Since his arrival in 1995, as one of three bewildered young migrants from Zaragoza, Roberto Martinez has been crafting a culture shock of his own for British football. The culture bit – a scrupulous belief that football can have no true substance without style – remains a work in progress. Few, however, failed to register the shock of his latest home result.
Having returned to Wigan Athletic during the summer, this time as manager, Martinez became responsible for the first blemish on Carlo Ancelotti's record since his own arrival in the Premier League. While that 3-1 success against Chelsea was Wigan's first against any of the top four clubs, the notion that Manchester City can expand the elite to five should permit Mark Hughes no complacency when his team swagger into town this afternoon.
Admittedly Wigan contrived to lose at Hull the very next weekend, only one of several bruising lessons already for the Premier League's youngest manager. But Martinez would never stoop to brutish hustle and bustle, in search of short-term gains, and knows Dave Whelan fully endorses the longer view. The Wigan chairman has already said Martinez would be safe even if the club were relegated, but neither man entertains that scenario.
"I want to qualify for Europe," Martinez said. "It's going to take time. We have lost seven very important players, like Valencia, Zaki, Heskey, Cattermole and Palacios. You would not expect to get into Europe losing those. But the chairman is very excited about the potential we have. It's down to us to finish on top of the two leagues we have got within the Premier League."
In trying to break open that upper tier, Hughes presumably feels under rather more pressure to produce immediate dividends. "City are going to be top four," Martinez said. "The question is when? Getting all those players to gel could take a little period or longer. It's down to City's owners, what sort of timescale they are going to give the team. Of all the squads in the Premier League, it will be hard to find a better one. They should be competing for the title, not the top four. Maybe it will be next season, or the season after. But it's only a matter of time."
Martinez will some day operate at similar altitudes. In the meantime, his ascent is drawing attention in his homeland, as an alternative source of curiosity to Rafael Benitez.
"With respect to United or Arsenal, in Spain our profile is very high," he said. "There are many people from Spain who come to the games, and want to see the ground. I wouldn't say they consider themselves supporters but they have an affinity with Liverpool and Wigan because of the Spanish connection."
It was his compatriot at Liverpool who discarded Chris Kirkland. Hailed as England's next great goalkeeper when brought to Anfield by Gérard Houllier, Kirkland endured an infamous sequence of injury problems but Martinez is adamant that he could yet claim the No 1 jersey in South Africa.
"It's clear the national manager picks the players who are in form, and at the moment the goalkeeping position is open," he said. "If Foster is going to play regularly, he is in the driving seat. If that changes, Kirkland is the one who has all the ingredients. I have worked with many keepers who are special at something but Chris hasn't got a weakness. He's good in the air, good at one-on-one, and he works so hard at getting the ball out from the back. He's the complete keeper but the challenge is in his hands. If he can perform the way we know he can in the next 20 games, he will be in the squad."
Martinez insists Kirkland's medical history should no longer prey on the England management. "He was a young man," he said. "We forget the body is still developing at the age of 22 and 23, when you have got a massive frame. He has changed his method of work, and it is now a thing of the past."
Watching Hughes assemble his squad, Martinez says that "it almost resembles how you play a computer game". Ironic, then, that Robinho's brazen flirtation with Barcelona should not only acknowledge that anyone would love to play with Messi and friends, but also lament that "right now I can only do it on the PlayStation". In the meantime, however, his present team must beware another Catalan, quietly downloading an economy version of the same programme.Reuse content