“It’s a strange scenario that, after 59 games, our season really starts now.”
So said Uwe Rosler in the Alan Brazil Breakfast Show yesterday.
Dave Whelan might well agree. Getting back to the Premier League is clearly his number one priority. Preferably this season, rather than next.
A month or two back ago Rosler was quoted as saying that he wanted to be the first German manager in the Premier League. We saw it as a statement of ambition – to get Latics back to the top flight of English football, as well as a personal goal for someone who had started his football career in communist East Germany. However, the personal goal was to dissolve when Felix Magath took over at Fulham.
When Rosler was appointed in December few could have hoped for more than the German steadying a rocking boat and preparing Wigan Athletic for promotion the following season. Latics had drifted under Owen Coyle and there seemed to be little sense of direction. Rosler was seen as someone with a more clearly defined philosophy, who could put the club back on the rails.
Rosler has done so much more than that. His first match in charge saw Latics’ European dream sadly ended, largely due to a dubious refereeing decision that saw Chris McCann sent off in Slovenia. But rather than have a long run in the Europa League, it was to be in the FA Cup, reaching semi-final and being unlucky to lose on penalties. Moreover Rosler has secured a playoff place that looked practically out of reach when he was appointed.
Rosler manipulated the transfer window shrewdly, offloading high wage earner and under-performer Grant Holt to Aston Villa, whilst bringing in a swath of loan signings to strengthen his squad. When he signed Martyn Waghorn on loan from Leicester, the cynics questioned his move. Since then the Geordie has become a key component of his set-up, not only excellent in the high pressing that Rosler demands from his forwards, but scoring 5 goals and providing 6 assists to date. Waghorn has a good technique, a good temperament and is a team player. He epitomises the profile of the kind of player Rosler wants at Wigan. Rosler has rewarded him with a long term contract.
Latics’ rise into the playoffs has come at a physical cost to key players. Emmerson Boyce has played 54 games so far, James McArthur 50, Leon Barnett 49, and James Perch 48. Not surprisingly they have not been at their best in recent games. The question is whether they can get a second wind for the playoffs.
Playing such a large number of games in a short amount of time over these past months is one thing, but the high pressing puts heavy physical demands on the players too. At their best, Latics defend from the front in a manner that even the master of that technique, Pep Guardiola, would approve. At the worst, the pressing is uneven and Latics are pushed back into their own half as the opposition retains possession.
Wigan Athletic’s chances of getting back to the Premier League are going to depend largely on their ability to high press their opponents and disrupt their style of play. That high energy approach was easier to implement a couple of months ago when the players had not accumulated so many games.
The final league game at Blackburn tomorrow is the 60th this season. Perhaps Rosler was slightly off the mark by saying that the season was starting after 59 games. Unless he views tomorrow’s confrontation as more important than most of us think. Is he keen to get a result at Blackburn so Latics can face QPR next week, rather than the more in-form Derby, who have won their last five matches?
However, previous form can mean nothing in the pressurised climate of the playoffs. Last year’s winners Crystal Palace only had one win in their final ten league games but got the results when it really counted, defeating both 4th placed Brighton and 3rd placed Watford.
Rosler faces the challenge of rousing a tired group of players for a final push. However, he does have Gary Caldwell, Roger Espinoza and Shaun Maloney back from long term injuries.
They might well have a crucial role to play.