the courage he has showed to play the modern game.”
Perhaps it’s no surprise that a team coached by a man who once mused that, “If you have possession of the ball you have a 79 per cent chance of winning,” failed to turn sideways passes into meaningful attempts on goal. Liverpool, at the time, where better on the break, and José Mourinho knew this.
It was a titanic clash of footballing styles: Rodgers, keen on dominating the ball, and the Portuguese coach intent on spoiling play. On that fateful day on Merseyside, the home side had a staggering 73 per cent of possession, but stats such as these sometimes only serve to mask the reality. They were, quite simply, unable to adapt to the situation at hand.
On the face of it, what transpired really shouldn’t have been that shocking. Mourinho, of course, was engaged in a long-standing spat with Guardiola during his time at Real and can, in many ways, be seen as the footballing antithesis to managers who favour possession-based play.
“People talk about style and flair but what is that?” he remarked during his time at Chelsea. “Sometimes I ask myself about the future, and maybe the future of football is a beautiful, green grass carpet without goals, where the team with more ball possession wins the game.”
It was sardonic irony at its finest, but an indicator of just how much he reviled the growing obsession with possession-based football. Last season, Jonathan Wilson in The Guardian published a seven-step analysis of Mourinho’s thought process. It’s helpful to see everything that happened through this lens:
- The game is won by the team who commit fewer errors.
- Football favours whoever provokes more errors in the opposition.
- Away from home, instead of trying to be superior to the opposition, it’s better to encourage their mistakes.
- Whoever has the ball is more likely to make a mistake.
- Whoever renounces possession reduces the possibility of making a mistake.
- Whoever has the ball has fear.
- Whoever does not have it is thereby stronger.
After City won their game in hand, Liverpool buckled under the pressure, collapsing in inauspicious circumstances away at Crystal Palace and gifting the title to the Citizens. They’d blown their big chance, and key players knew it. When Luis Suárez and then Raheem Sterling left in search of Champions League football and titles, Liverpool failed to recover.
In hindsight, not all the blame can be apportioned to the Northern Irishman, who had also done a lot of good during his time at Anfield, but Liverpool’s owners saw little to no progression in results during his tenure, and he was sacked in October 2015 after a 1-1 derby draw at local rivals Everton.
It was Rudyard Kipling who once wrote that, “Oh, East is East, and West is West, and never the twain shall meet.” What he’s alluding to is that two forces that are diametrically opposed should never mingle, yet if Martínez and Rodgers are to fulfil their early potential then perhaps they’ll have to disregard the great poet’s advice and add extra elements to what can occasionally appear to be a fairly one-dimensional game-plan.
After all, football is a simple game that’s about one thing and one thing only: winning.
By Patrick Boyland. Follow @Paddy_Boyland