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Talking football with Xabi Alonso

Bundesliga 6 days ago
Read
Aug 22, 2014

The Martinez master plan

The FC crew discusses the biggest Premier League games heading into this weekend, culminating with Monday's matchup between Manchester City and Liverpool.

LIVERPOOL, England -- Roberto Martinez, it is said, is one of the nicest people in football. Anyone who's ever met him will tell you this, as will anyone who's never met him. He's good-natured, intelligent, positive and progressive, and that's just what the Liverpool fans think of him.

With that in mind, I decide to open our interview by reading him aloud the rather harsh opening line from a report of Everton's opening-day 2-2 draw away at Leicester, just to see if I could make him bristle.

"Everton's expectations were raised last season by Roberto Martinez," said the paper, "but in the first week of the new campaign their prospects of challenging for a top four place are already appearing precarious."

Martinez just smiles.

"I think this is what we want," he says. "We want to be challenged. We want to be pushed to the maximum. We don't want people happy just to see the team drawing away from home.

"If you don't get positive results, you're going to get that sort of reaction," Martinez continues, "but we welcome that, we want to strive for the best, we know we're in the best league in world football, so we welcome that expectation."

Martinez is a man you might describe as being at the peak of his powers, were it not for the nagging feeling that he hasn't yet peaked. His former chairman at Wigan Athletic, the ebullient Dave Whelan, once said that he could see him at Barcelona or Real Madrid. Tactically astute with an eye for a player and a record of improving young talent, Martinez doesn't seem to have many weaknesses.

Indeed, far from struggling to maintain the standards set by David Moyes' long tenure at Everton, Martinez surpassed them last season. Not only did the Toffees pick up more Premier League points than ever before, they played with a spirit of adventure that was quite at odds with Moyes' more cautious approach. With the club having missed out on the Champions League last season, it's not entirely surprising that expectations for this season are far higher.

Martinez guided Everton to a fifth-place finish in his first season at the club.

Welcome to his office

Martinez certainly doesn't show any signs of stress. If anything, it's quite the opposite. He settles into his chair behind a horseshoe-shaped desk in a corner office that looks out over the Finch Farm training complex, and he rattles off his pitch for the new campaign.

"I think what we've done really well as a football club is to give continuity to our success," he says. "Everyone can see what we did last season. We brought a lot of hope, togetherness and positivity to the club. We had a very tough task to try to assemble a squad that could carry that on for the next season, but what the chairman and the board have done this summer is incredible. The signing of Romelu Lukaku, Gareth Barry as a permanent player, the new contracts of John Stones, Ross Barkley and Seamus Coleman, it's a real sign that we're going forward."

It was Moyes, a man for whom Martinez has enormous respect, who designed the office, insisting on the enormous windows that not only bathe the room in natural light, but that also allow the manager to keep an eye on everything that goes on out on the training pitches. As we approach the end of the day, Martinez's desk is busy but organised, with neat piles of papers flanking a computer monitor the size of a car windscreen. The background picture on the home screen is, naturally, of Goodison Park.

When Martinez took the job last year, leaving after a four-year stint at Wigan, he immediately took to the books, absorbing everything he could about the club. His pride in their history is apparent when we discuss Everton's thumping 3-0 victory over Arsenal in April, a game that was notable for his decision to play a 4-4-2 with powerful striker Lukaku on the right wing, dominating poor Nacho Monreal. With tongue firmly in cheek, I put it to him that for all the talk of his fancy football, he had won that game by playing the football of the mid-80s.

"Why not?" he laughs. "We were the best team in the mid-80s!"

Unlike some new managers, who see the history of a storied club as something to fear, Martinez says he embraces Everton's past.

"You start looking into the history of the club and it's really exciting. We have some great stories to back our future dreams. I think it would have been stupid for me not to use that. David Moyes' work here was phenomenal. The dressing room that I took over last season was a dressing room with incredible spirit and incredible fight.

Next year will be the 20th anniversary of Everton's last trophy, the 1995 FA Cup that was won after victory vs. Man United.

"On top of keeping that, I brought Joe Royle in to help the late development phase of the young players. He's the last manager to win silverware for this club [the FA Cup in 1995] and I think it's important that he's around the training ground. Howard Kendall [three times Everton manager, two times League winner in 1985 and 1987] is always welcome here as well, and we've had some great conversations. I always pick his brains about the past, to find out how he was so successful, and I think that's important. We should never walk away from that."

His reading goes beyond Everton, of course. On his desk is a hardback edition of "Family," journalist Mike Calvin's story of a season up close and personal with Millwall. The Lions' manager at the time of the book was one Kenny Jackett, the man whom Martinez replaced at Swansea in 2007.

"I always said that I never wanted to give up playing football," said Martinez, who played for Swansea from 2003 to '06. His belief that he could play his way out of the lower leagues -- at the time, the Premier League seemed a distant dream for the club, which didn't reach the top flight until 2011 -- was not a view shared by everyone.

"I always had to fight that old motto, that you could not be successful in the lower leagues playing good football," he said. "It wasn't straightforward. The fans even booed the team off a couple of times when everything was pedestrian and we were still learning to play a different way. But I always thought that major changes needed major transitional periods, and I always said that I would rather die on my feet than live on my knees."

The office goes a little quiet, as it tends to when someone says something so rousing that the only rational response is to climb on the horseshoe-shaped desk and shout, "Oh captain, my captain!" But the horseshoe-shaped desk is ever so tidy and I don't want to mess things up.

Never break the seven-hour sleep rule

Martinez's fastidiousness is not limited to the inside of his office. He has never drunk alcohol, save for a glass of champagne at his wedding. Later, when he realised that his work was keeping him from his wife, he had an L-shaped sofa installed in his house. He mounted two TV screens on the two opposing walls and now he watches football on one while his wife watches her TV shows on the other.

"That's how we spend time together," he jokes. "Otherwise there'd be trouble."

He is also very strict on the amount of sleep he gets at home, having perfected a system while he was studying for a degree in physiotherapy.

"I'm a very good sleeper," he says. "Maybe that's not a strength, maybe it's a weakness, but I always need to sleep seven hours. If I don't sleep seven hours, I'm not the same person. When I was at university, I was the same, Other people would study all night; I couldn't do that."

But surely his head must be whirling with questions and problems? Surely he ends up lying awake, staring at the ceiling?

"No, I've got some techniques that allow you to go into deep sleep. I can drink coffee, it doesn't affect me. I can drink espresso and just go to bed."

So no stress then?

"For me, life as a manager is the same in the top five as it was in League One. You want to do things properly. You don't do things for what the critics say or for the praise. I think you're just very much on a conveyor belt, setting high standards every day. Remember that as a manager all you need to do is make sure that another 25 people enjoy their football. That's the only thing. I always believe that football is about players and fans. If you get what the fans want and see the players enjoying their football, you've got good direction."

- Howard to take international break
- Martinez targets another striker

Mr. Tactician

Having moved to Wigan in 2009, Martinez was tipped for relegation each season. He defied the odds, however, keeping the Latics up for three seasons by playing attractive and, at times, inventive football.

"We wanted to try and get a tactical advantage," he said. "It was a very difficult way of playing for the opposition. But the fact that we could do it was down to the relationship between the staff and the players. Whatever we would do in terms of preparation, they would embrace it."

Tactically, Martinez is very fluid. The back three worked brilliantly at Wigan and he's used it at Everton, though a variant of 4-2-3-1 is the more usual approach. But, as that Arsenal game last season proved, he's always happy to switch, depending on the opposition.

"There are many specifics that determine how you approach a game. I always look at moments of form from players and obviously much depends on who you play, if you play at home, if you play away. But one thing we're trying to get through everyone at Everton is that we need to make our players thinkers. We need to make players flexible and adaptable from a tactical point of view. As long as you have that throughout the dressing room, you get a real benefit from game to game.

"I think that the players have real clarity of how we're going to play," Martinez adds, "and that's really important. Clarity is as important as variation. But at the end of the season, I think Everton were ready to play in different styles, different ways, but always being exciting, always being a team that wanted to score goals."

He's not joking about the Europa League

"It's incredible, the similarities between the Wigan board and the Everton board. The people here have an incredible affinity with the football club, an incredible love for it and Bill Kenwright is so supportive. That's what allows you to get really excited every day."

And what's really getting Martinez excited now is the opportunity to work with the young players at Everton. As we talk, a large coach fills up outside with players from the under-21 squad, on their way to the Merseyrail Community Stadium, where they would later beat Leicester City's under-21 side 3-2.

"I love working with young talent," he says. "One of the most satisfying parts of our job is to see a young player develop, but I understand that as manager you're only going to play them if they're ready."

Ross Barkley, left, and John Stones are seen as the future of Everton and, perhaps, England.

So what made him put his faith in Ross Barkley and John Stones last season?

"They deserved it," he says matter-of-factly. "They deserve it. I always start the preseason with an open mind. The young players know that they have to be respectful around the senior players, but when they go onto the pitch they are allowed to be themselves. If they take their opportunities, they know I'll treat them the same way as any other player, even if that other player has 300 first-team appearances. And that's what John and Ross did. John was playing in a preseason game against Juventus and I knew he was ready. With Ross, it was little bits in training that really set him apart and slowly he began to fit into a way of playing that was exactly what we needed."

Martinez is effusive in his praise for Stones, a defender he believes is a key figure in England's future.

"I always like the centre-half to start the play and I thought he could be perfect for that. I saw that he had everything he needed to be a very good player, a natural footballing defender. He is a player very much from the modern school in that he can defend, but he has such a talent that he can play in any of the defensive positions."

But isn't there a danger that all this praise will go to their heads?

"The game makes you humble. There are certain personalities that would get carried away but John and Ross are incredible examples, they want to get better and, like anyone, when someone says nice things about them, they like that, but they are people who believe in fighting for their place and in being better in every training session.

"I always try to manage in the same manner," he continues. "I like to build football clubs. I think in different ways, you always have to inspire the work towards a football dream. The potential we have at the football club ...You look at that experience: [Sylvain] Distin, [Phil] Jagielka, [Leighton] Baines, [Leon] Osman, [Tony] Hibbert and then the excitement of Barkley, Lukaku, [James] McCarthy and Coleman and so many others. We have a really nice mixture, a really nice blend.

"The fans have been so supportive and so realistic. Yes, we all want to be excited about the future and we all want to be positive, but in the same way we are full of realism. As long as we see ourselves as a football club, we embrace the challenge together, we face adversity together, we'll be happy with whatever the outcome is as long as we give everything we've got."

But what of Europe? Will Everton really be taking the Europa League seriously?

Finally, Martinez bristles.

"Absolutely," he says defiantly. "Absolutely. We gave 10 months of hard work, it would be stupid for us not to embrace Europe. Of course there will be months where we are going to be coping with seven or eight games in periods of three to four weeks, but that's what we want as a club. We need to be able to cope with that. We can't say that we don't want the Europa League. Europe is where we should be, that's where we should be representing our football club. We're going to really enjoy that."

Everton, it seems, are in good hands.

Iain Macintosh

Iain Macintosh is a U.K. football correspondent for The New Paper in Singapore, writer for ESPN and co-author of "Football Manager Stole My Life" from @backpagepress. You can follow him on Twitter @iainmacintosh.

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