Defensive frailties cost down-but-not-out Wigan

2013-swans

The defensive lapses that got Wigan in trouble in the first place resurfaced at the worst possible time to sink them into the deepest waters yet as Swansea ran out unlikely 3-2 winners at the DW.

Despite twice taking the lead and appearing in control against an organized but relaxed Swansea side enjoying the comforts of mid-table football, Roberto Martinez’s team now finds itself three points behind the pack, with two games to go.

An incident following a late double substitution summed up the ill-fortune Wigan have suffered over the course of the season with respect to injuries, as Ronnie Stam lasted a mere 10 seconds before hobbling off with a suspected broken leg — leaving his team to play the final 15 minutes a man down.

One need only to look at Wigan’s win-rate with Antolin Alcaraz in the team versus without him to know what an important player he is at the centre of Wigan’s defence. His three years at the club have been blighted by injury, but his return to the team in each of those seasons has coincided with an upturn in fortunes. This year was no exception — the defence has shipped an average of two goals a game since his most recent injury at West Ham.

Add to that the long-term injury of Ivan Ramis, the recent losses of Maynor Figueroa and Jean Beausejour, and captain Gary Caldwell’s ongoing struggles with a hip injury that have sidelined him for much of 2013 — and you have yourself a crisis.

And lets not forget that Ben Watson — the team’s most specialised defensive midfielder — has just returned from a broken leg that kept him out for five months. Now Wigan have to cope without Stam. There aren’t many left.

It was ironic then, that Roger Espinoza, a holding midfielder standing in for Jean Beausejour and Maynor Figueroa at left wingback, put Wigan ahead with a well-taken volley late in the first half. He was later caught napping by Angel Rangel’s strike early in the second half, before James McCarthy scored to put Latics back in the driver’s seat.

Then came the capitulation. Returning captain Gary Caldwell, who had passed the ball very well indeed up until that point, left his defence totally exposed with an awful pass, from which Swansea would score via a fortuitous deflected finish. Minutes later, an overhit cross by Pablo Hernandez was met by Shaun Maloney’s chest as James McArthur approached, but instead of clearing the ball the pair froze, allowing a scrappy effort to bounce over the line.

Wigan went in search of an equalizer — but reduced to 10 men and with signs of exhaustion showing — could not find it.

The Good:

Our collective hearts sank yesterday, but hope is not lost. Two years ago, Wigan were 2-0 down to West Ham at half-time on the second-to-last match of the season, needing not only to overcome the deficit in the next 45 minutes but then travel to loudest stadium in England and beat Stoke City to stay up. They did it amidst unforgettable scenes.

This time, the club needs a little luck from results elsewhere, but both Newcastle and Norwich are within touching distance. Wigan’s presence in the Cup final provides the advantage of knowing how the Ns fare in their penultimate fixtures before we take the field against Arsenal. Goal difference could be crucial when all things are said and done — knowing what is needed could be important before the trip to the Emirates.

The Bad:

The defence is a mess. It was against West Brom, but the attack compensated for it. Too many injuries, too many players out of position, too many people being rushed back from injury to fill gaps. They can’t go on conceding two goals a game. It’s too much to ask from an attack that has performed very, very well to give the team a fighting chance.

Having to rely on favours from QPR, already relegated, and West Brom, safe in mid-table, is not ideal. But both Norwich and Newcastle are in very poor form. They could slip in their weekend fixtures against West Brom and QPR respectively, just as we did yesterday. Their final matches of the season are against Man City and Arsenal — causes for optimism.

Another defensive injury, this time to Stam. This forces Martinez to play Boyce wide, which in turn forces him to pick between Caldwell or the young Roman Golobart to partner Paul Scharner in defence.

Fatigue is setting in. The team now has three crucial games in the space of ten days, and a number of injuries to contend with. Does Martinez prioritize cup glory and field his strongest line-up, or field a mixed team with all three matches in mind?

The League Table:

There are three possible scenarios for salvation. The first and least likely is victory over both Arsenal and Villa. The second is a draw against Arsenal, victory over Villa, and either Norwich or Newcastle failing to gain more than one point from their final two games. The final and least likely — though not impossible — is that Norwich or Newcastle lose both their matches, and Wigan beats Villa. This scenario will hinge on goal difference.

Player Ratings:

Joel Robles: 6 — Not at fault for any of the goals though you get the sense he might have done better. He did, however, make a couple excellent saves and spared a -2 goal difference in the last minute which could be crucial.

Emmerson Boyce: 6 — One of the better performers at the back with some good tackles.

Gary Caldwell: 5 — Has been vilified for his mistake, and there is no denying it was a costly one. But his passing up until that point had been outstanding and he’d made some good interceptions.

Paul Scharner: 6 — Not at fault for any of the goals but his partnership with Caldwell, and Watson, was always stretched and vulnerable.

Roger Espinoza: 6 — Asked to play out of position for the benefit of the team, he did as well as could be expected. Some nervy passing at the beginning of the match that put his defending under pressure, but he grew into the game and contributed a very well-taken goal. Caught for the equaliser but chased and worked, and should retain his place.

Ben Watson: 6 — Doesn’t have the pace to play in two positions at once, which is what was asked of him. Didn’t do much wrong, but could be more adventurous with his passing. The one time he put the ball into the box from open play, Wigan scored.

James McArthur: 6 — A very mixed game. He was at times excellent with very skillful midfield play and a real drive. But he missed a glorious chance that would have killed the game in Wigan’s favour, and was then involved in the mix-up that led to Swansea’s winner.

James McCarthy: 7 — Wigan’s best performer. An exceptional talent with the work-rate to match. Scored a well-taken goal. One hopes it will give him the confidence to get forward like that more often.

Shaun Maloney: 6 — Not his day. Had clearly been asked to put in extra defensive miles to aid Espinoza on the left, but it left him too tired to create at the other end. It was his defensive mistake that led to the Swansea winner, but he should’t have had to have been there helping out in the first place.

Callum McManaman: 6 — A little overconfident perhaps, he tormented left-back Ben Davies with his dribbling but produced no end result. Quiet second half before his substitution.

Arouna Koné: 7 — Went close on three occasions with very little service.

Subs:

Franco Di Santo: 5 — Unable to affect the game from his left-wing position.

Jordi Gomez: Some nice touches.

Ronnie Stam: Injured before he could say Doei.

Man City vs Wigan Athletic: Focus needed

Latics

It’s hard to remember a senior member of the current Wigan squad who has not publicly stated that league survival trumps cup success this year — but no one put it better than Roberto Martinez yesterday in comments to The Guardian, in reference to today’s clash with Manchester City.

“In many aspects the league game is bigger,” he said. “I don’t think there are games which are more important than others. They are all very significant. But if you are asking me what it represents for a club like Wigan winning the FA Cup final or staying in the Premier League, then staying in the Premier League would mean the next 10 years of the football club would be financially very stable. The new facilities that we have planned can happen and behind the scenes the club can go to a different level.

“But when you have the opportunity to win the FA Cup, you can’t disregard it and say that’s not important. They are both important. This is the sort of season we want. There’s only Manchester City, Chelsea and Wigan who are involved in two competitions at this moment. It requires a strong mentality and we’ve never had that before.”

To further assert the point, Martinez yesterday admitted that the season would be assessed as a failure internally should the team win the FA Cup but subsequently be relegated from the league. The money involved in another season in the league is what keeps the club developing behind the scenes, and a year without it would represent a huge setback to the excellent progress of recent years.

He also outlined the strength of his squad. This is a squad that was torn apart by injuries for the first half of the season but is finally approaching full strength. The lessons of Birmingham and Portsmouth — teams fighting on two fronts that eventually lost out in the league — are valuable, but neither team was peaking in form or fitness as Latics currently are, or had strength in numbers. Wigan’s bench, with Franco Di Santo, Gary Caldwell, James McArthur and until recently, Ali Al-Habsi, has never been stronger.

With a very important fixture at West Ham looming next Saturday, we may witness some changes to the starting eleven tonight. It will be interesting to see if Ali Al-Habsi retains his place, or if his role for the rest of the season will be that of Cup Goalkeeper, as was Joel Robles’ before the Everton performance changed things.

It’s hard to forsee any changes in the back four unless there is concern over the fitness levels of either Paul Scharner or Antolin Alcaraz, who played very few minutes in 2012. In midfield, it wouldn’t be surprising to see James McArthur included to add steel in midfield. And Franco Di Santo must be itching for a game. The Argentine has been the victim of Callum McManaman’s emergence and the change of shape to accomodate traditional wingers instead of wing-backs. But with a contract on the negotiation table, Martinez will want him to feel involved and important to the team.

While it is highly unlikely that Wigan should obtain two positive results against an in-form Manchester City side at away and neutral venues respectively, the pragmatist among us would happily settle for one. The impossible question, of course, is which of the two?

A loss today in the league would not crush Wigan’s hopes of staying up, considering there are more accessible fixtures remaining from which to gain the necessary 8-9 points such as West Ham and West Brom away, or Swansea, Spurs and Aston Villa at home. On the other hand, every point matters at this stage and the league table is tighter than ever.

The key today will be whether our players can retain their focus and energy levels after their Wembley adventure, against a wildly different opponent, and one they’ve struggled against. The odds are not favourable, but Manchester City was one of the few scalps Wigan did not claim in the amazing run last season — can they do it this time around?

Wigan Athletic vs. Newcastle United: Positivity pervades

2012-alcaraz

A refreshing wind of optimism swirls around the DW Stadium ahead of Sunday’s crunch match against Newcastle. As painful as the Liverpool setback was a fortnight ago, Roberto Martinez’s team is enjoying a fine run of form that has seen Huddersfield, Reading and Everton dispatched by three-goal spreads, with two clean sheets obtained in the process.

The results are almost as concerning as they are remarkable, however, given the successes were achieved away while the 4-0 fracas was suffered at home. Much like the bulk of last season, Wigan just cannot seem to get going on their home patch. Of course, last time around it did finally click, and in some style, with the 4-0 demolition job of Newcastle a highlight. With Norwich next in line to visit, these two home fixtures are crucial.

In any case, the injection of positivity has not jut come from reaching the FA Cup semi-finals for the first time in the club’s history, but the manner in which it was achieved. I cannot remember a team so dominant at Goodison Park in the past decade — and this is certainly the strongest Everton team in that time. That Latics achieved it with a mixed lineup and attacking formation was all the more remarkable. It also makes the guess-work quite tricky for a potential lineup against Newcastle this weekend.

One unfortunate loss is that of Callum McManaman — a driving force in Wigan’s cup run — to an ankle injury. While he has not been starting in the league, he would have made a solid case to do so this weekend — particularly if Martinez continues with his more traditional back four and wingers, as opposed to his previously preferred wingback system. The switch has resulted in improved attacking play and offered much-needed unpredictability against opponents who had figured out that they key to stopping Wigan was to stop their wing-backs. It has also surprisingly improved the defensive record with two clean sheets out of four, although this may have more to do with the fitness levels of the personnel available now versus earlier in the season. Given the performances of Antolin Alcaraz and Paul Scharner against Everton, it is hard to foresee a return for captain Gary Caldwell this weekend.

If Martinez were to preserve the Everton back four, the only difference to the defence would be the return of Ali Al-Habsi. Up front, Franco Di Santo will probably join Arouna Kone, with Shaun Maloney taking McManaman’s place on the right wing. It’s anyone’s guess whether Jordi Gomez, excellent against Everton in a central midfield role, will retain his place or lose out to James McArthur.

Meanwhile, Newcastle are “fresh” from a 1-0 victory over Guus Hiddink and Samuel Eto’o’s Russian side Anzhi Makhachkala. The hope, of course, is that they will not be so fresh. Stand-in captain and Yohan Cabaye limped off in the first half of match on Thursday and will surely be a doubt. Hatem Ben Arfa has also been out with a hamstring injury. Both are quality players and important for the cause, but Newcastle nonetheless have the look of a refreshed side, reinvigorated by January signings and recent improvement.

Crucial to Wigan’s chances is striking the first blow. The team has a dangerous tendency to implode upon conceding, but has looked increasingly deadly on the break and likely to increase a lead when striking first. A patient first half approach would be wise, with a second half push if things remain cagey. A win would do wonders for the Wigan survival cause, but this is likely to be the trickier of the back-to-back home fixtures. Four points from them should be considered a success.

What happened to Wigan? 10 thoughts

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1. The current defensive injury crisis is extreme, but nothing new

This is the third year running that Antolin Alcaraz has missed substantial match time to injury in the first half of the season. In previous years, he had participated in a full World Cup and Copa America respectively, with little recovery time. On both occasions, he eventually returned to fitness around this time of the year to play a key role. His understanding with Caldwell and aerial ability is crucial to the solidity Latics’ positive results have been built on.

Meanwhile, Gary Caldwell has missed less match time but is prone to rushing back before fully fit — probably in part due to his role as skipper. He was clearly not at the races in the Newcastle fixture several matches back, and prolonged his absence by tweaking the injury before it had fully healed.

Then there are Ramis and Lopez, neither with a history of injuries in their Wigan careers, but owners of hamstrings with a bad sense of timing.

2. We’ve missed Moses more than we care to admit

Many Wiganers are quick to point to Moses’ often-frustrating final pass or finish, but he gave the team a lot more than that. One of his most important contributions was to relieve pressure by holding the ball up, dribbling and drawing people into fouls while his teammates regained their shape. The penalties and free-kicks have dried up in his absence. Aside from Jordi, who unfortunately lacks pace to be a consistent attacking threat, there are few players in the starting XI capable or willing to take on their man and unlock a defence.

3. Espinoza can’t arrive soon enough

If our Sporting Kansas City friends are to be believed, our new Honduran signing is nothing if not committed. More important than skill, he should inject an element of urgency and fight into the squad. I wouldn’t be surprised if we saw his first appearances in the right wing-back position, though he is destined to fill one of the defensive midfield slots. Injuries may force his inclusion sooner than anticipated.

4. Ali Al-Habsi desperately needs a clean sheet

The Omani international has been the club’s most consistent performer over the past two seasons. But a couple mistakes have seen a huge dip in confidence. The fact that there is a different set of defenders in front of him each week can’t be helping, but it’s clear he needs a clean sheet, a penalty save or similar, to get his head back where it was.

5. Arouna Koné’s participation in the African Cup of Nations could be disastrous, or a blessing in disguise.

The Ivorian is clearly a quality player but hasn’t quite got fully going. Scored a couple, missed a couple, he is now suffering from a dip in form along with his teammates. While his absence will be problematic, a good tournament could see the return of a confident in-form international striker. If Martinez can plug the hole with a January window signing, or by giving Mauro Boselli an extended run in the team, it may be a blessing in disguise. There are other options, albeit with some adjustment to the team’s attacking shape — Jordi and Maloney both have goals in them but do best when the other one isn’t on the pitch. Ryo Miyaichi still has a big role to play this season. Callum McManaman is waiting for his chance. Is a Nouha Dicko return from Blackpool a possibility?

6. Would it be worth a loan-move for Wilson Palacios in January?

If everyone’s fit, it would be hard to argue against the Jimmy Mac axis in centre midfield. But with the glut of injuries at present, surely it would be worth a gamble. Stuck out in the wilderness at Stoke, he would likely jump at the chance to be re-united with a set of supporters that loved him, two fellow Hondurans, and a system that would would very much play to his strengths. One could easily see a McArthur-Palacios defensive midfield, allowing James McCarthy a bit more license to push forward, with Maloney in behind Di Santo.

7. Mauro Boselli’s success depends on the form of the wingbacks

Finally given an opportunity to start against Norwich, Boselli was let down by poor performances by both Jean Beausejour and Ronnie Stam. He is a very different type of striker to either Franco Di Santo or Arouna Kone — a poacher who needs service into the box. The only decent delivery against Norwich came from Maloney. Give Boselli three of those a match and he’ll score goals.

8. Boycey looks a bit tired

In the wingback role, he was failing to get forward as he did to such great effect last season. As a centre-back, he has done admirably but is starting to look a little jaded. The defensive injury crisis has meant a lot of football. A young right wingback must surely be a priority on Roberto’s shopping list.

9. Will Di Santo sign a new contract?

The Argentine started the season in scintillating form, suffered a couple minor injuries, and has been used sparingly in recent matches. It would not be surprising to see his head turned after a first international appearance alongside Messi, Aguero and Higuain. But the hope in the Wigan camp is that Martinez has been restricting his appearances to keep him fresh for the period of time Arouna Kone is away — rather than using him sparingly with the knowledge he plans to leave in the summer as did Rodallega and Diame.

10. It’s an interesting league table this year

QPR are starting to get results under Harry, as one would expect. With the talent in their squad, and half a season to run, they should be able to escape. Reading look doomed. Southampton don’t have much to work with, especially with the recent injury to the excellent Adam Lallana. But the third relegation birth is very difficult to call. Sunderland have been very poor but it’s hard to imagine a Martin O’Neill team being relegated. Newcastle have far too much quality in their squad, surely. Villa have started to look impressive, if reliant on striker Christian Benteke. It’s hard to see many teams above them slipping too far. Wigan needs to improve.

Resistance broken

Roberto Martinez was on the money when he said Wigan Athletic would need to be tactically perfect against defending champions Manchester City — a soft goal halfway through the second half was the difference in this one.

James Milner added a wonder strike two minutes later but probably wouldn’t have gambled on a shot from that far out without the one-nil cushion. It gave City the confidence to attack with verve against a Wigan side that had until that point looked both resilient in defence and composed in attack.

The Good:

The makeshift defence performed admirably. Adrian Lopez was a revelation and is clearly well-suited to a back three. The midfield pairing of James McCarthy and Dave Jones was excellent, as was Franco Di Santo, who skillfully and energetically led a number of breakaways.

All in all, given the injury crisis the club is going through, this was a positive performance against a team full of match-winners. If you’d pulled four starters and several other senior players out of the squad three years ago, it would have guaranteed a hammering. Not so anymore.

The Bad:

A missed opportunity. City were starting to grow frustrated and Wigan were growing in confidence. Al-Habsi’s mistake was his second in two matches. You can get away with it against Reading — just — but not Manchester City. It was effectively game over.

Player Ratings:

Ali Al-Habsi: 5 — Though it pains me to say it, but his mistake led to the goal that changed the game.

Emmerson Boyce: 7 — Could have done better after Ali spilled, loses a point for that. But he was otherwise excellent in his old position.

Adrian Lopez: 8 — A revelation in the Gary Caldwell role. No fault in the goals, made numerous timely interceptions and tackles, and distributed well.

Maynor Figueroa: 7 — One near disastrous backwards header aside, he did well alongside unfamiliar defensive partners.

Jean Beausejour: 6 — Played one delicious cross in the second half but otherwise failed to have a strong impact on the game.

Ronnie Stam: 6 — Rusty. Struggled to get his ball into the box. But he shows promise and could be very useful in the right wingback role in weeks to come. Especially as Boyce appears to be set for an extended run at centre-back.

James McCarthy: 8 — Outstanding. Didn’t put a foot wrong all game. Broke up play and started counter-attacks.

David Jones: 7.5 — His best outing for some time. Good passing, strong tackling.

Jordi Gomez: 6 — Better in the first half, although casual at times. Might have had a penalty shout but stayed on his feet and then went down under lesser contact. Faded as the game went on.

Franco Di Santo: 8 — Broke up play, broke with pace, created opportunities, but often found himself alone.

Arouna Koné: 7 — Linked up well but couldn’t put away any of the half-chances he had.

Subs:

James McArthur: Glad to see him back.

Callum McManaman: Came on with a minute to play for Ronnie Stam. A bit late.

LIVERPOOL-WIGAN ATHLETIC PREVIEW

 

 

 

                                                                                                                                                        Wigan Athletic travel to Anfield this afternoon to face a Liverpool team in transition. The statistics tell us that Liverpool have won only 3 of their last 15  matches at home in 2012, a far cry from the days when Anfield was a fortress where teams feared to go. Latics 2-1 win there in April was one of their most notable performances, catalytic in helping maintain their Premier League status. Moreover Wigan have not lost to the Reds in their last five meetings.

The optimistic Liverpool supporter would rightly say that the club comes into this fixture on an unbeaten run of 6 league games, including a 1-1 draw at Chelsea last week. Under Brendan Rodgers, Liverpool are playing better football and have some exciting young talent coming through. The controversial Luis Suarez has been playing really well, scoring 8 league goals so far. Liverpool are clearly on the ascendancy and this is a game they dearly want to win.

Much has been said in the press this week of the confrontation between the two young managers – Rodgers and Martinez – both being lauded for their teams’ style of football. The cynic might say that Rodgers takes undue credit from his success as manager of Swansea, following unimpressive stats in his previous posts at Reading and Watford, where his teams were not renowned for playing good football. Martinez supporters would suggest that it was he, more than Rodgers, who recrafted the brand of football during his era at the Welsh club.

Rodgers still has a lot to do to prove himself on Merseyside, but his insistence on Liverpool playing quality football is to be commended. He has also had the courage to throw a handful of young players in at the deep end. Liverpool still retain players of proven quality to complement their youthful component. Steven Gerrard may be past his best but still has a lot to offer. They might well come into this match with a backline of three central defenders – Skrtel, Agger and Carragher – a rugged and experienced barrier to penetrate.

Wigan Athletic’s season so far has been disappointing, but these days one never knows what they will do next. When they first got into the Premier League a confrontation with Liverpool was one to be feared. Since then Liverpool’s strength has waned and Wigan have shown themselves capable of beating any one of those big clubs on their day. Wigan will go into the match anxious not to concede an early goal. So far this season they have not been able to get a result in a match where they have conceded the first goal.

Latics still have Alcaraz , McArthur and Crusat ruled out by injury. However, Ryo Miyaichi might be fit enough to take a place on the bench. It remains to be seen whether Shaun Maloney will make it after a recent injury. Jordi Gomez would be the most likely replacement. Ben Watson is likely to continue in midfield following his much improved performance against West Bromwich last weekend. Other than the doubt about Maloney the starting lineup is likely to remain unchanged from last week.

With fair refereeing and a little bit of luck Wigan Athletic can get a good result today. They need to avoid giving away any soft goals – particularly penalties – and Gary Caldwell and his defensive unit need to neutralize the threat of Luis Suarez. It seems like Latics play best when Caldwell is at his best. Let’s hope that today is one of his better days.

Tottenham 0 Wigan Athletic 1: Return of the giant-killers

Wigan Athletic made up for their slow start to the season with an away performance reminiscent of the famous victories at Anfield and the Emirates of last term, climbing to 12th in the league table in doing so.

Tottenham’s starting XI — and indeed the thousands supporting them at White Hart Lane — appeared to approach the fixture as a foregone conclusion ahead of a series of tricky fixtures. Much will be criticized about their performance, but it won’t tell the whole story. While Villas Boas shifted and tweaked throughout and his players huffed and puffed in the second half, Roberto Martinez’s men knew exactly what their gameplan was and executed it to perfection.

In fact, so dominant were the Latics before Ben Watson’s breakthrough, they should have gone at least two or three up. While Gareth Bale was clearly the best player on the pitch, you got the sense that Spurs are at present just a team of expensively assembled individuals, while Wigan look an organized and well-oiled machine.

The Good: 

Roberto Martinez. The second youngest manager in the league put on a tactical masterclass for the youngest. This is the second 1-0 win in three away fixtures at White Hart Lane, against Spurs teams that have hardly struggled for goals. If you go back a fourth fixture, you get to the horrific 9-1 loss in Roberto’s first season. Where most chairmen would have panicked, Dave Whelan kept faith, and Martinez has repaid it. The team showed today it is already — this early in the season despite losing Victor Moses and having to bed in new signings — capable of the form shown that kept us up last year. Which bodes very well indeed.

The defence. Gary Caldwell was immense, as he was in the final stretch of last season. Ivan Ramis, next to him, had a brilliant match save one foul on the edge of the box that might have proven costly on another day. He looks comfortable in the league and tactical system, a quality signing. Figueroa had to cope with Lennon and Bale and got the job done, albeit with the occasional mistimed challenge. Emmerson Boyce, whose attacking play was non-existent, must receive huge praise for his defensive work as well.

Attacking link-up play. There are some excellent partnerships developing between the attacking trio. First, Maloney set up Kone. Then Kone returned the favour. Di Santo was quiet today but has been on the same wave length in recent fixtures. Latics created the five clearest chances of the match.

The Bad: 

Finishing. Both Kone and Maloney, when through with just the keeper to beat, shot straight at him. It comes down to confidence and composure. Both played very well otherwise, but you get the sense they each need a goal to get things going again. Ben Watson, who had an odd match — at times rusty, others very effective and ultimately scoring the winner — missed another sitter by blasting over.

Player Ratings: 

Ali Al-Habsi: 8.5 — Excellent. Held onto a couple stinging shots that other keepers would have spilled. Dominant in the air.

Ivan Ramis: 8.5 — Cracking performance from the Spaniard. Strong and excellent with his distribution. The way the back three knocks the ball around these days is a joy to watch. Very rarely is a ball hacked away in panic.

Gary Caldwell: 9 — Man of the match. Didn’t put a foot wrong, he was dominant. His passing out of the back, under pressure, was fantastic.

Maynor Figueroa: 7 — Had a tough time with Bale and Lennon at times, but got a very difficult job done. Lucky not to be given a yellow card in the first half, which was fortunate as he received one in the second.

Emmerson Boyce: 7.5 — Passing was at times poor and didn’t get forward, but his primary function was defensive. He had Bale to watch for most of the match, and defended well on set pieces.

Jean Beausejour: 8 — In good form. Got forward on several occasions in the first half with some quality deliveries. Neat in footwork as always, and put a real defensive shift in.

James McCarthy: 7.5 — Usual energetic, neat performance.

Ben Watson: 8 — Got the match winner. Going from Bradford to Spurs within the space of a few days must have been an adjustment, and his passing was a little wayward at times. But he was very frequently in the right place at the right time to make defensive interceptions, and stuck the ball in the back of the net — which no one else managed.

Shaun Maloney: 8 — Top class in the first half, buzzing about and creating. Should have scored his one-on-one opportunity. Faded as the team retreated in the second half.

Franco Di Santo: 7 — Couldn’t get going in this one, though he held the ball up well when required. Substituted with 20 minutes to go.

Arouna Kone: 7 — Another promising performance full of dangerous movement and skill but no goal. They’ll come.

Subs: 

Jordi Gomez: Played a couple delicious flicks that Kone and Maloney might have been quicker to pounce on. Drew a couple fouls that eased the pressure. Overall, did the job he was sent on to do quite well.

Swansea vs. Wigan Athletic: Goals guaranteed

Of all the clubs that voluntarily or otherwise replaced their managers over the summer break, the Swansea revolution has been the most intriguing. Steve Clarke’s positive start at West Brom has been surprising in its results, but not in approach or style. Norwich’s decline had been gloomily predictable, while their old boss Paul Lambert is going to need years and quite possibly a magic wand to steady Villa’s sinking ship. Andre Villas-Boas endured a rocky start but has started to show signs of the fast-paced attacking football that won him a treble with Porto a year and a half ago. All four of them were relatively known quantities or familiar faces.

Enter Michael Laudrup, and Swansea.

When Brendan Rodgers left to pursue a career in corny one-liners on “Being Liverpool,” many wondered if the style of play would go with him. It is often overlooked that it was not Rodgers, but our very own Roberto Martinez, that instilled such a style of play at Swansea long before Mr. Ok came along. That said, Rodgers deserves enormous credit for an excellent season brimming with possession-based, continental-style football. Until that magical final stretch for the Latics, watching Swansea last season had been like watching Wigan 2.0 — a new and improved version of our team with goals and clean sheets added.

In appointing Laudrup, they made a real statement. As successful as Brendan Rodgers was in Wales, he was never a big name. Appointing the Dane, such a stylish and well-travelled player, brings an air of prestige to the Liberty Stadium. And it opens up markets.

New signings Jonathan De Guzman, Michu and Chico admitted the Dane was the main draw in their respective moves to the Liberty Stadium, while Pablo Hernandez said he was his childhood idol. All four are proven performers in the Spanish league and Michu already looks like the signing of the season at 2 million pounds. Ki Sung-Yeung, signed from Celtic, has been described by the Swansea writer on ESPN FC network as “being able to do everything Joe Allen does at a third of the price.” Tidy business indeed.

And the style has changed. And not necessarily for the worse, from an entertainment perspective. They look a more potent threat in attack, committing more men forward, which in turn renders them a bit more susceptible at the back. Their results are extreme to say the least — starting with 5-0 and 3-0 wins before a 2-2 draw, then a three match losing streak, and another 2-2 draw. At home, they’ve won 3-0, lost 3-0, and drawn 2-2 twice. There appears to be a bit less tikki-takka and more direct attacking play. Still skillful and on the ground, but less patient, and more adventurous. The result is possibly an even more entertaining brand of football, but less reliable.

All of which should contribute to a mouthwatering fixture tomorrow. Wigan’s front three of Koné, Di Santo and Maloney showed tremendous movement and understanding against Everton and were unlucky not to win it for their teammates on the day. If Swansea take the initiative as one would expect playing at home, there should be space on the counter. The key will be who scores first. When Everton visited Liberty Park several weeks ago, Swansea were vulnerable on the break and conceded two more. Reading put two past them before a spirited second half fightback that rescued a point.

Wigan should expect to start with the same XI that faced Everton — unless anyone returns from international duties with injury or severe jet-lag. Maynor Figueroa will be buzzing after Honduras thumped Canada 8-1 to advance to the final phase of CONCACAF qualification. Jean Beausejour fared less well, with Chile losing both of their qualifiers. Ali Al-Habsi’s Oman beat Jordan to keep their dream alive, though Australia’s late winner against Iraq pegged them back on goal difference. James McArthur, Gary Caldwell and Shaun Maloney all featured for Scotland, while James McCarthy played two matches for the Republic of Ireland. Comparatively, Swansea lost few of their starters to international travel and may have an advantage there.

A difficult one to predict, but all signs point to goals galore. 2-2, anyone?

Gomez and Maloney: wingers or playmakers?

How did Wigan Athletic stay up last season? Was that incredible late run due to a tactical transformation? Or was it due to new players coming in and changing things? The acquisition of a specialist left wing back – Jean Beausejour in January – certainly helped the system flow more effectively. However, if you were to ask a room full of Latics supporters which player made the biggest difference the answer would surely be Shaun Maloney.

Maloney’s season had not really started until he came on as a substitute against Norwich in March 2012. He put through a fantastic pass to Victor Moses to get the goal that earned an invaluable point at Carrow Road. Following that match, his ex-Celtic colleague , Gary Caldwell, dubbed Maloney as “Our Secret Weapon” quoting that “He picks up the ball in the final third and he can either beat his man and he can pick out that killer ball – like you saw with the goal.” Caldwell was proved to be right.

Maloney was later to score the Latics’ goal of the season to defeat Manchester United. His ice cool penalty in the victory over Liverpool at Anfield sticks in the memory, as does his cutting in from the left and putting a brilliant narrow angled finish in the 4-0 drubbing of Newcastle. But more than the goals he scored it was that role as a “playmaker”, linking between defence and attack that helped transform the quality of football Latics were able to play.

Maloney had come to Wigan following  a difficult final period at Celtic. His career had been blighted with injury. Moreover he had been struck by homesickness during his previous spell in the Premier League — at Aston Villa in 2007-2008. These factors made it unlikely that a Premier League team would come for him, until Roberto Martinez knocked on his door. During his two spells at Parkhead he had won five SPL Championships, Scottish Cups and three Scottish League Cups. His acquisition by Wigan Athletic is summer of 2011 was therefore a calculated gamble. For the first half of the season, he made four appearances as a substitute and played in two awful team performances in the FA and League Cups. Fitness remained the issue. It was through sheer hard work and dedication that Maloney got back to a level of fitness that would help him be able to showpiece his skills in the Premier League.

Wigan Athletic’s starting lineup last Saturday included both Jordi Gomez and Shaun Maloney. Normally, only one of them makes the starting lineup, with the other coming on as a substitute. Both are playmakers, who need to receive a lot of the ball to be effective. However, each has learned during his time at the club that defensive duties are also required. Neither is a natural tackler but they both do their share in trying to win the ball back. Both cover huge amounts of ground during a match. Both are cool penalty takers. Both score goals which are not from the penalty spot.

Jordi Gomez is a player who divides Latics fans. He is derided by those “Darksiders” who prefer more the more traditional English approach of “up and at ‘em” . The fans who appreciate him will say he is a skilful player who can bring order to a game through his cultured technique, keeping the ball while under pressure and drawing fouls. I have heard it said that we will never see how good Gomez can be until Latics are playing the level of skilful football that Roberto Martinez seeks. We have seen some really magic moments from Gomez during his time at Wigan. At Arsenal in April he put through the pass that sent Di Santo through to score then got an opportunist goal himself. He has been unlucky so many times with fine efforts that have hit the woodwork – last Saturday against Fulham was another example.

How do the playmakers – Gomez and Maloney – fit into the current tactical system? Are they wingers or central midfielders? Can they play together?

Maloney still finds it difficult to complete 90 minutes. Gomez is the natural replacement. Their styles differ greatly. Maloney will dribble with the ball more than Gomez who will seek the wall pass more frequently. Gomez does not have the pace or dribbling capacity to be a winger. When played wide on the right he inevitably turns towards the middle where he is going to be more comfortable and effective. However, he is not afraid to shoot – he has a good technique and can hit the target. Maloney was used mainly as a left winger by Aston Villa. Although right-footed he can cross the ball with his left foot. He can dribble past defenders and cause danger. However, it is when they move into the “hole” in midfield – behind the central striker- that both Gomez and Maloney are most effective.

Playing Gomez and Maloney together is unlikely to be effective because their basic function is too similar. They are players who make themselves available to receive the ball, providing the link between defence and attack. Both are good players. Let’s not forget that David Jones can also play in that position and is a capable and creative player. He added the incision in the Capital One victory at West Ham last night.

Let’s play the playmakers in their natural position in central midfield, ahead of the holding midfielders, but behind the forwards. Martinez has done well to adjust the tactical system following the loss of Victor Moses. The presence of two big central and pacy strikers is a real plus. There remains the possibility of playing without the central playmaker and having two wide players supporting the central striker. Well done, Roberto, in being open-minded towards further tactical innovation. But please – let’s not see Gomez and Maloney playing wide, flanking a single centre forward.

Wigan vs. Fulham: Battle of the strikers as Hugo returns

Wigan’s record Premier League goalscorer Hugo Rodallega returns to the DW Stadium this weekend with his new club, but most eyes will be on his illustrious strike partner, Dimitar Berbatov.

The Bulgarian notched his first two goals in a Fulham shirt in the 3-0 win over West Brom, while Hugo hit the post from three yards out, something he specializes in. The Colombian has already amassed more shots per minute than any other striker in the league — it is no wonder Mauro Boselli didn’t get any service playing between Hugo and Charles N’Zogbia. But the reception should be warm for a player who worked his socks off in that lone striker role, scored some very important goals, and developed a warm relationship with the Latics support in his years with the club.

Interest should not be fully reserved for Fulham’s strikeforce, however, as Roberto came out with a public promise of playing opportunities for Boselli yesterday. Franco Di Santo has been excellent with two brilliant finishes in four matches, really beginning to fulfill his huge potential; Arouna Koné is still adapting but has pedigree and looks a little sharper with his touch as the days go by.

Assuming Antolin Alcaraz is not yet ready to return to action, Roberto should be able to field the same XI as he did at Old Trafford. But he has options if he is looking to mix things up. Home games like this where we would expect to control possession should theoretically be ideal for Boselli, with crosses flying in from both sides. Ryo Miyaichi looks fast and skillful and offers something closer to what Victor Moses did. There is cover in midfield, though it is hard to imagine any interference there.

Aside from Swansea, whose style of play was instilled by Roberto long before Brendan Rodgers or Michael Laudrup came along, Martin Jol’s Fulham have become one of the more pleasant teams to watch. They’ve lost the excellent Moussa Dembele, playmaker-in-chief Danny Murphy and Clint Dempsey. But if fit, Bryan Ruiz is a very exciting player behind the front two of Rodallega and Berbatov. New left winger Alexander Kacaniklic looks lively and has already contributed goals and assits, while Damien Duff has had an effective start to the season on the right. Steve Sidwell has been waiting for regular football for years and now has it. He will provide steel in midfield, though he can play a bit too. And the defense is well established, with Haangeland and Hughes, and Schwarzer behind them always difficult to beat. They were the one team we didn’t outplay in the fantastic run-in last season.

So a tricky but intriguing encounter on the cards. The good news is that both Clint Dempsey and Andy Johnson have moved on and therefore cannot score against us anymore — for Fulham, anyway. The bad is that Berbatov has a very decent record against us, while Hugo has scored a few at the DW as well. Lets hope this is a day for Latics’s stikers to rise up and keep them in the shadows.