Thursday, May 24, 2012
Bob the team-builder: Can he fix it?
Roberto Martinez has been to Boston before. It was February 2004 when the Spaniard visited York Street. But that was Boston, Lincolnshire, not Boston, Massachusetts. Then he played the full 90 minutes in a 1-1 draw for a Swansea side mid-table in League Two. Now he has been discussing becoming the latest addition to an illustrious list, including Bill Shankly, Bob Paisley and Kenny Dalglish: the Liverpool managers.
Martinez had seemed set for a summer of change long before the invitation from Fenway Sports Group arrived. After 29 games, only Wolves prevented Wigan from propping up the Premier League. They had 22 points. Oakwell, not Anfield, beckoned next season. Instead, after spending three-quarters of the last two seasons in the relegation zone, a promotion may be on the way.
Wigan's subsequent, startling renaissance may suggest Martinez is the flavour of the month. Had Dalglish been dismissed two months earlier, it is improbable the Spaniard would have figured on the shortlist to succeed him, and yet the timing and manner of Wigan's ascent suggests that, behind the ever-present smile, there is a manager of mettle.
Chairman Dave Whelan has long said that, if he were to lose his manager, it should be to a big club. Martinez spurned Aston Villa's advances last summer, a decision that he justified by finishing ahead of the Midlanders. Wigan's deserved victories against Liverpool, Arsenal, Manchester United and Newcastle were eye-catching, often elegant, eviscerations of the elite and were earned by a starting 11 whose combined cost was less than Stewart Downing's £20 million fee.
No team ended the campaign in better form, but results were secured as a philosophy was advertised. Far from being the archetypal relegation scrappers, Wigan brought purist passing to a dogfight. If Gary Caldwell, Emmerson Boyce and James McArthur can play some of the best football in the Premier League, it raises the question of what more gifted individuals can achieve under Martinez's tutelage.
Keeping Wigan in the Premier League for three successive seasons while recording a transfer-market profit and reducing the wage bill is an accomplishment. To do so uncomplainingly ought to endear him to chairmen everywhere. While many managers' default reaction to a disappointing run of results is to ask for more money, Martinez found the answer within his squad.
After autumn's eight successive defeats, he started to repair his failing side by recalibrating it. November's 3-3 draw with Blackburn saw the DW Stadium debut of a 3-4-3 formation that marked Martinez out as an innovative thinker. By the middle of the March, the system had been fine-tuned. Wigan were creating angles to out-pass and out-think opponents. Martinez's ethos started to look seductive.
And yet major clubs must weigh up his obvious potential against the reality that he is unproven at the upper end of the table. While Martinez is no one-season wonder, Wigan finished 11th under Steve Bruce and have never come higher than 15th under the Spaniard. The merits of managing Wigan are that losing runs attract comparatively little attention. As Roy Hodgson discovered, a blip at Fulham can go unnoticed; at Liverpool, it can prompt talk of crises. Moreover, Martinez will never work with a chairman as accommodating as Whelan again. Others will put more pressure on their manager.
An examination of Martinez's record prompts questions as to whether his teams are ruthless enough or, in a criticism also levelled at Liverpool, they merely dominate at home without taking the points. Wigan went seven months without a victory at the DW Stadium this season. In part, it is because they lack a clinical finisher, a regular problem for impoverished teams. Yet this is where Martinez's otherwise admirable record in the transfer market is poorest. While nine of the 11 that defeated United were his recruits - Boyce and Maynor Figueroa are the exceptions - he also signed Jason Scotland, Mauro Boselli, Conor Sammon and Franco Di Santo for Wigan. It is an understatement to say none was prolific: spurned chances were a theme of Wigan's season and their chance conversion rate was little higher than Liverpool's.
Money, of course, creates opportunities. Were a wealthier employer to appoint him, Martinez need not buy a central midfield partnership from Hamilton Academicals (although James McCarthy, too, has the ability to step up). But it will provide a test of his judgement: could he identify and mould world-class footballers? For that matter, could he handle the egos some multi-millionaires possess? Motivating and galvanising lesser players may be a less complex task. It is why Martinez, like the other overachievers Brendan Rodgers and Paul Lambert, represents an unknown for the top clubs - his experience of management is very different to the demands placed upon the best.
But this is the Catch-22 situation the emerging manager is placed in: without the experience of managing at the elite level and a track record of winning trophies, how can be prove he is capable of it? It is why choosing a man like Martinez is a leap of faith, but a 38-year-old who played a solitary top-flight game has travelled a long way in a short time, even if it was from Boston to Boston.