Charlie Austin’s extra time goal heralded not only the end of the season, but the end of an era for Wigan Athletic.
The failure to beat the Londoners over two legs means another year in the Championship for Latics and a likely exodus of many of their most skilful players. This was a brave performance, full of spirit, against a strong QPR side.
Uwe Rosler kept the same lineup that played in the first leg except bringing in James McClean for Marc-Antoine Fortune. He was to use a tactic that had worked before in producing some of Latics’ best results of the season away from home – high pressing to disrupt the opponents’ play, followed by dogged defence. But defending a 9th minute goal for the remaining 81 minutes was always going to be a mountain to climb, let alone a team was playing its 62nd game of the season having to play extra time.
James Perch typifies the Rosler approach. He has been one of the mainstays of Wigan’s revival under the German, with his willingness to run himself into the ground for the cause. Just as he did at the Etihad, Perch got himself into the six yard box to convert an excellent 9th minute cross from the lively James McClean. QPR had been bamboozled by Rosler’s tactic of using McClean and Callum McManaman to high press their centre of defence. The result was the QPR defenders hoofing long balls, gobbled up by the Wigan defence.
McClean could have added a second as he ran on to O’Neil’s backpass, but instead of trying to round goalkeeper Rob Green he chose to make a theatrical dive. A good chance went begging and the Irishman got a yellow card from Mark Clattenberg for his actions. Not long after Shaun Maloney had a shot blocked by Green, but then QPR gradually got themselves back into the game. The high pressing had gradually disappeared from Wigan’s game and Harry Redknapp moved Kevin Doyle from right midfield to support Charlie Austin up front. Moreover James McArthur, who had been excellent in the midfield pressing, had to go off with an injury after 36 minutes, Roger Espinoza replacing him. It was a different contest now.
A shell-shocked QPR were gradually getting back into the game. Carson made a fine save from a fierce drive from Niko Kranjcar and McClean cleared Austin’s header off the line. But Latics went into the dressing room at half time with their lead intact.
McClean had another fine chance after the break, going through one on one with Green, but he did not have the control to convert it. Green blocked his first effort and McClean’s effort from the rebound hit the post and went wide. Although the home team’s attacks lacked coherence, Wigan became besieged. They could not hold on to the ball, the defenders hoofing it over the midfield to forwards who had little chance of retrieving it. Wigan’s three central defenders – Emmerson Boyce, Gary Caldwell and Rob Kiernan – had been superb in defence, repelling Rangers’ attacks.
Redknapp had brought on Korean left back Suk Yun-Young after 50 minutes for the combative Clint Hill, who had been lucky to survive the first leg after his deliberate elbowing of Kiernan. The pattern of play continued, with Latics unable to hold the ball and QPR applying pressure, but not convincingly. However, Redknapp’s substitution of big target man Bobby Zamora after 65 minutes for Doyle was to change the course of the game. Zamora’s striking rate is comparable with that of Fortune, but his physical presence and experience was to make the difference.
McManaman was replaced by Martyn Waghorn in the 71st minute. A couple of minutes later Zamora interchanged passes with Junior Hoilett who was brought down by a reckless challenge by Caldwell just inside the penalty box. Austin converted the penalty with ease. Moreover Caldwell had been injured in the challenge and had to be substituted by Leon Barnett. Zamora continued to cause problems and almost sealed it for QPR near the end of normal time, but his lob passed over Carson’s crossbar.
The game went into extra time with Latics playing with spirit, but the hoofing continued. The decisive goal came in the 96th minute when Zamora helped the ball through to Austin who got to it much quicker than Barnett to beat Carson. The final minutes of extra time saw Barnett pushed forward as Latics pumped in high balls. In the final minute a deflected shot from Kiernan passed narrowly wide of Green’s goal. It was not to be Wigan’s day.
The energy and passion shown by a Latics team playing its 62nd game of the season was truly exceptional. It was cruel that the game went into extra time, but those tired legs kept running to the bitter end.
The backline of Boyce, Caldwell and Kiernan had been immense in repelling the waves of QPR attacks until the penalty. It looked like Rosler’s gamble of starting Caldwell, who had played less than a handful of games in a year, was going to pay off until that fateful moment in the 73rd minute.
Rosler’s tactic of blitzing QPR from the start worked well. High pressing and a high level of physical fitness are key elements of the German’s approach to football and the players responded well, at least for the first quarter of the game. Starting without a centre forward was a brave ploy that almost came off.
It was sad to see Caldwell so visibly distraught on the sidelines after giving away the penalty and having to be substituted. It looks like his Wigan Athletic playing career is over. Up until that 73rd minute he had looked like the great defender and leader that he was in the closing part of the 2011-12 season when Latics ensured Premier League survival through beating the elite. He has also had some calamitous moments for Latics over the years, making rash tackles such as the one that turned this game. For some fans he has been a hero, for others a scapegoat.
Uwe Rosler deserves immense credit for the way he has lifted the club since the dark days of Owen Coyle. Reaching the semi-finals of both the FA Cup and the Championship playoffs has been a great achievement.
Roberto Martinez would have scratched his eyes out if he had seen his team throw away possession as Latics have done, not only in this match, but in many others over these past months. Rosler has cut out the excessive sideways and backwards passing that could be so frustrating during the Martinez era. He has also tightened up the centre of defence. But he has not cut out the hoofing that started to rear its ugly head under Owen Coyle.
When a team “parks its bus”, as Latics did after scoring, it is important to hold on to the ball as much as possible. QPR did it fairly effectively at the DW last week.
In this match the Wigan defenders were once again prone to the big hoof, none more so than the goalkeeper. Carson is a fine ‘keeper, with a very powerful kick. But during Coyle’s reign he was making those long, speculative clearances and under Rosler he continues to do so.
The hoof is a part of Wigan’s play that needs to be cut out if Rosler is to maintain the continued support of Latics fans who have an expectation of good football.
Scott Carson: 8 – a terrific defensive display. He made some fine saves and inspired confidence in his defence. Distribution poor.
James Perch: 8 – an excellent display. Took his goal well.
Emmerson Boyce: 9 –superb in his reading of the game. The best player on the pitch.
Gary Caldwell: 8 – excellent until the rush of blood for the penalty.
Rob Kiernan: 8 – excellent in defence.
Jean Beausejour: 6 – has not been at his best in recent weeks. Has a long summer ahead with the World Cup.
James McArthur: – led the high pressing with expertise. Badly missed when he went off after 36 minutes.
Jordi Gomez: 7 – not at his best, but got through a lot of work.
Shaun Maloney: 6 – still not at his sharpest.
Callum McManaman: 7 – worked hard closing the opposition down, but never received the service to make him more of a threat. When he was taken off after 71 minutes it dulled the Latics attack.
James McClean: 7.5 – an enigma once again. Worked so hard closing down the opposition and his powerful running was a constant threat to the QPR defence. His fine cross led to Latics’ goal. With better finishing he could have won the game for Wigan. What a pity.
Roger Espinoza: 7 – came on after 36 minutes. He was his usual energetic self, always involved, playing at high tempo.
Leon Barnett: – came on after 73 minutes. Has not been able to regain his previously good form since his injury at Ipswich.
Martyn Waghorn: – came after 71 minutes. Retrieving high balls is not his forte.