The Trials of Baghdad Bob
Can Roberto Martínez restore his reputation after a season of wilful blinkeredness?
You remember Mohammed Saeed al-Sahhaf, don’t you?
Little guy with specs, green army uniform, black beret. All the rage during the Iraq war. Talked a good game, though most of it was nonsense, totally divorced from reality. He was the Iraqi Information Minister during the 2003 invasion, but soon became known as Comical Ali. Or Baghdad Bob.
His outrageous announcements were legendary. US troops were “committing suicide by the hundreds on the gates of Baghdad” he told the TV cameras, with the sound of gunfire getting ever closer to his compound…
Maybe the comparison is unfair, but there were times last season when Roberto Martínez seemed to channel this ridiculous caricature of a man. In the same way Baghdad Bob would try to convince you there were no tanks in his city even when you could see them all over it on the news, Martínez would try to convince you that his side had shown incredible character and belief, even though they’d just conceded six times at home.
“We always looked a threat going forward… The margins are very small,” he said, after Everton lost 5-2 in Ukraine to a rampant Dynamo Kyiv side.
A season of such promise almost ended in the most abject of failures, Everton flirting with relegation on the 30th anniversary of the most successful campaign in the club’s history. The boys of 85 had long been shaking their heads in collective disbelief at some of the things Martínez was saying in public by the time Dynamo finally destroyed Everton’s last slim chance of rescuing some pride with a rare piece of silverware. For a while there was the real possibility that Martínez would do what he had at Wigan – win a trophy (in their case the FA Cup) and get relegated doing it.
But to go down would have been unthinkable for Everton. No other club has spent as long in the top flight of English football, and they had never been relegated from the Premier League.
Even under Mike Walker.
Eventually they scrambled their way to safety, but the danger that Martínez would end up presiding over the biggest ever turnaround in club fortunes was clear and present for a long, long time.
His first season had been magnificent, ending in a record Premier League points tally which in most other years would have been enough to qualify for the Champions League. Chelsea, Arsenal and Manchester United had all limped away from Goodison Park defeated, Bryan Oviedo had scored their first winner at Old Trafford in 21 years. The buzz was back. Martínez was the new Messiah. The anti-Moyes. The man who understood the School of Science and was bringing back the glory days.
Fast forward a few months and the same fans hailing him as the best thing since Howard Kendall were calling for his head, wags on Twitter had replaced his image on the billboard outside Goodison with a picture of Mr Bean, and pundits and commentators were branding him stubborn, naive and foolish.
Where did it all go wrong?
Picture the scene. January 2015, south London.
Everton have just won (unconvincingly) for only the second time in 14 games. Mighty Selhurst Park has been conquered and Martínez is addressing the national press – in a corridor outside the toilets. A season full of promise had descended into dark and dangerous territory, early talk of a top-four finish long since replaced by anxious whispers about the drop.
But you wouldn’t have known it from his sunny demeanour as he tried to convince us that no, he wasn’t relieved to have finally won a game and no, relegation was not on his mind at all. What Martínez did say was interesting, though. “Obviously if I’d started believing in all the things I read last year I’d have been too big-headed even to speak to my wife,” he said. “And this year I’d be cutting my veins when I walk into the house.”
There is some truth in that. Too many people got too carried away with Martínez in his debut season. Some were even touting him as the next manager of Barcelona. Now, his critics were multiplying every day and the ferocity of their attacks was growing too.
But that little comment got me thinking. ‘Suicidal’ was how Martinez and his tactics have been described many times before. But there was one particular game that stands out.
Anfield. It’s always Anfield, isn’t it? The name alone is enough to make any decent Evertonian shudder. Almost exactly a year to the day before that win at Selhurst Park, Everton went into the Mersey derby riding high on a wave of Martínez-fuelled optimism.
They left with the bubble well and truly burst. A thrilling 1-1 draw at Arsenal early in December had suggested Everton really could play the Martínez way anywhere. That they could dominate even the best teams in the country on their own patch, pass them off the pitch and match them ball for ball, man for man.
It was a fool’s dream.
Three goals down in a whirlwind 35 minutes at Anfield and it soon became clear that the Martínez model would have to be modified.
Suicidal. That’s how the pundits described his tactics that day, and it’s hard to argue with them. Trying to press high and dominate possession against the best fast-break team in the country, with both your full-backs pushing on at the same time was a recipe for disaster, and so it proved.
That 4-0 thumping showed the rest of the Premier League how to beat Everton. It may have taken them until the following season to start doing it. But that was the beginning of the end. “Too exposed, too naive,” Martínez said in a rare moment of honesty after Everton’s biggest derby defeat since 1982. But it took him a long time to fix it because that is exactly how his side started the following season.
By the time Everton returned to Anfield last September he had figured it out, playing three holding midfielders instead of the usual two and scraping a 1-1 draw after a last-gasp thunderbolt from the unlikely hero Phil Jagielka. But only after his team started the season by conceding ten goals in three games – including so many so quickly to Chelsea in a bizarre 6-3 hammering at Goodison on August 30 that you almost lost count.
Their form was patchy for weeks afterwards, not helped by a growing injury list made worse by the rigours of the Europa League, where victories came more easily because teams had not yet worked Everton out. But the pressure really grew during a woeful run of seven defeats in nine games between November 30 and January 1, when the shoehorning of an ageing Gareth Barry into a makeshift back three for a 2-0 defeat at Hull was perhaps the most mystifying tactical decision of the whole campaign.
The most common criticism of Martínez is that he is too stubborn. That he refuses to change the way his side plays. Look at Brendan Rodgers, they say. He changed tactics, formation and personnel and revived Liverpool’s fortunes (briefly). But this is unfair. Forget the fact that Rodgers has more options because he has vastly more money to spend and look at the facts.
If anything, Martinez changed things even more than Rodgers did last season – he just failed to produce the same results.
Playing three holding midfielders away from home at bigger clubs and surrendering possession was a pragmatic but necessary move, and one that would have been totally alien to him in the past. But experiments with Barry in a back three, Leighton Baines in midfield, Kevin Mirallas up front and Steven Naismith as a false nine were all either limited success stories or unmitigated disasters.
He was also about to employ as big a change in his pass-first philosophy as you could possibly imagine for a man so intent on possession football. Against West Ham in the FA Cup his defenders began launching it long. No more slow, patient build-up play. This was direct football. But it went largely unnoticed.
Romelu Lukaku, who scored a late equaliser that day, would go on to suggest the players had begged for a more direct style and that he was benefiting from it, though Martínez denied it. They employed the same tactics at Upton Park in the replay, when they outplayed their opponents to score twice with ten men after Aiden McGeady was sent off, only to cough up an extra-time equaliser and lose 9-8 on penalties.
By then Baghdad Bob was in full effect. The typical Martínez press conference after the latest defeat would be littered with words like “brave”, “proud” and “cruel”.
When I saw him at Selhurst standing outside those toilets, I couldn’t help wondering whether down the pan was exactly where Everton’s season, and their manager’s career, were heading. In the end it didn’t come to that. And Martínez will get time to prove that his debut season at Goodison was no fluke and that he’s not just a coat-but-no-knickers manager.
It won’t be easy though. Those who loved him for his relentless optimism now ridicule him for his seeming inability to face facts.
The smart grey suits seem a little less classy. The brogues have lost their polish.
The belief is gone.
Will the city fall? Never, Sir. There are no tanks in the city and the infidels are surrendering in their hundreds. Soon you will see a glorious victory.
Let’s hope so.