Quiet Summer: It has been far and away the quietest summer in the club’s Premier League history in terms of transfers, with Charles N’Zogbia the only high profile player out (Aston Villa, 9.5 million) and Ali Al-Habsi the only high profile arrival (Bolton, 4 million). Several players have been released and a couple have come in on free transfers, more on that later, but the relative stability in the squad, particularly given their youth, can only be a good thing. As disappointing as N’Zogbia’s transfer fee was (when you consider Stewart Downing went for 20 million), he wanted out, and it should pay the wages for another year. Such is the unfortunate reality for a small, though fast growing club like Wigan. Attendances and shirt sales are not going to cover the wage bill until that stadium is full and the club shop ships outside the UK. But the young support base is growing, and growing up, so if the team can hang on to Premier League status on this business model, the future is bright. And with talents like James McCarthy, Victor Moses, and Mohammed Diame at the club, you can be sure there will be some big fees coming the club’s way for some time to come.
Roberto Stays: Despite the quiet summer on the player front, Latics were at the center of the one of the biggest summer stories when Roberto decided to turn down Aston Villa’s approach, saying his job was not done at Wigan. Having spent two seasons weeding out the misfits from the Bruce era (my words not his), imposing his style of play, planning for the future and vastly improving the reserve and youth teams, he wanted to stick around and see it through. It is very rare to see a player or manager in football display such loyalty toward a club, particularly one with limited financial resources. It is testament to the genuine relationship Martinez has developed with Dave Whelan and the club itself since his arrival in 1995 as one of the Three Amigos. Even back then, he spoke glowingly of Mr. Whelan.
Players Out: Charles N’Zogbia (Aston Villa), Stephen Caldwell (Birmingham), Antonio Amaya (Real Betis), Jason Koumas, Daniel De Ridder, Mauro Boselli (Estudiantes, loan)
Of the permanent departures, only N’Zogbia and Stephen Caldwell played a match last season. The big Scot stood in for his brother and Antonlin Alcaraz, and will be fondly remembered for his professional performances at centre back, but was always more a stop-gap than long-term solution. He’ll get a lot more football for Birmingham in the Championship. Expect young Spaniard Roman Golobart to take his place in the squad as fourth choice center-back, behind Caldwell Jr., Alcaraz, Gohouri. Mauro Boselli heads back to the club where he made his name in Argentina on a one-year loan after a disappointing season in England and Italy. I would love to see him return to Wigan and succeed, but it looks more likely he is on his way out.
Players In: Ali Al-Habsi (Bolton), Dave Jones (Wolves), Nouha Dicko (Strasbourg)
Bringing in Al-Habsi permanently will be hugely important if the team is to carry over its momentum from last season. Save for his one blunder at Man City last year, he was probably the best keeper in the league. The fans love him, and he seems to love being at the club. Money well spent. Dave Jones, released by Wolves after they failed to agree a new contract, could prove to be a very astute signing. A left-footed, cultured central midfielder, I could see him easily slotting into the midfield triangle in the attacking role usually occupied by either Mohammed Diame or James McCarthy, when needed. Here’s a cracker he scored for Wolves last year. Apparently he looked right at home in the 3-1 win against Preston. The Wolves fans love him. “Great footballer, nothing left to say” and “Good player with a nice creative streak, good delivery and an eye for goal” were comments on TeamTalk.com after he signed for Wigan. Finally, the unfortunately named Nouha Dicko, who has been on trial at the club in recent weeks and looks to be coming in on a free after Strasbourg were forced to release their players due to financial difficulties. We don’t know too much about him, except he’s a French 19-year-old forward (probably destined to play on one of the wings ala N’Zogbia/Cleverley last year), and Roberto describes him as he does Victor Moses — “a player with that rare special talent.” Lets hope he’s unearthed another gem.
Still Missing: Two forwards, or at least one. With both N’Zogbia and Cleverley gone, the team only has one natural player for that position, Victor Moses. I think we need at least one established modern winger/forward, and another promising player to come off the bench (perhaps that is Dicko, or Callum McManaman). There are still rumors about Sean Wright-Phillips, although one tends to think he will opt for bigger wages or “bigger clubs” in Bolton or Sunderland. Other rumors gone by are the Paraguayan Haedo Valdez and Tranquilo Barnetta, from Switzerland, Mexicans Pablo Barrera and Gio Dos Santos, all of whom would have been excellent but seem to have fallen by the wayside. Valdez wanted to stay in Spain, Barnetta suffered an injury, Dos Santos is probably too big a fish after his big summer at the Gold Cup and Copa America, and West Ham have held on to Barrera. Carlos Vela’s agent recently said he might be sent out on loan again and could be a good option. Watch this space.
Starting Lineup: Assuming James McCarthy is fit and Rodallega and Alcaraz are cleared after their summer exertions at the Copa America, I would assume Roberto will go with the same players that finished last season (with Moses in for N’Zogbia). Al-Habsi; Figueroa, Alcaraz, Caldwell, Boyce; Watson, McCarthy, Diame; Rodallega, Sammon, Moses. I could see him opting for Di Santo rather than Sammon based on pre-season match lineups.
Norwich Prediction: The starting lineup will be very similar to the XI that learned a hard lesson against Blackpool last season. I don’t think they will make the same mistake again. Newly promoted teams are very tough opponents in the first quarter of the season (Latics face all three of them in the first three matches). But Latics have a lot more quality than Norwich, and they know what to expect. Tight, but I think Wigan wins this one.
Season Prediction: After coming so close last season with N’Zogbia, it’s hard to say with any confidence that this season will be better without him. But I think it will. There is stability at the club. Young players coming through, improving. This time last season, the captain was injured, best player on strike, and there were a number of new faces, players who had never played with each other or in the English league. The team now has an established style, defensive consistency, and they work for each other. Plus the league is, in my opinion, less even. The top teams have strengthened but none of the promoted teams have the quality that West Ham or Birmingham had, and squads like Wolves and Blackburn remain unconvincing. Mid-tablers like Villa and Newcastle, that Latics will be targeting, look weaker. That said, the fixture list has been brutal. Playing the promoted teams in the first three fixtures is tough, but playing Arsenal, Liverpool, Chelsea and Man Utd in the month of December is criminal. We all know Wigan is not the most fashionable and doesn’t make the league or sponsors buckets of money, but the fixture list this year certainly smells fishy. So — I think it will be another battle, if less dramatic than last year. I expect a more consistent season, rather than a season of two halves. 15th. 13th if a top quality player like Wright-Phillips arrives.