Do you ever get irritated by the “expert commentator” when you watch a televised football match? A particularly annoying tone of voice or an absurd level of incredulity and disbelief when a striker misses a chance. He will typically try to tell you that those things did not happen in his day. Some favour the top teams, others haven’t done their research or are just plain ignorant towards smaller sides like Wigan Athletic. Others still favour the clubs they used to play for. The theory is that they are good people to provide expert analyses, due to their experiences on the pitch during their playing careers. Their counterparts — the match narrators — are there because of their communication skills, their ability to reach out to mass audiences. They can grate on one too, particularly when glorifying the top teams and their players over all others — but I personally find them less irritating.
A few weeks ago I turned on my cable tv and found a Premier League match without any commentary. There was crowd noise, providing lots of atmosphere, but a technical glitch had done away with the official narration. What a refreshing 45 minutes of televised football. Unfortunately, after half time the commentary kicked back in and once again I found myself frustrated by the soundtrack. Ten minutes in, I turned the sound off and watched the rest of the match sans monotone monologue. While the first half with crowd noise was ideal, the second half on mute was not much fun. But the alternative of listening to the “expert” was definitely the worst of the options.
During last Saturday’s encounter with Arsenal, I found myself listening to Garry Birtles, the designated “expert” for the day. Now, Garry Birtles was a decent centre forward, who won the European cup twice with Nottingham Forest and won three caps for England. A good career to justify his “expert” status. Birtles was brutally frank about Wigan Athletic’s tactics against Arsenal. He criticized the lack of midfield tackling that led to Arsenal’s first goal, but reserved his most scathing comments for the lack of support lone forward Conor Sammon was receiving. At one stage in the first half he pointed out that Sammon was receiving the ball with not one of his own team within twenty yards of him. He continued to be flummoxed by this situation until he really blew in the 59th minute when Sammon was taken off and replaced by Franco Di Santo. “He (Sammon) was chasing his own flick-ons at times. When a system is just not working: change it!!” he remarked. He clearly had a lot of sympathy for Sammon. Later he was to state his disbelief that two substitutions had been made but the tactics remained the same. He advocated the need for a second central striker to be put in place.
I must admit that I almost muted the sound so I wouldn’t have to listen to him rant. You could picture the spit on the microphone. The fact I left him on was recognition, through my frustration, that he was absolutely right. The lone role of the Latics centre forward is something I commented on in my first article for this site. I have also advocated the need for more of steel in midfield. The reality of the Arsenal match is that we had little chance of getting back into the game after the errors that gifted them their first two goals. Martinez acknowledged as much after the match. Our players look desperately short of confidence. No matter what tactical system you adopt you cannot beat teams like Arsenal by giving away goals and lacking the self-belief to fight back. This was another capitulation to a big club — the statistics again making interesting reading. Wigan committed 8 fouls, while Arsenal gave away 12. In the matches against the big boys this year – Arsenal, Manchester City and Tottenham – Wigan have committed an average of 9 fouls per game. In the other 11 Premier League matches played so far Wigan have conceded 162 fouls, which makes for an average of 15 per game!
Let’s get back to the tactical situation. Our new system is a bit hard to fathom. I commend Roberto on playing with three centre halves. If Boyce and Alcaraz were to be two of those three on a regular basis it would surely help to shore up a leaky defence. Playing at wing back has given Ronnie Stam a new lease of life. It is his natural position. David Jones could have a bright future ahead of him as a left wing back. So far so good. But what about the midfield and the isolated centre forward? Prior to the change in the tactics we nominally had a centre forward and two wide players up front. However, one would expect that the addition of wing backs would change this arrangement. Two of the front three should theoretically be able to move narrower in support the centre forward, almost in the role of the old fashioned inside forward. However, last Saturday we continued to see Victor Moses operate primarily as a left winger with Jordi Gomez completely lost on the right. Diame and McCarthy were locked in primarily defensive midfield roles, rarely getting into the penalty box. The system needs to be fine-tuned so that when the ball does get into the opponents’ penalty box there are Wigan bodies there to latch on to it, not only that lone centre forward.
Listening to Garry Birtles on Saturday was painful. He was condescending and scathing in his commentary, occasionally ignorant. The problem is that he wasn’t wrong about most of his criticism. Let’s hope that the next time Birtles commentates on a Wigan match Roberto will have given him cause for praise.