On first look, it’s hard to blame the people who doom Wigan Athletic to relegation each year. On paper, our late August squad looks weaker than the lads that kept us up in May. We’ve typically lost our top player (or three) to bigger clubs and replaced them with little known youngsters from the Scottish league or unfashionable, though generally astute, Spanish-speaking gambles in their late twenties.
But this season irks more than any of the previous. How short is the memory? To repeatedly read paid journalists make the point that Latics will suffer without Hugo Rodallega and Mo Diame is more than lazy. The finest run of form in Wigan Athletic history — ultimately resulting in survival and the scalps of Liverpool, Manchester United, Arsenal, in-form Newcastle and almost European Champions Chelsea but for two horrific mistakes by match officials — was achieved with the pair of them reduced to cameos from the substitutes bench. They scored three goals between them since Christmas and all were in matches that we had already lost.
This is not a slight on either player. Both immensely talented, they were a pleasure to watch and have at the JJB/DW. Hugo, a poacher, was frustrating on the left wing but certainly a success overall and crowd favourite, and suffered from injuries last season. Diame was outstanding in the first half of the term when no one else was, before losing his place to the thoroughly committed and deservedly appreciated James McArthur after the African Cup of Nations. But the point stands that they played no real role in Latics’ sensational final two months.
If anything, that unforgettable survival run emphasized the transition of Wigan Athletic as a Premier League club where individuals come to make their name, to a club of players proud to play for Wigan that operate as a team. Mauro Boselli, recently returned after a year and a half on loan in Italy and Argentina, made the interesting comment that contrary to two years ago when he arrived, there were no longer any divisions in the squad — it feels like a team of players that play for each other. We’ll be publishing an exclusive interview with him later this week.
What people are missing is that, behind the scenes, we’ve been making steady progress. Most people see Wigan as just surviving every year. But each of Roberto Martinez’s three years have brought progress. The squad is deeper and stronger, investment in youth has been made, and our crowds are growing as a new generation grows up supporting their local team in the Premier League.
Replacing people like Valencia, Palacios and N’Zogbia was a nightmare, though their sales may have been necessary to keep the books steady. Things are changing. We would all like to hold on to Moses, but he only really clicked last season when the rest of the team did. If he leaves, there will be an adaptation period as the team re-shapes itself without him, but this is no longer a “get it out wide to Rodallega, N’Zogbia or Moses and see what they can do” situation. Roberto’s highly successful wingback system is extremely flexible, and it is intriguing to think about how it might set up. New boy Aruna Kone is an astonishing buy at a reported 2.75 million pounds or good buy at 5 million depending which price you believe — a 28 striker at the peak of his career that just managed 15 goals in the Primera Liga last season for (another) unfashionable club like Levante. Mauro Boselli is back after a good season in Argentina, and hungry. Ryo Miyachi has been signed from Arsenal and didn’t look half bad at Bolton last season. Not to mention Shaun Maloney and Franco Di Santo, two of the undisputed stars of our survival success last year.
Wigan Athletic is quietly gaining momentum. I suspect it will be the midfield and defense that will have to spend more time adapting if Moses leaves — he is truly excellent at holding the ball up and drawing fouls to give the (even) harder-working core a breather.
The other gaping hole in the squad was defensive cover for the three centre-backs. Steve Gohouri has been released. He had a rough time last year, jittery and lacking sharpness. Adrian Lopez, to whom we wish the best of luck this season, has been dodgy at best. He seemed to struggle with the pace and physicality of the game. Roberto has faith in him, but has also brought in Ivan Ramis — another very good signing at the peak of his career. There is no questioning his ability as an uncompromising centre-back, the question is how he will take to his new surroundings after a career and life spent on a gorgeous island in the Mediterranean.
I’ll save the rest of the new signings talk for Jakarta Jack, whose article is coming soon.
Prediction for the season? Not quite the lofty heights of mid-table comfort that the brilliant and much-appreciated optimists out there are suggesting, but not relegation either. Somewhere in between. I would expect a wobbly start if Moses leaves. The new signings will take time to bed in like Maloney did last year and many before him. I personally have high hopes for Boselli, although the Kone signing radically decreases his chances of a regular run in the team. Perhaps Di Santo will drop deeper into the Moses role? Or is it Crusat’s year to shine in the free role? Talented young loan signing Ryo Miyaichi?
The fixture list is never kind. With Chelsea and Man United in two of the first four fixtures, plus a hungry Stoke without the Cup distractions of last season. If there is a time to play Chelsea it is now, with all their new signings and an uncertain new era under the lucky Roberto Di Matteo (lets face it, his approach to the CL was equivalent to Roy Hodgson’s for England in the Euros — he just had a better centre-forward.) The Southampton match is crucial.
We welcome all Latics supporters to the new season. Please join us on Facebook, follow us on Twitter, or subscribe (scroll down, lower right) to this blog. Please leave comments — we look forward to hearing from you, and c’mon Wigan — keep the faith!
* To read Jakarta Jack’s even more optimistic take on the new season, click here.