Several weeks ago, I used a match preview to illustrate the comical gulf in financial resources between Latics and the rival of the day, Manchester City. I labeled that game a no-hoper, and the match obliged. As supporters, we were unhappy with the performance, but very few of us expected any other result. There are a growing number of teams like Manchester City, United, Liverpool, Chelsea, Spurs, Arsenal, that we just can’t compete with.
But if you polled most Wigan Athletic supporters, few would list Aston Villa in that category. Sure, they are a big club with good support and some financial backing. But they’ve been, over the years, the type of team we can beat, and indeed try to.
The daft thing about all of this is that Aston Villa are, albeit to a lesser extent, still light years ahead of Wigan in terms of spending and wages. This summer, they bought our best player, Charles N’Zogbia, and proceeded to leave him on the bench, where another of our former best players, Emile Heskey, would keep him company. Key players for us are not key players for them. (Although I do think N’Zogbia will probably go on to become a key player there eventually).
Are we expecting too much from — to put it bluntly — a poor team in the world’s richest league? At risk of sounding bonkers after the elaborate preface I’ve just given, I don’t think we are.
Because Wigan Athletic has always punched above its weight. We expect our boys to upset the odds, and they do year after year. It’s the club ethos. The fact that Latics had not lost away at Villa before Saturday was an astounding statistic given the above realities. So as I launch into this match analysis, keep in mind two things. First, as a supporter I’m very proud of what the club has achieved and continues to achieve against clubs with greater resources. But second, that doesn’t mean we shouldn’t be doing better than we are.
Latics actually started this one brightly, with plenty of possession and some attacking intent, without actually creating any clear chances. Roberto opted for a similar lineup to that of the second half against Tottenham, with Emmerson Boyce returning at right-back, Figueroa partnering Caldwell in the middle, and Van Aanholt out left. Ronnie Stam lined up as what can only be described as a defensive winger on the right, with Victor Moses on the left and Franco Di Santo up top. The usual suspects played in midfield: Watson, McCarthy and Diame.
Against Spurs, the Ronnie Stam experiment was designed to provide extra defensive cover on the left flank where Gareth Bale was causing problems. It worked to some degree before Gohouri’s red card, and seemed a reasonable approach to keep Villa’s most dangerous player, Gabby Agbonlahor, in check. But as Latics grew more comfortable in possession, they got caught out of position, and when Agbonlahor cut in from the wing in a one-on-one situation with Gary Caldwell, we knew what the outcome would be. Caldwell had been given a yellow card for next to nothing minutes prior, which probably discouraged a professional foul, but credit where it’s due, Agbonlahor produced an absolute rocket of a finish past Caldwell and Al-Habsi.
Latics only created one chance in the first half, and it fell to Franco Di Santo after Victor Moses had broken from midfield, panicked and almost scuffed his pass to the Argentine, who shot low and just wide. With his strength and speed, Moses probably could have gone on his own, but the man’s confidence is low and you can tell.
The second half began with another good effort from Agbonlahor, who again cut in from the left to curl an effort past Al-Habsi, skimming the post in the process. Emmerson Boyce, back from injury, was visibly tiring and would continue to struggle with the Villa striker As the match went on. Barry Bannan had a good long range effort tipped over the bar, before Franco Di Santo, against the run of play, took matters into his own hands. On a mazy run, he slipped in between several Villa defenders and found himself one on one against the keeper when he was clearly clattered by Alan Hutton. Mark Clattenberg and his haircut, both poor all match, the former favouring the home side, ignored it, and minutes later the game would be over.
Bizarrely, Martinez introduced James McArthur as a right-wingback in place of Ronnie Stam. If he was looking for pace to help Boyce deal with Agbonlahor, McArthur was clearly not the man for the job. The Scot was caught in possession and found himself chasing Agbonlahor, who is about seventeen times faster than he is, and also breezed past Boyce to deliver an excellent cross for Darren Bent’s goal.
Then Shaun Maloney was introduced at the tip of the diamond in attacking midfield, and chances started to come. First, Victor Moses slipped in a cheeky through ball which Maloney just failed to make good contact with. Ben Watson fizzed a corner straight through the entire Villa defense, with Gary Caldwell a whisker away. James McArthur whipped a delicious low cross just begging to be tapped in, but no one was on the end of it. Hugo might have, or Sammon. Even Boselli.
But it wasn’t to be.
A Neutral Would Say
Wigan pass it around a lot but don’t have anyone who can stick it in the back of the net. Villa have the opposite, but do look tough to beat under McLeish.
Al Al-Habsi: 8 — Slightly out of position for first goal, probably a result of watching Agbonlahor’s highlight reel in which he curls most of his effort far post. But he kept Latics in the game with a series of outstanding saves, to Darren Bent in the first half, then Bannan and Petrov later on.
Emmerson Boyce: 5 — Tough match for him. Got caught far up the pitch on the first goal, and was then outpaced for the second. Agbonlahor was excellent and Boycey was his main victim. But it was good to have him back, he’ll be important in the next few games.
Gary Caldwell: 5.5 — Hard to grade the captain. He’s been playing in makeshift defenses. It wasn’t his best game, but not his worst either. Most of the danger came from the flank.
Maynor Figueroa: 5 — Not a long term solution at centre-back. Sometimes looks very good, other times completely out of position. Darren Bent was unlucky not to have scored in the first half.
Ben Watson: 6.5 — Latics did enjoy some excellent possession, much of which was down to Ben. Rushed a pass on a breakaway that might have led to a real chance. Finally delivered one excellent corner, though the rest of his efforts were poor (and Latics had a lot of corners, at least ten).
James McCarthy: 6.5 — His energy levels were great, covering a lot of grass and working very hard defensively. We finally saw a glimpse of the old James when he delicately chipped a ball to Franco Di Santo in the second half. More of that please.
Mo Diame: 6 — Quiet one for Diame, ineffective in attack, but contributed toward good possession.
Ronnie Stam: 6 — Did fairly well in the first half down the right flank although he was nowhere to be seen in the buildup to the goal. Substituted in second half.
Victor Moses: 6.5 — What a shame one of those crossbars or posts had not been a goal earlier in the season. Looks low on confidence but still a threat. Sadly, his finishing was poor once again. Played one excellent through ball for Maloney that could have been a goal.
Franco Di Santo: 7.5 — Worked tirelessly and almost created something out of nothing for the penalty that wasn’t. All he lacks is poacher’s instinct and finishing to poke away those crosses.
James McArthur: 5.5 — Every now and again he shows his quality, but his lack of pace is a problem. Roberto seems very loyal to him, but there are better options on the bench.
Shaun Maloney: 7.5 — Looked bright and inventive. Finally, someone who is looking for that incisive pass, a one-two, making runs into the box. Would be great to see him in the starting lineup, eventually with Rodallega in it as well.
Conor Sammon: 6 — Didn’t have much time. Would like to see Di Santo out wide, with Conor as centre-forward.