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Talking football with Xabi Alonso

Bundesliga 6 days ago
Read
Jan 8, 2014

Progressive Martinez continues to enhance reputation

When Dave Whelan starts talking, people stop listening. The Wigan Athletic owner's opinions may have been voiced too many times over the years. Some of his views appear too extreme or irrelevant to gain credence. So many tuned out when he suggested a newly relegated manager should have attracted a bigger club than Everton. The same was true when he later insisted that he thought Manchester United would have come in for Roberto Martinez.

Now, partisan as Whelan undoubtedly is, his judgements seem altogether sounder. Midway through his maiden season at Goodison Park, Martinez feels a natural fit for one of England's great institutional clubs. There is a growing school of thought that it will prove a stepping stone en route to one of the European giants.

Old Trafford might not be his next stop because, whatever Whelan thinks, United might be deterred from appointing Everton managers again. Yet the comparisons between the present and the past at both clubs are irresistible and inevitable. Under David Moyes, United have regressed. Under Martinez, Everton have progressed. They are a more coherent and consistent team, deservedly above the defending champions in the standings and fully merited the victory at Old Trafford that eluded the Scot during his 11 years on Merseyside. It was symbolic of the way Everton's horizons have expanded.

Martinez's four years at Wigan ended with the FA Cup secured but questions unanswered. While he still has to prove he can sustain his early impact, many of the skeptics have been silenced during first seven months at Everton. Martinez retains the habit of defeating elite opponents -- Chelsea were beaten before United while Arsenal were outplayed in the draw at Emirates Stadium -- but has added a dependability that Wigan's unpredictables eschewed. Everton's total of two league defeats is the fewest in the division.

Signing three Wigan alumni who have made a negligible contribution, in Joel Robles, Antolin Alcaraz and Arouna Kone, amounted to a false start and brought echoes of other managers who populated their new club with their old players while failing to recognise higher standards were required. That apart, however, his dealings have been immaculate. There was steel behind the ever-present smile as he kept Leighton Baines out of United's clutches. Borrowing Gerard Deulofeu, Gareth Barry and Romelu Lukaku showed the creativity to acquire them without transfer fees and the sense of ambition to propel the Merseysiders forward.

And from Everton's more expansive style of play to the aim of getting in the Champions League, as chairman Bill Kenwright revealed when unveiling Martinez, they have become a byword for ambition. It took boldness to install Ross Barkley, who had only previously started four top-flight games, as the No. 10 and a fulcrum in the side, just as it did to give his full-backs licence to enter the opposition's six-yard box. Seamus Coleman was invariably attack-minded under Moyes, but he has been unleashed by Martinez.

He has proved an astute adventurer, a quality major clubs ought to admire. Coleman is liberated because of the insurance Barry and James McCarthy provide. Everton are underpinned by Martinez's tactical nous. They are far cleverer in creating angles for the pass than, say, Tottenham were under the tainted wunderkind Andre Villas-Boas. It is idealism allied with intelligence, and while top managers don't have to have a philosophy, it helps, as the more pragmatic Moyes is discovering.Martinez has proved persuasive to gain more advocates for his beliefs. Many an evangelical manager has encountered cynical old pros at a new club, just as plenty of up-and-coming coaches find their methods stop working at certain levels. His seem best suited to higher-class players and, crucially, Everton's thirty-somethings -- Tim Howard, Phil Jagielka, Sylvain Distin, Leon Osman and Barry -- have proved receptive to his ideas. It is testament to their characters and his man-management alike.

The two central defenders had to adapt their game the most, but Martinez was sensible enough to retain Moyes' defensive structure. It is another pointer to indicate he could flourish elsewhere by assessing a team's needs and retaining a side's strengths. In the longer term, a test awaits. With Distin now 36, he might have to reconfigure his back four soon. The 19-year-old John Stones would be a typically brave choice as a replacement, but Martinez's credentials as a defensive strategist are limited. His Wigan teams proved porous, whereas Moyes still merits much of the credit for Everton's frugality.

Where the Spaniard is very much the Scot's superior, and confirming that, no matter how forgettable some of his incessant praise for his players can be, a sunny disposition masks a keen football brain is in his use of substitutes. In the current campaign, only Jose Mourinho rivals Martinez for the title of the master of game-changing alterations. Lukaku against West Ham, Steven Pienaar versus Hull plus Osman at Aston Villa and Stoke have all emerged from the bench to make telling contributions. Deulofeu has done it twice in marquee matches, the Merseyside derby and the trip to Arsenal.

As season-defining matches can be tight, the notion of a further match-winner lurking in the technical area is appealing to owners. Mourinho has long had that reputation, as did Sir Alex Ferguson. Rafa Benitez and Roberto Mancini were two who could alter a game, often in their favour, though their most daring decisions would occasionally backfire. Martinez's decision-making has been almost flawless and his personality has been transmitted to a team that now share his assurance and his optimism. Many a choice has been guided by the promise of a better future and it could take Martinez, a one-man advertisement for happiness, to one of Europe's superpowers.