If Twitter is anything to go by, the majority of Derby fans – 58 per cent of 753 I polled – see Nigel Pearson as the most appointable of the four men reported last weekend by the Mirror to be on the club’s shortlist.
Roberto Martínez, a surprise new addition to the field, came second with 22 per cent. Former bookies’ favourite Gary Rowett was third, with 17 per cent. ‘The interim one’, Darren Wassall, came fourth, with three per cent of the vote.
I assume that those who favour Pearson are well aware of what the BBC’s Pat Murphy has referred to as his ‘charge-sheet‘ – the list of incidents from 2014/5, a season which ended with his dismissal from Leicester City:-
People react to pressure in very different ways and it’s impossible to fathom how difficult the pressure of managing in the Premier League must be. Your every decision scrutinised, filmed, replayed. We would all make dicks of ourselves, from time to time.
However, at any job interview, Pearson would presumably have to explain these repeated outbursts and misdemeanours – and they are not easily explicable. They are embarrassing to say the very least and, as a totality, quite alarming.
(Martínez has never transgressed in any of these ways, nor is he likely to – although he was recently filmed dancing like a pillock at a gig.)
It matters how managers talk to journalists. Nigel Clough lost a lot of fans’ respect through the tone of some of his post-match interviews; Steve McClaren’s failure to publicly commit to Derby properly after reported interest from Newcastle became a festering sore and I, for one, never forgave Wassall for the way he responded to perfectly reasonable questions from Owen Bradley, after the Rotherham debacle.
It also very much matters how managers speak to the fans, of course. And it matters whether a manager can keep a lid on his emotions on the touchline.
But putting those incidents aside, purely in football terms, there’s no doubt that Pearson did an excellent job for Leicester. I guess the Pearsonites would say – who cares if he has an edge to him? Maybe you need that. Nice guys finish last, football is a man’s game, if you can’t take the heat… and so on.
That said, it can’t be ignored that after Pearson was sacked, Claudio Ranieri arrived and – without verbally or physically attacking anyone – took the team he inherited to the Premier League title. Maybe nice guys can win, after all.
As I’ve said before, I think Pearson is likely to take over at Aston Villa, a club rotten to the core and in desperate need of a clearout and rebuild. Their fans, I think, need to feel that there is a sergeant major in there, laying down the law, issuing bollockings and dragging the club back onto its feet again through sheer force of personality.
Unlike Pearson, who seems to have been perceived as a better manager every time Ranieri’s Leicester won another game, Martínez has the disadvantage of having been sacked recently and his stock has fallen a lot since the early days at Everton. It’s not so long since Michael Cox, of Zonal Marking, was raving about Martínez’s ‘strategic brilliance‘, as his exciting side cut through all-comers in the Premier League. “[Martínez] is consistently praised for his overall football philosophy, demanding ball retention and positive attacking play, but he’s a methodical tactician too”, said Cox, in December 2014.
On the other hand, plenty has been made of the following extract from Leon Osman’s autobiography (yes, he’s written one):
‘It’s rare for us to work on set-pieces. You’re given your roles, you’re supposed to understand them and if you don’t, find out, think for yourself. That was a big changeover for us [from working under David Moyes].
‘We questioned why we weren’t working on set-pieces and Graeme Jones, the assistant manager, said: “How many do you have to defend in a game? Three? So why would we spend two hours standing around to defend three set-pieces when we could work on moving the ball.”‘
It’s a purist’s vision and, after a brilliant start, it ultimately failed at Everton, where a team blessed with lavish ability simply could not keep the ball out of their net often enough to succeed.
Yet even this season, amid fan unrest over terrible home form in the league, Everton reached the semi-finals of both domestic cups. Funnily enough, I watched Wigan’s FA Cup triumph with a Latics fan and he just couldn’t stop laughing and repeating: “Wigan have won the FA Cup!” Over and over again. It was the most unlikely of triumphs. Days later, the trophy winners were relegated from the Premier League.
I think if Martínez was appointed, he would build the team around Hughes. Perhaps he would import his 4-2-3-1 system, allowing Will to roam free with Thorne and another defensively minded midfielder shoring it up, while the two full backs storm forward. Which is an exciting prospect, on paper. A tabloid report recently suggested that the players, when canvassed, thought Martínez would be a good choice. When he left Wigan to take over at Everton, Dave Whelan said he would suit the Toffees because “he plays football from back to front”. Isn’t that the Derby Way, too?
Style is important to Mel Morris, apparently. He didn’t like Paul Clement’s approach and part of his sacking, I think, was the way he couldn’t seem to get a bravura performance out of the boys in the big games – defeat at Nottingham Forest, for example, or at home against Leeds and particularly the FA Cup tie against Manchester United (although that would be a harsh judgement, given the strength of the United team that day). We lost those games without ever showing enough attacking intent to look like winning them.
I don’t think that would be an issue under Martínez, who, in January, said:
“My philosophy and my way of working is not to keep clean sheets, my philosophy is to win games… As a manager, I want to defend, but would I base the performance on wanting to keep a clean sheet? No. I base the performance on getting on the ball, having a big role, dictating and having a positive approach and scoring goals…
“Other managers prefer to be defensive, give you the ball and then there’s always an error. What I like is an action that’s about winning games and achieving things.”
Pearson is probably perceived as one of those ‘other managers’ – but he is far from being a tactically inflexible 4-4-2 merchant. According to whoscored.com, he set up his 2014/5 Leicester side in no less than eight starting formations last season – yes, he used 4-4-2 or 4-4-1-1 much of the time, but he also deployed a back three with success and occasionally used a midfield diamond, 4-3-3, or an ultra-defensive 5-4-1.
An analysis of some of the key metrics for Pearson and Martínez last season shows that they performed pretty much on a par with each other. Both finished broadly where their club’s wagebills suggested that they might – Leicester just above the bottom three, Everton in mid-table.
The biggest difference is in the two managers’ relative possession and pass success stats. Leicester, famously, were and are a counter-attacking, sit-and-wait side, whereas Everton did their best to dominate the ball.
I’ve found the debate about who would be the right choice really interesting. On the one hand is a man who can be quite easy to take the piss out of, while on the other is a man you cross at your peril – to the point where Pat Murphy told him, perfectly reasonably, that he was in danger of being seen as a ‘bully’. “Have you considered taking anger management classes?” Murphy asked Pearson, after ‘Ostrichgate’.
Perhaps Martínez, with his belief in passing football and his propensity for describing hitherto unheralded players as ‘phenomenal’ and as among the greatest ever, could give the Rams the injection of self-belief they need, letting them off the leash to take the Championship by storm. Or perhaps, they need a ‘disciplinarian‘ like Pearson to brook no arguments and demand results and performances, ‘sorting out’ those who do not have a strong enough mentality to succeed in the process.
People will continue to be split on that – but my poll, at least, suggests that the majority favour the iron fist over the velvet glove.