Why Diego Martinez Failed at Espanyol
The wait is over. 42-year-old Spanish coach Diego Martinez is set to be appointed as the new Head Coach at Olympiacos with Spanish media reporting Martinez will sign a 2-year deal with the Erythrolefkoi.
Martinez coaching journey started from humble beginnings. He began in the regional and local leagues of Andalucia, where his talent and tactical awareness quickly caught the eye of Sevilla Sporting Director Monchi (soon to be joining Aston Villa and former Sevilla colleague and coach Unai Emery). Martinez took on a number of different roles at Sevilla including: Academy Manager, Manager of Sevilla C & Sevilla U19s as well as first team Assistant Manager. Indeed, during his time with Sevilla, Martinez worked with coach Marcelino (long-time Olympiacos target for head coach), Michel (needs no introduction) and Unai Emery whom he served as Assistant Manager from 2012-14, winning the Europa League in the process.
After more than five years at Sevilla, Martinez tried his luck as first team coach with Osasuna for the first time in the Spanish Segunda Division. His side missed out on promotion by a point and he left Osasuna at the end of the season but quickly found his next gig. Enter Granada FC, where he essentially made his name , leading Granada to promotion to La Liga in his first season. The transition to La Liga required a demonstration of tactical flexibility and pragmatism. How did he fair? 7th place finish and with it a ticket to the Europa League!
In his third and final season with Granada, Martinez led the club to the quarter finals of the Europa League where they were knocked out by none other than Manchester United. For background, during the Europa League campaign Granada had to go through three qualifying rounds to reach the group stages, beating Albanian side Teuta, Locomotiv Tbilisi from Georgia and Swedish giants Malmö in the play-off round. The group stage included Omonoia, PSV Eindhoven and… PAOK and in the knock-out rounds, Granada dispatched Gennaro Gattuso’s Napoli side and Norwegian outfit Molde 3-2 on aggregate in both rounds before the 4-0 aggregate defeat at the hands of Manchester United.
After three memorable seasons and the fairy tale at Granada, he’d come full circle and Martinez took time off for a year to go to England to ‘study’ and come back to football with fresh ideas. And last year in July 2022, Espanyol came calling.
So, why did a coach that has shown so much promise previously fail so miserably at Espanyol? Context is everything.
Firstly, Espanyol’s set-up behind the scenes was volatile and unstable. Rumours of a takeover from foreign investment funds and suitors from the Middle East were a common occurrence. One source told me that the owners of Espanyol turned up for the team once a year and that too was via online call. The clubs ownership was neither present on the ground nor in the day to day running of the club and that impacted club operations as well as the clubs relationship and standing in La Liga among the footballing elite as well as the referees.
Second: Martinez did not get the support he was promised. Martinez is a coach that has demonstrated tactical flexibility throughout his career. When asked about his coaching philosophy and style of play in past interviews, he’s answered: “If I have lemons, I make lemonade. If I have oranges, I’ll make orange juice.” He’s a manager that is known to work with low budgets and the tools at his disposal but the Espanyol set up did him no favours. The clubs pre-season planning and summer signings serve as a few examples of the shambles at Espanyol:
Every team needs to start out the season with a good goalkeeper, a number one! Espanyol released goalkeeper Diego Lopez on a free last summer. The former Real Madrid man turned 40 and Espanyol felt that after six seasons it was time to cut ties. They initially turned to Benjamin Lecomte, the Atletico Madrid number two on loan from Monaco. They also signed a second keeper, Alvaro Fernandez who was number two to David Raya at Brentford – he never played for Brentford even when Raya got injured. Lecomte and Fernandez played 10 and 11 games respectively for Espanyol until the World Cup break. Lecomte’s loan was then terminated in January and he returned to Monaco and was sold to Montpellier. Wait there’s more! Espanyol then signed another goalkeeper for €2,5million, Fernando Pacheco. Sidenote: he was available on a free transfer in the summer but they didn’t agree on wages. Espanyol was essentially playing without a keeper for half a season. Not a great start to the season and hardly inspiring of any confidence for a teams defence if the keeper is changing every week.
The Raul de Tomas affair. Another Real Madrid academy product, Raul de Tomas had a breakout season at Rayo Vallecano during the 2018/19 season scording 14 goals in 33 appearances in La Liga. That earned him a €20 million move to Benfica but things didn’t work out in Lisbon and Espanyol forked out €22.5 million to bring him back to Spain. De Tomas is known to have a bit of a “prima donna” attitude and his time at Espanyol can be described as tumultuous at best. He spent six months on the sidelines and eventually fell out with Sporting Director Domingo Catoira and in the end he was sold to Rayo Vallecano for a cut price of €8.5 million last summer.
Suffice to say that the situation and foundations at Espanyol did not provide a stable environment for a new manager to come in and build a project. Martinez tried to adapt his game plan to work with the players he had at his disposal and for a while it worked. But then injuries hit key players and the team became very one dimensional and predictable for opponents. He eventually got the sack in April, exiting the Espanyol press conference to loud applauds from the press and those in attendance.
Can Martinez replicate success at Olympiacos?
The situation at Olympiacos is by no means a 'walk in the park' coming off one of the worst seasons in modern history. However, the good news for Olympiacos and the new manager is that coming into the job, Martinez will have the support of familiar faces. Martinez worked with Olympiacos Sporting Director Antonio Cordon at Granada for two seasons where he enjoyed great success. He’ll also find a familiar face in Jose Navarro, whom he knows from his time at Sevilla where Navarro was part of the scouting team. Navarro's set to join the Spanish contingent at Olympiacos from Real Betis as Head Scout. The past history and experience of these three individuals together is a key factor for success at Olympiacos as the club needs to be firing on all cylinders to get ready for the season ahead. The hope is that prior to Martinez's official unveileing, the groundwork has already been laid out.
Olympiacos fans will hope that the relationship and good understanding between the Spanish trio will bring quick results with regards to rebuilding the squad and bringing in new signings. Olympiacos absolutely need to have a new striker following the departure of Cedric Bakambu and the decline of Youssef El Arabi. A central midfielder will also be essential as a partner to In-beom Hwang. Martinez expects his central midfielders to run up and down 90 minutes and likes players that can switch the ball with ease. Not many players on the current bloated roster that fit that mould right now. A central defender is also an imperative following the experiments at centre back last year.
Preseason training camp will start in Greece on 26th June at Renti and Martinez will likely have a bigger budget than he is used to. Ideally Olympiacos should have the three aforementioned positions covered by the time the squad leaves for pre-season camp in Austria on July 5th. The more time Martinez has to work with the players he wants to work with, the better.
The Olympiacos project is his ticket to show everyone that he can replicate success like that at Granada and that Espanyol was just a blip. After all, if it weren’t for Espanyol’s calamity of a season, it’s quite unlikely that we would have seen Diego Martinez coming to our parts. “Patience” - a word that doesn’t seems to exist in the Greek football fans vocabulary - will be key. Furthermore, the board and fans will have to show him trust, allowing him and the Spanish contingent the necessary room to develop the project as they see fit. Martinez is not a magician and there is no quick fix to the situation at Olympiacos. Even the mighty Ernesto Valverde got knocked out of the Champions League by Anorthosi during in his first stint at the club. He too came from Espanyol by the way. Lucky coincidence or is the universe playing tricks? Time will tell. Patience.
For more tactical analysis and insights into our new coach and what to expect, check out the discussion from last nights live show (below).