Despite the current glut of injuries at the DW, and the efforts of the competent and ever-improving Ivan Ramis, this young season’s biggest blow is nothing new. In fact, it is the same as last year’s — Paraguayan centre-back Antolin Alcaraz.
While the Martinez-era Latics have never had a particularly strong goal-scoring record, the team has achieved remarkable results when the back line has been fully fit. In contrast to Gary Caldwell and Maynor Figueroa, who rarely miss a game, Alcaraz has sat out significant amounts of football. Put simply, when he has been out of the team, form has ranged from erratic to poor. His fitness problems (and later, suspension) last year coincided with the club’s worst ever run of form and kept him out until December. While results have been a bit better this season, the defence has been leaky without him and particularly weak in the air. His return should coincide with a tightening of the rearguard and positive run of results much as it did a year ago.
With two other centre-backs ruled out for the City fixture, his return cannot come soon enough. His performances in the early season pre-injury were strong — excellent in distribution and strong in his defending. He enjoys excellent understanding with Gary Caldwell, Maynor Figueroa and Emmerson Boyce, who he has now played with for three years, and should do well with the also Spanish-speaking Ramis. More than a month ago, Martinez reported that he was back training with the team and approximately two weeks away from action. Little has been heard since.
The question is — assuming recoveries for Caldwell and Ramis — who will drop to the bench when he does return? Caldwell is the captain and leader at the back. Ramis is now vice-captain and has become an important player in a short amount of time. And Figueroa offers balance and tactical versatility with his ability to push wide as left-back or into the wingback position. Who would you drop?
Injuries and suspensions are likely to make this a non-issue. But with all three natural centre-backs out at present, it will be interesting to see how Martinez shifts his lines. A return to four at the back for the City fixture should not be discounted as the Spaniard used one in the corresponding fixture last year. Or will Lopez be given a chance alongside Boyce and Figueroa after impressing against Reading?
Wednesday may come too soon for Antolin, but his return can’t come soon enough.