Everton's Roberto Martinez Is Arsene Wenger's Natural Successor At Arsenal
Arsenal manager Arsene Wenger is trying to hold off the challenge of his natural successor, Everton's Roberto Martinez. (Photo: Reuters / James Dudko)
It's ironic that if Arsenal and Arsene Wenger finally lose their place in the English Premier League's top four, it will be to the most natural successor to the ageing Gunners boss.
Arsenal are locked in a fierce battle with Roberto Martinez and Everton for fourth spot. The reward is participation is next season's UEFA Champions League, something the Gunners have enjoyed for the last 16 years under Wenger.
But rarely has the Frenchman's seat at Europe's top table been in as much jeopardy. Everton are just four points behind Arsenal with a game in hand.
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Martinez entertains Wenger this Sunday in a game that could decide fourth place. But as well as financial and positional prestige, this meeting has huge symbolic significance.
Wenger is being chased down by the manager who most exemplifies his ideals. Martinez has represented a particular footballing identity since taking over Swansea City in 2007.
That identity has been based on stylish and expansive attacking football. The Spaniard's forward-thinking passing philosophy took Swansea from League 1 to the Championship. Martinez formed the identity and squad structure that ultimately propelled the Welsh club into the EPL.
In 2009, he took over at Wigan Athletic. In a city more synonymous with Rugby, he masterminded some stunning football upsets. The Latics even won an FA Cup under Martinez.
Despite a meagre budget and modest fan base, Martinez stuck to his principle of playing bold and imaginative passing football.
That was enough to earn him the job at Everton. The upsets have continued, as has the brand of technical flair and creative attacking Martinez has made his trademark.
Of course, stylish passing football has always been like a badge of honor for Wenger. His best teams embodied a football aesthetic that turned fast-paced, clever passing and movement into artistry.
Wenger has stayed faithful to his fondness for dynamic, exciting football, even when many fans, disgruntled by nearly nine years without a trophy, have demanded change.
But neither Wenger nor Martinez have ever abandoned progressive style for pragmatism. They have adhered to their daring principles, no matter the cost.
In 2012/13, the cost for Martinez was relegation the same season he lifted the FA Cup at Wembley. Wenger has paid the price for his pursuit of purity by seeing his team routinely manhandled by title rivals.
Arsenal have lost away games to Manchester City, Liverpool and Chelsea by a combined 17-4 score this season. In each contest, Wenger was chastised for letting his team play too open and adventurous.
It's no coincidence that Martinez and Everton have suffered similar fates at times this season. Being flattened 4-0 by Merseyside rivals Liverpool at Anfield, was a sobering reminder of the cost of always championing attack.
But it is a cost both Wenger and Martinez are willing to pay.
In an age where oppressive spoiling is often considered tactical genius, while expression through attack is viewed as naive, Martinez and Wenger maintain fidelity to football with a flourish.
Their philosophies are so close it's often hard to spot the difference on the pitch. Both Arsenal and Everton will always push their full-backs forward and risk leaving space behind.
Each team will always look to dominate possession and pass their way through the tightest defences.
Both managers also firmly believe in giving young players opportunities. Wenger's history in that area has produced some true gems. Everton are currently benefiting from Martinez trusting 20-year-olds Ross Barkley and Gerard Deulofeu.
The similarities shared by Martinez and Wenger are put into fascinating perspective by the latter's uncertain future.
Wenger's contract expires this summer and he is yet to sign a new deal. Many, including Daily Mirror writer John Cross, believe the 64-year-old will agree a new year two-year contract, but it hasn't happened yet.
Cross also notes that Martinez is a prime target to replace Wenger as part of Arsenal's plan for life without the man who has been in charge since late-1996.
That would be the most fitting appointment, both in terms of being right for this Arsenal squad, and as a tribute to the way Wenger has done things.
Because the Martinez is the Wenger way. That's why the race for fourth between Everton and Arsenal is so fascinating.
It's also why Martinez is the most natural successor whenever Wenger steps down.