Following an exceptional result at White Hart Lane and convincing home success against West Ham before it, Wigan Athletic are starting to answer the question many of us spent the summer pondering: can the performance levels from our season-saving run of form be matched when the pressure is off?
Back in April and May, the intensity and tenacity of Latics’ defensive play at times seemed superhuman. The harrying, chasing down, selflessness — surely this was an attitude borne of need, the will to survive and fight another day. Over the summer, doubt intensified. Without that full commitment, would Wigan lose its edge?
Early season results did little to clear things up. A couple weeks ago, after some strong performances and one or two rotten ones, the general consensus was that a lack of sharpness at the decisive ends of the pitch were costing the club points. Wigan was stuck in the all-too-familiar bottom quarter of the table. Forward to present, and Roberto is a win away from the top half. What changed?
Despite a history of starting slowly at home in the Martinez era, I would argue that home wins are catalytic to the club’s good form. The players enjoy an unusually close relationship with the support, and the good feeling brought after a convincing win breathes not only confidence but urgency into the team. If anything, the last minute consolation goal by James Tomkins strengthened that resolve. A reminder that whilst the victory was more-than-warranted, a lead is a fragile thing that you have to fight to protect.
It was with this urgency that Wigan approached the Spurs match. All for one, and one for all. Ben Watson, eventually the match winner, put in a defensive shift we didn’t know he was able to. There was unity all over the park. Finesse in attack, real steel in defence. It was on par with the wins over Manchester United, Arsenal, Liverpool last season. And one notch below the 4-0 hammering of Newcastle, only due to missed chances to increase the scoreline.
And so what would have been viewed as more of a must-win home tie against West Brom when fixtures were announced, has become a real opportunity. Instead of the trepidation that accompanies these home matches we “should” win, there is real excitement that Wigan have rekindled the form that gave us so much joy earlier this year — and may deliver us three wins in a row and a place in the top half of the table.
But West Brom are not to be underestimated. In fact, they took advantage Wigan’s good work against Spurs and leapfrogged the London side into fifth place when no one was looking. Steve Clarke appears to be doing terrific work with an odd group of players, who seem capable of pulling off big results but never really look all that special. They’ve had two fewer days of rest, but will hardly have needed them after beating Southampton very comfortably indeed. The match should find two sides in decent form with few injuries to complain of — Latics’ main doubt is James McArthur, but Ben Watson will have earned a recall if there is any doubt about the Scot’s fitness.
There is always the possibility of a flat start, an unlucky deflected goal, a red card or an injury. But if Wigan can match the performance levels of Spurs and West Ham, it will put any lingering doubts to rest. Roberto has brought this club, beyond reasonable doubt, up a full level since this time last season. Relegation battlers simply can’t play the sort of football his team is capable of.