Looking back at MAF’s time at Wigan

 Fortunemiss

“The centre-forward is often a tall player, typically known as a target man, whose main function is to score the majority of goals on behalf of the team. The player may also be used to win long balls or receive passes and “hold up” the ball as team-mates advance, to help teammates score by providing a pass (‘through ball’ into the box); the latter variation usually requiring quicker pace. Most modern centre-forwards operate in front of the second strikers or central attacking midfielders, and do the majority of the ball handling outside the box.

I had been looking for a description of the role of the centre forward and after a bit of searching I found the above on Wikipedia. It sums up more or less what I thought the role involved. But why didn’t I trust my own judgment in the first place? After decades of watching football surely I knew what a centre forward should do. But events over the past year or so had clouded my judgment.

My boyhood hero as a centre forward was Harry Lyon. Lyon was by no means a giant, but he had the jumping technique to out-do defenders on high crosses. He certainly scored the majority of the goals for Latics in his heyday. In fact he netted a remarkable 67 times in the 1964-65 season. But the following season saw his goalscoring tally drop, when he scored less than his strike partner Bert Llewellyn who got 49.

Lyon was a scapper, lacking elegance in his tussles against opposition defenders, but he would always chase the long ball and fight hammer and nail to hold possession. Memory fades, but I don’t recall Harry as the kind of player to provide through balls into the box, but his strike partner would be there sniffing for the rebound of one of his ferocious shots. Llewellyn and his predecessor at Wigan, Carl Davenport, were good at putting those loose balls in the net.

But football has changed since Lyon’s day. Defenders are much fitter and most teams have a couple of large guys in the centre of defence who are very good at clearing the ball, especially if it is in the air.  For decades after Alf Ramsey brought in 4-4-2, teams used that system. The twin strikers would tussle with the twin central defenders of the opposition, but after a while the fashion changed.

Perhaps it had become too easy for those central defenders. Marking for them had been straightforward – you take one and I take the other being the order of the day. They were later to be faced with just one central striker, with support coming from the flanks and the midfield. Their roles became more complicated, sometimes confusing.

In the higher levels of English football not so many teams now play 4-4-2. The job of the centre forward has become an almost thankless task, extremely physically challenging in having to chase balls and hold up against often two big defenders. Then he has to have the energy and enthusiasm to mount attacks on goal. Not surprisingly good centre forwards are hard to come by in this day and age. Some are good at scoring goals, but not so efficient in chasing lost causes and holding up the ball. Others are the reverse. The average goal tally for a centre forward has not surprisingly dropped, given his onerous other duties.

However, this does not mean that modern day systems don’t work. The top teams have midfield players moving into the “hole” behind or to the side of the centre forward, notching opportunist goals. Those typically towering central defenders have a hard time coping with their runs.

Uwe Rosler was clearly a disciple of the “modern” approach. In his first season he often used MAF – Marc-Antoine Fortune – in that lone centre forward role, with two players wide of him. Fortune did a good job in holding up the ball and worked hard. MAF had been used sparingly by Owen Coyle, with Nick Powell being on the scene, but Rosler often used him as the target man following Powell’s loss of form and Grant Holt’s fall from grace. Over the course of the 2013-14 season,  MAF was to make 17 league starts, with 20 appearances off the bench. He scored four goals.

Rosler had clearly decided that MAF would not be his first choice centre forward when he signed Oriol Riera before the beginning of last season. This was underlined when Andy Delort was signed just before the close of the summer transfer window. But neither of the two overseas players could settle in their roles. MAF was brought back in.

In Malky Mackay’s first game in charge in late November, Latics were home to Middlesbrough. MAF was given the lone centre forward role, with Callum McManaman and Shaun Maloney playing wide. MAF was to become a regular fixture in Mackay’s teams, even when he switched to 4-4-2. Fans had been hopeful that more goals would come with a switch to the system that had done Latics proud in their heyday. However, Mackay was to pair up MAF with James McClean, a winger playing as a central striker, or Leon Clarke, a journeyman who rarely delivered. Mackay had scorned the idea of linking him up with Billy Mckay or Martyn Waghorn. By the end of the season, MAF had made 27 league starts, with 8 appearances off the bench and scored one goal.

MAF had become a feature in the Mackay era through his ability to chase those lost causes and hold up the ball. Although he offered a minimal goal threat the team often suffered when he was not on the field. MAF had become an important cog in Mackay’s long ball tactics.

MAF was like Marmite to Wigan Athletic fans. You either loved him or you hated him. Despite his whole-hearted play and willingness to sacrifice for the team, few loved him. MAF had become synonymous with the most disappointing season in living memory for most fans.

At Wigan MAF had become the target man, not always his role at previous clubs. Indeed at West Bromwich he had often been played wide. Perhaps Latics would have got more out of the player if they had done that. MAF’s career record as a goalscorer was weak when he arrived at Wigan as a 32 year old, but playing as a lone centre forward helped make it even worse. Moreover his concentration could lapse and he could too often be caught offside.

We might well ponder what might have happened if Latics had persevered longer with the overseas strikers, Delort and Riera. Had they been written off by the coaches or was it an economy measure to send them off on loan in January? On top of that, the reluctance of Mackay to give Waghorn and Mckay a genuine chance was hard to fathom, given the impotent strike force he was regularly fielding. There are fans who even suggest that Latics have avoided relegation if Mackay had not so often fielded MAF.

MAF sadly became the scapegoat of an awful season. Unlike Harry Lyon he could not score goals. Neither could he make assists.

MAF is by no means a bad footballer, neither does he shirk in his duties. But he is not a goalscorer.

We wish him well in his next move.

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