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

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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