The Vanity of Idealism

By Lyndon Lloyd 05/05/2016  0 Comments  [Jump to last]
Roberto Martinez's utopian vision is wholly at odds with Everton's dystopian present

In many ways, it's quite apt that Everton will travel to the King Power Stadium this Saturday where they will form the guard of honour for the new winners of the Premier League, assuming the role of sideshow to the coronation of, arguably, the most unlikely champions in the history of English football.

Unlike on occasions past where Evertonians have played witness to the confirmation of the title winners – most memorably when Arsenal thumped the Toffees 4-0 at Highbury in 1998, simultaneously winning the title and positioning Howard Kendall's Everton on the brink of relegation – it's not so much wistful envy they will feel but burgeoning frustration that it wasn't Everton who has shattered the seemingly unbreakable hegemony of the moneyed elite in the modern day Premier League. That our club wasn't even remotely in the top four picture for the second season running.

Leicester's stunning achievements this year have been a cause of soul-searching and examination of what's going wrong at Everton for a while now and this weekend will only serve to intensify those feelings of what could have been and crystallise what the hierarchy must do to put the club into a position of being able to match the Foxes' feat in the next few years.

That conversation inevitably begins with Roberto Martinez who is in danger of steering Everton to a second successive bottom-half finish for the first time since 2002. As such, his job hangs very much in the balance, and rightly so. Last weekend's vocal but sparsely-attended protests at Goodison Park after the Bournemouth game may not have painted the picture of an overwhelming loss of confidence in the manager by the fanbase as a whole but anecdotal evidence from match-going supporters combined with that provided by fan website commentary, online polls and the echo chambers of social media suggests that a huge majority feel that the Catalan's tenure has run its course.

Results this season illustrate clearly why there is so much disillusionment with the way the campaign has played out in almost the same fashion as the last, particularly at home where Evertonians have witnessed just five victories in 13 months. The Blues' away form, trumpeted repeatedly by the manager in recent weeks as being worthy of Champions League qualification, hasn't been much better – just as many wins and too many draws; enough to put Everton not 4th but 8th in the "away" table.

The cold hard facts of Everton's declining league fortunes since that false dawn in 2013-14 are, sadly, damning of both Martinez's tenure and the argument that he should be given more time to try and prove that he can lead the club back to the fringes of the top four and beyond. If the worsening points return and flat performances from the team lately weren't enough to sway the Goodison hierarchy that his days should be numbered, it's his increasingly contradictory and baffling rhetoric that should erase all doubt that a fresh face and approach are needed.

Time was that most Evertonians were enamoured with Robert's sunny pronouncements. His expounding of the merits of dynamic, possession-based football played by exciting, young and versatile players with an emphasis on attack was like music to the ears of Evertonians who were hoping that the Catalan could provide that vital ingredient to finally bring silverware back to the Blue half of Merseyside.

Two seasons after he exceeded all expectations with a fifth place finish, Martinez's words at best ring hollow and, at worst, frustrate and infuriate as results continue their downward trajectory at the end of another wasted season. The evidence has piled up this season that his methods are simply not working, that the players are no longer on board and that he refuses to change.

His recent interview with Jamie Carragher and Dominic King for the Daily Mail was as neat and troubling a summation of Martinez's intransigence and detachment from the realities at Goodison as you can find. In it, he talks of how managers can't successfully marry defensive solidity with a possession-based approach and dismisses the "modern trend in football" of being organised and hitting teams on the counter as being anathema to winning silverware. Atletico Madrid could be about to prove him wrong on that score by winning the Champions League.

He argues that Leicester City's structure and organisation is not what has delivered them the Premier League title – even though that is precisely what has given them the platform to do just that – pointing instead to their reliance on individuals like Jamie Vardy and Riyad Mahrez as the reason for their success. And yet, ironically, in the absence of the "No.10" he sought and failed to land last summer and of a reliable goalscoring alternative up front, his Everton side has been almost wholly reliant on Romelu Lukaku and Ross Barkley this season to create and score the Blues' goals. Indeed, the biggest critics of Martinez's Everton is that they play like a collection of individuals rather than as a team.

He also trots out increasingly tired excuses for poor results – Chelsea's offside goal at Stamford Bridge in January in the 3-3 draw, the out-of-play offside goal at the Etihad in the Capital One Cup being two; points to flimsy examples of progress like his side's "character" to retake the lead at Bournemouth last November and to fight back against Manchester United at Wembley last month (even though Everton failed to win either match); and falls back on the Blues' appearance in two semi-finals as evidence of progress even though they were blessed with favourable draws and the only decent team they beat in 11 ties was Chelsea. He highlights his side's need to learn game-management lessons even though they never actually do under his stewardship.

That he continually refers back to the psychological effects of setbacks like the 2-2 draws against Leicester and Arsenal to start last season and that 3-3 draw at the Vitality Stadium and, bizarrely, blames the most recent seven-game winless run on the "effect" of winning the quarter final against Chelsea demonstrates that he hasn't found – and probably never will find – the keys to the mental development of his squad.

Then there are the claims that he hasn't spent any money to build his team even though he has splashed out almost £100m – with the less said about his most recent acquisition the better – with no improvement in the club's Premier League standing in two years. In any case, he has spent so much time expounding the talents of his players and declaring that they "had to achieve" this season that the amount he spent on the team should be immaterial. It is, theoretically, the best group of players Goodison Park has witnessed in almost three decades but he can't mould them into a winning side.

Recalling Johan Cruyff's impact at Barcelona, Martinez speaks of having a long-term vision. However, his insistence that you can only achieve success by strictly adhering to a philosophy and developing one "style" of play is all well and good if there is actual evidence that the team is making progress. Unfortunately, after three years, that is categorically not the case. In fact, the opposite is true – Everton are, at best, going sideways under his management and the problems run a lot deeper than throwing money on summer recruitment can magically solve.

The squad he boasts of building looks set to be severely impacted by the potential loss of some key players from his squad, most prominent among whom is Lukaku who has been badly let down for two seasons now by a demonstrably flawed system. Martinez cites the influx of youth from the Academy as being vital for the team's development in the next year or so but his claims are undermined by the fact that the young stars of his current team like Barkley and John Stones have struggled so badly this season under his tutelage.

In all of the above lie the fundamental issues with Roberto Martinez and why the board must resist any temptation, whether it be through loyalty or faith, to prolong his tenure beyond the end of this season. Martinez says that "after three seasons...there is an incredible understanding and know-how of what we need to do" when all evidence suggests the contrary. With each passing week, he appears to have less understanding of how to move this team forward. If the game were played on paper or in computer simulation, he might stand a chance but his utopian, Continental-style vision is doomed in the unforgiving environs of the Premier League where managers need to constantly be readjusting and adapting to find ways to win matches. Like Tottenham this season; like last season's Champions, Chelsea.

Indeed, no one has illustrated more the value of flexibility and adaptation than this weekend's opponents who will still be deliriously celebrating their triumph over ridiculous odds when Everton come to town. While Martinez has dogmatically chased lofty footballing ideals of "perfection" with a rigid system and suspect execution, Claudio Ranieri has, over the course of the season, been able to skillfully transition a plucky, never-say-die side from one which conceded almost as many goals as they scored into a resilient outfit grinding out clean sheets. What Martinez labels the "easiest and most economical way of playing" but which "will never win [you] silverware" has landed Leicester guaranteed entry to the Champions League and the domestic game's biggest prize.

The danger now is that the further we get away from the abject surrender of the Anfield derby, that miserable run of form following the FA Cup quarter final, and the failure to put up 90 minutes of fight in the semi-final against Manchester United, the greater the possibility that the hierarchy could err on the side of keeping Martinez rather than following in the footsteps of the likes of Tottenham, Leicester and, to some extent, Liverpool by taking the bold decision to make a progressive change in manager. That would be a mistake and, on the evidence of the past two years, would simply prolong the inevitable by mere months, by which time the club's prospects for 2016-17 may already have been undermined à la Brendan Rodgers across the Park.

With Farhad Moshiri's arrival, there is genuine optimism that Goodison's sleeping giant may finally be awakening but the ambition that he must surely possess to have sunk as much capital into the club as he did needs to be matched by the calibre of the man overseeing the team. There is no room for sentiment; sweeping change is needed and the time for decisive and forward-thinking action is now. There could be no bigger lift for a beaten-down supporter base heading into what is going to be a very important summer for Everton Football Club.

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