Who would have thought that Wigan Athletic would be bottom of the Championship table by the end of September? The League 1 title had given the club back the momentum it had lost in the dark days of Malky’s reign. But now, once again, that prevailing atmosphere of doom and gloom has returned. Is there any light at the end of the tunnel?
But then again, it isn’t yet the end of September. The home game against Wolves is only a couple of days away. A win would not only propel them off the bottom, but could conceivably lift them out of the relegation zone too. But more than anything else it would lift the doom and gloom that is once again rearing its head. Is a win over Wolves likely to happen?
Football is a game of fine margins. The average number of goals per game in English football hovers around the 2.6 mark. It means that whichever team scores the first goal has a statistically good chance of winning the match. Sadly the authorities who run football remain staunchly conservative. Too many fine margins are determined by erroneous refereeing decisions as the sport continues to bury its head in the sand and resist the kind of video technology that has been invaluable in cricket and rugby. Those who oppose the use of video will say that the law of averages means that by the end of the season the number of dodgy decisions for and against even out.
Gary Caldwell would not necessarily agree. Sometimes those decisions just don’t balance themselves out. He was entirely right about the refereeing decision that led to Preston’s goal on Friday. He was also right about the incident at Bristol where a player who had already been booked should have been sent off a minute before he scored the match-winning goal. But such complaints from a manager tend to be looked upon as sour grapes and Caldwell needs to desist in making them if he is not to open himself up for criticism.
It could be argued that referees have not done Latics any favours so far this season. Many of us hoped that we would see better officials in the second tier than we saw last year in League 1. But if there is a difference in quality, is it so great?
But refereeing has not been the main factor in the poor results so far this season. Fitness has proved to be the overriding issue, exacerbated by the sheer number of new faces coming in. Once again the pre-season did not provide an adequate basis for the kind of physical competitiveness needed at the start of an English league season. Before the warm-up games started Caldwell already had long term injured players in Reece James and Andy Kellett, but he was soon to lose Donervon Daniels and Kyle Knoyle for several months too. For the game at Preston Caldwell was denied the services of at least seven of his squad through injury.
Given the injury situation Caldwell rightly boosted his squad size. He now had 27 players in the senior team squad. However, circumstances were to dictate that so many of the new signings he had brought in were well short of match fitness. It had taken some weeks to get the backbone of his team to a competitive level of fitness, but now he had to ease in new signings, some of whom had not had much game time in pre-season with their previous clubs.
Latics went to Preston to face a physical battle against a team whose style of play is reminiscent of the worst times of Sam Allardyce at Bolton. It was always going to be a difficult game, but the controversial, fortunate goal scored by the home team after just seven minutes was a hammer blow to Wigan. To their credit they withstood that early onslaught and dominated possession thereafter. But a goal was not to come. The front three of Jacobs, Grigg and Wildschut all had poor games. Grigg had become a father for the first time just a couple of days before. Whether that affected his play on the day is up to debate, but the reality is that Latics need a sharp central striker when playing at places like Preston. The current North End team will never win an award for an aesthetically pleasing style of play, but their manager Simon Grayson has made them into a mean defensive unit.
Norwich City went to the top of the Championship division yesterday and with the strength of their squad they will surely be challenging for an automatic promotion place as May approaches. Despite an awful opening ten minutes at Carrow Road, Latics had gone on to match their rivals, coming so close to a result. The quality of Wigan’s play in the second half more than matched that of the Canaries. It showed that there is sufficient quality in the squad to at least consolidate in the Championship division.
Individual errors such as Dan Burn’s bad back pass at Bristol and Adam Bogdan’s howler at Norwich have been particularly frustrating. But most of the goals conceded have come from slack marking from defence and midfield. Much of it can be put down from a lack of continuity in the starting lineup, the players not “gelling”. The right back/wing back position has been a big headache for Caldwell. With Knoyle and Daniels out long term he has used no less than six players there in his starting lineup. Moreover he has yet to establish the kind of consistent pairing in the centre of defence that we saw last season with Morgan and Pearce. Burn and Buxton has been his recent preference.
So can Latics get off the bottom by beating Wolves?
Well there is one factor that has been missing this season that all teams need to be successful. Most people would call it “luck”, maybe like that goal scored by Preston. It could be said that Preston were “lucky” that the referee ignored the linesman’s flagging for a foul on MacDonald. Moreover there was a strong element of “luck” involved as McGeady’s shot was going harmlessly wide before it hit his own player, changing its direction to beat Bogdan.
Given Caldwell’s luck up to this point he would quite happily settle for not having a controversial refereeing decision against his side. Going one behind in the first half against any Championship side makes things very difficult. Caldwell will recall the Birmingham game when Donaldson was at least a yard offside when he raced ahead to gain a penalty for his team that almost won the match for them.
Put simply, Latics are not bottom because of refereeing decisions or luck being against them. But a controversial decision going their way or a scrappy goal could be enough to see off Wolves. But then maybe their key players will sparkle at the same time bringing the best performance of the season to date?
A loss on Tuesday would not be the end of the world, but would be a further disappointment in a frustrating return to the Championship.