Martinez and Olsen: A tale of two managers

Tactically, they’re worlds apart. But two managers on either side of the Atlantic share something deeper: a dressing room that runs on pure defiance and an unrelenting quest to rewrite the script.

With Roberto Martinez at the helm, English Premier League side Everton F.C. employ a fluid style with an emphasis on crisp passing and composure in possession.  Across the pond, Ben Olsen’s DC United of Major League Soccer rely on gritty defensive effort and direct attacks to grind out results.  An English football club founded by a Methodist Sunday school in 1878, an American soccer team conceived in a board room in 1995, with managers who differ in their fundamental approach to the game… the similarities may seem tenuous.  But, Everton F.C. and DC United share similar roles within their respective situations, and more importantly their managers share a deep insistence upon rejecting the narratives that many see as absolute in the modern game.

The Decline of Champions

“Plucky little Everton”… “Punching above there weight”… the English press is never hesitant to lavish Everton with backhanded praise.   Founding members of the first professional football league in England, Everton have spent more time in the top flight of English football than any other club and have won 9 league titles and 15 major trophies overall.  Everton have exemplified the motto Nil Satis Nisi Optimum – “Nothing is enough but the best” – across most of the club’s storied history, but are currently experiencing a 20 year trophy drought brought on by the financial realities of modern football.  The beautiful game is now a multi-billion dollar industry, and with an aging stadium and a smaller global brand than their local rivals, Everton do not have the revenue streams and financial might to register as a club of any stature in the modern game.

Where Everton’s fall from glory took place as a slow trickle, DC United have experienced similar highs and lows in the club’s short lifespan of 20 years.  They were the inaugural Major League Soccer cup champions in 1996, and have won a total of 4 league championships and a nice assortment of other top honors.  United’s last league championship however was back in 2004, and as the league has expanded to include more teams, the team has struggled to remain relevant.

The importance of financial strength in achieving success is palpable in English football, but it exists by design in the US brand of the game.  MLS maintains a strict salary cap, but allows clubs to spend beyond the cap for a limited amount of “designated players.”  Wealthier owners (or those more concerned with on the pitch success) can spend an unlimited amount on designated player salaries, which often results in clubs like DC United with shrewd ownership groups getting left behind.  DC United’s stadium woes – the horribly aging and completely commercially non-viable RFK stadium  – dwarf those of Everton, as it’s clear that the club’s venture capitalist owners are not interested in investing beyond the bare minimum until a new stadium is built.

Tactical Foils

Roberto Martinez took over for 10-year Everton manager David Moyes, who was rewarded for consistently leading Everton to top half finishes on a shoe-string budget with a move to Manchester United.  Moyes’ sides were known for their defensive organization and work ethic.  In 2004, Moyes’ Everton achieved their highest Premier League finish and earned a chance to qualify for the holy grail of European football – The Champions League – in large part by grinding out 1-0 victories through disciplined defensive performances.

When Martinez took over, he immediately set to work changing the mindset of the players on the pitch.  Martinez put in place an expansive style of play with a heavy emphasis on rhythmic passing, a style that relied on patient buildup and intelligent movement to unlock defensively minded teams.  In training drills, Martinez has the starting goalkeeper first go through passing exercises with the outfield players before joining the other goalkeepers, because he insists that every player be comfortable playing with the ball at his feet. Where a Moyes team would have defenders boot the ball up to their attackers, Martinez has his back four pass the ball out from the back.

Ben Olsen’s approach to the game on the other hand is much more similar to Martinez’s predecessor.  Endearingly referred to as “BennyBall”, Olsen requires his striker to be a first defender.  At times it seems he’ll prioritize a striker who can win the long balls hoofed up by defenders over one who actually scores goals.  Olsen’s DC relies on gritty and aggressive defenders, not unlike Olsen’s style as a player for the black and red.

Both managers have had up and down seasons in their tenures.  When Everton bled goals last season, the team faced criticism for overplaying and attempting to play “beautiful” style that exceeded the ability of the players.  Olsen has faced the opposite criticism this year, as many a tweet bemoaned his conservative and pragmatic approach even as DC sat in first place earlier this season.

Restoration through Defiance

Facing the same challenge to achieve success in the face of financial limitations, both managers rely on different strategies.  But there’s a deeper connection at work here, as both managers parlay these pragmatic limitations into a driving force to inspire the best from their teams.

When Martinez was first confirmed as Everton manager, he told Everton Chairman Bill Kenwright “I will get you into the Champions League.”  Rather than fixate on the club’s lack of financial clout, he emphasized it’s illustrious history, and had pictures of legendary Everton players hung around the club’s training facilities to reinforce that standard of achievement amongst the squad.

This defiant insistence upon greatness didn’t always translate to results on the pitch, but it was perfectly captured in this summer’s transfer window.

Russian-oligarch-owned defending Premier League Champions Chelsea F.C. submitted a bid for John Stones, a highly promising 21 year old central defender who took over as a starter for Everton last season.  The initial bid was promptly turned down, triggering a media maelstrom as ex-players and pundits all felt the need to weigh in.

One of the theguardian’s many attempts to convince Stones to quit Everton

Like most mid-table sides, for the past decade Everton have resigned themselves to losing their top players whenever a rich club came calling.  In the modern game, such is the natural order of things, so much so that Everton drew criticism for insisting Stones, a player on a four-year contract, is better off staying with his current club.  To many pundits, choosing to force a transfer to a Champions League club, rather than staying put and working to get your current club there, is a sign of ambition.

Eventually the media campaign did its job, and young John Stones submitted a formal request for a transfer.  It looked certain that Stones would leave, but the next day Stones was in the starting lineup against his former club Barnsley in the League Cup.  In his post match comments, Martinez explained that Stones’ transfer request will be rejected the next day, stating “sometimes can’t buy everything.”

In the first game after the window closed, Everton and Chelsea met at Goodison Park, with Stones in the starting lineup.  The entire Everton team played lights out, taking the game to Chelsea like they were any other team.  It was fitting that Steven Naismith, a close friend of Stones and the first Everton player to tell the media that Stones should stay put scored a perfect hat-trick off the bench to give Everton a 3-1 victory.

Young John Stones celebrates the first goal against Chelsea with hat-trick hero Steven Naismith

The post-match words of Brendan Galloway, another promising young defender who assisted the opening goal, perfectly sum up the sense of confidence and defiance of the supposed order of things:

“We know what we can do and we don’t fear anyone, especially when they come to Goodison,” declared Galloway.

They may have been the champions but we didn’t give them that respect.

“We shouldn’t give anyone any respect, especially in games at Goodison.

“We always know what we are capable of, we do it everyday in training, and we’ve started the season well.

As the Goodison faithful sang “Money can’t buy you Stones”, Everton translated their defiant attitude into an emphatic win.  I doubt Everton will reach that level again all season, but if only for a game they invoked a spirit more mighty than the rhinestone glitz of the modern game.

While Martinez showed reverence for Everton’s historic glory, at DC United Ben Olsen lived it.  As a player he won two of the clubs four MLS cups, and was named MVP in the 1999 cup final.  His tenacity on the pitch earned him folk-hero status, and the Cult of Olsen has only grown since he took over as a manager.  Win or lose, after every game the supporters bellow his name, and Olsen dutifully walks over to return their reverence with applause – a ritual that now feels as much a part of club tradition as half-time drum-circles and beer-shower goal celebrations.

Olsen lifts the cup after scoring the winner in the 1999 MLS cup final

Since Olsen’s player days and in the post-Beckham era, DC United have waned in prominence as the fledgling league bends over backwards to accommodate teams who spend big on marquee players.

So it was when DC met the rival NY Red Bulls in the 2012 MLS cup playoffs.  As the (at the time) sole team in the NYC media market, and lead by one of the all-time European greats Thierry Henry, the Red Bulls often appeared to be the league darlings. DC United, as the higher seed, were supposed to host the second leg of their two-match playoff, this would allow the higher seeded team to host overtime if they tie on aggregate.  After hurricane sandy hit, N.Y. were unable to host the first leg.  Rather than delay the playoff, D.C. were simply reassigned to play the first leg at home instead and lost their home field advantage in the process.

After the first leg in DC ended in a draw, the situation worsened.  Hundred’s of the DC faithful traveled up to New Jersey for the crucial away leg as a snow storm struck.  With the traveling fans bouncing and the team ready, DC were so insistent upon playing the game that Ben Olsen picked up a shovel to help the ground crew clear the field, but it was to no avail.  The league postponed the game to the following day, meaning most of the fans who made the trip would leave without seeing a ball kicked.

The following night’s match was a cagey affair that boiled over when United’s star goalkeeper conceded a penalty and was shown a red card for bringing down Red Bull striker Kenny Cooper in the box.  When the club seemed at it’s lowest, backup keeper Joe Willis came up with an all-important save to keep the score level, and shortly thereafter rookie Nick DeLeon scored the match-winner.  And where else would DeLeon go, with visible tears in his eyes, but to right in front of the traveling supporters to celebrate.

Chris Pontius and Nick DeLeon celebrate the play-off winner in New Jersey

It may not have been a fair attitude, but after the series of unfortunate events, the narrative was set.  The league, the weather, fate, whatever – it was all out to get us but we weren’t going to take.  Maybe it was reasonable to shift the schedule around, and Hamid’s dismissal was almost certainly warranted, but none of that mattered at the time.  In 15 seconds, Hamid’s post-match outburst perfectly captures the pathos surrounding the club:

“They can’t hold us back.”

DC have faced some ups and downs since, but the attitude remains the same even this season.  Ahead of our first match against expansion team New York City F.C., United striker Chris Rolfe commented on NYC’s star-power driven approach to development :

“It’s disappointing when you have owners that are willing to forego a culture and try to buy the fanciest commodities and try to make a team out of it. I don’t respect that”

In a league where money reigns supreme and buying aging stars to put asses in seats is the fastest way to “most favored club” status, DC players and fans alike are begrudgingly proud to do things differently.

Reality Catches Up

This isn’t a fairy tale, and it’s not a coming-of-age tale about a rag-tag gang of pre-teen misfits.

That game against NYC FC? DC United lost, and we’ve lost 4 of our next 5 games since.

Things look decidedly rosier for Everton, who currently sit 5th in the Premier League despite a string difficult early fixtures. But the average Everton supporter is properly conditioned to expect the worst, even when things are going well we can’t shake the feeling that the regression to the mean is coming.

For the time being, Everton continue to surpass the summer’s low expectations, while United have thrown away the chance to win the Supporters Shield (team with best regular season record) and are set to barely back into the playoffs.

Yet despite their divergent recent paths, both clubs face similar precipices.  Tonight, DC United play their second match against NYCFC, and will clinch a playoff berth with a win.  Fresh off a new contract, Chris Rolfe has a chance to back up his strong words to get DC’s season back on track, and show NYC superstars David Villa, Andrea Pirlo, and Frank Lampard that there’s more to this league than fat paychecks and cringey photo shoots.  On Sunday, Everton face local their local rivals in the merseyside derby, a fixture so nerve-wracking I won’t even entertain the scenario of a win until after the final whistle, but one that I will say could be season defining.

Two managers, both facing imminent tests.  Over the last year, both Martinez and Olsen have been forced to bear their vulnerabilities to the world in their respective periodic struggles.  Now as before, each looks to double down on his own brand of philosophical intransigence, and infuse it with a healthy dose of defiant passion to will his club against the prevailing winds of modern football.

Again, this isn’t a fairy-tale, and years of supporting both clubs have taught me not to expect much. I’m fully prepared for reality to catch up, for la résistance to breakdown without fanfare, and for both clubs to resume their mid-table roles in the status quo order of football.   But looking inward, I don’t think the manic masochistic whirlwind of supporting either team has ever really been about the result.  I’m in it for the fight, and no matter how things turn out I’ll know we tried.