A familiar scenario was reversed at the DW this afternoon, as an unfancied relegation-threatened side impressed its audience with a thoroughly dominant and cultured performance, only to be robbed of three points by two goals from set pieces.
Wigan Athletic, so often outdone by slack defending from set pieces after dominating proceedings, saw the tables turned and were fortunate to emerge with a point — which will only seem disappointing to those who didn’t watch the match. Mauricio Pochettino’s high-pressing game denied Latics their usual midfield comforts and limited them to four or five efforts on goal in the 93 minutes played. Southampton’s second half performance at Manchester United in midweek during which Sir Alex Ferguson’s men could hardly get the ball no longer seems a fluke. Despite a midfield-heavy lineup, Latics just couldn’t get a grip on the game.
Paul Scharner was one of the best, if not Wigan’s man of the match, on his return. It might have been a lot worse without his aerial presence and timely clearances. He never was the most technically gifted player, but a talented, tall and quick — if reluctant — defender. He looks fit as ever despite limited minutes in Hamburg and slotted into the back three perfectly. When the chips are down, you need players with self-belief who are willing to take a chance, and it was the Austrian’s hopeful effort that landed at Maloney’s feet for the equaliser. It was telling that Ronnie Stam was substituted shortly after making a mess of a Scharner pass. The Austrian had expertly intercepted a cross and played the ball out, only for the Dutchman’s poor control to put the Latics back in trouble. Scharner’s less-than-pleased reaction must only have expedited Roberto Martinez’s plan to get Stam off the pitch.
The result is a positive, given the circumstances. While most Wigan supporters had thought of the fixture as a must-win, the fact that Southampton remain only three points, and not six, ahead of Latics is hugely important. Their form is likely to dip after the new manager boost, and as Martinez said in his post-match comments it was a point gained.
To see Wigan score two goals from set pieces or hopeful crosses was a bit strange but a big plus. The team also benefited from Scharner’s height on set pieces — with Boyce restored to the right wingback role this will only improve.
It’s hard to gauge if Latics were really poor or if Southampton were just excellent. The Saints’ fitness levels were certainly impressive — perhaps the result of a training week in higher temperatures in Barcelona. Manchester United couldn’t handle them and were very lucky during Wednesday’s second half.
James McCarthy stands out as someone we expect more from. After his late autumn brace and press coverage, he was targeted and subsequently injured against Norwich — his form has suffered ever since. This is not to say the player has been poor in any way — but it is clear to those of us watching that he could dominate, and yet he reduces himself to simple five yard passing. You can’t fault his effort or technique, only his belief. If you gave McCarthy Scharner’s positivity and self-belief, you might have the next Steven Gerrard.
Roger Espinoza had a rough go of it after such an encouraging second half at Stoke. Ronnie Stam unfortunately showed once again this season that his attacking play is not good enough to make up for his poor defending. The substitutes had no effect — Henriquez excepted who did well in his three minutes. While largely down to injuries, Wigan’s bench was thin and there wasn’t a player on the bench that you felt could really make a difference. Compare it to having Rodallega and Diame available in the last half hour this time last year. Callum McManaman showed again that he is quick and 100%, but neither fast or composed. Jordi Gomez was sent on to try and regain possession but couldn’t do it.
The league table is worrying. Reading are in good form. Southampton clearly are. QPR may not have won but have signed half a team as usual and will only improve. Villa — the best bet at the moment — scored three goals at Goodison Park but at least dropped two points in the last minute of injury time. It’s time to start getting results.
Ali Al-Habsi: 6 — Not to blame for the goals, made a couple decent reaction saves.
Paul Scharner: 7 — Very good. An excellent loan signing, a positive influence and stop-gap. Inspired confidence and will lend some much-needed experience.
Gary Caldwell: 7 — Was out-jumped in the build-up to the equaliser. Scharner sprinted across anticipating it when he probably should have stayed on his mark. If Caldwell were a few inches taller he would be at a top club. He otherwise had an excellent game making a large number of crucial blocks and interceptions, not to mention his exceptionally well taken headed goal and some exquisite passing. Unfortunately, the midfield ahead of his was totally overrun, but his good form bodes well.
Maynor Figueroa: 6 — Difficult to assess. He made some very good tackles and was probably Latics busiest player in the second half, but got beaten very easily a few times as well.
Ronnie Stam: 5 — Not good enough at present. Is capable of good attacking play, but is a defensive liability. Remarkable turnaround excepted, Martinez’s attempt to sign John Stones was confirmation that Stam will leave this summer.
Jean Beausejour: 6 — His best game for some time. Would receive an 8 for a brilliant first half during which he played several top-class crosses — one of which Franco Di Santo almost scored from — and was generally composed and effective. Has started all but one league match for Martinez since joining just over a year ago and looked refreshed after being substituted early against Stoke. Disappeared in the second half however. Once again, the opposing manager neutralized Wigan’s main attacking threat by making sure the Chilean was kept busy defensively.
James McCarthy: 5 — His error led to the second goal. McCarthy is difficult to grade — his potential is so huge it is disappointing to see him underperform. If he underperforms, the team does.
James McArthur: 6 — Persevered and showed quick thinking and passing, but wasn’t given the chance to get forward as he did in a fantastic display at Stoke.
Roger Espinoza: 5 — After a game of two halves at Stoke — wobbly and excellent — he struggled in this one. As supporters, we need to be patient as he adapts to the pace and physicality of the Premier League. He was involved, but largely outmuscled and ineffective. Still, a promising signing.
Shaun Maloney: 7 — As has been the case for several months, he was a class above his teammates and the bravest of Wigan’s attacking players. Very close to creating the opening in the first half, he finally got his goal in the second despite a complete lack of support. Setting an example by recently signing a new contract, he celebrated his goal by emphasizing the importance of his club’s shirt.
Franco Di Santo: 7 — Perhaps not everyone’s grade, but the Argentina striker put in a near perfect target man performance, receiving and holding the ball under duress, with very little support. His effort from Beausejour’s cross in the first half was excellent — a goal would have been just reward for a man not only doing the hard work alone up front but constantly chasing back to win the ball for his teammates. He has scored two from four since being deployed in the advanced striker role largely reserved for Arouna Kone this season, a good strike rate better than his teammate, and has been unlucky it’s not been more.
Jordi Gomez: Plays well when the team has possession of the ball. Sent on to try and help the team regain it — wasn’t able to do so in this match but didn’t play poorly either.
Callum McManaman: It’s always pleasing to see him come on. Works hard, has skill and is clearly quick though not fast. The jury is still out on him at this level. He played some positive balls forward but his failed lunge in the build-up to Southampton’s second goal gave the winger the confidence to play such a thoughtful cross in. A more experienced player would have stayed stayed with him long enough to make him rush a cross, or would have earned a yellow card for the team stopping him. In his defence, he is being played in a different position every week, for anywhere from 5 to 20 minutes at a time. I would love to see him given a starting opportunity behind Di Santo and imagine it would do wonders for his confidence and development. It