A point gained or two lost?

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A thrilling encounter at the DW Stadium ended two goals apiece as Tottenham and Wigan put a dent in each other’s contrasting ambitions. Spurs, chasing a Champions League spot after being cruelly denied one last season, started strongly but found themselves 2-1 down for the bulk of the second half. Wigan’s committed and organized defending looked likely to secure three points of gold in the relegation battle until an intelligent Tom Huddlestone free-kick caused panic and Emmerson Boyce — scorer of Wigan’s first goal with an excellent header — scored an unfortunate own goal.

While there was much to applaud from Wigan, the nature of the goals conceded will torment Roberto Martinez. Eighty minutes before Boyce’s heartbreaking own goal, Maynor Figueroa and Joel Robles had conspired to bizarrely gift Spurs the lead. A series of uncertain passes between them resulted in a casual clearance by the young Spanish keeper that bounced powerfully off Bale’s outstretched leg and into the back of the net. That Wigan managed to stop Tottenham’s dangerous attacking game but conceded two goals as sloppy as those is cruel on Martinez, who got his tactics right on the day.

Wigan’s goals on the other hand, were fantastic. A curling Shaun Maloney corner was wonderfully headed home by Boyce to equalize early in the affair, before a truly inspired passing sequence involving five players was finished with a thumping left footed volley by Callum McManaman to give the team the lead.

Despite uncharacteristically struggling for possession throughout the match, Wigan played with desire and commitment and were ultimately unfortunate not to emerge with three points.

The Good:

Despite the absence of key defender Antolin Alcaraz and the injury to Maynor Figueroa, there were signs that Wigan could defend well with a makeshift defence. The midfield tackling was superb with James McCarthy and James McArthur at their very best. Ronnie Stam, on for Figueroa, had a good game and may well keep his place at right-back with Emmerson Boyce covering for the injured trio of Ivan Ramis, Antolin Alcaraz and Maynor Figueroa.

Callum McManaman’s goal was superbly taken and he has shown enough in the last ten or so matches to suggest he will be a big contributor of goals in seasons to come. He is fearless and direct, and takes it on when others would pass the ball to someone else. He fades in and out of games and is being eased into Premier League football with about an hour of football per match, but he has become an important player for Martinez.

The Bad:

There was a huge element of fortune in Spurs’ equalizing goal, but the first one was simply unforgivable. You can’t expect to beat a team of such quality when you give them a free 1-0 start.

The injury to Maynor Figueroa is another serious blow in a season that has denied Latics of a fit and healthy backline. How different things might have been if Ramis, Alcaraz and Figueroa had been able to line up together. The question now is whether Gary Caldwell will return to the centre of defence against less speedy opposition at West Brom, or if Boyce will partner Scharner with Stam continuing on the right side of defence.

The League Table

It is a two-horse race between Wigan and Aston Villa. The teams have now played the same number of matches, with the latter two points ahead. All eyes will be on their unpredictable fixture against Sunderland on Monday. As long as they do not win, Wigan’s fortunes remain in their hands.

Player Ratings:

Joel Robles: 5 — Awful mistake early in the match to give away the first goal. Arguably might have done better with the second. In his defence, he made some excellent saves and probably saved a goal when Jermain Defoe was through on goal late in the first half — but looked jittery.

Emmerson Boyce: 7.5 — Unlucky to give away the own goal. He had been excellent before that, scoring a brilliant header and defending responsibly after being drafted into the centre of defence.

Paul Scharner: 8– Very good game against difficult strikers, despite moving across to the unfamiliar left side of centre in a make-shift defence.

Maynor Figueroa: 5 — Was not enjoying his day before injuring himself while making an excellent clearance. His injury is a huge blow and will be missed.

Jean Beausejour: 6 — Given the circumstances, and being asked to play at left-back for big chunks of the game against some of the fastest players in the league, he coped admirably. Unfortunately, his professional foul against Kyle Walker led to the free-kick from which Tottenham equalised.

James McCarthy: 8 — Asked to play a deeper role shielding the back four, McCarthy covered every blade of grass today breaking up play and driving forward when able.

James McArthur: 8 — An exhibition in one-on-one defending. He won the ball back in midfield frequently and tracked back when necessary to help out his defence.

Jordi Gomez: 7 — Caught in possession a few times and not his best first half, but played well in the second before making way for Roger Espinoza.

Shaun Maloney: 7 — A typical Maloney performance with neat feet, darting runs and positive movement. Unable to exert strong influence on the game from the wing, however, as the team struggled for possession.

Callum McManaman: 8 — Excellent defensive contribution, he ran his socks off. In attack, he drifted in and out of the game but scored a cracker and looked dangerous when on the ball.

Arouna Kone: 7 — Threatened but couldn’t deliver this time.

Subs:

Ronnie Stam: 7 — Put in a very good shift despite having been in the fringes for a while now.

Franco Di Santo: One fantastic curled cross for Kone after a strong run down the right side.

Roger Espinoza: Immediately involved, a couple decent tackles.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Tables turned as Latics pinch a point

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A familiar scenario was reversed at the DW this afternoon, as an unfancied relegation-threatened side impressed its audience with a thoroughly dominant and cultured performance, only to be robbed of three points by two goals from set pieces.

Wigan Athletic, so often outdone by slack defending from set pieces after dominating proceedings, saw the tables turned and were fortunate to emerge with a point — which will only seem disappointing to those who didn’t watch the match. Mauricio Pochettino’s high-pressing game denied Latics their usual midfield comforts and limited them to four or five efforts on goal in the 93 minutes played. Southampton’s second half performance at Manchester United in midweek during which Sir Alex Ferguson’s men could hardly get the ball no longer seems a fluke. Despite a midfield-heavy lineup, Latics just couldn’t get a grip on the game.

The Good:

Paul Scharner was one of the best, if not Wigan’s man of the match, on his return. It might have been a lot worse without his aerial presence and timely clearances. He never was the most technically gifted player, but a talented, tall and quick — if reluctant —  defender. He looks fit as ever despite limited minutes in Hamburg and slotted into the back three perfectly. When the chips are down, you need players with self-belief who are willing to take a chance, and it was the Austrian’s hopeful effort that landed at Maloney’s feet for the equaliser. It was telling that Ronnie Stam was substituted shortly after making a mess of a Scharner pass.  The Austrian had expertly intercepted a cross and played the ball out, only for the Dutchman’s poor control to put the Latics back in trouble. Scharner’s less-than-pleased reaction must only have expedited Roberto Martinez’s plan to get Stam off the pitch.

The result is a positive, given the circumstances. While most Wigan supporters had thought of the fixture as a must-win, the fact that Southampton remain only three points, and not six, ahead of Latics is hugely important. Their form is likely to dip after the new manager boost, and as Martinez said in his post-match comments it was a point gained.

To see Wigan score two goals from set pieces or hopeful crosses was a bit strange but a big plus. The team also benefited from Scharner’s height on set pieces — with Boyce restored to the right wingback role this will only improve.

The Bad:

It’s hard to gauge if Latics were really poor or if Southampton were just excellent. The Saints’ fitness levels were certainly impressive — perhaps the result of a training week in higher temperatures in Barcelona. Manchester United couldn’t handle them and were very lucky during Wednesday’s second half.

James McCarthy stands out as someone we expect more from. After his late autumn brace and press coverage, he was targeted and subsequently injured against Norwich — his form has suffered ever since. This is not to say the player has been poor in any way — but it is clear to those of us watching that he could dominate, and yet he reduces himself to simple five yard passing. You can’t fault his effort or technique, only his belief. If you gave McCarthy Scharner’s positivity and self-belief, you might have the next Steven Gerrard.

Roger Espinoza had a rough go of it after such an encouraging second half at Stoke. Ronnie Stam unfortunately showed once again this season that his attacking play is not good enough to make up for his poor defending. The substitutes had no effect — Henriquez excepted who did well in his three minutes. While largely down to injuries, Wigan’s bench was thin and there wasn’t a player on the bench that you felt could really make a difference. Compare it to having Rodallega and Diame available in the last half hour this time last year. Callum McManaman showed again that he is quick and 100%, but neither fast or composed. Jordi Gomez was sent on to try and regain possession but couldn’t do it.

The league table is worrying. Reading are in good form. Southampton clearly are. QPR may not have won but have signed half a team as usual and will only improve. Villa — the best bet at the moment — scored three goals at Goodison Park but at least dropped two points in the last minute of injury time. It’s time to start getting results.

Player Ratings:

Ali Al-Habsi: 6 — Not to blame for the goals, made a couple decent reaction saves.

Paul Scharner: 7 — Very good. An excellent loan signing, a positive influence and stop-gap. Inspired confidence and will lend some much-needed experience.

Gary Caldwell: 7 — Was out-jumped in the build-up to the equaliser. Scharner sprinted across anticipating it when he probably should have stayed on his mark. If Caldwell were a few inches taller he would be at a top club. He otherwise had an excellent game making a large number of crucial blocks and interceptions, not to mention his exceptionally well taken headed goal and some exquisite passing. Unfortunately, the midfield ahead of his was totally overrun, but his good form bodes well.

Maynor Figueroa: 6 — Difficult to assess. He made some very good tackles and was probably Latics busiest player in the second half, but got beaten very easily a few times as well.

Ronnie Stam: 5 — Not good enough at present. Is capable of good attacking play, but is a defensive liability. Remarkable turnaround excepted, Martinez’s attempt to sign John Stones was confirmation that Stam will leave this summer.

Jean Beausejour: 6 — His best game for some time. Would receive an 8 for a brilliant first half during which he played several top-class crosses — one of which Franco Di Santo almost scored from — and was generally composed and effective. Has started all but one league match for Martinez since joining just over a year ago and looked refreshed after being substituted early against Stoke. Disappeared in the second half however. Once again, the opposing manager neutralized Wigan’s main attacking threat by making sure the Chilean was kept busy defensively.

James McCarthy: 5 — His error led to the second goal. McCarthy is difficult to grade — his potential is so huge it is disappointing to see him underperform. If he underperforms, the team does.

James McArthur: 6 — Persevered and showed quick thinking and passing, but wasn’t given the chance to get forward as he did in a fantastic display at Stoke.

Roger Espinoza: 5 — After a game of two halves at Stoke — wobbly and excellent — he struggled in this one. As supporters, we need to be patient as he adapts to the pace and physicality of the Premier League. He was involved, but largely outmuscled and ineffective. Still, a promising signing.

Shaun Maloney: 7 — As has been the case for several months, he was a class above his teammates and the bravest of Wigan’s attacking players. Very close to creating the opening in the first half, he finally got his goal in the second despite a complete lack of support. Setting an example by recently signing a new contract, he celebrated his goal by emphasizing the importance of his club’s shirt.

Franco Di Santo: 7 — Perhaps not everyone’s grade, but the Argentina striker put in a near perfect target man performance, receiving and holding the ball under duress, with very little support. His effort from Beausejour’s cross in the first half was excellent — a goal would have been just reward for a man not only doing the hard work alone up front but constantly chasing back to win the ball for his teammates. He has scored two from four since being deployed in the advanced striker role largely reserved for Arouna Kone this season, a good strike rate better than his teammate, and has been unlucky it’s not been more.

Subs:

Jordi Gomez: Plays well when the team has possession of the ball. Sent on to try and help the team regain it — wasn’t able to do so in this match but didn’t play poorly either.

Callum McManaman: It’s always pleasing to see him come on. Works hard, has skill and is clearly quick though not fast. The jury is still out on him at this level. He played some positive balls forward but his failed lunge in the build-up to Southampton’s second goal gave the winger the confidence to play such a thoughtful cross in. A more experienced player would have stayed stayed with him long enough to make him rush a cross, or would have earned a yellow card for the team stopping him. In his defence, he is being played in a different position every week, for anywhere from 5 to 20 minutes at a time. I would love to see him given a starting opportunity behind Di Santo and imagine it would do wonders for his confidence and development. It

Stoke City 2 Wigan Athletic 2: Brilliant Latics bounce back

Two top quality strikes capped a stylish second half comeback after a freak goal and isolated breakaway had given Stoke City a 2-0 lead.

Given the scarcity of defenders and strikers at his disposal, Roberto Martinez fielded a midfield-heavy XI reminiscent of the Spanish national team in makeup. If the first half was sloppy and disjointed from both sides, however, the second was all Wigan, with the type of calm possession football that would have done Spain themselves proud.

The first goal was perhaps the best piece of football in Wigan’s season thus far, Franco Di Santo cushioning a driven ball to Roger Espinoza, whose perfectly weighted one-time pass was elegantly finished by the on-rushing James McArthur. One touch football at its finest.

It rightly gave Wigan the kind of confidence we haven’t seen since that run of form last season. It was the same trio that created the equaliser — Espinoza floating the ball towards McArthur, who nodded it back for an emphatic Di Santo finish.

McArthur, Maloney and Di Santo would go close as Latics went in search of victory, but it wasn’t to be. The point, however, is a good one, and the second half performance has us dreaming again.

The Good:

Midfielders in the Martinez era have been goal shy. Although James McCarthy had a conservative match, it was fantastic to see both Roger Espinoza and James McArthur takes some risks and get into scoring positions. The goals came when they drove forward.

Espinoza had a wobbly first half, but an excellent second one. He certainly looks a useful signing. He is positive with his passing, energetic, and willing to try something different.

Roman Golobart had a sound match, defensively speaking. With Emmerson Boyce hobbling off with a hamstring injury, it was a huge boost to witness the young Spaniard make a satisfactory Premier League debut.

The Bad:

Both goals conceded were arguably errors that need to be wiped out. While the first had an element of bad luck to it with Jean Beausejour’s clearance bouncing off the back of McCarthy’s head, a more assertive clearance would have prevented the goal.

Ali Al-Habsi’s new habbit of saving the ball into the path of an on-rushing striker has cost Wigan several goals this season. It was a difficult save to make on a wet pitch, but a confident Ali would have steered it away from goal.

Conclusions:

While an opportunity to take three points was lost, any draw at the Britannia is a valuable one. The football Wigan played in the second half — and the quality goals they scored — should give them the confidence boost needed to prevail over Southampton in Saturday’s crucial match.

Player Ratings:

Ali Al-Habsi: 5 — Just isn’t inspiring confidence. Didn’t have much to do, but spilled the second goal into Peter Crouch’s path.

Roman Golobart: 6 — Some nervous passing in the first half, but got better and made one vital tackle in the second half. His distribution improved as he grew in confidence.

Gary Caldwell: 7 — Did very well to cope with the physical and aerial threat of the Stoke attackers. His passing was excellent.

Maynor Figueroa: 7 — Average first half but classy in second. Drives the team forward when he attacks.

Emmerson Boyce: 5 — Went off with a hamstring injury, which might explain why he was being beaten so easily by Matthew Etherington in the first half.

Jean Beausejour: 6.5 — Mixed bag. His best game for some time, he delivered two or three lovely crosses and played some good football but still not confident. Poor clearance in the build-up to the first goal, however.

James McArthur: 8 — One of the few to put in a good full 90 minutes. Scored a cracker, set up the equaliser, and almost struck a winner.

James McCarthy: 6 — Steady but wish he would take the match by the scruff of its neck. He could dominate.

Roger Espinoza: 7.5 — Some dodgy passing early on, but was outstanding in the second half. Influential.

Shaun Maloney: 7 — A constant menace but no end product today. He did supply a gorgeous, Beckham-esque cross for Di Santo towards the end that deserved to end up in the back of the net.

Franco Di Santo: 7 — Took his goal very well and almost got a second, but drifted out wide often away from the box. Should take on defenders more frequently. Needs to be more arrogant, as Martinez would say.

Subs:

Ronnie Stam: 6.6 — One fantastic cross, otherwise held on to the ball well and didn’t let the team down defensively.

Much to appreciate despite late equalizer

An outstanding afternoon of Premier League football at the DW saw former hero and youth system product Leighton Baines cap a man of the match performance with the most emphatic penalty finish in recent memory. He has always been a tremendously skilled player, but the fact that Everton have built their team around him — a left back — is mightier praise than any words could offer. A slightly more muted celebration might have been welcome at the DW, but he remains a source of pride for those who witnessed his beginnings in Wigan.

Before the equaliser, Latics had enjoyed a very good first half, filled with the kind of crisp passing, pace and attacking incision Roberto has been working toward for some time now. Everton were always dangerous — little surprise with the amount of quality on display — but had fallen 2-1 behind and were a bit lucky to remain on even footing after Marouane Fellaini appeared to elbow Figueroa in the face. He’d been growingly frustrated throughout the half as Latics clearly sought to reduce his aerial threat on set pieces with a gentle shove here and there. The decision not to send him off was probably influenced by an earlier talking point. Latics’ first goal, an Arouna Kone header from a Sean Maloney cross, was marginally offside.

In the end, pressure told and Latics’ rearguard were undone by panic and good attacking pressure by their opponents, giving away a penalty with three minutes of regulation time to play. Baines stepped up, and despite a late flourish from the Latics including a glorious spurned opportunity by Sean Maloney, the result stood.

The Good:

The front three were in devastating form. Franco Di Santo showed no signs of rust after missing a game and a half through injury. His was a performance of pace, quality and intelligent passing and movement. His goal was well-taken, and he has now scored 3 for the season, despite missing the aforementioned game and a half. Arouna Kone put in his best performance in a Latics shirt and was a constant threat. He looks to have developed a good understanding with his attacking teammates and in this form, will never be far from the scoresheet. Sean Maloney was bright and dangerous all match, free to roam the pitch as lone playmaker, and might have sealed the win for Latics on a couple occasions with better finishing.

Particularly in the first half, the Jimmy Macs were showing the kind of energy and ferocity that led to Latics’ big results last season. First to every 50-50%, competitive but generally clean, they were a joy to watch. McArthur gave the ball away a couple times, McCarthy once — but in general their passing too, was of a high standard.

The Bad:

The lack of defensive composure to hold on to the result as pressure mounted. The McManaman-for-Di Santo substitution made sense but didn’t amount to much. The bigger question was why an extra ball-playing midfielder wasn’t introduced to try and regain possession when Everton were turning the screw. Still — Everton have the air of a team on the ascendancy. While always appreciative of David Moyes results on a tighter budget that their direct competitors in the upper part of the table, I’ve never been convinced of the type of football his teams display. But this is a side with real balance, understanding, and attacking flair. Credit where it’s due.

Conclusions:

We said in our preview that three points were needed. I’m personally satisfied with the result and performance, despite the disappointment of being unable to hold onto the three points. The way our attacking players linked up together in the first half in particular, but also in that late flourish, shows real promise. Sure, we are light on points, but there is quality in this side.

Kone has bedded in. It was bound to take a few matches, but his link-up play with Di Santo and Maloney was outstanding. His passing was intelligent and pace a threat.

Maloney is much more effective as the lone playmaker, as Jakarta Jack previously wrote about on this blog. He is a versatile attacker, full of invention, flicks and an eye for the killer through-ball. But it was his dribbling that left Seamus Coleman on his bum for the first goal. The freedom to move from one side to the other, identify and then run at the weaker defenders, brought out the best in him despite the missed opportunity at the end of the match.

On the surface, Emmerson Boyce’s season has been below the high standard he set last season. His attacking contribution has been small. But even on a tough day like this one, the advantage of having him in the side was evidenced in the number of clearances made with his head from set pieces. When you are only playing with three at the back, having him act as a fourth centre back on set pieces is crucial.

Player Ratings:

Ali Al-Habsi: 8 – Made some very good saves; one first half dipper in particular, was world class.

Ivan Ramis: 7.5 – My pick of the centre-backs, this might have been his best match so far in blue and white despite facing the outstanding pair of Steven Pienaar and Leighton Baines.

Gary Caldwell: 6 – Flustered towards the end.

Maynor Figueroa: 6 – Did okay despite the threat of the lively Kevin Mirallas, but might’ve ended up the villain if Kevin Friend had awarded a penalty aginst him in a 50-50 challenge with Jelavic.

Emmerson Boyce: 6 – No attacking contribution, which is entirely understandable when you have Leighton Baines and Steven Pienaar running at you. Defended well on set pieces.

Jean Beausejour: 6 – Some nice touches, passes and deliveries in the first half, but faded with the rest of the team in the second.

James McCarthy: 7 – There was a moment in the second half when he misplaced a pass and the whole stadium seemed to gasp and groan at the same time. You just don’t expect it. His pass completion rate is outstanding. He was immense in the first half but found it harder in the second.

James McArthur: 6.5 – Also fantastic in the first half, fading in the second.

Sean Maloney: 7.5 – Energetic, inventive 95 minutes from the little magician. Loses marks for uncharacteristically opting to shoot instead of squaring for an easy tap-in in the dying minutes of the match. Set up the first goal with a good piece of skill.

Franco Di Santo: 8.5 – Rarely loses the ball, and his use of it just keeps getting better. Developing into an elegant and mobile centre forward, with a vastly improved goals-per-game ratio.

Arouna Kone: 9 – Thoroughly impressive. On his own up front for large stretches for the match, but did a lot more than hold the ball up and knock it back — he seeks to create chances with his passing and running. A dynamic and highly promising performance.

Subs:

Callum McManaman: Must be personally pleased to be chosen to enter the fray at such a crucial time in the match. Has leapfrogged quite a few players in the pecking order in the last few months. More to come, hopefully…