The English Spaniard
Roberto Martínez discusses his conception of football and the difficulties of adapting to the dark nights of Lancashire
"It was a huge shock — more off the field than on it. The lifestyle... You come from Spain, where you're training in the morning, go home, eat, sleep, then maybe go for a walk, to the shops... But when we got up and went out, everything was shut. It was dark at 5pm. Nobody in the streets. We didn't know what to do. But we found a Spanish restaurant, which is unfortunately closed now, where we'd go for lunch and dinner. You couldn't buy an espresso in Wigan in 1995. There was no olive oil, no jamon in the supermarkets. It was so different."
(As different as the sight of three Spanish players, Roberto Martínez and Isidro Díaz of CF Balaguer, plus Jesús Seba of Zaragoza and Villareal, lining up for Wigan Athletic in front of 3,000 spectators at Springfield Park in the old Third Division. 'Jesus is a Wiganer,' proclaimed one banner. The exotic recruits were made to pose wearing incongruous sombreros. Sombrero is a Spanish word, right? The new owner Dave Whelan's so-called 'Three Amigos' were a stunt, some said, whose novelty value would soon wear off. But it didn't. A homesick Seba beat a retreat to Zaragoza within less than a year but Diaz stayed long enough to see his club promoted to the Second Division after winning their league title outright in 1997. As for Roberto Martínez, the club's top scorer — from midfield — in his first season, he went native. After six successful years at Wigan, he moved to Motherwell, where he met and married a Scottish woman. He was identified as managerial material by a far-sighted Swansea City after which, in 2009, Dave Whelan convinced the Spaniard to rejoin him at a club that had changed beyond anyone but its chairman's expectations, with a new 25,000 all-seater stadium now visited every other weekend by Premier League teams. Little Wigan has changed a lot in the last 17 years, when it wasn't just the shortage of decent ham and proper coffee that made it a very different place indeed.)
"... and the way the coaches and the players behaved was nothing like what we were used to in Spain. That culture — work hard, party hard — was so different from what we knew. In Spain, a footballer had to make so many compromises, give up so much of his youth to become an athlete. That was the real shock. You thought to yourself: that isn't right. Then, what we have in Spain isn't right either. Perhaps what is right is what is in the middle. It gives you an option to choose and I found it really useful to be able to choose from my Spanish background and what I discovered here — I found my own happy medium. The other Spanish boys, they found it a bit harder, they couldn't adapt to the British style as well as I did and they suffered a bit on the pitch. As for me, I wasn't good in the tackle, I wasn't good in the air, I was a technical player. So I found a strange way to be successful in the lower league, in the middle of a very direct football. The whole thing was fascinating for me because I love the tactical side of the game, that's my strength, and that came from the contrast of styles in Spain and in the UK and how, as a technical player, I needed to find a way to survive in a league where the football wasn't based on the possession game."
So Roberto Martínez, the manager, was shaped by Roberto Martínez, the player?
"Yes. Finding the way to survive in the lower leagues as a player gave me a manager's mind, if you will."
But you also had to survive as a manager in the lower leagues...
"I was in a strange situation — at Chester City, at that time [Martínez stayed at Chester for one season only, in 2006-07]. We were travelling to Swindon, on a Friday. Swansea City [where he'd played the three seasons before that] paid compensation, so... Swansea were League One, Chester League Two. And Swansea paid compensation for a player, to make him a manager. That was a bit surreal. One day, I was wearing the tracksuit of a Chester player, the next, I was watching my future team play against Yeovil, as a manager...
Did you have your coaching badges at the time?
No. I'd always wanted to find out about my method before doing the badges. I always felt that the badges were very good when you had a clear picture in your mind of how you wanted to do things. Then the badges give you organisation, a bit of a structure. But I never felt that the badges were... original enough for an individual to find his own method. I followed many teams, many managers, the way they worked and I came up with my own method which I used when I did the pro licence to expand my thinking, to add a bit more science to what I did.
Do you spend a lot of time on coaching seminars or sharing ideas with colleagues from England or from abroad?
"I don't do it too much. I did my pro licence through the Welsh FA and I really enjoyed the opportunity to share my views on trends in the game with others, but, if I'm honest, you don't get much time if you're a manager in the Premier League. In a club like ours, it's a 24 hours a day job. Even if my position is not a job. It is a passion, a way of life."
You're one of these managers who relaxes by watching more football, aren't you?
"Yes! I don't know if it's the right way or not... but I love to see how other managers find solutions to specific problems. For example, say a manager is confronted by a tactical problem to which I'd think there are three different solutions, I ask myself, 'why did he choose that one?' and... in a way, it relaxes me, it brings me a sort of calmness."
Does that mean that, when you're preparing for a game against a specific opponent, you're also analysing the thought process of their manager?
"Sometimes, I might... But every game you prepare depends on the opposition. If you watch the way a manager reacts with that opposition, it won't necessarily help you to understand the way he'll react against you. So, you can get the wrong information."
How much do you rely on technology to prepare for your games?
"It is a mixture. There are many decisions that you must come to through your feelings. However, you never get enough good information. It has to be well-used, as you can get bombarded with information. I have a backroom staff to help me with that, which is not exceptionally large, but very strong. Richard Evans, the head of sports science, is very important for me; we've been working together for five years now. Then I've got my assistant Graeme Jones, my goalkeeping coach Inaki Bergara and Graham Barrow who used to be the manager at Wigan when I arrived."
...and was sacked by Dave Whelan two games later...
Did you know you'd become a manager when you arrived in Wigan as a player and had to think your way into English lower league football to survive?
"It's funny, I've never looked back. I suppose it was a natural process. Perhaps I always wanted to be a manager because my dad was a manager. As a boy, you're in awe of your dad. It was just a local club, CF Balaguer, but everything he did was very professional. So, yes, I always wanted to be a manager but, on the other hand, I wanted to play for as long as I could. There's nothing better than playing. So when I got the offer [to become Swansea manager], I was only 33. I could have played at that level for, probably, another two years. It was a difficult, difficult decision, as I believe it's impossible to be a player-manager, even if there have been many in the British game. I knew I had to give up playing. So, yes, when I was playing, I was always thinking — but not because I wanted to be a manager, because I needed to in order to survive. What I didn't realise is how much it would help me later from a tactical point of view. I'm very demanding with my players now when it comes to thinking on the pitch. I don't like players to do 'jobs', go through the motions. I want them to make decisions, I want them to use their brains, as I did, as I had to play."
You're very flexible as a manager, quite daring at times when it comes to in-match tactical decisions. For example, quite a few people were surprised when you switched to a back three, a very flexible back three — in the game at Chelsea last season, for example, you kept altering the shape of your team...
...how then do you get the players to express themselves, and make their own decisions, as you say, when, at the same time, you must make sure they are in tune with your own vision of what's happening and should happen on the pitch?
"That's...coaching! [Laughs]. I've always thought that coaching can become a negative tool. Talent wins you games, raw talent. That's my belief. Coaching comes in when the individuals play as a team and when they express themselves and, at the same time, take responsibility for their roles. That's where coaching is so valuable. But I'm wary of over-coaching — that can take the raw talent of players away from them. Everyone becomes average and I want my players to be outstanding in the areas where they're good. They take responsibility, we take risks. If every individual takes his responsibilities, it becomes a team effort. And that's where coaching comes in. Every individual needs different things. As a manager, you need to find whatever the player needs to understand what the team wants from him — without the player losing what makes him what he is. Some players need to watch video clips or review tapes of their own performances, some players need to find out in training, some players need to create partnerships with other players, others need to have it very simple and don't want to think. The background is important, the age of the player, his experience, the events he's been through... as a manager, I'm happy to work with anything that'll help the player. Sometimes, at training, I work with small groups, sometimes with individuals..."
Isn't there a danger of being swamped by details when you have as flexible an approach as this?
"That's why you can't micro-manage. What you can manage are concepts. You can never, never ever make a decision for a player but you can give him the concept of what the team needs — then allow him to express himself, to make the decisions himself, knowing what his team-mates expect from him as soon as we lose the ball and have to switch to defensive duties."
And do you have your own clear concept yourself of where you'd want Wigan to be, in terms of the way you play?
And how closely do you stick to that vision?
"You have to adapt. Our major aim is to stay in this league which isn't guaranteed. Small margins will affect that so you have to compromise at times. But not as far as my footballing philosophy is concerned. I'll never compromise on that, never. The fans know it. We want to be a team that takes control of the ball, a team that imposes itself in possession, that is going to be brave, will defend from the front, and will take risks. But that's a philosophy, not a tactical system. In tactical terms, we must be flexible. And we must have players who are committed to suffering for the team. I wanted to carry on the recruitment policy started by Paul Jewell and Steve Bruce, which was very good in attracting players from Central and South America: these players leave everything to come to England, to make their families proud at home. So, yes, in modern football, tactical organisation is a must, but as a means to an end. Remember that tactical organisation is a way of allowing your talent to be effective, to win a game. There's a danger of trying to be too clever. The perfect tactical system doesn't exist: it's the players who make the system look perfect. I don't want to rely on a system to win a game; I want to rely on a player to win a game. I want him, them to express himself, themselves. I love open-play goals; in fact, if I could, I'd get Fifa to give half a goal for a set-piece and a full goal for open play. The system is there to enable the player to be as good as he can be. There is no absolute truth in terms of systems. 4-6-0 works because it is Spain, who are the best at possession football; and when you're so good at possession football, you need players around the ball; it wouldn't work as well — for them — with a traditional target man in the box. An ability to be flexible is more important than sticking to a system."
Is that flexibility one of the first assets you look at when you're bringing in a new player?
"For a player, the ability to play in different positions and understand what it means is far more important than being good in one system. That's not a talent; it's something that has to be learnt, between the ages of 14 and 19, something that, sometimes, we haven't done well enough here in the UK. We've been too concerned about winning, winning, winning, when we should be more concerned about tactical awareness. If you're a winger, you should know how to play in a 4-3-3, a 4-4-2, a 4-2-3-1 and all their variations. I feel very strongly about that. Success, in the development of a player, is not how many titles he's won at each level but how he's learnt how to play in different systems. That flexibility will allow him to be successful at senior level. For me, the idea of good enough, old enough is not quite right. There are stages a player must go through, to learn. We gave Joe Allen his league debut when he was 16 at Swansea [a 6-3 defeat to Blackpool on the last day of the 2006-07 season], and he was fantastic in that game. But he had to grow, to learn; so he spent some time at Wrexham, and when he came back, he could model himself on a superb midfielder, the Dutchman Ferrie Bodde. He didn't become a £15m player simply because of his raw talent. Of course, the importance of tactical awareness varies according to the player's position. Midfielders need to be able to read the game; in other areas, let's say a wide player who's good in one-v-one situations, that's not so crucial. Every single position has its own demands."
It's well documented that you have turned down offers from a number of 'bigger' clubs — Liverpool, most recently. Is it because you see yourself as someone who needs continuity, and not just in technical or tactical terms?
"I do feel very strongly about thinking in the longer term. I don't get satisfaction from just seeing the first team winning. I also get it from being in a club that is financially stable and which is developing in every area, making sure the youngsters are getting a certain type of coaching that'll enable them to become professionals, hopefully in our first team. That's vital. As a manager, I feel that I have to take decisions the impact of which will only be seen four, five, six years down the line — as with Joe Allen. Maybe I won't be here then, but that's the only way I can do my job. But that's not why I'm still at Wigan. I'm here because my chairman [Dave Whelan] is unique. He is a very persuasive man. The power of Wigan Athletic is that it is a club which is built on a person's dream. That's why it is so special."
Are people in Spain starting to realise what you've achieved in English football?
"No, not really, and this doesn't bother me. Football is about players; we managers are here to help them. Back in Spain, people have heard about Wigan, because it's the only Premier League club managed by a Spaniard... but they don't really know my story. I left when I was very young, only 21. I'd prefer them to know about my players rather than myself."
But should you go back to Spain, wouldn't you be able to bring something different to its league, as you're a man who belongs not to one, but two football cultures?
"Whatever happens in football has happened before. Look at Terry Venables and what he did at Barcelona. He succeeded there by bringing a very British kind of intensity to the Spanish game. As for me, I am Spanish. Look at my background, and look at the way I want the game to be played. But I'm well aware of what is needed to survive in the British game. It is a fascinating argument — different footballs, different cultures, and the way they can communicate with each other, not just in one direction. I suppose that it's the kind of dialogue I have with myself."