Mixed messages mean Martinez had to go

martinez sunderland

Results are, of course, what determine the future of any manager and Roberto Martinez has paid the price for Everton’s. But the pressure on the Spaniard from supporters wasn’t entirely down to results. Communication – or a lack thereof – is what led to the unrest that eventually made his position untenable.

It’s one thing to see your team lose. It’s another thing entirely to be told what you had just seen was one thing when you knew it to be another. Martinez repeatedly told fans post-match that Everton had worked hard, that they had been unlucky, that this or that had been the cause of the latest defeat. He said after Everton drew 1-1 at home with Southampton in March that ‘it’s a good point in the way we had to fight very hard to cope with a demanding fixture.’

“Sometimes you have to dig in and work hard and that came out very clearly,” he continued, but where Martinez saw an Everton side ‘digging in and working hard,’ the Goodison Park crowd saw an Everton side outplayed, at home, again. Southampton had 17 shots to Everton’s seven, and Ronald Koeman left Merseyside regretting his team could only take a point. “I’m really disappointed because it was a big opportunity to win the game, right from the start,” he said, displaying the kind of ambition and awareness many feel Everton lack.

Martinez was forever positive. He found positives throughout this horrid season, even with home defeats to Leicester City, Stoke City, Swansea City, West Brom, West Ham and more. This is statistically Everton’s worst-ever season at Goodison. That Southampton draw was followed by a home win over Bournemouth but in between Everton lost two of their most important games of the season – a 4-0 hammering at Anfield by Liverpool in the Merseyside derby, and the FA Cup semi-final against Manchester United, having failed to turn up for the first 45 minutes.

The former Wigan manager told fans one thing when the evidence pointed another way. It raised the question exactly what he was telling the players – was he working to iron out their faults, or assuring them that everything they were doing was right? The number of players who have markedly improved under Martinez is slim. John Stones makes the same defensive mistakes today as he did three years ago, Seamus Coleman and Leighton Baines have had their attacking threat neutered, Ross Barkley has stalled and Romelu Lukaku still only shows in flashes that he would be good enough for the Champions League team his agent so clearly wishes he was at.

Baines spoke of a lack of chemistry in the team – and he was absolutely right, with no partnerships comparable to his old connection with Steven Pienaar – but was shouted down by Martinez. That kind of incident led to speculation Martinez had ‘lost the dressing room,’ whatever that means, and the frail performances against Liverpool, Leicester and Sunderland only fuelled the fire.

But Martinez had lost the supporters. First the reactionaries, then the moderates, then the loyalists. It was hard to see how Martinez could continue even before the Sunderland capitulation – the final game of the season, at home to relegated Norwich, would have been ugly. Martinez sounded desperate after losing to the Black Cats, as desperate as Everton’s performance, but more realism, more self-criticism and less stubbornness could have prevented the situation deteriorating to that point.

The battle for Premier League survival intensifies

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Entering the penultimate weekend of the Premier League Season, the battle to avoid relegation between Newcastle, Norwich and Sunderland is finely poised.

Following Newcastle’s recent resurgence under Rafa Benitez, the Magpies have climbed out of the relegation zone, after collecting 8 points from the last available 12.  That excellent run of form, beginning after a 3-2 defeat away to Norwich, has been inspired by the outstanding play of Andros Townsend and far improved defensive performances, directed by stand-in goalkeeper Karl Durlow.

Ironically since then the Canaries have lost each of their previous three games to slide to 19th place in the table, one below Sunderland who recently defeated Alex Neil’s side 3-0 at Carrow Road.

Subsequently the Black Cats have maintained their survival prospects by earning two creditable draws at home to Arsenal and away to Stoke.

Jermain Defoe’s last minute equaliser at the Brittania Stadium moved Sam Allardyce’s men to within a point of their fiercest rivals Newcastle as the battle for Premier League Survival intensifies.

Although this weekend none of the three sides involved can either secure safety or be relegated, the outcome of the fixtures will go a long way to determining the team who is to continue playing in the top flight next season.  The reward – along with the prestige – of doing so is estimated to be at least £100m.

In the ascendancy to earn that are Newcastle, who travel full of confidence to Villa Park to face already relegated Aston Villa. Victory for the Magpies is vital in their efforts to survive, since they have played a game more than both Norwich and Sunderland, who host Manchester United and Chelsea respectively.

As previously mentioned contrasting to Newcastle’s recent upturn in form, Norwich have lost 3 consecutive games, whilst Sunderland have collected only 5 points from their last available 27.

The Black Cats are well versed in finishing seasons strongly, as they have done in each of the past three seasons, and will require to do so again to retain their Premier League Status.  Ironically following tomorrow’s fixtures their remaining two opponents are the same as those of Norwich – mid-table Everton and Watford.

St James’ Park will be the venue for Newcastle’s final game against runners-up Tottenham, a week on Sunday, when the outcome of the battle for survival will be determined.  Should the Magpies emerge from that triumphant, then Mike Ashley’s decision to replace Steve McClaren with Rafa Benitez at the beginning of March will undoubtedly prove to be one of his best as Newcastle owner.

Premier League clubs in danger of following Aston Villa’s example

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This Premier League season has given the middle ranking teams in the division hope for the future – hope that they could ‘do a Leicester City’ and launch a surprise title challenge. But the plight of Aston Villa should be a warning to those same sides, and some of the ones above as well.

It’s not that long ago that Villa were among a clutch of clubs in contention for a Champions League place. That they will start next season in the Championship instead is a legacy of years of mismanagement – of selling the team’s most important players and not re-investing that money in the squad, of spending money poorly when it was spent, and of regrettable managerial appointments that were more intended to manage the team’s decline, not taking it to the next level.

Villa, from European football under Martin O’Neill, now belong to the likes of Swindon Town, Sunderland and Derby County as the worst teams, on a points basis, to feature in the Premier League. A confused management structure, an uninterested owner, an unbalanced squad and the wrong man in the dugout have all culminated in an inevitable – but not unavoidable – drop to the second tier.

The fate of the Midlands club was sealed long before relegation was confirmed. The writing was on the wall for some time, and for some clubs, the beginning of the same process can be seen. Action needs to be taken now to avoid following the same path, with Stoke City, Swansea City and Crystal Palace all offering warning signs, though it’s Everton who should be most concerned.

Everton and Villa engaged in some epic encounters when David Moyes and O’Neill sat on the respective benches. They’re now separated by some 25 points, Villa rock bottom of the table and the Toffees hovering in mid-table. There were only nine points between them in 2014-15, when Everton finished 11th and Villa 17th, down from the 34 of 2013-14, Roberto Martinez’s first year at Goodison Park. Everton racked up 72 points then – in the two seasons to follow, they’ve managed only 16 more than in that one campaign.

The Blues’ FA Cup run, ended on Saturday in semi-final defeat to Manchester United, shouldn’t cloud the assessment – this is a team in trouble. No wins in seven games, no clean sheets in seven games, only four home league wins all season – Villa the only team with fewer – and only nine clean sheets in 34 league games are troubling statistics. Then there’s the signing of striker Oumar Niasse, a purchase of almost £14m with no starts and no goals since January, and concern over the future of John Stones and Romelu Lukaku. For them, read Fabian Delph and Christian Benteke.

Everton’s potential slide to Villa-like depths is still at the avoidable stage. There is still time for owner Bill Kenwright and new investor and major shareholder Farhad Moshiri to arrest the decline. Doing so won’t be easy – and it will start with a new manager – but it can be done. And it has to be, otherwise next season it could be Everton who do a Villa.

Centurion Aguero set for new lease of life under Guardiola

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Sergio Aguero confirmed his status as the greatest goal scorer the Premier League has seen since Alan Shearer when reaching 100 goals for Manchester City in a rate bettered by only the former England captain, ironically enough at Shearer’s former St James’ Park home.

Aguero’s century – the landmark goal itself being clearly offside – has delivered two Premier League titles in his five years at the Etihad Stadium, one more than Shearer won with Southampton, Blackburn Rovers and Newcastle United, and at 27, it’s reasonable to assume there’s more to come. Pep Guardiola will replace Manuel Pellegrini in the summer, and Aguero will surely form the centre point of the new coach’s attack.

Guardiola will find a lot to like in Aguero. He’s got almost as much ingenuity as compatriot Lionel Messi, but with an even more potent goal scorer’s edge. Messi might have more goals than Aguero but he isn’t the same penalty box predator. Much of his good work is done outside the 18-yard-zone, and he appears to get as much if not more satisfaction from an assist. Aguero is a poacher.

Any system Guardiola employs in Manchester will have to be designed to get the best from Aguero, and his burgeoning relationship with Kevin de Bruyne is encouraging in that regard. Quite how the pair line up, never mind the other eight outfield players, is nigh on impossible to predict, even considering Guardiola’s past preferences. He’s an innovator, and it could be time for something entirely different.

Guardiola’s arrival may also be what keeps Aguero at City. The 2013-14 title success feels a long time ago now and as the continent’s big clubs shuffle their packs – Zlatan Ibrahimovic likely leaving Paris Saint-Germain, Cristiano Ronaldo’s Real Madrid future in doubt and Barcelona looking for MSN alternatives – Aguero is sure to have caught the eye. A move to Ligue 1 might be a retrograde step at this point in Kun’s career, Los Blancos would be complicated by his Atletico Madrid past, and Aguero may not be keen to compete with Messi, Neymar and Luis Suarez, but logic isn’t always what dictates such transfers.

So Aguero looks sure to stay with City a while yet, and it’s intriguing to consider how he might dovetail with Guardiola – and whoever arrives with the Catalan. Aguero and Pep should find common ground and with it more trophies, and more goals. Aguero’s first 100 came in 174 games – how long until his second?

Nolito, no Liga?

nolito efl

From nine points clear to level with five games to go, Barcelona’s awesome autumn and wonderful winter has become a stressful spring. And yet Luis Enrique effectively foretold the problems that have dogged his side in the past few weeks, but the Catalans’ board didn’t pay heed, or perhaps couldn’t.

Enrique wanted Celta Vigo forward Nolito in January, and he wanted him badly. Lucho and Nolito were together at Barca B and Balaidos and the Coach wanted a third spell in the Spain international’s company. Enrique plainly recognised that below Lionel Messi, Luis Suarez and Neymar the forward ranks were thin, with only two promising but out-of-their-depth youngsters available beyond the MSN.

Sandro Ramirez and Munir El Haddadi may one day lead the Barcelona line, but they’re not on that level yet. Asking either cantera product to deputise for Messi, Suarez or Neymar is a step too far. Enrique’s insistence on signing Nolito shows he knew reinforcements were needed and Nolito, having helped Celta rout Barca in Vigo early in the season, was the chosen one.

Reports at the time said that Celta wouldn’t budge from the €18m release clause in Nolito’s contract, but Barca were in January financially unable to meet it. Doing so would have taken the club past the debt limit enshrined in their own statutes, and so it was either a deal delayed until the summer, when Barca’s cash flow was more manoeuvrable, or try to talk Celta into a loan. The former could still happen but the latter didn’t, and Barca are paying for it now.

Enrique deserves some criticism too, though. He was reportedly insistent that it be Nolito or no one, and no one it was. He also declined to use any substitutes as Barca lost to Valencia, saying after the match that his players were performing well, so why change it? But the value of fresh legs and fresh ideas can’t be ignored. And Enrique did change something, using Gerard Pique as an auxiliary striker, for the fourth game in a row. His comments and his actions aren’t compatible, even if his options on the bench were limited.

This was a Barca bench with four full-backs – Dani Alves, Douglas, Aleix Vidal and Adriano – and only Munir as a forward. The Barca first XI is spectacularly talented but the squad is woefully shallow. It mattered not when the team was sweeping aside the opposition, 39 times in a row between losing to Sevilla in October and Real Madrid in April. But now, when the momentum is the other way, it’s hard to reverse. Enrique can’t turn to an old head – such as Henrik Larsson or David Villa in the past – and won’t use the options he does have.

Stubbornness from the Coach, a lack of foresight from the sporting director and straightjacket winter finances could take the title away from Camp Nou.

The Martinez myth

martinez efl

Most pundits will tell you Everton play good football under Roberto Martinez – that if only the Spaniard could sort out the Toffees’ defence, and their home form, they’d be much higher up the Premier League table.

It’s a judgement that doesn’t stand up to much scrutiny. Even the phrase itself doesn’t make much sense. What is good football, anyway? Watching the two defensive midfielders exchange passes with the two centre-backs isn’t exactly thrilling. And there’s an argument that the best football is the football that gets results – and since Everton have won nine games out of 29 in the league, only four of which have been at home with eight defeats, that’s hardly the case here. Last but not least is the fact that defending is as much a part of football as attacking, and Everton are woeful in that area.

It should also be noted that, contrary to revisionist history, David Moyes’ Everton could be easy on the eye. In particular, the trio of Leighton Baines, Steven Pienaar and Marouane Fellaini producing some sparkling stuff down the left wing, as good as anything Martinez’s teams have displayed. It’s perhaps the biggest indictment of Martinez’s tactics that almost three years into his reign, there’s no comparable partnership developed. There’ve been flashes, between Romelu Lukaku and Ross Barkley, or Lukaku and Gerard Deulofeu or Lukaku and Aaron Lennon, but they’re the exception, not the rule.

The Everton that fell to Arsenal on Saturday was more representative of the team under Martinez than the victory over Chelsea a week earlier. Stifled by their own possession philosophy, Everton were impotent. Everyone comes towards the ball, no one runs off it. This is a team with exciting and dynamic players such as Lukaku and Barkley, and Deulofeu sitting on the bench, who want to run with the ball at defences. Instead Lukaku plays with his back to goal, Barkley is tethered to always coming deep and Deulofeu can’t get in the team. It’s a counter-attacking side trying to square the circle of playing the manager’s possession game.

It’s 4-2-3-1, no matter what. It’s a high defensive line, no matter what. It’s two holding midfielders no matter the personnel or the opposition. It’s a confused transfer policy that in January saw £13m spent on Oumar Niasse, who has barely made a ripple with April around the corner. It’s questionable substitutions, an inability to hold onto a lead, the same post-match comments over and over regardless of performance or result and always looking for someone or something else to blame and it’s fair to say Evertonians are tired of what they’re seeing and hearing. It’s a manager liked personally, but no longer wanted.

Everton’s FA Cup run might be Martinez’s saving grace, but really shouldn’t be. Victories over Dagenham and Redbridge, Carlisle United, Bournemouth and Chelsea don’t make a successful season. Martinez may yet deliver Everton’s first trophy since 1995. He could lead them to a semi-final defeat, as Moyes did in 2012. Either way, the end of the season presents the right time for Everton and Martinez to part company. This is a squad of young talents at a club now with a wealthy investor. There’s little evidence to suggest Martinez is the right man to sit in the dugout in what could be a transformative time.

Capital One Cup could herald new dawn for Klopp’s Liverpool

liverpool city celebration

Jurgen Klopp takes Liverpool to the first of what he and the Reds fans hope will be many cup finals when, on Sunday, the German contests the Capital One Cup final against Manchester City and Manuel Pellegrini. Klopp has had a rude awakening to some of English football’s peculiarities, but one he should avoid going along with is the ease with which the League Cup is often dismissed.

A trophy is a trophy, and with Liverpool not in the running for the league title, they’re not in a position to turn their noses up at any silverware, and there appears to be a real appetite for claiming a ninth League Cup. But more than that, the League Cup can and has been the catalyst for greater success down the road, a way of instilling a winning mentality into a squad that isn’t necessarily used to landing trophies.

So it was in 2005, when Jose Mourinho, early in his first posting at Chelsea, took the Blues to victory in the same competition. Liverpool were, ironically, the opposition, Chelsea winning 3-2 after extra time in Cardiff in what was perhaps Mateja Kezman’s only notable accomplishment during his time at Stamford Bridge. Kezman scored the winner in the 112th minute, John Arne Riise having opened the scoring in the first minute. A Steven Gerrard own goal in the 79th took the game to extra time and Didier Drogba put Chelsea in front in the 107th. Antonio Nunez equalised before Kezman’s decisive effort.

Liverpool did go on to claim the Champions League that same year, but it wasn’t the start of a period of domination – just a one of a few cups claimed in the decade or more since. Chelsea, rather, developed that crucial winning feeling. The league title arrived a few months later and a second followed the very next season. Four FA Cup between 2007 and 2012, another League Cup in 2007, the Champions League in 2012 and the Europa League a year later – in all, from the 2005 League Cup win, Chelsea have 15 trophies to their name, Liverpool three.

Chelsea are the current League Cup holders, beating Tottenham Hotspur a year ago, a few months before winning the league. “Back in 2004 and 2005 [winning the League Cup] inspired us and kicked us on,” John Terry said after the 2015 success, adding: “It is the start of something.” Mourinho’s implosion arrested that version of Chelsea’s development but the point made by Terry, front and centre for every Chelsea success in the past 11 years, still stands. Having beaten City convincingly earlier in the season, the League Cup could be the start of something for Klopp’s Liverpool.

Klopp creating winning Liverpool side among the confusion

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Jurgen Klopp has been at Liverpool only a few months and it has been a tumultuous time – emphatic wins such as that against Aston Villa mixed with disappointing defeats, including the FA Cup exit at West Ham. But the German is putting together a thoroughly modern team – it’ll just take a while considering what he inherited.

Klopp is dealing with the legacy of the confused transfer strategy that eventually did for his predecessor, Brendan Rodgers, by foisting on him Mario Balotelli and not a striker better suited both for Rodgers’ high-tempo football and the pressure of top level football in general. Buying flavours-of-the-month, such as Dejan Lovren in defence or Christian Benteke in attack, wasn’t the answer either, and Rodgers’ tenure reached the point where his tactical flexibility, a boon as the Reds challenged for the title in 2014, only bred inconsistency.

But in Klopp’s first 30 games his idea is clear to see. While he has to solve the Benteke conundrum – and it may only be solved in the manner Rodgers dealt with Andy Carroll, a permanent exit – the intention is plain. Liverpool press higher and faster than even Rodgers’ team managed at their best, and in the likes of Philippe Coutinho, Robert Firmino and Daniel Sturridge, there’s the makings of a fluid, thrilling front three.

The commanding win over Villa was the best evidence of what Klopp is trying to achieve, but unfortunately for the ex-Borussia Dortmund trainer, he can’t play the Premier League’s worst team every week. That 6-0 victory was nevertheless impressive, roughly equivalent to winning 3-0 against a competent team, reminiscent of the excellent 4-1 win at Manchester City. Villa are poor but Liverpool made them appear worse than any other side have this season. Klopp’s side still had to take advantage of the sorry state of the Midlands side.

Keeping Sturridge fit – or finding a more reliable replacement if Klopp decides that’s simply not possible – is the next challenge, closely followed by maintaining the development of Emre Can, who could yet become a midfielder of genuine class, the orchestrator of the controlled frenzy that is Klopp’s style when it works to its maximum. After that comes working on that rickety defence, and making a decision over Simon Mignolet.

Klopp was left a long list of tasks by Rodgers – and, in truth by Rodgers’ predecessors and the transfer committee that has bequeathed such a misshapen squad. If anyone is capable of carrying out the rebuilding work required, fighting his superiors at times and placating supporters at others, it’s the likable man in the Anfield dugout. Liverpool could be on the verge of something great – but the peaks and troughs will continue a little while yet.

Messi pen: No disrespect, just street football genius


Barcelona should be about to go six points clear at the top of La Liga as on Wednesday they travel to Sporting Gijon for a game rearranged from December, and they do so on the back of a stirring second half display against Celta Vigo, one that included Lionel Messi’s not-at-all disrespectful penalty pass for Luis Suarez.

Messi didn’t cook up the idea with the intention of mocking Celta. He and Neymar – for the lay-off was meant for the Brazil international and not the Uruguayan, so it wasn’t about giving Suarez his hat-trick – discussed the idea in training on Friday. They couldn’t have done that setting out to make fun of the Galicians. Barca may be on fire but they’re thoroughly professional, and it’s hard to imagine any of their players expected to be so comfortable against a team that a few months ago beat them 4-1.

Those critics who feel Messi and Barca were lording it over Celta a little too much may have, it could be suggested, seen only the penalty, not the thrilling match that preceded it. Barca may have romped to a 6-1 win but that doesn’t tell the full story. Celta didn’t roll over at Camp Nou and were well worth half-time parity. They could even have gone ahead in the second half. Barca instead had to ride their luck and then dig down deep. The passed penalty was the ultimate expression of that, a sign Barca can and will find new ways to beat even the most dogged of opposition.

Barca didn’t rub their superiority in to Celta’s faces. They revelled in their own excellence, and there is a difference. Messi, Suarez and Neymar earned the right to bring out the tricks and the flicks in a second half played mostly at a stunning level. It was Barca’s 30th game unbeaten in a row, and rarely can they have been at such a high standard. Rarely can any team have been such at such a high standard.

For the penalty pass to be disrespectful then any kind of trick must be disrespectful. Step-overs? Gone. Unfair on the defender – though anyone who saw Messi leave Jony a broken wreck to win the spot kick in question might actually want the lollipop outlawed to save the embarrassment of the poor souls who have to stop the Argentine. Dummies at free kicks or in open play would have to go too. Rabona passes next. Anything that fools the opponent, as Messi’s penalty did, wouldn’t be welcomed if the moaners had their way.

But the penalty pass is allowed – though it has been suggested Suarez was technically encroaching as Messi played the ball. Rabona passes are fine too. And step-overs. And Cruyff turns, dummies, feints, swerves – anything brought from street football to finely-manicured turf that stays within the laws. And that is what Messi, Suarez and Neymar are – the world’s greatest street footballers, playing for love and enjoyment, and that should be cherished, not derided.

Busquets brings balance – but to Barca or Man City?

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Sergio Busquets admitted recently that only two people could convince him to leave Barcelona – his wife and Pep Guardiola. That should send alarm bells ringing among Blaugrana supporters, and not because Mrs. Busquets might fancy living elsewhere.

No, Busquets explained precisely why Guardiola has such a sway on him and, with Guardiola a few months away from taking over at Manchester City, the timing of the comments was interesting to say the least. Busquets is very much one of those modern day players who says little publically, so what he does say carries a lot of weight, and if he says it, he means it.

It should be noted that Busquets insisted he was happy at Barca, his club, and Guardiola’s club, but he left the door ajar to be tempted elsewhere. It wasn’t so much a come-and-get-me plea as a try-it-and-see-what happens invitation, Busquets hinting he wants to be part of Pep’s City revolution but not wanting to upset the club with which he has achieved so much success.

Guardiola may yet go back to Barca for Busquets and if he does, it would be easy to see why. Busquets is, more so even than Gerard Pique in defence, Andres Iniesta in midfield or Luis Suarez and Neymar in attack, the player who makes Barca tick. Only Lionel Messi can truly be said to be more important to Barca than Busquets, and even then there’s an argument to be made that part of Messi’s effectiveness is that he has Busquets behind him, keeping the ball moving, helping out in defence and starting attacks.

Busquets’ quietly, calmly destructive presence – destructive too harsh a word maybe for Busquets’ elegance – is something sorely lacking at Real Madrid, and perhaps too common at Atletico. Cristiano Ronaldo et al have no such destroyer in their team. Casemiro is the closest thing but, as Rafa Benitez discovered, defensive midfielders rarely find favour at the Santiago Bernabeu. Claude Makelele was a victim a decade or so earlier of the same issue, and the team suffered accordingly then as well.

Atletico have plenty of ball-winners in midfield – too many, perhaps, with only Antoine Griezmann and, to a degree, Yannick Ferreira-Carrasco there to genuinely trouble the opposition defence from open play. Diego Simeone has been unable to get a forward bar Griezmann to score regularly since Diego Costa was sold, Jackson Martinez having come and gone in the blink of an eye and Mario Mandzukic lasting only a season as well.

It’s Barca who have the right balance and Busquets is a major reason for it. And it’s that balance that Guardiola will want at City as well – someone to anchor the midfield, recycle possession and give Sergio Aguero, Kevin De Bruyne and whoever else is in his City selection the platform on which to play. Guardiola evidently holds the key to Busquets’ future, Busquets may hold the key to Guardiola’s City success.