On August 30th Wigan Athletic destroyed Birmingham City 4-0. The performance was a revelation, far removed from the mediocrity of the displays that had preceded it. Moreover Andy Delort was introduced to the Latics faithful before the match started and within a couple of days Adam Forshaw and William Kvist were to be snapped up.
It was such a hopeful time. It looked like Latics were back on the promotion trail.
But the international break meant that the momentum was lost and Latics were to go eight games and eight weeks without a win. The buoyant optimism was replaced by sheer frustration on the part of so many fans. A manager who had enjoyed almost iconic status in early-August was now an object of derision among many. Slogans such as ‘In Uwe We Trust’ and ‘Vorsprung Durch Uwe’ had melted away and #RoslerOut was rearing its head on the social media.
There were some Latics fans who would not have been unhappy for their team to lose at Derby on Saturday, hoping it would precipitate Uwe Rosler’s demise. Most fans wanted them to win, but doubted that it would happen. Then there were the brave few who quoted tales of Latics showing their resilience in bygone times of adversity, boldly predicting an away win.
The display at Derby on Saturday was a throwback to those days last season when Latics were on a great run and Rosler was viewed as the saviour. It was not pretty to watch and Latics picked up five yellow cards compared with the home team’s one. Nevertheless the victory was well deserved. The players battled to get that result, something they had not done in the midweek game against Millwall, in which incidentally no Wigan player got a yellow card. Why was there such a different attitude from the players on Saturday?
It could be said that the inclusion of Roger Espinoza in midfield was the catalyst. Espinoza is not the most technically gifted player in the squad, but he is surely one of the most committed when he gets on the pitch. Playing in the more advanced midfield role he was a livewire in closing down opposition defenders and midfielders, then running at them when in possession.
Emyr Huws and Adam Forshaw close behind Espinoza played with that same kind of passion. Both have the technical ability to do great things in the future. But on Saturday they showed the necessary level of commitment to complement their abilities. Something that had been missing in midfield since James McArthur’s departure.
The conspiracy theorists will say that something changed at the club following that insipid display against Millwall. Perhaps the manager really did clear the air through a heart-to-heart discussion with his players. Or perhaps some of the senior pros helped stifle dissent within the squad. Are there really players who want to leave in January? All this may be speculation and hearsay. Football clubs are masters at keeping such things secret and as fans we can only surmise.
At this moment in time many people are wary of a false dawn. After the Birmingham game there was so much buoyant optimism but it was to be sunk in a tide of indifferent displays. Four weeks ago against Nottingham Forest the players played with real commitment, which dissipated in the matches that followed. Will the same happen again?
The next three matches are against teams below Latics in the table. However, both Bolton and Fulham have responded to changes in manager and are on their way up the table. Moreover Brighton, like Latics, have been punching well below their weight this season and will surely get better.
However, the positives from the win at Derby outweigh those from that victory against Birmingham. There was some lovely football in that 4-0 result, but three of the goals came in the first half and Latics went off the boil in the second. The display at Derby showed that the players now have the levels of fitness to play the high tempo, high pressing game that Rosler has wanted all along. Their legs did not go in the second half and they finished as strong as the home side. Moreover since the return of the powerhouse Leon Barnett to the starting lineup Latics have had three shutouts in four games.
Another big plus on Saturday was seeing James McClean getting in there where it hurts to score two opportunist goals. The 4-4-2 system saw first Callum McManaman, then McClean, partner the centre forward upfront. Although McManaman was largely shackled by the Derby defence he thrives on the licence provided by the support striker role. McClean is more used to playing as an orthodox left winger, but he too has the potential to make a success of that role. He is fast and strong, with a powerful left foot, good qualities for that position.
Despite some colourless displays in recent weeks, Latics’ defence has tightened up, conceding only three goals in the last five matches. The absence of James Perch for domestic reasons has meant that James Tavernier has been given three straight starts and he will benefit from the experience. He has the best delivery of crosses and set pieces in the club. He and Perch are different types of players, but having the two available to play at right back gives Rosler good options.
The midfield situation is suddenly looking much rosier. Forshaw and Huws will surely form the midfield for years to come providing they stay injury-free and are not snapped up by bigger clubs. Espinoza’s comeback may be short-lived, given Rosler’s previous reluctance to include him, but his enthusiasm will surely rub off on those around him while he remains. The eventual return of Chris McCann and Ben Watson will add further competition for midfield places.
There are still players in the squad who have not yet hit form. They include not only the ‘new boys’ such as Andy Delort and Oriel Riera, but also such as Shaun Maloney. Part of Rosler’s problem is that his squad is too big and he is going to continue to face difficulties in keeping a happy ship.
The results over the next few games may well be patchy, but if Latics can get to a mid-table position by Christmas they will be within striking distance of the playoffs. With more time the newer acquisitions will become more settled in and we will see them perform closer to their best.
The Birmingham display proved to be a false dawn, but the performance at Derby could set the tone for the rest of the season. If Latics can maintain that level of passion and determination they will quickly rise up the table.
Playing at that level of intensity can be draining for players. However, Rosler has a strong and well balanced squad at his disposal. Squad rotation will continue to be his policy, of necessity.