Latics against the big boys: damage limitation or capitulation?

My son’s mother in law is a psychologist. I could have used her help this weekend. Psychologists can help you sort out your head. They can enable you to meet reality and deal with it. For us Latics supporters this can be a real challenge. After the first half against Tottenham on Saturday I was suffering from a depression that was extreme. The immediate reality was intolerably hard to bear. However, a beer at half time, together with an improved second half performance from Latics, dissipated some of my immediate symptoms.

Cast your mind back to August 14th, 2005: Latics first match in the Premier League. What chance did we have for a result against the champions, Chelsea? Not much, according to the pundits at the time. Robbed in the end by a great strike from Hernan Crespo in the 93rd minute. That Latics team went on a great run after that and were second in the table briefly, reached the League Cup final and eventually finished in tenth position. A wonderfully uplifting season, giving us Latics fans hope for the future.

Optimism or pessimism? What is Latics’ reality? How did you feel watching that first half against Tottenham? And what about the recent capitulation against Manchester City? Did you expect anything different? Are you into market economics? What do you think: can the economically small compete with economic giants? Okay, Tottenham are giants compared with us, but not the biggest. We had beaten them only once in their six previous Premier League visits, so what did we expect? Can we ever narrow this huge gap?

How do you feel when Latics are about to play a team from the top four? Apprehensive? Statistics of Latics’ performance against the elite are stark. Even our most successful team in 2005-2006 could not win a single point against the top four teams that season. Since we joined the Premier League our number of points against the teams who were to finish in the top four each season has been (goal difference in brackets):

Year HOME AWAY TOTAL Positive results

2005/06: 0 (3-6) 0 (2-12) 0
2006/07: 0 (3-11) 0 (2-12) 0
2007/08: 1 (0-5) 2 (2-8) 3   — Arsenal H 1-1, Chelsea A 1-1, Liverpool A 1-1
2008/09: 1 (2-8) 0 (7-3) 1  — Liverpool H 1-1
2009-10: 6 (6-11) 0 (1-21) 6  — Chelsea H 3-1, Arsenal H 3-2
2010-11: 1 (2-14) 0 (0-7) 1  — Arsenal H 2-2

So, on average Latics have gained just less than 2 points per year of the 16 available against top four teams. A key statistic is that, if these points had not been obtained, Latics would still have had sufficient points to stay up, except in 2009/10 when they would have had the same number of points as the 18th placed team, Burnley.

In December 2009 Wolves put forward their reserve team to play at Manchester United in a Premier League game. This caused a considerable amount of anger among their visiting fans. However, Charles Ross, editor of a leading Wolves fanzine commented that: ‘… the fact of the matter is – and it doesn’t matter whether Mick McCarthy rested one, five or 10 players – the Premier League should take a long, hard look at themselves. Wolves are competing in a league where it is clear they are not operating among equals. The gap that the Premier League have created begs the question as to why managers like Mick McCarthy feel the need to do this. He knew he was going to be pilloried for his team selection at Old Trafford, but the mere fact he has been forced into this should spark a debate about the anti-competitive nature of the Premier League. There are the top four, a well-financed bunch below them and the rest of us feed off the crumbs.”

In April 2007 Liverpool fielded what was effectively their reserve team to lose at Fulham. Without those three points Fulham would have been relegated. Circumstances were radically different in the cases of Wolves and Liverpool , but both played weakened teams and flouted league rules such as: “In every league match, each participating club shall field a full-strength teams. “ and “In all matters and transactions relating to the league, each club shall behave towards each other club and the league with utmost good faith.”

Latics’ performances at Manchester City and in the first half against Tottenham set my mind rolling off in tangential directions. I began thinking of players like Cattermole and Palacios. Would Silva, Modric and Co have been able to drift past players like that with such ease? In both games it seemed like Latics had given up before they had even started. Did they need a sports psychologist to get inside their heads? Were they merely going through the motions, looking towards the next match, having given up on that one? In the end the scorelines were quite flattering: only 3-0 at City and 2-1 with Tottenham after a second half turnaround in attitude and approach. Was this through Martinez, a would-be psychologist, getting into the players’ heads during the half time interval? If so, one must ask why he couldn’t have done it before the game started?

There were statistical similarities between the City capitulation (we lost 3-0 on paper but it could have been a lot more) and the 9-1 loss a couple of years ago at Tottenham. Tottenham committed 9 fouls in that nightmare game, Latics gave away 10. Neither team received yellow cards. In the recent game at City we committed 9 fouls, City 6. Once again no yellow cards for either team. How can we be completely outplayed yet commit less fouls than teams usually do and not even get a yellow card? Don’t get me wrong – I am not advocating a return to the more pragmatic, physical approach of Steve Bruce’s Latics – but the stats give food for thought.

Have Latics been a “soft touch” under Martinez? Do we need a more Bruce-like approach to succeed? Once again the statistics tell another story. Over the past two Martinez seasons Latics have committed more fouls and had more yellow cards than the average in the Premier League. They would not have won any fair play league.

What should we do when we have games coming up against the big boys? Do what Mick McCarthy did and give our fringe players a chance? Flout the rules and the ethos of the Premier League as our more affluent and cynical adversaries frequently do? We stayed up last year largely because we had the best results of any of the lower placed teams when playing against each other. One could argue that these games should be our main focus and we should use the pairings with the big boys for developing our youngsters. I am not so sure that this should be the way to go, but capitulation is hard to bear. The second half against Tottenham last weekend was much more palatable, even if Gohouri did get sent off and we will be once again sorely stretched again in defence in his absence through suspension. At least there was effort, commitment and belief.

Do the Latics’ first team players need psychotherapy to exorcise those communal memories of being constantly flattened by the big teams? Or is it simply that they are taking a “damage limitation” approach, avoiding injuries and suspensions for more “winnable” upcoming matches? Is winning at least a point from Manchester United this season within the realms of possibility? It has not happened during the past six years, but maybe this will be the season? One continues to live in hope.

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