Time for Roberto 'Houdini' Martinez to drop the escape act
By Kieran Guilbert
It is that time of year again for Wigan Athletic. Christmas and New Year have been and gone. The transfer window has slammed shut. Only 12 games of the Premier League season remain. And, for the fourth-consecutive season, the Latics find themselves in the relegation zone in February, on a poor spell of form, facing a tough run of fixtures, and looking likely to go down.
At any other top-flight club, the fans would be up in arms, the media would be cranking up the pressure and the manager would surely be feeling the heat.
There is no such fear or concern at Wigan. Not a hint of panic or trace of desperation. Not a single protest or boo can be seen or heard around the DW Stadium. Why?
Enter Roberto Martinez, ‘Bobby Houdini’, Mr. Cool, Calm and Collected.
The escapologist has masterminded spectacular acts of survival over the past three seasons, and considering his side’s current form, Martinez will have to pull yet another rabbit out of the hat if Wigan are to stay in the Premier League.
Wigan have lost three and drawn three of their last six games, and have won just one in 13 – against fellow relegation strugglers Aston Villa. Their only result of note this season has been an impressive 1-0 victory over Tottenham at White Hart Lane, albeit at a time when Spurs manager Andre Villas-Boas had some initial teething problems.
Their imminent run of fixtures would not fill your average football fan with hope. A trip to a resurgent Reading is followed by games against Liverpool and Manchester City, before fixtures against Newcastle, Norwich and QPR – teams all fighting to secure their own survival.
But with Martinez at the helm, it would take a brave man to bet against Wigan staying up for the ninth season in a row.
In their first season under his management (2009-10), the Latics pulled off shock wins over both Liverpool and Arsenal to help them beat the drop. The following season was even more dramatic as they beat Stoke at the Britannia on the last day to retain their Premier League status. Last season illustrates why it would be foolish to write off Wigan at this stage – they won seven of their final nine games (including back-to-back victories over Manchester United and Arsenal) to finish comfortably in 15th place.
While these escape acts are admirable, it cannot be long before Martinez takes his next step on the football management ladder. His potential was evident when he got Swansea City promoted to the Championship in only his second season as a football manager. He has since worked wonders with a small squad and limited budget to keep Wigan up season after season, while creating a team that play a brand of aesthetically pleasing football.
The 39-year-old Spaniard has proved himself to be a shrewd operator in the transfer market during his time with Wigan, cashing in on Antonio Valencia, Charles N’Zogbia and Victor Moses for an impressive total of £36m.
While not all of his signings have been a success – Mauro Boselli is currently on his third loan spell away from Wigan since joining them for £5.5m in 2010 - Arouna Koné has proved to be a steal for just over £3m and several of their first team regulars, such as Ali Al Habsi, Shaun Maloney and Franco Di Santo, were signed for surprisingly small fees, given the inflated nature of the transfer market.
As demonstrated by the performances of his Wigan side over the last few seasons, Roberto Martinez is a calm, patient and wise man. Hindsight has justified his decision to turn down the Liverpool job - which he was offered in the summer – as he has not damaged his ever-growing reputation.
Martinez now finds himself in a ‘win-win’ situation. If he manages to keep Wigan up once more with another Houdini act, his midas touch will be unquestionable. Even if they do go down, he has already cemented his reputation as one of the talented and most studious young managers in the footballing world.
Regardless of what happens this season, there is little doubt that bigger clubs than Wigan, whether in the Premier League or abroad, will soon come knocking for his services, as Liverpool have done already.
Perhaps it is time for Martinez to ditch the Houdini tag, and envisage a brighter and more ambitious future at a bigger club.