When Martinez first arrived at Everton he set down certain expectations; a focus on youth and a single playing style across all age groups. Technical competence on the ball was a requirement of every player, goalkeepers included. A transformation from the direct high energy style of his predecessor to the more expansive possession based philosophy. It was the Cruyff blueprint for Barcelona applied by a Catalan to Finch Farm and Goodison Park. A record points haul of 72 points followed including a first win at Old Trafford in 21 years. The Goodison faithful sang songs of Roberto’s lucky brown shoes. Evertonians were ebullient and dared to dream of a return to the top table of English football for the first time in a generation.
Two poor seasons later and the dreams have turned to frustration and anger. Sir Alex Ferguson chose the 1995-96 season to introduce five young players 20 years of age or younger (Butt, Beckham, Scholes and the Neville brothers). They famously won the double. The bet for Martinez going into the current campaign was that his own golden generation could transform Everton into a top team capable of qualifying for Europe and winning silverware. It was a reasonable gamble for Martinez to place this trust on the shoulders of Stones (21), Barkley (21), Lukaku (22), and Deulofeu (21). Crucially however while the United youngsters were added to a rock solid foundation of Schmeichel, Pallister and Bruce, Martinez found no such platform to build on. The performances of veteran goalkeeper Tim Howard have been so consistently poor that Martinez had no choice but to replace the American mid-season with the inexperienced Joel Robles (25). John Stones committed the type and number of errors you would expect from an inexperienced ball playing centre half. Phil Jagielka has had an injury plagued season, his leadership being sorely missed.
Injuries and loss of form have certainly played some part in the unravelling of Everton’s season but the criticism of Martinez himself has been far more wide ranging.
Fans and pundits (including previous manager Moyes) have pointed to an inability to close games out from a winning position. The evidence is thin. During the current league campaign Everton have ceded winning positions late on in four separate games (Bournemouth, Chelsea, West Ham and Stoke). Closer analysis identifies mitigating circumstances for both the Chelsea game (a 98 minute equaliser through a blatant off side) and the West ham game (playing with 10 men for 60 minutes). Moyes himself might do well to recall that in his final season at Everton winning positions were lost to injury time goals on four occasions (Newcastle, Fulham and Norwich, twice). A more accurate criticism of Martinez may be his inability to manage the Christmas period. Over the past two seasons meagre points returns in December and January have put paid to any hope of challenging for the top four.
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Similarly accusations that his teams cannot defend are not entirely accurate. Everton reached an FA Cup semi-final without conceding a goal. Everton travelled to a decent Wolfsburg’s team last season and won 2-0. Everton can play the occasion when required. The issue however is that over the long term the Cruyff philosophy advocated by Martinez allows more goals against than other competing footballing philosophies. Cruyff himself, having introduced the attack minded 3-4-3 system of play at Barcelona, openly stated that he “would prefer to win 5-4 than 1-0”. Martinez, who stood as best man for Cruyff son Jordi, has produced an Everton team that concede more goals that the high press, high energy Everton of Moyes’s time. They also score more goals from open play that the most teams in the premiership. The Cruyff philosophy is of a higher order than the counter attacking simplicity seen at Leicester this season. While Ranieri has delivered a compelling prose at Leicester Martinez has tried to create poetry at Everton. It is this pursuit of idealism, this dedication to the school of science, which may be the most compelling argument for Martinez to keep his job at the end of the season.
Critics have pointed to an inability to use his substitution effectively and to making changes too late in games to have any effect. The statistics show that Martinez sent on nine goal scoring substitutes in his first league campaign. When it comes to substitutions he is likely not as good as his first season nor as bad as his last. The truth is that the outcome of changes, even the most carefully considered, is often a lottery. Who would have expected Mirallas to get his marching orders 136 seconds after being introduced against Swansea?
Criticism of his communication style as overly optimistic and an inflexible philosophy bordering dogmatic has been a constant theme throughout the season. Martinez described Gareth Barry as ‘one of the best English players ever’, Tom Cleverley is “one of the most sensational players you are going to see in premier league history”. No one scenario sums up the criticism of the Martinez communication style better than his pre-match comments prior to the league cup semi-final against Manchester City. Holding a slender 2-1 lead travelling to the Etihad Martinez chose this moment to remind the Everton faithful of his footballing philosophy. “My philosophy and my way of working is not to keep clean sheets, my philosophy is to win games.” For football people, there is something irresistibly attractive about a hard fought 0-0 away from home. To advance to a cup final in such a manner is to gain universal respect, to master a challenge that football teams have struggled with since the origins of association football. There are few more satisfying outcomes across any sport. Martinez should have known this.
As much as the forensic analysis has rightly focused on the manager both he and the club have been let down by the players this season. A 4-0 thrashing by Liverpool was described by Martinez as ‘an embarrassment’. This was closely followed up by a 3-1 defeat to champions Leicester with Martinez declaring that ‘we did not turn up’. (It is interesting to note that the closer the Catalan gets to the guillotine the more like a normal manager he sounds). Following a season where possibly only Barry and Robles have reached standards approaching acceptable major surgery to the squad is clearly required. Two leading lights warrant particular consideration and for different reasons. Leading scorer Romelu Lukaku followed up an anonymous display against city rivals Liverpool with an inept performance against Manchester United at Wembley. The missed penalty can be forgiven, but less forgiveness abounds for publicly touting interest from champions league clubs as your own club struggles. There has been a persistent air of ‘Everton is just a stepping stone’ from the Belgian and his handlers. Everton and Evertonians deserve better. He should be asked to put up or shut up. Sign a new contract this summer or be thanked for his (considerable) service and shown the door.
Ross Barkley, once compared by Martinez to Michael Ballack, has looked lost at times this season. Asked to play No. 10, something never asked of Ballack, Barkley does not possess the guile or vision of a world class playmaker (Silva, Pirlo). What strengths Barkley does possess, shooting, beating defenders, a commanding physical presence, have not been capitalised upon this campaign. Barkley, for all his potential, is not having the impact on games that a Steven Gerrard was having at a similar age. The Everton team should be built around the Wavertree born lifelong Evertonian. This may or may not suit the Martinez philosophy, but it is doubtful that any Evertonian would care.
When Martinez first joined the club he spoke of the need for patience. Only with time and a clear philosophy, he suggested, can the clubs who don’t have money compete with those that do. Three years is a long time in football and patience is running thin among Everton fans. With the arrival of Farhad Moshiri Everton now have access to significant transfer funds for the first time in the modern era. The hope for Martinez is that he has done enough to convince the new owner that his footballing philosophy gives him the right to lead Everton forward into a new era. That and his lucky brown shoes.