The realists might say that Roberto Martinez left Wigan Athletic at the right time.
Despite a meagre budget Martinez kept the club in the Premier League for three consecutive seasons. In his time at Wigan his teams recorded victories against the elite clubs who dominate the league – Arsenal, Chelsea, Liverpool, Manchester City, Manchester United and Tottenham .
Wigan’s operating budget during Martinez’s tenure was around a quarter or a third of those of the elite clubs. Despite his achievements there were fans who wanted him gone. With the ups came the downs and Latics were on the receiving end of many a hammering from those same clubs.
Martinez’ critics just didn’t like the tiki-taka style of play and wanted a more direct approach. They never understood why he would not field twin strikers – the term ’lone’ centre forward was an apt description for unfortunates such as Jason Scotland and Hugo Rodallega who got little service or support. They said there were too many foreigners who did not take pride in wearing the Latics shirt. Why weren’t local lads being given a chance?
However, Martinez had masses of self-belief and courage. He was not to be swayed by his critics and he held firm to his principles. The incredible FA Cup final victory over Manchester City was earned through playing football the Martinez way. They beat City on merit, committing only 5 fouls (compared with City’s 11) and receiving only one yellow card (City had three yellows and one red). It was an exceptional achievement that put Wigan Athletic on the global football map. It was not just the result, but also the style with which it was achieved, that impressed the millions of viewers all over the world.
Through their longevity in the Premier League and winning the FA Cup in such style Wigan Athletic have shed the “small club” image that dogged them for so many years. However, now that they have risen up the totem pole, so too have expectations. This year Latics are expected to give a good account of themselves in the Europa League, to challenge for promotion from the Championship, at the same time maintaining their reputation for good football.
Owen Coyle is now the man in the Latics hot seat who will have to maintain that same level of strength of conviction shown by his predecessor. Expectations are high and the pressure is on. Wigan’s best chance at getting back into the Premier League is while they have a competitive advantage over other clubs in the Championship through parachute payments.
However, like Martinez before him, Coyle is working under budgetary constraints. It is hard to believe he has sold two players, brought in ten, and still has cash in hand. Coyle’s work in the transfer market is not yet finished – he desperately needs at least one more quality striker and one more defender.
Coyle arrived following a mass exodus of players at the end of the Martinez era. Moreover there remain three players with long-term injuries who would excel at Championship level were they fully fit. Two of them – Ali Al Habsi and Gary Caldwell – were recipients of the club’s ‘Player of the Season’ award for their performances at Premier League level. Add to them Ivan Ramis, who might well have been in the running for that same award last year had he not suffered a cruciate knee ligament in January.
Coyle has been appointed with a brief of getting immediate success. While Martinez always looked towards the future and took a more long-term view, Coyle does not have that opportunity. Coyle has brought in new players who have the experience and ability to get Latics out of the Championship. Few would be likely to stay at the club for the long haul were Latics to get promoted.
Coyle has had a rollercoaster ride during his couple of months at Wigan. His initial appointment was not well received by many fans, but he managed to win people round by his hard work in the transfer market and his optimistic outlook. Following a 4-0 win over a poor Barnsley side, Latics fans were riding on a wave of optimism . No wins in the following four matches has doused the good cheer and the manager is already under attack from disgruntled fans.
Things have not gone according to plan. In the absence of a strong leader of the back line – like Caldwell and Ramis – there have been defensive weaknesses that have been effectively exploited by the opposition.
Of the new signings only the goalkeeper, Scott Carson, has consistently impressed. Moreover most of the senior pros remaining from the Martinez era have not yet shown their best form.
What a coincidence that Latics have been drawn to play at Manchester City in the Carling Cup on September 25th. By then Wigan will have played three more league games, plus their debut fixture in the Europa League.
In the meantime Owen Coyle will be looking at getting his key players back to form. His squad is certainly capable of challenging for promotion, but a showdown with City is a different matter.
It is a long season ahead and the Coyle revolution is going to have its ups and downs. Let’s hope that recent performances prove to be no more than stutters in the path ahead.