A Return to Alcaraz and a Settled Defence?

Soccer - Barclays Premier League - Wigan Athletic v Chelsea - DW Stadium

Wigan Athletic’s injury woes continue to hit their chances of Premier League survival.  The hamstring injury suffered by Emmerson Boyce in the recent away game at Stoke was another hammer blow to a defensive line already short of Ivan Ramis and Antolin Alcaraz. Add to that Gary Caldwell continuing to take the field despite a hip injury. Injuries have also taken away midfielder Ben Watson and the speedy wingers, Albert Crusat and Ryo Miyaichi. But it is in the defence where the injuries have been most disruptive, with Roberto Martinez constantly having to change his back line over the course of the season. The end result has been a lack of cohesion, with too many soft goals being given away.

The last time Roberto Martinez was able to field together his most cohesive line of central defenders – Antolin Alcaraz, Gary Caldwell and Maynor Figueroa – was at Blackburn in May of 2012. It was that trio that provided the defensive strength and backbone for Wigan to have an outstanding end to the 2011-2012 season.  Alcaraz has only started two games this season.  It has been a long and slow recuperation from his groin injury. There has been speculation among some fans that it is not the injury that has been keeping the big Paraguayan out, but that his contract runs out at the end of the season. Given Wigan’s predicament one hopes that it is not the latter case, although Alcaraz has had long spells out due to injury in each of his three seasons at the club, making it less likely that his contract would be renewed. For the moment Alcaraz is needed to help Wigan stay clear of relegation.

There is a possibility that Alcaraz will make his return in Saturday’s FA Cup tie at Huddersfield. Were he to come through unscathed he would then be available for the crunch game at Reading the following weekend. Certainly Alcaraz’s return would give Martinez the possibility of putting together that back line which gelled so well at a crucial time last season. However, it would also open up options of releasing Paul Scharner and Maynor Figueroa as wing backs.

Wigan fans will hope that Emmerson Boyce will be fit for the Reading game. The improvement in the 33 year old’s passing since the arrival of Martinez has been huge. Boyce has become an excellent wing back, solid in defence, tireless in approach and even scoring spectacular goals in attack. In his seventh season at the club,  Boyce too has been susceptible to injury in recent years.  He completed 26 games last season and 22 the previous year. A fully fit Emmerson Boyce is another key factor in Wigan’s bid to avoid relegation.

It has been fascinating to watch Paul Scharner settle back so quickly into the Latics team. He looks a natural in that right centre back position, although he still has to work on his alignment with his fellow central defenders. Scharner has always been a useful central defender, if he himself has preferred to play in midfield.  One hopes he can maintain his discipline and resist the urge to commit himself too far forward, putting the defence at risk.

A settled back line is of paramount importance to Wigan Athletic’s chances of staying in the Premier League this season. Let’s hope that the injury jinx will no longer rear its ugly head. Even though Ivan Ramis is out for the reminder of the season, it would help Roberto Martinez greatly if all the other experienced defenders in his squad were to be available.

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