by Ahsan Naeem
It’s the footballing cliché to end all clichés. [inset appropriate amount of time] is a long time in football. 12 months ago all of Merseyside were united in mocking Manchester United. Brendan Rodgers and Roberto Martinez were the ultimate purveyors of modern post tiki-taka management, whilst their counterpart over at $old Trafford David Moyes was rapidly becoming the punchline for every joke told on the internet. And yet as the current season unfolds the footballing fiesta on Merseyside seems to have gone AWOL leaving two groups of supporters asking “what the hell is going on la????” Here’s the dispassionate and mildly sympathetic view of someone who has a lot of time for both clubs and both managers.
Roberto Martinez was lauded for the work he did at Everton last season and rightly so. They were the standout performers outside the top 4, finishing 5th. The achievement was given further lashings of gloss as his predecessor – as mentioned previously – was a man overboard at the Theatre of Dreams. Martinez wasn’t short of supporters in and around football even before he took the Everton job, and the 13/14 season did nothing but reinforce the idea that he was a top quality manager and coach. It’s difficult to think of another manager who has relegated his previous club as Martinez did with Wigan, but still been so highly rated. Maybe Jurgen Klopp, who relegated Mainz prior to his appointment at BVB.
This season has begun in rather more underwhelming fashion for Everton and Martinez. After a record summer transfers spend, it was largely expected that they would kick on again and really challenge for a Champion’s League spot. Instead they seem to have regressed alarmingly not just in their results, but as worryingly in their performances.
Romelu Lukaku was the headline transfer following a relatively successful loan spell last season, but judging by his performances so far this season he’s either fatigued or uninterested. He’s failed to deliver anything approaching the quality that Everton would expect for the exorbitant fee that they paid for him. Scratching the surface a little though, it’s equally apparent that there is an alarming lack of creativity behind him. Or should I say, Everton’s creative players are creating the sum total of very little.
Last season Everton played on the break to devastating effect, with Lukaku the fulcrum for all their attacks. This season though they’ve only really been able to play this way in the Europa League, where their results have been excellent. In the Premier League they simply haven’t been able to because teams are much more cautious when playing them, and so far Martinez hasn’t been able to find an answer or indeed get his team playing the way he would like them to.
In theory creativity shouldn’t be a problem for Everton. In Ross Barkley they have the most coveted English player since Wayne Rooney. Kevin Mirralis is arguably the most underrated attacking player in the league. Even Steven Naismith looked a gem last season. However the standard set by Martinez in that 12 month purple patch is proving very difficult to replicate with a stronger and more settled squad.
There are no easy answers in football, even if the answer for every supporter is somewhere between sack the manager and spend more money. With the January window approaching I think Everton and Martinez have some soul searching to do though. You’re only as good as your last match/season/press conference and Martinez is in danger of undoing all the good work and good will he generated in 2013/14.
In many respects Ross Barkley’s situation is a microcosm of the challenges which Everton face. Martinez’s hyperbole about the player reached dizzying new heights when he told a room full of Everton supporters at a gala dinner “There is no doubt in my mind that he will be the best player England has ever had.” Yet when you look at the way he has utilized the young Evertonian since his return from injury it’s difficult to see what he was talking about. Barkley has been played wide left, wide right, pretty much anywhere except his reported best position as a central attacking midfield player.
There’s certainly an argument to be put forward that with the run of bad injuries the player has had, it’d make sense to play him in a position where he has to do a minimal amount of defensive work. However if putting him in that position is detrimental to him and to the team as a whole, then it doesn’t really make a whole lot of sense. I’m sure Yaya Toure could do a job wide left for Manchester City, but if he was put there eyebrows would be raised up and down the country. You can’t help but feel there’s something incredibly contradictory about claiming Barkley as a once in a lifetime attacking talent, but then seemingly not trusting him to play in his best position or indeed building a system and a team which suits him.
As Everton prepare to go to Manchester City tomorrow, the club ironically enough most heavily linked with a transfer for Barkley, Martinez has again come out to praise his young starlet suggesting that the supporters will see the best of Ross in the second half of the Premier League season. “Ross Barkley is a goal-scorer and when I say a goal-scorer he has the instinct to score and the talent in the final third to be really dangerous… I am really looking forward to the second half of the season to see the best of Ross Barkley.”
So more hype and hyperbole. Martinez needs to translate his words into a system which gets the best out of his best players whilst also getting results. It’s easy to keep top players happy if they’re playing well and the team are getting results, but right now Evertonians are questioning the quality of the summer’s transfer business, the real quality of Ross Barkley, and just whether Roberto Martinez is the messiah or the emperor’s new clothes. A result at City would give everyone a lift, especially if he can find a way to make Barkley the thorn in City’s side. However the flipside of that coin is giving Barkley a front row seat to watch the quality of players he could be playing with.
Next Week I’ll check out the malaise over at Anfield and talk about my beloved ‘Super’ Mario Balotelli.