Bright-eyed, congenial, eloquent as they come, Roberto Martinez is the kind of character people in the game love, with good reason. In the past year alone, he has led our unfashionable Wigan to survival on a shoestring budget in the most principled of ways. Then, he follows it up with an encore of rare football loyalty, turning down an offer from a much bigger club that would double his paycheck, not to mention spending power in the transfer market. The chairman treats him like a son, guaranteeing him a job for life. It’s a match made in heaven.
And it doesn’t stop there. His relationship with the club — and town — dates back to 1995, when he arrived as a player with fellow amigos Isidro Diaz and Jesus Seba, scored on his debut, finished club top scorer and was voted player of the year in the old Division 3. His return was to Wigan as a manager was greeted as that of the prodigal son, and rightfully so.
Fast forward to present. 19th in the league, fresh off a mistake-riddled 6th consecutive defeat, this time to our despised local rivals. Supporters have taken to the web and are understandably upset. If Martinez’s lineup on Saturday raised some eyebrows at kick-off, even more at full-time. Specifically, the inclusion of Steve Gohouri at left-back when both Maynor Figueroa and Patrick Van Aanholt were available; and the conservative decision to field James McCarthy in an unfamiliar left-wing role when more natural — an adventurous — options were available for the position.
The odd thing is that while these might have been mistakes, it is not individual tactical mistakes at the root of the fans’ growing frustration with Roberto. Deeper is the feeling that he is too rigid, unwilling to adjust his formation and style of play to accommodate the players available or the situation faced.
One recurring debate is his deployment of Hugo Rodallega on the left-wing ala David Villa — a goalscorer playing as a winger, cutting in and joining the centre-forward in attack. The idea is a good one, and sometimes works, but in practice Hugo is more limited than David Villa. He doesn’t have much dribbling, his crossing is not particularly good. He is most productive as a striker, playing alongside another striker. His best days came under Steve Bruce in a 4-4-2, with Heskey his partner.
The Rodallega conundrum is central to most fans’ concerns about Martinez. When you’re a goal down, at home, against weak opposition, why not switch from one centre-forward to two? The midfield could easily shift its shape to accommodate, while both Di Santo and Sammon would offer muscular foils for the Colombian. So many players have struggled in that lone centre-forward role, starved of service. Our wingers have not scored a goal this season, is there not a plan B? (And more importantly, shouldn’t plan B involve two strikers?)
My take on all this — and it has taken several days to reconcile with the Bolton performance — is that we owe him time and support to turn it around. It’s too easy, and not fair, to turn on him after a deeply frustrating match, in which three individual errors lost us the game. His system just about worked last season, once the squad was fit. It sounds foreign at the moment, but he had managed to make Wigan hard to beat. His defense was organized, his players fired up, and his key man Charles N’Zogbia (read Victor Moses for this season) started delivering goals. Once again, he has been terribly unlucky with injuries this time out. Whereas captain Gary Caldwell missed the first third of last season, Antolin Alcaraz has been out this time. Emmerson Boyce has missed games. Instability is a defense’s worst enemy, and Roberto has had more of that in defense than any other manager in the league.
Lets try to keep this all in perspective too. Anyone aware of Latics’ financial challenges (this article is essential reading) knows we are basically asking Roberto to perform miracles. His first moves were to free the club of big earners such as Titus Bramble, Paul Scharner, Mario Melchiot, Lee Cattermole. I would imagine Mo Diame, James McCarthy, Victor Moses, Antolin Alcaraz are making half the wages of their predecessors, which allows the club can keep ticket prices low, continue to expand it’s supporter base, and hopefully eventually compete on slightly more level playing field. The fact that Bolton were able to buy a young striker who made 63 appearances for Liverpool illustrates the gulf between even those two clubs in terms of transfer market spending power and allure. Ali Al-Habsi and Franco Di Santo remain the only players signed directly by Roberto Martinez from other Premier League clubs, and they were both reserves. He’s basically being asked to survive in the premier league with a team of players plucked from inferior leagues.
So, I’m supporting him. He’s a young manager and will make mistakes. But he’s been unlucky. If Jordi’s shot had gone in at Swansea, or Victor’s, or Ben’s penalty, Dave Jones’ lob at Goodison — any one of those would have pulled us out of the relegation zone. Unfortunately, the Bolton match was the kind that sours everything else. But you can bet he will be using this example to stamp out those kinds of mistakes. And who knows, given our players’ apparent need for a wake-up call, perhaps it’s a blessing in disguise that the relegation battle starts so early this year.