Roberto Martinez: The next Arsene Wenger?

With his emphasis on science and skill, Roberto Martinez's managerial reputation is growing by the week. As his Swansea side prepared to shock Fulham in the FA Cup today, the Spaniard explained his philosophy to Chris McGrath

Saturday 14 February 2009 01:00
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It is like watching an emerging painter at work on his first, unmistakable masterpiece. Last summer, Roberto Martinez had just finished the preliminary sketch. In his only full season as a manager, Swansea City had won the League One title by 10 points, playing composed, confident football. Now, in the Championship, it was time to mix colours on the palette, and see whether the first draft might sustain deeper dimensions.

Most managers would become a little tentative at this point, never mind one still so young – he is 35 – or whose reinforcements had cost a maximum of €100,000 (£90,000). But the brushwork has instead become more assured by the week. Having initially aspired only to survival, Martinez enters the final phase of the campaign sizing up the Premier League from seventh place. And today, having already knocked out the holders, Swansea could make the last eight in the FA Cup. Success against Fulham would barely qualify as an upset if you contrast the visitors' timid away form with the simmering self-belief of a team turned over only once at home in the league all season – and unbeaten anywhere in 15 starts since November.

Martinez is gradually becoming the talk of cognoscenti throughout the game, On the one hand, in using all possible science, he reflects the creative, restless spirit of his native Catalonia; on the other, he enshrines the classical, purist principles of those adventurers, like Johan Cruyff, who made a football cosmopolis of Barcelona. Indeed though the comparison is an onerous even unfair one it is impossible not to see traces of the young Arsene Wenger.

Consider this testimony: "All of a sudden a young man comes along who knows exactly what he wants; who treats everyone the same; who has good authority; and gets the best out of his players. If you look at the way he put the squad together, I don't think many people thought they could be anything so special. As a player, you could see he was a thinker. He had to be, because he couldn't compete with players who were more physical, but he found a niche. He has a brain, and works extremely hard. It shows that yes, you need raw talent, but that success does not come by accident."

The speaker is Martinez; his subject is Pep Guardiola, a compatriot, near contemporary, and another overnight success, at Barcelona. Every last syllable, however, might just as easily be borrowed by any perceptive observer of Martinez himself.

There remains an obvious difference of context. Guardiola was long a cornerstone for Barcelona and Spain. Martinez's peregrinations took him from Zaragoza to Wigan (right), where he was introduced to the primitive mores of the British game, and thence off the map: Motherwell, Walsall, a first stint at Swansea, at the time flirting precariously with non-league football. He ended up at Chester, but two years ago Swansea remembered his cerebral, charismatic contributions as a player and paid a transfer fee so that he could return as coach.

A lot of great managers have had pretty plebeian playing careers, of course, and vice-versa. "When you are naturally talented, you don't really think how you do things," Martinez observed. "If you go past 10 people and put the ball in the back of the net, how can you explain that to a normal human being? It's impossible. It's different if you need to learn how you can be effective, how you hide your weaknesses and use your strengths. The only exception I've seen was Cruyff, but that's because he was a genius."

As they have reminded everyone this week, Premier League chairmen not only want results, they want them immediately. As such, they will no doubt become increasingly curious about the terms of the five-year contract Martinez signed last season. But how many of them, being prepared always to take three points at any price, truly speak this man's language?

"I am very strong in my beliefs, and the result has to come in a certain way," he said. "If not, I'm not happy with the result. It's the level of performance that counts, and the way you develop the football club. If you do it well, you'll get the results. Over 10 games, you have to find solutions, to be consistently good enough. But in one game, the pattern of play is as important as the result."

Some day, presumably, a big club will try to convince Martinez that it can resist the manic, credulous addiction to just-add-water management. But he will not heed any such temptation – as he patiently reiterates, every time his name is linked to the latest vacancy – unless or until Swansea's aspirations fail to keep step with his own.

"When I left Spain to come to Wigan, I learnt that in football you need to feel part of projects," he said. "You don't lose the long-term ambition, but you don't worry about it, because otherwise you lose focus on the daily fight. And then you get punished. What concerns me is the next game, is progressing the club on a daily basis. This board made a very brave decision to give me the job at 33, and as long as we have the same ambition it won't be a problem."

Fortunately for his present employers, they find themselves ahead of schedule, albeit there is an element of chicken-and-egg about that. When your club record fee is £400,000, you will hardly shout from the rooftops that you want the play-offs at the first attempt. "Financially we couldn't compete at this level," Martinez admitted. "So it is more about developing our players, about having hungry people who want to keep the standards on a daily basis, and not just in games. I'm delighted because I thought it would take us a bit longer to be ourselves on the pitch.

"We had a couple of big injuries, a few suspensions, and were pushed to the maximum. But we came through as a more mature squad. We drew eight games on the trot, and four of those were as one-sided as any draw you could see. So you could see we were getting there. We have enough games left now to push on for the next aim, which is the play-offs – and that would be a fantastic achievement."

In the circumstances, the Cup might even be viewed as a perilous distraction, given the exorbitant stakes for clubs either side of the relegation quicksand. Martinez, typically, is not dogmatic. "The world we live in now, there is not one chairman who would rather have a trophy than have his club stable for the next few seasons," he acknowledged. "But for us, this year, the Cup run arrives at a welcome moment. To go to Histon and then Portsmouth, and be ourselves, that was my biggest challenge of the season. We know what we're good at. But was there any environment that could stop us being ourselves? Now we've been everywhere, and the team has kept its standards. After the Portsmouth game, it was a very level-headed dressing room – proud of the result, but nothing over the top. And that's a great sign.

"We know we are the underdogs, but we want to come out with credit. I'm a big admirer of what Roy Hodgson has done in his career. Not many people can adapt so well to different environments. He's a football gentleman, and a winner."

As it happens, Hodgson is also one of the few around who can defend English managers against a charge of general inadequacy among the international elite. Asked, somewhat invidiously, for his explanation, Martinez recalls the Neanderthal football culture that shocked him on his arrival from Spain in 1995 – beans on toast for the pre-match meal, and a strategy that boiled down to punting the ball into the box, and "chasing" the chance to score.

"On the Continent it has always been more a case of finding a chance to score," he said. "So when you are a manager, instead of just making sure the players are fit, and have heart, and roll up their sleeves, you have to ask: 'Well, what approach is going to be needed today?' In Europe, at that time, British teams couldn't really compete because they were trying to go 110 per cent for 90 minutes – against teams that knew how to control the tempo."

Those days, he says, have gone now. By introducing tactical wit to its defining, positive approach – namely, that you try to win every game – the Premier League is dominating Europe. In principle, this should eventually yield a new generation of indigenous managers, but Martinez's own, spectacular arrival implies that it is not happening in a hurry.

In the summer, Martinez spoke of the kinship between the Welsh and Catalans, each finding emancipation in sport. Under Franco, Barcelona's stadium was one of the few places where people could safely chant: "Visca Catalunya!" But the romantic view of football is not necessarily a hopelessly quixotic one. As was again obvious on Wednesday, the Spanish national team has now learnt how to consummate that seductive technique of theirs. On the other hand, Salvador Dali had a characteristically Catalan axiom: "Have no fear of perfection – you will never get there."

Who knows what audacious magnum opus Martinez might produce, given a chance on the broadest canvas? Some day, perhaps, he will pit his wits against Guardiola himself. For now, he scrupulously confines himself to the task at hand, but this singular odyssey of his could conceivably become one of the great football journeys.

"When you are young, you can be very stubborn," he said. "If you have the belief, you will go through thick and thin. Sometimes, as an experienced man, you might say: 'I don't need this'. When you're young, you don't want easy options, you don't want easy solutions. You want what you feel is right.

"Because what we are doing on a Saturday affects people's lives. And that's important, especially in the climate we live in now. If we can give them a little bit of a smile, when they go home, then that gives us huge pride – then everything is worth it."

From Catalonia to the heart of Wales

*Roberto Martinez Gutierrez

Born 13 July, 1973, Balaguer, Spain

*After gaining his grounding at local side Balaguer and Real Zaragoza, Martinez joins compatriots Jesus Seba and Isidro Diaz at Wigan, making 227 appearances over six years. Spells with Motherwell and Walsall follow before a move to Swansea in 2003. He becomes a firm favourite in 139 games and, after a year at Chester, returns to manage the Swans.

*Martinez was appointed manager at the Liberty Stadium in February 2007 and just missed out on the play-offs, despite a fine late-season run. He guided the Swans to promotion to the Championship in his first full season and they currently sit one place and two points outside the play-offs.

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