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Roberto Martinez: Second Season Syndrome or Signs of a Bigger Problem?

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The arrival of Martinez at Everton was met with some trepidation by the fans. Despite an FA Cup victory boast on his CV, Martinez had suffered the indignity of Wigan’s relegation in the same season. Yet the entrance of the Spaniard promised the introduction of an attacking, high-intensity passing game which stood in stark contrast to the Everton tactics of the Moyes era. In his first press conference, the Toffee’s Chairman, Bill Kenwright, revealed Martinez’s bold promise: “I will deliver Champion’s League football at Everton”. For all associated to Everton these were high hopes indeed and somewhat deemed highly improbable and out of reach by many. By May, they would be surprised how close they actually came. Everton recorded their first league double over Man United for the first time since the 1969-70 season, spent large periods of time sitting in a Champion’s League spot, and ultimately finished with their record points tally for the Premier League; all whilst playing attractive, cultured football.

Yet Martinez’s second season stood in direct contrast: the dynamism of Everton’s play quickly became sluggish and stuttering. By Christmas, Everton sat in 12th place and as form began to slip further into the New Year, even Martinez openly admitted that they were involved in a relegation battle. Despite shining in Europe, a comprehensive defeat 5-2 on aggregate against Kiev allayed any possible cup success for Everton in what was an otherwise dismal season. Everton’s defensive line leaked goals, and the attacking players lacked their cutting edge. Was this downturn associated to the idea of the “Second Season Syndrome”: An unfortunate combination of bad luck, a downturn in form of key players, and injuries? Or are there bigger problems for Martinez and Everton: Inadequate transfer window acquisitions, a predictable game plan, and poor tactical switches?

There have certainly been elements of bad luck, or “Second Season Syndrome”, about Martinez’s management. It was nigh on impossible for Everton to field its 1st XI for the majority of the season, due to the sheer length of the injury list; indispensable members of the squad including Stones, Barkley, McCarthy and Lukaku all spent lengthy spells watching on from the sideline. The cash-strapped side lacks squad depth and this is quite clearly exemplified by their poor showing in the Premier League- notably no fault of Martinez.

Martinez will be hoping his players stay injury free this season. Steven Pienaar has already picked up an injury during pre-season.

Equally nobody, not least Martinez, could ever have predicted the drop in form of his defensive players: Barry, Distin, and Howard all shadows of their former selves. The latter was lauded at the World Cup for his shot-stopping ability, nicknamed the “Secretary of Defence”, and congratulated by the US President. Yet the Everton crowd at Goodison Park could have been forgiven for thinking that somebody else had boarded the plane back to Liverpool from Brazil after many of his performances. The 6-3 defeat to Chelsea is just one example in the season where Everton’s once settled and dominant back four produced a dismal performance resulting in a heavy defeat. In the 2014/15 season, Everton held the unfortunate boast of conceding the most goals through defensive errors- This sudden drop in team ability was unpredictable and again cannot be held against Martinez.

However, there are many factors relating to Everton’s slump in form that can and should be attributed to Martinez. Martinez was aware of the added pressure that competing in Europe would have upon the squad, yet no defensive cover was purchased in the windows, resulting in the squad looking rather threadbare. When injuries took hold, and player’s form fell,

Martinez had no plan B and was left over-relying on under-performing players. The jury also remains out on the manager’s forays into the transfer window: Arguably, the only true success has been the purchase of McCarthy who now looks a steal at £13m (Despite many raised Everton eyebrows at the price). The Spaniard raided his former, now Championship side for 3 players, leading to Everton being tongue in cheek renamed on Twitter as “Everton Athletic”: Robles has had little game time and looks unlikely to usurp the American shotstopper, Alcaraz has since left the club, and many Everton fans hope that when Kone’s name is anywhere near the team sheet it’s nothing more than a bad dream. Players like Lacina Traore, Atsu and even the headlining grabbing purchase of Eto’o, have come and gone without making any impact. Of course I am not forgetting either Lukaku or Deulofeu but honestly they have to remain in the “To be seen” category. They are both players of world class potential and that is undeniable. Whether they reach that potential (Or more saliently, whether they reach that potential under Martinez) is another question entirely.

Gerard Deulofeu (centre) and Romelu Lukaku (right) both have potential but their growth may be hindered by Martinez’s management.

Martinez’s tactics at times in his second season looked like him attempting to put square pegs into round holes. Like with his squad selection, there was no tactical plan B. He liked to play the 4-2-3-1 even if the fit players did not fit this tactic; Martinez would always try and make it work. This led to players like Barkley being utilised out on the Left Wing where it was obvious he was not comfortable. Equally while this game plan proved extremely effective in the first season, many teams learnt quite quickly how to combat it. If they placed players behind the ball, Everton did not have the creative spark upfront to break teams down. If they countered with pace they had a good chance of success against the Blues. Everton were second to none in the league for intricate passing around the pitch, leading to some joking after defeat, “at least we won the possession”. However, without Deulofeu, and with an injured Lukaku and Barkley, players like McGeady and Atsu did not have the ability to break down opposition sides. Therefore rather than decide to change tactics to fit the squad, Martinez tried and tried again without success. What’s the famous quote? “Insanity: doing the same thing over and over again and expecting different results.” Rather apt, no?

So what’s the prognosis, Doc’? Is there a cure for the syndrome, or is the condition terminal? It really remains to be seen how August pans out. A rejuvenated, more confident side finished the last season strongly. The purchases of Deulofeu and Cleverley for a combined figure of £4m have been two astute signings. However, if Martinez is not willing, or certainly not able, to shell out anymore money on players then Everton have to fear being left even further behind. Everton, so far in the window, remain by far one of the lowest spending teams. Thankfully for Everton fans there has seen to be a change in tactics within the preseason games: Martinez has played 3 holding midfielders: Barry, McCarthy and Barkley (With a license to get forward, and attack the opposition defence); and 3 up front: Lukaku leading the line with two attacking wingers playing either side normally Deulofeu and Mirallas. Despite a pre-season defeat to Arsenal in extremely hostile climatic conditions, this new tactic seems to be working effectively. If Everton can keep their star players (Stones to Chelsea for example), have a fully fit squad, and start the season strongly, the second season will be nothing more than a distant memory. Lose a couple of players, and start poorly, and Martinez will certainly be bookie’s favourite in the sack race. Luckily for Martinez, his fate this season lays in his own hands.

 

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Manchester United

How will Manchester United line up with Alexis Sanchez?

Rob Meech

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Photo: Reuters

The most highly-anticipated transfer of the January window has finally been confirmed. Alexis Sanchez is now officially a Manchester United player after joining from Arsenal in a swap deal with Henrikh Mkhitaryan. It is quite a coup for the Red Devils to have snatched the Chilean from the clutches of Manchester City, who had long been the frontrunners for his signature.

Sanchez scored 80 goals in 165 appearances for Arsenal and his arrival at Old Trafford significantly strengthens Jose Mourinho’s attacking resources. United are second in the Premier League, but lie a distant 12 points behind their Manchester rivals. So how might the Red Devils line up with Sanchez, who will wear the iconic number seven shirt?

What will have most attracted Mourinho to Sanchez is his ability to play in any number of attacking positions. Although his goalscoring ratio for both Barcelona and Arsenal is close to one in two, he would not be classed as an out-and-out striker.

Wenger did sometimes deploy the 29-year-old on his own up top, but more often than not the Gunners boss favoured him on the left of an attacking three, alongside the likes of Mesut Ozil and Olivier Giroud.

Mourinho is hardly short of forward options. He signed Romelu Lukaku from Everton last summer to spearhead the attack, while Marcus Rashford, Jesse Lingard, Anthony Martial and Paul Pogba have all shown to be more than capable of chipping in with goals.

Sanchez provides another dimension altogether, though. He is more physical than the aforementioned quartet and his tireless work-rate is exactly what Mourinho looks for.

Sanchez could rotate with Lukaku in the number nine role – or even play alongside hm in a front two – but it is more likely that he will occupy one of the three spots behind the Belgian.

When fit, British record signing Pogba is guaranteed to slot into a central role in front of a deep-lying central midfield pairing, which gives the Frenchman the freedom to express himself. That leaves one of the two wider positions, currently occupied by two of Rashford, Martial and Lingard.

Of late, Mourinho has opted for Martial and Lingard, both of whom have been in scintillating form with goals and assists aplenty. To leave out either would seem harsh, but given the high-profile nature of this signing, one will surely make way to accommodate Sanchez, whose inclusion may also help to get the best out of the unconvincing Lukaku.

If Mourinho’s vision is similar to Wenger’s, then the fall guy would appear to be Martial. However, the Portuguese may have other ideas and such is Sanchez’s versatility that the United manager knows he can select the Chile international anywhere in attack without diminishing his influence.

The increased competition for a starting berth can only benefit United and it certainly would not be a surprise to see Sanchez selected as a number nine, should Lukaku’s form continue to suffer.

With the Red Devils hoping to go deep into the latter stages of the Champions League as well as the FA Cup, the flexibility Sanchez offers will be invaluable in facilitating squad rotation. Games come thick and fast at this stage of the campaign and, consequently, player burn-out is a real possibility.

By landing Sanchez, United have issued a massive statement of intent. Despite an improved Premier League season, they will almost certainly have to watch on as City lift the title in May.

Whether the former Barcelona star is the man to shift the balance of power back towards the red half of Manchester remains to be seen. Nevertheless, he undoubtedly improves Mourinho’s squad and it will be fascinating to see how he fares in a United shirt.

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Arsenal

How Arsenal could line-up with Henrikh Mkhitaryan and Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang?

Jake Jackman

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Photo: Reuters

Arsenal prefer not to do business in the January transfer window, but their hand has been forced this month due to the contract situations of Alexis Sanchez, Mesut Ozil and Jack Wilshere.

They could all leave the club before the start of next season and Arsene Wenger will recognise the need to prepare for those departures. Sanchez is the only one to have left the club already this month, as he has joined Manchester United.

In return, the Gunners have secured the services of Henrikh Mkhitaryan. The former Borussia Dortmund player has struggled in England, but he has the talent to produce more at the Emirates Stadium.

Considering they are facing a battle to qualify for the Champions League, there could be more arrivals this month to improve their chances of making the top four.

Sky Sports reported that Arsenal are attempting to secure a deal for Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang and Dortmund could be tempted to make a clean break from the striker

The Gunners are at risk of missing out on the Champions League for the second successive season, but their reputation remains strong across Europe. It would be a statement of intent to sign the Gabon international and an exciting move for supporters.

How could they line-up at the end of the window?

Arsene Wenger has favoured a 3-4-2-1 formation this season and it has achieved relative success. It was a major reason for their FA Cup win last season, as it provided more balance and made the side solid at the back.

However, Mkhitaryan and Aubameyang are both attacking players and will be expecting to start most matches. It could be that a switch back to 4-2-3-1 is required to fit both into the starting eleven.

One major problem that Arsenal have faced this season is their lack of quality at the back. Laurent Koscielny, Shkodran Mustafi and Nacho Monreal are serviceable as a three-man defence.

However, it has been rare for all three to be fit at the same time and the squad is lacking in depth. Per Mertesacker is passed his best, while Rob Holding and Calum Chambers remain inexperienced at the highest level.

A change back to a four-man defence would be a smart move unless a quality centre-back is signed this month. A tactical switch would likely mean Monreal loses his place in the starting eleven.

This would be a shame considering his impressive season to date, but he would offer stern competition to Sead Kolasinac.

It would be a boost if they were to sign another centre-back. Sky Sports reported earlier this month that Arsenal had made a fresh enquiry for Jonny Evans, but no reports suggest that a deal is in the pipeline for this month.

If they were to make no defensive signings, their back five would pick itself when everyone was available.

Petr Cech is not the player that he once was, but he remains the best goalkeeper at the Emirates Stadium.

The full-backs would provide the width, as Hector Bellerin and Sead Kolasinac are both excellent at going forwards. Ainsley Maitland-Niles and Nacho Monreal would offer good competition on the left side.

By playing two attack-minded full-backs, Arsenal can afford to play with narrow attackers, which will get the best from those playing in the forward positions.

There has been a resurgence in the career of Jack Wilshere, but he is unlikely to make the starting eleven when everyone is fully fit.

The midfield pairing of Aaron Ramsey and Granit Xhaka has been the most balanced of those chosen by Wenger this season.

The former has provided the drive and attacking support from deep, with three goals and six assists in the Premier League. Meanwhile, the latter sits deep and contributes in both halves of the pitch.

There is still more to come from the Swiss international and it will be next to Ramsey that he takes the next step forward.

The four attacking players would be best suited in a fluid attacking set-up as they are all intelligent players and capable of fulfilling any role. It would likely be a narrow formation with the full-backs providing width.

Henrikh Mkhitaryan and Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang would be the ones asked to start on the wing. It would be great to see the former be given a sustained run on the right flank, giving him a great opportunity to re-capture his Dortmund form.

Although Aubameyang is primary a striker, he has played on the left-wing during his career and he would be given freedom to interchange with the rest of the front-line. His pace will cause problems and he has the dynamism to excite supporters in the Premier League.

The 28-year-old has 13 goals in 15 Bundesliga appearances this season. In addition, despite Dortmund’s poor Champions League form, the forward found the back of the net on four occasions.

He is a top-tier striker and will add goals to the Arsenal attack. It will be exciting to see him link-up with Mkhitaryan again if a move does go through. Arsene Wenger will be hoping they can be as productive as they were in Germany.

Alexis Sanchez may have left, but Mesut Ozil is probably going to stay at the club until the end of the season.

The Evening Standard report that Arsenal are hopeful that the German international will extend his contract if they do sign Aubameyang alongside Mkhitaryan.

The 29-year-old will be given a central role in the team as the club try to convince him to stay and as the number ten position is his favoured role, this will likely be where he plays.

Alexandre Lacazette has had a mixed first season in the Premier League. It wasn’t easy to come into an Arsenal side that was short on confidence and Wenger will be wanting the Frenchman to kick on alongside the new arrivals.

If Aubameyang does sign, it will increase competition to start up front.

The current Gunners’ number nine has scored nine Premier League goals and contributed three assists. He is involved in a goal every 142.25 minutes, which is not bad, but he will be hoping to improve during the second half of the season.

If the club do sign Aubameyang, it will be a major statement of intent and serve as a reminder to the rest of Europe that Arsenal remain a force to be reckoned with.

A front four of Aubameyang, Lacazette, Mkhitaryan and Ozil promises to be exciting to watch and provide lots of goals.

No one player will be guaranteed a start and that is beneficial to the squad. The rest of the team needs strengthening, but this window would represent a good start to the rebuild.

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Burnley

Burnley 0-1 Manchester United: Three talking points from Turf Moor

Rob Meech

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Photo: Reuters

Anthony Martial scored the only goal of the game as Manchester United recorded their third consecutive victory by seeing off Burnley at Turf Moor. In a game devoid of end-to-end entertainment, the Frenchman struck in the 54th minute when his right-footed shot found the net via the underside of the crossbar.

Burnley tried in vain to force a leveller but could not find a way past David de Gea, as their winless run extended to seven Premier League matches. United, meanwhile, have maintained their grip on second spot but remain 12 points drift of runaway leaders Manchester City. Here are three talking points…

United pass another away-day test

Despite rumours of unrest at Old Trafford, United are now unbeaten in eight Premier League matches. While their hopes of reeling in Manchester City may be remote, Jose Mourinho’s men are red-hot favourites to finish as runners-up. That would be a huge improvement on last season – their first under Mourinho – where United finished sixth. It was only their success in the Europa League that guaranteed them a place in the Champions League.

The Red Devils are definitely progressing and the expected arrival of Alexis Sanchez would give them another dimension. In particular, their away form will please Mourinho. This was United’s fifth victory in their past six Premier League games on their travels, a run that is helping to keep the likes of Chelsea and Liverpool at bay.

Burnley is a notoriously tricky place to visit, but United withstood the physical threat of the hosts and just about had enough to claim all three points.

Burnley are feeling the effects

When looking at the table, Burnley’s position appears to be very comfortable. In eighth place and with 34 points to their name, the Clarets are all but guaranteed to be playing Premier League football again next season. That would have been manager Sean Dyche’s priority and he can feel satisfied with the job he has done.

Nonetheless, this is a difficult period for Burnley, who have not tasted victory since they beat Stoke City on December 12. Scoring goals has been their biggest problem, having drawn a blank in four of their seven-game winless  run. The Clarets are not renowned as being free-scoring – they have found the net only 19 times this season – and rely on a solid defensive foundation.

Perhaps the exertions of their promising start have taken their toll on a settled side. The challenge for Dyche, who had been linked with the Everton job during the height of Burnley’s success, is to ensure his players do not fall into the trap of thinking they have nothing to play for.

Martial is making rapid progress

The Frenchman began the campaign out of favour at United, but he has regained his place in the side thanks to a series of consistent performances. His output has been productive, too. His goal against Burnley was his third in a row, taking him to 11 for the season. Allied to his seven assists, Martial is beginning to fulfil his immense potential.

He cut a frustrated figure at being kept out of the starting XI by Marcus Rashford – there was even speculation he might be on his way out of Old Trafford. But Martial said all the right things publicly and is no longer in the ‘supersub’ category. Competition for places will only intensify if and when Sanchez’s switch from Arsenal is completed.

But the former Monaco starlet should not fear the Chilean’s arrival, but relish it. He has proved he can be a trustworthy player for United. Like Luke Shaw, he is another to have benefited from some stern words from Mourinho, who will soon have an embarrassment of attacking riches to call upon.

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