After a poor first half of the season, it would seem that Everton fans are split on whether to retain faith in Roberto Martinez. I think it is an interesting case, so let’s take a look at it.
Martinez took over as Everton manager at the beginning of the 2013/2014 season. He acted swiftly and effectively in the transfer market. Gareth Barry, Gerard Deulofeu and Romelu Lukaku came in on loan and performed outstandingly. Getting West Brom to part with £6m for Victor Anichebe was a marvellous trick. A trick topped only by selling Fellaini for £4.5m more than his release clause. Martinez used the money on James McCarthy, Arouna Kone and Antolin Alcaraz from Wigan and rescued Aidan McGeady from exile in Moscow. While the latter three were only ever going to be squad players, McCarthy became an instant hit, forming a brilliant partnership with Barry in central midfield.
Personnel aside, the new manager also changed the team’s style. Under Moyes they had been solid, hard to beat and functional. Martinez made them a high-octane, high-pressing, possession-based team that not only scored for fun, but also kept teams out at the back. The back five of Howard, Coleman, Distin, Jagielka and Baines were every Fantasy Football player’s dream. As a unit they made it rain clean sheets, and the full backs registered assists like Vegas registers marriages.
Martinez’s new-look side swashbuckled their way through the league, losing only one game before Christmas. While they dispatched with ease most of the sides below them, they also beat Manchester United twice, Chelsea once, and positively destroyed Arsenal 3-0 at Goodison Park last April. In addition to his signings working out, Martinez also established youngsters Ross Barkley and John Stones as first team regulars, coaxing out of them performances that belied their years. Both received England call-ups on the back of their impressive form, and their manager took the plaudits.
Very narrowly missing out on a Champions League place at the end of the season, Everton had been a revelation. Fans and pundits alike had nothing but praise for the man who had revolutionized the blue half of Merseyside. As Tata Martino failed at Barcelona, there were whispers that the Camp Nou hierarchy were thinking of Martinez. Some Arsenal fans, notably, liked the idea of the Spaniard replacing Arsene Wenger. Some absolutely screamed for it.
So what has gone wrong this season? How can the tables have turned so dramatically on a man who – at times last season – might have been awarded a Nobel Peace Prize had he asked for it, such was his popularity.
Everton’s summer was an objective success. Throughout last season, many pundits (including us at Cosh HQ) predicted that they would not be able to repeat their success. The reason commonly given, however, was that they would not be able to keep the loan players that had served them so well. We were wrong. Yes, Deulofeu departed to Sevilla via Barcelona, but Martinez picked up Gareth Barry for free and spent $28m to secure Romelu Lukaku. For a nominal fee ‘The Bosnian Lee Cattermole’ – Muhamed Besic – added depth to central midfield, and nobody could argue with Samuel Eto’o on a free transfer for backup and experience. As a side used to being cherry-picked, equally important was the retention of Stones and Barkley, the club’s two prized assets. Consolidation was clearly the name of the game, and the manager had delivered.
Looking back on the first half of the 2014/15 season, though, Everton have been fairly dismal. Gone is the dominance of possession, the musketeer-like thrust from wide areas and the steely competence of the back four. Where last season players were turning in brilliant individual displays, now they are committing heinous individual errors. We’re witnessing a sloppy, slow-paced side who seem to have lost confidence in both their ability and style. It is extremely puzzling, and it is making for sad viewing.
But how do we explain it? The World Cup may be a factor. Results in post-international tournament seasons are often odd, and Everton are hardly the only club struggling for form or consistency. The situation down the road at Liverpool is remarkably similar. It took Manchester City, Manchester United and Spurs a few months to find their rhythm. Arsenal still haven’t quite clicked. Newcastle are downright bipolar.
The Europa League or in other words, fixture congestion? Everton are doing well in the competition this season, battering Wolfsburg on their way through the group stage and into the first knockout round. But with a relatively small squad, Europa League adventures tend to come at a cost, namely fatigue. Spurs have managed both competitions without too much trouble, but Pochettino is able to field almost an entirely different 11 in Europa League games. Martinez hasn’t been able to rotate that much, and the Thursday/Sunday fixtures combined with the Premiership’s mental Christmas period has Everton’s players looking weary.
Recruitment? I think Everton’s summer dealings were intelligent. At worst you could call them safe, but then why mess with a squad that achieved so much? Some have argued in hindsight that $28m on Lukaku was irresponsible when a centre back should have been a priority. To that I’d say that Distin may be old but he and Jagielka were imperious last season, and who would quash the idea of John Stones as a third choice centre back? Further, the people shouting ‘waste of money’ at Lukaku are likely the same who criticized Bill Kenwright and David Moyes year-in-year-out for never spending big money on a recognized, proven striker. Lest we forget the days of Andy Johnson, Yakubu, Jo and more recently Jelavic. Was $28m on Lukaku a lot? Sure, but not only is he a proven Premier League goal scorer, he is also 21 years old. Martinez has bought years of goals, and huge potential.
How about tactics? Harder question to answer. With virtually the same squad of players, why would Martinez deliberately change a set of tactics that worked so well for him last season? The team certainly isn’t playing the same way it did then, but is that really upon instruction? It simply doesn’t follow that the manager would abandon a winning formula. Or is it perhaps a case of dogma? Are last season’s tactics no longer working but being doggedly stuck to, anyway? According to Romelu Lukaku, before their recent cup tie with West Ham the Everton players collectively asked their boss whether they could “play a bit more direct sometimes?” He agreed, but even in doing so the Toffees were lucky to escape the game with a draw. Martinez is clearly struggling to get the best out of his squad at the moment, but it is hard to know how much we can attribute to tactical issues.
We all understand the frustration of Everton fans. It is similar to that of other clubs, Liverpool and Arsenal in particular. When a manager sets new, higher standards, it feels inconsiderate of them not to reach those heights consistently. You rarely hear Aston Villa fans getting too irate. Their expectations are so low that their permanent state of beige seems to no longer trouble them much. It simply is. That’s not to say Everton’s current form – 13th place, only five wins, a goal difference of minus four – is acceptable. Should their situation not improve by the end of the season, serious questions must be asked. For now though Martinez has been a very good Everton manager for double the time he has been a poor Everton manager. That should surely buy him the patience of the Toffees’ faithful.
In 2004/5 David Moyes led Everton into the Champions League by finishing fourth. In 2005/6 they battled relegation and finished 11th. The fans didn’t turn on him for that reversal of fortunes, and nor should they turn on Martinez for a bad half-season after making him a near-deity last year. I expect to be writing a similar piece about Ronald Koeman in 2016.