Ken Early: Roberto Martínez offers poor case for the defence

Everton manager seems to be opposite of his predecessor David Moyes

One curious aspect of Louis van Gaal’s struggle has been the way in which he has often seemed to acknowledge that his critics have a point. Van Gaal’s self-criticism was at its sharpest after the defeat to Norwich in December, when he told reporters “I am – or maybe now I have to say ‘was’ – a very successful manager.”

There’s an opposing school of thought that says Van Gaal is crazy to admit to errors or weakness. Rather than acknowledge that he and his side have any faults, the manager’s message should at all times promote positivity and optimism. The current champion of this PR strategy is the Everton manager Roberto Martínez.

Everton lost 3-1 to Manchester City last week – a defeat that cost them a great chance of winning their first trophy in 21 years – and this was Martínez’s verdict: “We played eye-to-eye and we got very close to getting to a really high level. We should take this as a real inspiration to achieve something special this season.”

Not many players would view a semi-final which they’d just lost 4-3 after being 3-1 up as a real inspiration to achieve something special. But that’s Martínez, with his eagle eye for the silver lining.

Two weeks earlier he struck a similar note after another gut-wrenching disappointment, when Everton had led 2-0 and 3-2 at Chelsea, but conceded an offside 98th-minute equaliser to John Terry.

Asked whether it was frustrating that Everton were not involved in the Champions League chase, Martínez replied: "Well, not really. What we are excited is about the team we have and the squad we have produced. We've been investing a lot of time and effort giving young players a real opportunity. Now you're starting to see players, very young but they're mature enough, they're ready: John Stones, Ross Barkley, Romelu Lukaku. That's why we're very, very proud and pleased."

The mental effort involved in insisting that you are proud and pleased after every failure must be rather draining, which might be why Martínez has lately developed a worrying “kick the cat” complex.

These days the only times when he sounds like he’s saying what he really thinks is when he starts to talk about the referees.

Here’s a selection of what Martínez had to say about the refereeing of the 3-3 draw at Chelsea: “Diabolical... horrific... shocking... very hurtful... a major error... unacceptable... nobody deserves that... heartbreaking... all you want is for the referees to do their job.”

Blow to our feelings

And here he is after the defeat at City: “Heartbreaking... you don’t expect that to be missed... a major blow to our feelings... It’s difficult to find an explanation... it’s so clear, and so big in the way the game was developing... the ball was clearly out.”

In both cases Martínez had the right to feel aggrieved. Two bad decisions went against his team. But both were typical errors from match officials who have to make decisions in real-time without the benefit of slow-motion replays.

Martínez’s mercilessness towards referees who make mistakes has something of the unforgiving servant about it. You begin to wonder: does he ever turn these ferocious critical faculties on himself? The truth is that against both Chelsea and Manchester City, Everton were two goals up and failed to win, not because of referee sabotage, but because they cannot defend.

Everton have played some of the best attacking football in the league, with 30 goals scored from open play, which is more than any other team except Manchester City. However, they’re on course to concede 56 goals, which is close to relegation form.

David Moyes’s Everton never gave up goals this easily. The complaint the fans had about Moyes was that he didn’t know how to organise the attack.

When Martínez arrived at Everton in 2013 he inherited that Moyes defence, grafted on new players and new ideas in attack, and led Everton to their best-ever Premier League total of 72 points. That outstanding campaign was a demonstration of what Martínez can achieve if someone else has sorted out all the boring stuff for him in advance.

Unfortunately, time has eroded the Moyes defence. Sylvain Distin is gone, Tim Howard increasingly error-prone, and Phil Jagielka and Leighton Baines more injury-prone. Martínez has introduced John Stones, a player he claims can become "one of the greatest players England has ever seen", but somehow even a historic talent like Stones can't seem to defend very well in the Martínez system.

Inspire confidence

What if the problem with Martínez is the opposite of the problem with Moyes: that he does not know how to organise a defence? His record at Wigan doesn’t inspire confidence. Wigan never let in fewer than 61 league goals in four seasons under Martínez. Conceding more than 60 goals usually gets you relegated, and sure enough, Wigan eventually went down after conceding 73 in 2013.

It’s all very well for Martínez to say he’s proud and pleased because Everton have players like Lukaku, Barkley and Stones, but if he doesn’t figure out how to stop his team conceding so many goals, those players won’t stick around for long.