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.