A Close Reading

By Adam McCulloch 29/01/2016  0 Comments  [Jump to last]

I struggle to make sense of our club. Not only the current season, but last season, even the worrying flashes witnessed in Roberto Martinez's first campaign. There seems to be something approaching unanimous discord, with most of the ire directed at the manager. Rightly so, I might add. Creeping doubts have manifested into outrage. Even the media seem to have caught up, perhaps deflected by the managerial soap operas at Old Trafford, Stamford Bridge and across the park. We feel frustrated by our own squad's failings and inability to fulfil obvious potential. We feel frustrated at the sight of a rare league campaign blown open by a lack of consistency from the established big boys and the emergence of the young, TV money-rich upstarts like Leicester and co. We feel frustrated with our manager.

Much is made of Martinez's comments. We go the game, we witness the fare in front of us, we inevitably leave disappointed and then...we are told we were wrong. The team was unlucky. They played well. They are learning. Things will get better. Repeat to fade.

Martinez is quick to defend his team. It was often praised in the media, a sign of his loyalty and positivity. I'm sure many journalists felt quite pleased with the changeover from the often dour and spiky Moyes. He is not one to accept blame though, something his predecessor – for all his faults – would sometimes own up to. Which is why today's headline "Roberto Martinez accepts criticism over Everton's dreadful results" caught my eye.

As you'll see, it's not quite the confession of guilt preceding his walking that some fans would hope for. But I thought I would dig behind his words a little to extract some meaning.

"As manager I accept we need to get wins and I won’t ever be a manager coming out with excuses and trying to justify not winning. I’m aware of huge potential at the club and that Everton should be competing for titles, but I feel we are very close."

Very much a politician's answer. Martinez is not accepting failure, just accepting the idea that we need to win. Very much a bread and butter point to make. However the idea of excuses being beyond him is ludicrous. I was fuming at the second goal at the Etihad on Wednesday night. Not because it was just about over the line but I knew right there that we had thrown it away, and Martinez now had a get out clause. It was a poor error but it didn't change the game. Poor selection, tactics and the wrong substitutions put paid to that.

The next sentence is even more bizarre. Using one of his favourite phrases "huge potential", he essentially suggests the fans are asking for titles but that we aren't too far away from that. I'm often accused of being unrealistic in my ambitions for my club, and recent comments from the likes of Rio Ferdinand are often shaped to make us feel lucky to be surviving in the Premier League. In the dark days of Walter Smith, we probably were but the landscape has shifted. Yet this year we are not frustrated because we aren't competing for the league title. Well, we are a bit when you look at Leicester. No, we are frustrated because we sit in the bottom half of the table. We definitely aren't very close. This season is essentially over and next season other teams will grow stronger. In fact, we could end up further adrift.

"I will be fronting the criticism, as manager I accept that, and I share the supporters’ frustrations because our football has deserved a lot more. The small margins need to be addressed and I am looking forward to making fans proud of our club."

Our football has deserved nothing. If we were some freewheeling, Barca/Dortmund-esque attacking force, then yes we would feel hard done by. But we aren’t that good. Any quality we have shown has come from attacking players who we expect quality from, something the manager is keen to remind us of. They also seem to have come only against struggling clubs like Villa and Sunderland.

These are not small margins. Results such as Bournemouth and Chelsea happen in a season: we are not fickle fans expecting the earth. And yet under his watch these results happen time and time again. Martinez is not “sharing” frustrations here. Yet again he is deflecting them. They are also not small margins. We have been beaten by a struggling Swansea, a Leicester side that were looking bereft of ideas, a Stoke side hyped but still lacking. And that’s just January.

Here’s my favourite bit…

"We are not under-achieving because we never won the title in last three or four seasons. We are not a group that has reached a level of winning constantly yet. What we are is an exciting group with the best potential in years of winning something at this club. It won’t happen overnight and it won’t be straight forward.

"You need to get through painful experiences to develop the know-how. We have shown signs that we’re getting really close but we cannot be under-achieving when this team has been developing only two years and we are creating something that will be very powerful in the future."

We are not underachieving. I will let that sink in. Not only is Martinez deflecting, he is essentially blaming the fans for having expectations. Again he mentions the title. If we were sat 6th in the table with a chance of European qualification, he may have a point. We are cut loose, we look short of ideas and confidence, and our manager is not only oblivious but is blaming everyone from match officials to the home crowd. There is a phenomenal gap, to use one of his words, between the bottom half of the table and title challengers.

The classic deflection techniques continue. “We are not a group that reached a level of winning constantly yet.” If we had lost a couple of games all year, fair enough. I won’t go into Martinez’s win percentages because they have been listed numerously over the past few days. They aren’t constant, and they are below a third of the games we have played this season. That is unacceptable. Sherwood, Monk, Mourinho - all shown the door already.

And what we are seeing is certainly not straight forward. We certainly are not seeing progress, of development. “Learning” has been a buzzword thrown out recently. He does not use it here, probably aware that this and his talk of “game management” (e.g. his job) have been used too readily whilst things have not improved. He uses “know-how” to deflect the blame away from himself and his young squad. This is all well and good. But one thing his deflection ignores is the fact that alongside some of his squad’s naivety at this level, he himself is now an experienced Premier League manager.

And yet his own culpability is ignored, in a similar way to his defence of an experienced pro like Tom Howard. We are not really close. We are falling behind year on year. He also cleverly places himself in the club’s future, “we are creating something that will be very powerful.” All the signs, however, point to a good squad that will grow impatient waiting for their manager to understand how to manage them.

The article concludes with "Martínez wants talks with Riley 'to get clarity after being on the wrong end of decisions'. He added: 'We are still hurting as a club but the semi-final showed we are ready to compete against these sort of teams. We have built this squad not with a blank chequebook like other clubs. We have one of the most competitive squads in the league.'"

The comments around Riley/decisions explain themselves. I don’t feel that I am in the minority when I say that these errors peeve me a lot less than Martinez seems to think. In recent games we have had a few calls that were wrong but the idea that there is some conspiracy out get us, and that bar the call at Chelsea would have changed the result is beyond me. We were poor against Swansea, handball appeal or no. City were on top on Wednesday before the ball went out. Our discontent is not purely directed at officials.

Martinez follows up with the idea that we are ready to compete. For a man so startlingly positive most of the time, this seems incredibly defeatist. As I said to my dad after City made it 2-1 on the night, we have essentially conceded a two goal lead again. We did not compete after that point. As baffled as I am by Martinez’s words, I am baffled by his tactics on Wednesday. To the fans who piled into the Etihad, I do not think anyone would say we competed. A moment of individual brilliance and a few flashes of counterattacking football (a tactic nullified by poor substitutions). That was all we had to show. City were dominant, looked hungry, looked like everything we are not.

The comment about a blank chequebook seems like a dig against our league cup opponents. Yes, bringing on a marquee signing like Kevin de Bruyne shows a gulf in finances, but that was not the difference on Wednesday. A few years ago, when plucky Everton squads with far less investment than the current squad went away to arguably stronger City sides and really performed, any talk of blank chequebooks was made with a certain smugness, not bitterness. None of that passion and desire were on show.

His final comment should really be the nail in his own coffin, and sums up pretty much what we are all feeling. “We have one of the most competitive squads in the league.” Yes we do, and yet here we are in January and the league is over. Not only that, but our best chance at ending years without a trophy has vanished. We have the FA Cup on Sunday, but I dread whatever result we are left with. Defeat and it really is the end of our season. Win and we will have to suffer more of this post-match babble. We do have a great squad, and we deserve a great manager.

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