How Roberto Martinez took Wigan backwards

With Roberto Martinez set to decide today whether to stay at Wigan, Tom McDermott says they might be better off without a manager who took them backwards...

Since Roberto Martinez was appointed Wigan manager in 2009, his intelligence and personality has won him many admirers. What’s not to like? What we have also found out is that the Spaniard is incredibly naive tactically and although his passing style might be pleasing on the eye (sometimes), ultimately it’s failed him and the club.

During the build-up to their season-closing 2-2 draw against Aston Villa, Martinez said: “I know it can sound a bit stupid but I’ve never, ever thought about my situation yet.” With respect Roberto, is it something that should be left for you to decide? Although Wigan had finally fell through the trapdoor with a 4-1 thrashing by Arsenal at the Emirates, there was an air of inevitability about it. The writing had been on the wall for about four years.

There has also been a bit of a myth surrounding Martinez for most of his time at the club. The myth is that Martinez is destined for a ‘top’ job and when such a vacancy is available he will be a resounding success. It’s seen by some as a reward for his outstanding performance in his current role. Well, why not? He doesn’t just look the part. He’s won the FA Cup you know!

Martinez has a vision of how the game should be played, which started long before his successful spell in charge of Swansea City. But, as has been shown this season, it can only take you so far, and a parting of the ways might be more beneficial for Wigan than it is for Martinez.

It’s hard not to cringe when Wigan chairman Dave Whelan talks about the ‘special’ job Martinez has done at the DW Stadium. So it’s probably worth looking at just how well he’s performed.

Martinez: directing operations

Wigan spent eight years in the Premier League, with Martinez in charge for the last four. In 2009/10, they finished 16th with 36 points, winning nine games. In 2010/11 they finished 16th again, winning nine games. In 2011/12 season they improved to 15th, winning 11 matches. But they finished this season in 18th place conceding 73 goals and were relegated from the Premier League. 

It's instructive to compare that period to Wigan's four pre-Martinez top-flight years. Having been promoted under Paul Jewell, they finished 2005/06 in 10th place, scoring 45 goals (more than they managed in three of Martinez's seasons) and winning 15 games on their way to 51 points despite the distraction of reaching the 2006 League Cup Final.

Jewell: cup finalist

In 2006/07 they finished 17th on 38 points, staying up on goal difference, but still managed more points than in two Martinez seasons and more wins (10) than in three terms under the Spaniard. After a spell under Chris Hutchings they spent most of 2007/08 under Steve Bruce and finished 14th – again, higher than any Martinez season – and in his only full season Bruce took them to 11th place and a 45-point total including 12 wins. In many ways, it was their high-water mark, but Bruce left for Sunderland and Wigan turned to Martinez.

Statistically (as well as in divisions), Martinez's four-year reign took Wigan backwards. He managed 38 wins in four years: 158 points from 152 games, or 1.039 points per game. In the previous four years, they won 47 games and gathered 184 points, or 1.211ppg. Before Martinez, Wigan averaged 0.99 goals scored per game and 1.36 conceded; under him, their goals scored rose to 1.09 but their goals conceded shot to 1.81 per game.

They finished his first season with a -42 goal difference: on average they were more than a goal per game behind their opponents. This tightened up in his second two years, and indeed the goals-scored column has risen every year under Martinez from 37 in 2009/10 to 47 this term. Sadly, Wigan have never failed to concede at least 60 goals per season under the Spaniard – more than in any of their previous four top-flight seasons.

Martinez’s main problem is that his commitment to attacking football regularly leaves his side exposed at the back. He has tinkered with many a formation but favours either a back three or a 4-2-3-1, each giving his midfielders licence to roam and interchange. If given the time and space, it can work and they can hurt you.

But give a West Ham or a Stoke time to play their way and they will hurt you too. The difference is, Sam Allardyce and Tony Pulis have found a way that works and that keeps them in the league. Martinez’s way doesn’t and at best enables them to hover just above safety. Just ask Blackburn fans about their club's decision to part company with Allardyce, who once complained that foreign managers get more respect than their English peers – a viewpoint which might be treated with some sympathy by Jewell and Bruce.

The reign of Spain: mainly in vain?

Inevitably, people will raise this season's FA Cup success as a sign that Martinez has got it right. In the final against Manchester City and against Everton at Goodison Park in an earlier round, Martinez’s side performed and performed very well. Quite rightly they received credit.

Over the years though in the Premier League, they have shown they are capable of beating sides in the top half of the division, in these kind of one-off games. Victories at Arsenal and at home to Manchester United during the 2011/12 campaign, spring to mind.

What wasn’t quite as impressive during their FA Cup run were the wins against Bournemouth (after two attempts), Macclesfield, Huddersfield and Millwall. And you only have to look over the list of managers to have reached cup finals to realise that you aren't necessarily a great manager just because you've had a bespoke suit fitted.

The argument is that Wigan have overachieved for years, doing well to stay in the division at all, and that Martinez will be able to achieve more at a bigger club with better players. But what usually makes the better managers successful is their ability to adapt and know when to introduce a Plan B.

And that’s where Martinez’s second issue gets in the way. Besides rejigging his formation, he doesn’t have a tactical Plan B and maybe he knew that when he chose to turn down first the Aston Villa job and then the Liverpool one.

It wouldn’t be such a surprise to see Martinez take on another manager job in the Premier League this pre-season but time will probably tell that Wigan is his perfect match.