Second from bottom Latics visit sixth placed Watford on Saturday. Looking at recent form the pundits would suggest a resounding win for the home team. That might well happen, but then maybe Latics could win it?
Wigan Athletic’s season so far has been the most disappointing that I can remember as a fan. With a squad good enough to fight for a promotion spot, Latics incredibly find themselves in the relegation drop zone. What is going on?
There is something badly wrong somewhere. Malky Mackay has been appointed to put it right. The problem is that so far he has not made enough visible progress, in terms of getting the on the field commitment that is required to succeed in the Championship division.
Mackay will be keen to get a result at Watford. With just one point from two home games and one away, he needs to make some changes to what has been happening under his management.
However, despite miserable results against mediocre teams, Latics put up two of their best performances of the season against teams flying high. The win at top of the table Derby County was down to solid defence and two opportunist goals from James McClean. Latics were unlucky not to come away with a win in the home game with second placed Middlesbrough. They played some good football, the defence looked pretty solid and Shaun Maloney scored a spectacular free kick.
With their confidence so low there is a chance that Latics will lose the match by a wide margin. However, Latics have lost a lot of games this season, but never by more than two goal difference. In fact six of their nine losses were by a single goal. Moreover Watford’s form had dipped recently after flying high. Last weekend they had a 5-0 win at Fulham, after the home goalkeeper was sent off after 20 minutes. But Watford had lost their previous four games.
When Latics played in the Premier League they were almost always the underdogs. It could be said that a team languishing in the relegation zone of the Championship division fits the same category against a team that is in the playoff zone. However, in terms of the quality of their players, Latics are more than a match for Watford. The question is whether those players are ready to show the physical and mental commitment necessary to win the game.
Mackay has relied on the “old guard” up to this point and the formations have been similar to those of his predecessor. It has been practically the same that we have seen all season. Media reports suggest he has been working on the motivation of his players, but the proof of the pudding will be in the eating. Above all he needs to persuade the players not only to perform their basic functions, but show desire.
We can expect Mackay to do something different. However, unlike Rosler, he is not likely to make wholesale changes.
Mackay has two main issues to address on the field of play.
First and foremost is to build up a solid defence. Put simply, if the opposition don’t score, you don’t lose. As an ex-central defender he will be keen to do that. To do that he is going to need not only a settled back four, but also midfielders and wide players who come back and help.
Secondly he needs to address the lone centre forward issue. Too often we have seen hopeful long balls sent to a centre forward who is on a hiding to nothing. Even if, against the odds against two big central defenders, he wins the ball, he needs someone to pass it to. The support has been sadly lacking.
Like Rosler, Mackay is a fan of the lone centre forward system. However, against Norwich he brought Don Cowie into right midfield, pushing Callum McManaman inside. Is it a sign that he will look at playing two main strikers?
McManaman is much more effective in a free, supporting striker role than playing on the wing, where he is more easily picked up by defenders. He is Latics’ main attacking threat, but has been ill used most of the time. Playing as a second striker he could be expected to notch upwards of 15 goals per season.
Saturday’s match will provide another indication of where Latics are heading. With the squad they have they are surely too good for relegation.
What is needed is for the manager to deal with issues of squad morale and be ruthless when necessary.
Latics have more than enough quality to get a good result at Watford. But will their confidence be enough to carry them and will the commitment be there?