This piece originally appeared on thinkfootball.co.uk.
As someone who firmly believes that style is substance – at least in football, anyway – it feels slightly uncouth to question a manager so committed to doing things ‘the right way’. However, Wigan’s results under Roberto Martínez have been so underwhelming for so long that it seems only right to put him under the microscope.
A charismatic and charming operator, Martínez has established a solid reputation for the way he educates players, fans and reporters alike. Managers the calibre of Sir Alex Ferguson and Arsène Wenger are happy to loan him their youngsters, believing that he will train them intelligently and progress their development into capable first-teamers.
The respect in the game for the Spaniard comes less from his time in North West England than his spell in South West Wales. Like his current Wigan side, his team at Swansea played attractive, proactive football and introduced a number of players destined for bigger things.
His record in the transfer market was excellent: much of the Swans’ current side impressing in the Premier League was signed by Martínez. Players like Ashley Williams, Àngel Rangel and Nathan Dyer signed for minimal fees, were educated and would now go for relatively big money. Joe Allen, a player who would eventually net Swansea £15m, began his first team career under the Spaniard and never looked back.
Tactically, the Swans were excellent. Leon Britton, Darren Pratley and Jordi Gómez became a midfield trio more cultured than anything the Championship has seen before or since. Their system was configured expertly to get the best out of Jason Scotland, a player who scored for fun for Swansea but has struggled since leaving the club. While never really resilient, the defence did well by Championship standards.
Most importantly, Martínez got results. His win percentage of 50.4% is the second highest in the club’s history. At Wigan, things have been different. Clearly, they would be: in a division as financially skewed as the Premier League, the Latics’ minuscule budget means they are never going to win anything close to half of their league games. Under Martínez, securing fifteenth place is considered a tremendous achievement.
Indeed, with money such a deciding factor, Wigan have to focus less on winning games and more on continually finding obscure individual talents that can be signed, improved, placed in the shop window and sold on for a hefty profit. They have succeeded in this aim, selling the likes of Charles N’Zogbia, Antonio Valencia and Victor Moses for sizeable sums in recent years.
With that business model in mind, assessing results alone can be slightly misleading. That said: they still matter. If a manager is improving his players then they will generally succeed more often and results will improve. This has not proved the case. Furthermore, it is not just bad results that have alarm bells ringing but also the general incompetence that has become a hallmark of Martínez’s Wigan. It is one thing to play well and lose but something altogether different to fail whilst playing terribly.
Of those that Martínez is hoping to sell in order to keep the Latics afloat, Maynor Figueroa, Franco Di Santo, James McCarthy and James McArthur are the cream of the crop. All have underperformed this season and look unlikely to move on for significant fees any time soon. When looking at each individual performer, one must wonder whether the reasons for their stagnation relate to their training.
There is no denying that Figueroa impressed in his first seasons in English football. His energetic and productive performances earned him scores of admirers and the Honduran has been close to leaving the DW Stadium on at least two occasions. In each case, the prospective buyer baulked at the last minute. His erratic performances this season, typical of a player in Wigan’s defence, have shown why.
Di Santo did enough in 2011-12 to earn a call-up to the Argentina side in the autumn international break. While news of his call-up was surprising, there is no denying that Di Santo improved hugely last season, his growing nous and confidence positively influencing games despite the striker never being a prolific goalscorer. Sadly, Di Santo has regressed since his debut for his country, scoring one goal, providing one assist and making bad decisions with increased regularity. The intelligence and dynamism that got him into Alejandro Sabella’s squad has vanished.
McCarthy and McArthur do an excellent job of keeping the ball but they too have yet to progress in terms of their defensive play, committing a high number of fouls and getting booked with worrying regularity. With Martínez favouring a 3-4-1-2 system and attacking down the flanks or through his trequartista, he simply cannot afford to place defensive responsibility on youngsters so vulnerable to counter-attacks. Not only does he negatively influence results by doing so, he makes his prize assets unattractive to potential buyers.
In each of the players’ cases, the problem is not that they have no talent – if they were obviously useless, why would bigger clubs be looking at them? – the issue is more that the flaws bigger clubs note but expect to disappear over time remain as prominent as ever. Simply put: they are not learning. If that is the case, their coach must be questioned.
The statistics website WhoScored analyses data to give an intelligible assessment, akin to a scouting report, of each team. According to their page, Wigan have one strength and eight significant weaknesses. This is not the report card of a well-coached side.
For a side thought of as stylish but flawed, it comes as a surprise to find that Wigan’s strength is not creating scoring chances or producing moments of individual skill, but the more prosaic protection of a lead. This is even more surprising given that Wigan have only won five of their league games this season.
I would perhaps be generous and add keeping the ball and completing a high percentage of passes to Wigan’s strengths column but there can be little doubt about the veracity of those in the latter. Simply put, Wigan are fine at controlling the midfield but do not do enough at either end of the pitch, be it in terms of quantity or quality.
For example, one of the reasons Di Santo does not score many goals is that he does not take many shots, averaging a paltry two per game. Somehow, only two Wigan players take more. A man as well-versed in sports psychology as Martínez would surely be familiar with Wayne Gretzky’s maxim ‘you miss one-hundred-per-cent of the shots you don’t take’, yet he appears to ignore it.
In terms of defending, Martínez’s Wigan have long been the benchmark when it comes to farcical slapstick – even by the Premier League’s increasingly worrying standard. This is perhaps because Martínez exclusively uses the style of coaching prevalent on the Iberian Peninsula, geared towards dominating the ball and developing good decision-making on an individual basis, but that must surely be augmented with some defensive drilling – particularly when managing a club with Wigan’s resources.
This all makes the fact that Martínez will eventually move to a club bigger than Wigan very confusing. A popular refrain when Brendan Rodgers took the Liverpool job was that he was getting credit for work that was not his own; that he had simply continued the job begun by the Swansea board and Martínez and gleefully reaped the benefits. Many said plainly that Rodgers’ phenomenal seasons with Swansea were a fluke. Looking at the two managers’ recent performances, however, it is Roberto Martínez that looks more like a flash in the pan.