By Liam Twomey
When Brendan Rodgers and Roberto Martinez shake hands prior to Liverpool’s clash with Wigan on Sunday, both men could well find themselves momentarily dwelling on what might have been.
The fact that Rodgers only got the chance to oversee his revolution at Anfield because Martinez spurned the advances of John W. Henry back in May is one which, understandably, neither the Reds boss nor his employers want to entertain, but it is inescapably the definitive subplot of this game.
Martinez insists his decision was based on principle as well as loyalty. “I stayed because my chairman is unique,” he told reporters back in August. “This summer, we sat down together. He had thought about the future of the club, I’d done the same. He wants to take the club to the next level. I know it will be difficult, but it excites me a lot.”
On Friday, the Spaniard clarified his vision, which includes the construction of a new training ground – which should be completed within 12 months – and a restructuring of the Latics’ youth structure. “I like to build a football club,” he added. “I did at Swansea and there is a pleasure in seeing football clubs three or four years down the line even when you are not involved.”
But Rodgers, who could not resist the chance to take the helm at Liverpool, could easily argue that rebuilding the Merseyside giants into the force of old is an equally formidable task. He has inherited a squad ill-suited to his style and incapable of living up to the club’s famous history of success.
Unsurprisingly, his revolution has got off to a stuttering start. Liverpool languish in 13th in the table having taken 12 points from 11 games – their worst start to a Premier League season in 20 years. Moreover, without the heroics of talisman Luis Suarez, who has scored eight of their 14 league goals, the Reds would be bottom with just two points.
Martinez’s Wigan are just a point and a place behind their more illustrious opponents, having recovered well from the departure of star man Victor Moses to Chelsea this summer. At this stage last season, they were rooted to the bottom of the Premier League with just five points. This term, the Latics appear to be one of the dogs to back in the final relegation scrap.
At this juncture, it is tempting to wonder whether the Spaniard would have fared any better at Anfield. Admittedly, he and Rodgers are similar in many ways; both are young, progressive managers with an unwavering devotion to an expansive, continental style of play and an impressive record of being able to realise their vision with relatively modest resources.
But Martinez is more experienced in the managerial hotseat and, with his body of work at Wigan, has already succeeded in creating a team imbued with his philosophy from scratch. Rodgers deserved all the credit which came his way for Swansea’s remarkably stylish success last season, but he was building on the solid foundations laid by predecessors Paulo Sousa and Martinez himself.
Had Martinez taken the Liverpool job, Rodgers would have found himself faced with the task of evolving his Swansea side to ensure no onset of ‘second season syndrome’ – quite possibly with the continued presence of midfield metronome Joe Allen, whose sale he himself affected.
The Spaniard, meanwhile, would have been the man charged with sifting through the overpriced detritus of the Kenny Dalglish regime. The likes of Andy Carroll, Stewart Downing, Charlie Adam and Jordan Henderson would have been no less ill-suited to his philosophy than to that of Rodgers, but whether he would have been so uncompromising in his management style is an intriguing question.
In such a situation, Martinez would almost certainly have provided youngsters Raheem Sterling, Suso and Andre Wisdom a similar level of opportunity to that offered by Rodgers, having consistently blooded raw but talented prospects throughout his time with the Latics.
Almost certainly, however, his arrival would have necessitated a change in Liverpool’s stock formation – from the expansive 4-3-3 Rodgers has largely stuck with this term to the 3-5-2 which he flirted with at Stamford Bridge last weekend and which the Spaniard invariably favours at Wigan.
Faced with a reduced transfer budget after the decadence of Dalglish and Damien Comolli, Rodgers chose to pay a premium in order to acquire players he had previously worked with, paying £15 million for Allen and £10.5m for Fabio Borini. Whether Martinez would have found greater value is open to debate, but he has generally had to cast his net somewhat wider at Wigan.
Ultimately though, the idea of Martinez at Anfield appears doomed to remain just that. Liverpool missed out on a man Wigan owner Dave Whelan believes is destined for the top of European football, but secured themselves another of the continent’s most respected young coaches.
In the months since, Martinez has only enhanced his burgeoning reputation. Rodgers knows a convincing victory on Saturday would do his standing no harm either.
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