The Mastery of Martínez
As the big guns weigh in with the heavy artillery in the battle for the Premier League title and the bloodshed continues in the relegation skirmish, there's another equally intriguing contest taking place for the final Champions League spot. Roberto Martínez has his eye on the lucrative prize and his Everton side look well placed to mount a real challenge.
Martínez is on the verge of achieving in his first season in charge at Everton, what his predecessor, David Moyes, achieved only once in 11 years. If Martínez was to lead Everton to Champions League qualification, it would probably be at Arsenal's expense, which is ironic given that Martínez is being touted by some to succeed Arsene Wenger as he stalls on signing a new contract at the Emirates.
Everton were standing still under Moyes and the appointment of Martínez has been like a breath of fresh air amidst a stagnant haze at Goodison Park. Not only has he revolutionised the style of play but he has stamped his personality firmly on this team. His shrewd approach to the transfer market and utilisation of the loan system has paid dividends as he's brought in players from the tops clubs in Europe.
Tapping into the Spanish market, Martínez signed Gerard Deulofeu on a season long loan from Barcelona who many have dubbed the next Lionel Messi. Gareth Barry, on loan from Manchester City, has been ever present this season and has been a stalwart figure in the heart of midfield, and the talented striker Romelu Lukaku, who perhaps would have otherwise spent the season festering on the Chelsea bench, has made a fantastic contribution, averaging a goal every other game for the Toffees.
Ironically, he's equalled the number of Premier League goals scored by both Samual Eto'o and Fernando Torres combined. Eden Hazard is Chelsea's top scorer this season with 14, only two more than Lukaku who has played fewer games. There's also the rhetorical question of who has benefited more from the sale of Marouane Fellani to Manchester United for £27.5 million.
Martínez has been criticised by some for his reliance on the loan system for success but from Everton's point of view, everything is working out a treat. "Nice guy Martínez" could charm the birds out of the trees and he has been described by some as "irritatingly endearing" but you can't argue with his record.
Everton are now playing with a certain swagger and flair that was non-existent under Moyes and have picked up maximum points from their last four games leaving them unbeaten in March. This shows that football management is as much about personality and ethos as it is about tactics, formations and team selections.
The style of play adopted by teams could be seen as a personification of the manager's traits. Chelsea play with a hint of arrogance, Arsenal are in pursuit of cultivated perfection, Liverpool look fearless and confident, Manchester City have a "keep calm and carry on" approach whilst Manchester United, in recent weeks, have look dour and downbeat.
Martínez is out to prove that his earlier managerial efforts at both Swansea and Wigan were no flash in the pan. Leading Wigan to their first FA Cup victory in their history amidst a tough relegation battle required more than a touch of good fortune. His commitment to an attractive and offensive style of football means that he’s certainly a hit with the fans and this philosophy has brought a fresh impetus to Everton this season.
A handful of loan signings and a splash of talented youth with a garnish of experience all seem like the perfect ingredients for a tasty special. The head chef is cooking up a treat at Goodison Park and although he may be playing down Everton's bid for a Champions League spot, it's certain that he'd love a taste of something that he's put a lot of effort into preparing.
One thing is certain, whilst Everton can smell that Champions League aroma, they also have a key part to play in this season's exciting title race as well as the relegation dog fight. They play three of the Premier League's bottom four in their next four games, starting with Fulham at Craven Cottage on Sunday.
Arsenal travel to Goodison next Saturday in a game that could be the key to unlocking Champions League qualification for both clubs. If the Gunners succumb to the perceived "curse of the lunch time kick off" as they did at Chelsea, Martínez and Everton could make a smash and grab for that hugely desired fourth spot. Manchester City travel to Goodison for their penultimate game of the season and it wouldn't be the first time that Martínez has rained on City's parade.
Everton have averaged 59 points per season over the previous nine years under Moyes and have only finished in the top five three times. This season they have 57 points with eight games remaining. Martínez has one eye on the prize and another on a summer shopping spree and any possible acquisition targets will be dependant on whether he gets a coveted ticket to the European dance.
Exciting young managers like Martínez and Rogers have put an end to the monotonous predictability of the Premier League table. The door to Champions League qualification is ajar. In the words of Monty Python, "Nobody expects the Spanish Inquisition! Our chief weapon is surprise." Whether ruthless efficiency is enough for Everton in their quest for the Holy Grail remains to be seen. For now, it's simply "Viva Everton" as the Martínez mastery continues.