Thursday, November 15, 2012
Wigan rise above expectations
Around the corridors of Wigan's DW Stadium, there is a real sense of business and bustle. In one corner, manager Roberto Martinez is talking to a group of coaches about the future of their profession and potential evolution in the game. In another, a club employee who doubles as player liaison officer is having to sort out a plumber for one of the squad's foreign players who can't yet speak English.
As the official puts it, this is the workload of a club Wigan's size. What's more, this is how a club Wigan's size ultimately operates: on trust, on building relationships, on sharing burdens.
Despite that, all the activity - as well as recent results - mean it's difficult not to form the impression that Wigan are looking to move beyond their supposed level, to go places. There is a genuine sense of energy about the place.
Duly, Martinez runs into the club's meeting room and breathlessly apologises for taking his time. He needn't worry, though, because he immediately keeps talking for an hour about everything from his appreciation for the Barcelona approach to the recession in Spain, his positive relationship with Roy Keane and even visiting Auschwitz during Euro 2012.
Until, finally, one question causes him to pause. It's the day after Celtic have pulled off one of the most sensational results in modern Champions League history by beating that very Barcelona team Martinez so admires.
A renowned proponent of a proactive, possession game himself, the Wigan manager is asked whether he would feel comfortable replicating Neil Lennon's defensive approach against the Catalans. In other words, would he temporarily compromise his philosophy?
For the only time in an hour, he hesitates, clearly thinking about it. Of course, the reason that many bigger clubs have been thinking about Martinez is because he presided over a series of similar results himself. Among the scalps that Wigan have claimed in the last few years have been Arsenal, Newcastle United, Tottenham Hotspur, Liverpool and Manchester United.
The difference, however, is that they did not pragmatically play the percentages in order to level the playing the field; Martinez proactively went toe to toe with such sides and took the game to their level.
This weekend, Martinez will have the opportunity to replicate one of those results by returning to Anfield. The Spaniard describes his team's 2-1 victory there last season as one of a few "turning points" in Wigan's campaign.
Had things gone a bit differently during the summer, though, it could have been Martinez in the home bench this weekend. Back in May, just after Kenny Dalglish had departed Anfield, the Spaniard was photographed meeting club owner John Henry in Miami while his Wigan counterpart Dave Whelan even spoke publicly about how Liverpool had offered Martinez a job. So, what happened?
"Well, everything I did was in full view of the chairman and with his permission," he says. "In the summer, it was decided [that I would] take a bit of a breather. We had always spoken about how we would give it three years and then see, so it was the end of that period. That was the time I had to reflect and allow the chairman to reflect.
"The key for me is that the club has to have the same aims and ideas as me. Once I sat down with the chairman [of Wigan] and I heard what he wanted to do, it was clear we were going to get ready for the next chapter."
So did he reject Liverpool's approach?
"Well, things have moved on now and there is another manager in the job, so I do not think it would be appropriate to comment on that. I am happy with the plans for this football club."
Martinez, evidently, is too diplomatic to discuss what happened given that Brendan Rodgers is now in place at Anfield. His comment that any club has to be fully in synch with his vision and philosophy, however, is revelatory.
Because, although he will not admit or talk about it, there have been suggestions from those close to both clubs that Martinez went cool on Liverpool because he would not have had full control at Anfield. Ultimately, he would have been no more than a head coach, rather than an actual manager in the guise of Alex Ferguson or Arsene Wenger. Beyond the pitch, he supposedly would have lacked a full say in philosophy or future direction.
And, when you start to hear Martinez's plans for Wigan, you realise why that is so important to him - not to mention that Liverpool might well have missed out.
Martinez is in the process of overseeing a full "Spanish-style" academy at the club, while also improving the training facilities.
"We want to get to the point where we have a philosophy, an approach going right through the club, playing particular formations. Once you give young players that technical base, they can adapt to many situations."
Those close to the Wigan manager say he is someone who hates the idea of people seeing their profession as "just a job" as opposed to a fulfilling career, and he himself offers a revealing explanation.
"It's all about the brand you're trying to build as a club. You've got to work like you're going to be in charge of a club for 100 years, not just three."
The key question, then, is what he thinks Wigan's ceiling is; when will be the right time to move on? His response, however, makes it feel somewhat irrelevant.
"Well, you only have to look where we were when I first arrived at Wigan in 1995."
The answer is going nowhere in the old Third Division. To put it into context, it would be like lifting Rochdale to such levels now. As such, he doesn't "really like to talk of ceilings". Should Wigan ever go back down a division themselves, though, they won't face the trouble others do.
Their current plans for expansion and progress have come on the back of equally impressive economic management too. By gradually fazing out players on big wages while cannily replacing them with astutely scouted imports and graduates, Wigan now have one of the surest financial footings in the Premier League. Not only are they more resistant to big offers for their better players, they are "parachute proof" in the event of going down. A firesale in order to ease wages would not be required.
Of course, Wigan are now looking to move to the next stage beyond perpetual relegation battles. The first steps have already been taken, as recent results and the current point haul have been in stark contrast to last season's disastrous start.
Interestingly, Martinez puts part of that down to sales themselves. Because his passing approach is based on deeper integration and understanding between players, a batch of summer sales frequently interrupt that process. This season, Wigan only lost Victor Moses and Momo Diame, while bringing in the excellent Arouna Kone and thereby keeping the overall balance.
"Part of it is to do with finding the right partnerships, finding the right context in the way you want to play. We invest in talent but that takes time."
That notion of investment, or perhaps even belief and faith in players, is key. Martinez is not just a rare manager of a lesser club in how he refused to leap at the first better opportunity, but also how he approaches the players. Whereas more pragmatic managers like Sam Allardyce accept the perceived limits of their players and look to work within them, Martinez attempts to push those limits.
That may mean the risk is much greater, but so are the rewards. Because, while the club may suffer for the lack of a defensive blanket while their possession game isn't sufficiently developed, they can make greater strides when it is.
Indeed, that contrast has been evident in various ways throughout Martinez's three and a half years at the club. Last season, they began with a run of eight games without a win but ended it by picking up more points than both Manchester United and City in the last nine games. Similarly, his first visit to Tottenham ended with a 9-1 defeat. His last saw a 1-0 win.
"I learnt so much about my team in that [9-1 loss]," Martinez says. "And the most important part was not the defeat but that, in the next game, we beat Sunderland 1-0. That showed the character and development of the team. How we responded. I also felt it was such vindication for our approach to end up finishing last season with more points than the top two over the same period."
Despite such contrasts and the risks they carry in terms of belief and momentum, Martinez has never doubted - not even during last season's worst moments - that his approach is worth it. It's all about the bigger picture.
"If you do not attempt to always apply your own game, then you can only ever be dependent on what the opposition is doing."
Which, of course, brings us back to playing Barcelona. Would he do what Celtic - or even Chelsea - did in order to win? Still weighing it up, he finally answers.
"Well, first of all, it's a cup competition so it's elimination. In the league it's different because you're trying to win long-term.
"Secondly, I think Barcelona are the only team in the world against whom you're allowed to compromise your approach. They play every game on their terms."
Ultimately, though, that is the level Martinez is aiming for - in every sense.