At half time during the Ipswich match last Saturday the Wigan Athletic substitutes came on the pitch to play ‘Piggy in the Middle’. Latics had gone into half time 2-1 ahead after James McClean’s well taken equalizer and Leon Barnett’s header .
The quality of players in that group was impressive . Carson, Crainey, Kiernan, McEachran, Maynard, McManaman, Powell – a strong bench that most Championship clubs would envy. But it was more than that – there was an almost tangible atmosphere of camaraderie among those players. Football clubs these days are experts in telling fans that there is a team spirit among their players. In fact even Owen Coyle would tell us the same thing, although one seriously doubted that was the case.
However, there can be no doubt that Uwe Rosler has built up a strong team spirit at Wigan. The German’s preferred style of football is as physically demanding as it could possibly be for the players. But the players have adjusted and since his arrival fitness levels have improved.
Rosler made five changes for the midweek match against Yeovil, but the team spirit was still there when they were 2-1 down five minutes from the end. It led to two goals before the end of regular time and it reminded one of that late comeback against Charlton when the three points seemed to be lost. However, this time it was not to be as Yeovil got a scrambled equaliser in the last minute of added time.
Over the last couple of weekends Latics had been full of running and energy in victories at Manchester City and Ipswich. However, in the midweek games against Sheffield Wednesday and Yeovil they have looked jaded and lethargic. Which Wigan Athletic will we see against Watford tomorrow?
In the next six weeks Wigan Athletic have to play twelve matches. That kind of schedule needs a strong squad with a rotation policy that involves adjustments, rather than wholesale changes. Much of Latics’ defensive stability in recent weeks has been underpinned by the presence of James Perch on the right, with various combinations of Leon Barnett, Emmerson Boyce and Ivan Ramis in the centre of defence. The mutual understanding among those players has helped to them to play as a very solid unit.
When Perch went off injured after 27 minutes on Tuesday it caused a disruption to that smooth running unit. With no recognized right back on the bench Rosler was forced to move Boyce across. Thomas Rogne, who had not played since December, paired up with Ivan Ramis in their first game as a central defensive partnership. Rogne is a fine young player and Ramis possibly the best central defender in the division, but Yeovil centre forward Ishmael Miller proved too much for them on the night, scoring two well taken goals and missing an easier chance before that.
Even if Perch is available tomorrow Rosler will have to think hard about playing Boyce. Although 34 years old the captain has already played 46 matches this season, more than any other player. Boyce is a key player for Rosler and has been in great form, but badly needs a rest. Playing too many matches in a condensed period of time puts the player at higher risk of receiving an injury, let alone burnout.
Rosler has been unlucky with long term injuries to Ben Watson and Chris McCann, who were part of the nucleus around which his team was built. Moreover the consistent and reliable Leon Barnett is out with a hamstring injury, hopefully for not too long.
A strong defence has been the key to Wigan Athletic’s surge under Rosler. He now has to shuffle his pack and some coherence in defence will be lost. Thomas Rogne and Markus Holgersson will probably have a part to play over the coming weeks. Jean Beausejour continues to play at left back, not his natural position, but outstanding in attack.
In the absence of Watson and McCann in midfield much of the pressure will be on the admirable James McArthur. A midfield without the Scot is hardly worth contemplating, as like Boyce in defence, he is a lynchpin of the team.
Jordi Gomez has been excellent in recent matches and deserves his place. He has adjusted to Rosler’s style of play. Josh McEachran is a quality player, but has struggled to meet the physical demands of Rosler’s pressing style over 90 minutes. But watch out for him in the coming weeks. Ryan Tunniciffe has struggled to adjust to that system, but has high ratings from Ipswich fans from his time there. He is clearly not short of confidence and should get better. New loan signing Jack Collison could have a major part to play, although playing multiple games in a week is probably beyond what his knee can withstand.
Rosler has a wealth of players available to him upfront, although he lacks a natural goalscorer. Both Marc-Antoine Fortune and Nicky Maynard are capable centre forwards, of differing styles. Callum McManaman remains a potential match winner, despite his indifferent form so far. Martyn Waghorn has a great left foot, is excellent in the delivery of corner kicks, and a team player who complies at both ends of the pitch. James McClean is a much better player under Rosler. He is now lifting his head at key moments and becoming a more mature player. If he continues in his current vein of form he will attract interest from the big clubs. Nick Powell remains a wild card, the position in which he will play being uncertain. Being played wide is not his best position, but Rosler has the option to play him at centre forward or in the hole in midfield, which might be his best position.
Latics have the luxury of quality goalkeepers with not only the excellent Ali Al-Habsi and Scott Carson, but the exciting young Lee Nicholls waiting for another chance. Al-Habsi and Carson can be expected to rotate over coming weeks.
Given the injuries and the hectic schedule, Latics are likely to experience some ups and downs before the end of the season. It will be hard to maintain the level already established by the German.
Rosler has built up a fine team spirit and a strong squad. The aim is for Latics to be in the top six at the end of the season. If they can do that they have the players to take them back to the Premier League.