It reared its ugly head again. It is nothing new, but Latics fans had surely hoped that it had gone away. Unfortunately it is still there and it is something Uwe Rosler has met, not just at Wigan, but at Brentford before.
The pattern goes like this. Latics are sharp and competitive in the first half, playing better football than their opponents and deservedly going in front. In the second half it is a different scenario. Latics look lethargic. Playing hoof ball out of defence does not help because the opposition retain the ball and it seems a matter of time until they score.
It started during Owen Coyle’s reign last year. When Latics got tired in the second half we said they were not fit. What kind of training regime was Coyle running after all?
By the time the derby game with Bolton came around Latics had a new manager. It was Rosler’s first league match in charge. Latics got off to a storming start scoring two goals in the first half hour. But Bolton came back strongly in the second half, leveling the score. Callum McManaman then got a third for Latics, who hung on for victory.
After the match fans accepted that the players were just not up to the level of fitness that Rosler sought. It was clearly Coyle’s fault and we would have to wait until next season to see the players get the kind of fitness level Rosler required for his high pressing, high tempo football.
That same pattern recurred frequently in the games that were to follow during the second half of last season. Many times Latics hung in there, backs to the wall, holding on defensively to their lead. Even the best of teams will go on to the defensive after taking a lead, inviting the opposition to push forward and leave holes at the back that can be exploited. But Rosler’s Latics have rarely looked comfortable in such a situation. Rather than calmly organize themselves back in their own half, ready to launch counterattacks they are prone to simply hoof the ball away.
The cynics will say that Rosler prefers Scott Carson over Ali Al Habsi because he can kick the ball further. Both are top goalkeepers and opinion is divided as to which of the two is better. Fans will say Al Habsi is a better penalty saver, but his kicking is poor. Carson has a very powerful kick, but it is rare that he makes a long throw to set off an attack. During Coyle’s time Carson repeatedly sent long kicks on to the opposition’s central defenders’ heads. He has continued to do it under Rosler and one can only assume he has the German’s approval for doing so.
Who would want to be a lone centre forward with the ball being hoofed in their general direction so often? It could have even contributed to Grant Holt’s demise. Put simply, if the central striker spends most of his energy chasing hopeful punts it detracts from his role as a goalscorer. To score goals you need a degree of mental and physical sharpness, but if you are using most of your energy chasing lost causes your sharpness will be blunted.
Is Rosler’s team any fitter than that of his predecessor, Coyle? Defenders are more likely to hoof the ball when there is nobody moving to receive it. A fully functioning central midfield will be ready to receive the ball from defence to build up attacks. Moreover they will get into the box to support that lone centre forward.
It is early days to talk about fitness levels. On Saturday Rosler chose a lineup that was strong on paper, but several players had had minimal preparation through the pre-season games. That James McArthur could go the full match and still find the energy to get in the box and score a last-gasp equalizer, given so little playing time in pre-season, is impressive. He was joined in midfield by Don Cowie and Emyr Huws, who had almost as little playing time. Moreover it was a midfield trio that had never played together before. Add to that the appearance of Shaun Maloney off the bench in the second half, with zero pre-season playing time.
Last season the two teams who were to gain automatic promotion, Leicester City and Burnley, drew their first games of the season, both playing at home. There are another 45 league games remaining. That said, there are things that Rosler needs to look at minimizing the use of the hoof. Measured long passing is one thing, but the hoof has become an ugly and ineffective part of Latics’ play under the German.
Ex-Latics goalkeeper and now Reading manager, Nigel Adkins, clearly did his homework for Saturday and he was unlucky not to come away with a win. Reading are not a side known for their passing football, but the stats show that in a game truncated by 33 fouls, Reading made 379 passes, Wigan 281. Rosler will often change the shape of his teams when things are not going well, but in this case he did not react. Ivan Ramis was sat on the bench and bringing him on, with a switch to 3-5-2 when Reading were in the ascendency, might have made a difference.
When Rosler chose his midfield he would surely have given consideration to Fraser Fyvie, who played more minutes in the pre-season than any other player. Sadly Fyvie did not even come off the bench, despite the fact that Latics were losing the midfield battle. However, Rosler will certainly persevere with Don Cowie and Emyr Huws, who are possible replacements for Ben Watson and Chris McCann, until they are fit to return. The German might well have used Roger Espinoza if it were not for injury. Shaun Maloney needs several more games under his belt before he will be effective. Sometimes we can expect too much from him.
Rosler has built up a good squad, with a couple more additions likely. The scary part of it is not who might come in, but who might leave.
Rosler remains in his honeymoon period at the club, with strong approval ratings from the fans. However, that will soon be over unless he addresses the hoof. Wiganers expect their team to try to play good football. The jury is out in this case.