How did Wigan Athletic stay up last season? Was that incredible late run due to a tactical transformation? Or was it due to new players coming in and changing things? The acquisition of a specialist left wing back – Jean Beausejour in January – certainly helped the system flow more effectively. However, if you were to ask a room full of Latics supporters which player made the biggest difference the answer would surely be Shaun Maloney.
Maloney’s season had not really started until he came on as a substitute against Norwich in March 2012. He put through a fantastic pass to Victor Moses to get the goal that earned an invaluable point at Carrow Road. Following that match, his ex-Celtic colleague , Gary Caldwell, dubbed Maloney as “Our Secret Weapon” quoting that “He picks up the ball in the final third and he can either beat his man and he can pick out that killer ball – like you saw with the goal.” Caldwell was proved to be right.
Maloney was later to score the Latics’ goal of the season to defeat Manchester United. His ice cool penalty in the victory over Liverpool at Anfield sticks in the memory, as does his cutting in from the left and putting a brilliant narrow angled finish in the 4-0 drubbing of Newcastle. But more than the goals he scored it was that role as a “playmaker”, linking between defence and attack that helped transform the quality of football Latics were able to play.
Maloney had come to Wigan following a difficult final period at Celtic. His career had been blighted with injury. Moreover he had been struck by homesickness during his previous spell in the Premier League — at Aston Villa in 2007-2008. These factors made it unlikely that a Premier League team would come for him, until Roberto Martinez knocked on his door. During his two spells at Parkhead he had won five SPL Championships, Scottish Cups and three Scottish League Cups. His acquisition by Wigan Athletic is summer of 2011 was therefore a calculated gamble. For the first half of the season, he made four appearances as a substitute and played in two awful team performances in the FA and League Cups. Fitness remained the issue. It was through sheer hard work and dedication that Maloney got back to a level of fitness that would help him be able to showpiece his skills in the Premier League.
Wigan Athletic’s starting lineup last Saturday included both Jordi Gomez and Shaun Maloney. Normally, only one of them makes the starting lineup, with the other coming on as a substitute. Both are playmakers, who need to receive a lot of the ball to be effective. However, each has learned during his time at the club that defensive duties are also required. Neither is a natural tackler but they both do their share in trying to win the ball back. Both cover huge amounts of ground during a match. Both are cool penalty takers. Both score goals which are not from the penalty spot.
Jordi Gomez is a player who divides Latics fans. He is derided by those “Darksiders” who prefer more the more traditional English approach of “up and at ‘em” . The fans who appreciate him will say he is a skilful player who can bring order to a game through his cultured technique, keeping the ball while under pressure and drawing fouls. I have heard it said that we will never see how good Gomez can be until Latics are playing the level of skilful football that Roberto Martinez seeks. We have seen some really magic moments from Gomez during his time at Wigan. At Arsenal in April he put through the pass that sent Di Santo through to score then got an opportunist goal himself. He has been unlucky so many times with fine efforts that have hit the woodwork – last Saturday against Fulham was another example.
How do the playmakers – Gomez and Maloney – fit into the current tactical system? Are they wingers or central midfielders? Can they play together?
Maloney still finds it difficult to complete 90 minutes. Gomez is the natural replacement. Their styles differ greatly. Maloney will dribble with the ball more than Gomez who will seek the wall pass more frequently. Gomez does not have the pace or dribbling capacity to be a winger. When played wide on the right he inevitably turns towards the middle where he is going to be more comfortable and effective. However, he is not afraid to shoot – he has a good technique and can hit the target. Maloney was used mainly as a left winger by Aston Villa. Although right-footed he can cross the ball with his left foot. He can dribble past defenders and cause danger. However, it is when they move into the “hole” in midfield – behind the central striker- that both Gomez and Maloney are most effective.
Playing Gomez and Maloney together is unlikely to be effective because their basic function is too similar. They are players who make themselves available to receive the ball, providing the link between defence and attack. Both are good players. Let’s not forget that David Jones can also play in that position and is a capable and creative player. He added the incision in the Capital One victory at West Ham last night.
Let’s play the playmakers in their natural position in central midfield, ahead of the holding midfielders, but behind the forwards. Martinez has done well to adjust the tactical system following the loss of Victor Moses. The presence of two big central and pacy strikers is a real plus. There remains the possibility of playing without the central playmaker and having two wide players supporting the central striker. Well done, Roberto, in being open-minded towards further tactical innovation. But please – let’s not see Gomez and Maloney playing wide, flanking a single centre forward.
I was introduced to your blog yesterday – it’s great! Well done – I’ll be here regularly to have a read.
I wanted to have a conversation about Gomez though. I’ve become a bit obsessed with the guy since he arrived frm Swansea. You’ll probably remember that he was the Championship player of the year in his last season with Swansea so when he came from Wales there was a lot of excitement about him. In his first season with us he played twenty odd games and we were really poor. He had some reasonable performances but nothing to write home about, and indeed seemed better in cup matches against lower league opposition. As a team we had a mad season, veering wildly between great results against the like of Chelsea and Arsenal, to curious defeats in all sorts of places where we might have expected to pick up points. The one constant was we picked up far more points after Gomez was dropped than when he played. A lot of fans could accept that Bobby was going to need more than a season to build his style of play and so there was a lot of patience about during that first season.
In spite of the fact that it had become obvious that his contribution was ngeligible, he was part of the first eleven for Bobby’s second season – and the same thing happened. Gomez managed to pick up nearly twenty games in the league despite the fact that an increasing proportion of the fans could see that he was out of his depth. When he eventually lost his first team place we began to pick up more points and ended the season relatively safely.
And last season, the same again. We have Gomez in the team as pretty much a regular during our worst runs, Maloney comes on against Norwich and – what a breath of fresh air. At last we can see what it’s like when we have eleven players on the pitch. Apaprt from the first ten minutes against Arsenal – for which I’ll always be grateful – Jordi contributes almost nothing to our season despite two thousand odd minutes on the pitch.
Personally I don’t get how anyone can defend him any more. I also am puzzled by Wigan fans who want to characterise those of us who have lost all patience with the guy – and who don’t understand why Bobby has tried to build a team around him three times – why we’re characterised as proponents of “kick and rush” – sometimes we’re called neanderthals and ignorant. That looks like football snobbery pure and simple to me. The implication is that some people are smart enough to understand the nuances and subtleties of hs game – but the rest of us aren’t bright enough to get it. But I believe we DO get it, and we’re not seeking a less proficient style of football. Jordi has been largely unproductive since he came to our club – and for some of us our patience has long since been exhausted. He has held back the development of a team that clearly plays better without him, and contains players who don’t want to play with him because he doesn’t add enough. I don’t want him to tackle back, or dribble, or anything he can’t do. I just want him to be productive in his role – which is to link play effectively and sometimes, even incisively. The difference between Jordi and Maloney in terms of effectiveness is immense – hell, even Ben Watson played further forward than he is currently allowed will attempt passes and balls which Jordi will never take on. You’ve pointed out a couple fo Jordi’s great moments – Arsenal last season, he also had a good game in the home draw to Liverpool for some reason, and I remember him hitting the bar with a great shot against Swansea away. But while his pass ratio might be great (because he, as you say, lays the ball off constantly) his assists are non-existent – and for a player in his position that has to be the crucial indicator.
I liked your line that “I have heard it said that we will never see how good Gomez can be until Latics are playing the level of skilful football that Roberto Martinez seeks.” I think that’s a self-refuting argument, because we’ll never see Latics playing the level of skilful football that Bobby seeks – until we lose Gomez altogether.
This is a very thought-provoking response, Paul.
I agree with you that Gomez should be providing a much higher ratio of “assists”. He is certainly not going to do that playing on the right wing, where he does not have the speed or trickery required. Providing Gomez is played in his more natural position in the middle of the field then there is no question that he should be spraying out the kind of passes that unlock defences. If he can’t do that then he shouldn’t be selected. However, far too often Gomez is played in a wide role that does not suit his game.
Over these months Maloney has established himself as the first choice playmaker, ahead of Gomez. Maloney is a more complete player than Gomez and is my preference, when fit. However, Gomez signed a new contract at the end of last season so is going to be around for some time still. Whether we like it or not Martinez clearly has a lot of faith in Gomez and is not going to let jeers from fans deter him. Ben Watson has been tried in that position and found wanting. It was when he was put into the holding midfield role that he started playing better. His final pass is so often well intended, but regularly fails to reach its target
I don’t think it’s just down to him being played wide is it? He has been played repeatedly in the middle of the park and has been found wanting – mainly because he seems to need too much time on the ball and he gets closed down much quicker in the PL – prbabbly because opposition defenders are briefed to close him down quickly too. So he drifts deeper and deeper looking for time, congesting the holding midfield players and leaving us light going forward because he’s not mobile enough to join the attack quickly. When I’ve seen him at his best is when he is played furthest forward and he’s only expected to cover half the pitch. In Bobby’s systems in fact he’s invited to play the N’Zogbia role sometimes, coming in on his left to shoot or link play across an attacking three – but his lack of pace means that he often slows up attacking play, or is simply not available if we’ve broken quickly, which means defenders can more easily pick up other forwards.
As i say I can forgive lots of shortcomings about a players game – as long as there are positives, as long as I can see what their contribution is. According to those WIgan fans who loyally defend the guy, his positives are he can slow the game down, he can win free kicks and er, that’s it.
And in spite of his (many!) shortcomings, I think Ben Watson brings more to that role than Gomez, certainly meriting a comparable run in the side – were it not for Maloney of course, who hs made that role in that system his own.
Listen – sorry to bang on about the guy! As I said at the top I’ve become unhealthily obsessed by him – I study him each time he plays, trying to work out – what’s expected of him? How can I measure wheter or not he’s having a good game? What am I not seeing that Bobby (to whom I defer unreservedl!) is?