Fulham 2 Wigan Athletic 2 – good football is back for Latics

 

It was a lovely mild spring evening and the walk through Bishops Park by the Thames was as delightful as any approach to a football ground. But then again, despite its great location, Craven Cottage had rarely been a happy hunting ground for Wigan Athletic.

It was Gary Caldwell’s first game as manager. What kind of tactical formation would he play? Would it be the 3-4-3 from his days under Roberto Martinez? Could he get the commitment from the players that has been lacking for so much of the season? Would he bring back players who had been left out in the cold under Malky Mackay? But more importantly could he steer his players away from the hoof that typified the era of his predecessor? Could they play football in the “Wigan Athletic way”?

It proved to be an entertaining 2-2 draw and Latics were well worth their point. A win was just beyond their reach and relegation has crept even closer. But the bright side was that, after just two days of training, Caldwell had got the team moving towards a brand of football reminiscent of the club’s best of times in the Premier League.

The starting lineup showed two changes from the last game with Scott Carson being preferred to Ali Al-Habsi and Jerome Pennant came in for Leon Clarke. Caldwell employed a flat back four, with William Kvist and James Perch in holding midfield and Kim Bo Kyung in the hole behind the lone centre forward, Marc-Antoine Fortune. James McClean was played wide on the left and Jerome Pennant on the right, although the latter tucked inside in the earlier proceedings.

Fulham’s goal after just 4 minutes was beautifully taken by the skillful Ross McCormack, as he curled the ball home from the edge of the box. However, once again the Wigan defence had not closed down a player in a shooting position, as has so often happened this season. Going a goal down so early on was a hammer blow and given their inability to get back into games after conceding the first goal in previous games one wondered if Latics might be doomed.

However, Caldwell’s new Latics began to dominate possession, largely resisting the hoof. Fulham were put on the back foot but there was little penetration in Wigan’s play. The forwards were simply not making the runs necessary to unlock a stubborn home defence with two giant central defenders who were ready to gobble up anything that went in the air. However, in the 22nd minute McClean was upended as he set off on a mazy run at speed. Pennant stepped up to score a delightful free kick, just like the first one he scored at Rotherham. Latics were clearly delighted and Pennant and Gaetan Bong ran to the other end of the field to celebrate in front of the visiting support.

Matt Smith’s beautifully taken long range goal after 35 minutes put the home team ahead again. Despite the excellence of the finish the Latics’ defence had once again backed off and allowed an opposition player a clear shot on goal.

Despite Wigan dominating the possession Fulham were a goal up as the teams went in for half time. One wondered if Caldwell would be able to find an answer to the lack of penetration of the Wigan attack.

Latics started the second half unchanged and the game continued in a similar vein although Fulham looked dangerous in flashes. The Wigan central defenders had looked uncomfortable playing the ball out of defence. Jason Pearce sometimes found a midfield player with a short pass, but largely passed the ball sideways or backwards. Harry Maguire’s passing was repeatedly off target as he went for long diagonal balls to the flanks. Carson’s distribution was also poor as he launched his customary long kicks that were too often ineffective against the height in Fulham’s defence. Meanwhile Latics continued to lack penetration up front.

However, Fortune was taken off after 56 minutes, the visiting supporters loudly cheering the arrival on the pitch of Martyn Waghorn. Latics then started to show more movement up front, players running off the ball to support those in possession. As a result their passing became more incisive and they deservedly got back in the game as Maguire headed on a Pennant corner for Pearce to slide home.

Chris McCann replaced the tiring Emmerson Boyce after 70 minutes with James Perch moving to a more familiar full back position. Josh Murphy replaced Pennant after 83 minutes as both teams attacked trying to get a winner. Both teams had chances in the closing minutes but the game was to finish in a draw that guarantees safety for Fulham but leaves Latics in deep relegation trouble.

Despite the inability of his team to win the three points, Caldwell was clearly happy with their performance. Good football has returned and there were signs in the second half that the forwards were able to make the kinds of incisive runs that will unlock defences.

 

 

Wigan Athletic v Aston Villa Preview

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It was billed as the grand finale to a topsy turvy season for Wigan Athletic.  The home match with fellow strugglers, Aston Villa, was to be crucial in determining Latics’ future in the Premier League. But sometimes things just don’t work out as you hope they will.

Wigan Athletic go into their last match at the end of  a remarkable eight year stay in the Premier League. They come out of it stronger than when they went in. Latics now have a strong identity, a sound infrastructure and a much increased fan base. The wonderful cup final victory has gained them millions of admirers all over the world, not just through the result, but by the style with which they played.

The encounter with Aston Villa allows the opportunity for fans to celebrate those eight years and to savour the incredible achievement of winning the FA Cup. The match also gives Roberto Martinez the opportunity to blood young players outside the pressure-cooker atmosphere that has prevented him doing so in these past years of fighting relegation.

Despite looking a poor side for most of the season,  Villa have maintained their Premier League status through an end of season rally. Much of that upturn in results  was down to  goals from the striking partnership of Gabriel Agbonlahor and big Belgian striker, Christian Benteke, who has netted a remarkable 19 goals in his first season in England’s top league. Moreover Agbonlahor’s pace has often proved a thorn in the side for Wigan – he has scored 5 goals against them in previous encounters.

Benteke will not be lining up at the DW Stadium on Sunday due to a red card received in the home loss to Chelsea. However, Villa do have Darren Bent ready to step in. Bent has been frozen out by Paul Lambert, making only seven starts all season, scoring two goals.

Like Wigan Athletic, Aston Villa are making every effort to keep a balanced budget and it looks like Bent – who reportedly earns £65,000 a week – could be playing his last match for the club. Villa’s problem is that he still has a couple of years left on his contract. Other high wage earners, Stephen Ireland and Shay Given, also remain under contract and will be difficult to budge.

Aston Villa have a fine record at the DW Stadium having won four matches and  drawn two over the previous six seasons. Latics will be keen to break this pattern.

The pressure is off for both teams in Sunday’s encounter. It promises to be a good match, with either team capable of winning.  Reports suggest that Jean Beausejour will make a welcome return from a hamstring injury and that Adrian Lopez has a chance of making the game after an injury plagued season. Lopez could well become an important player in the Championship next year and Martinez might be tempted to give him a run out.

It is conceivable that up to a half of the players who play for Wigan Athletic on Sunday will not be with the club next season.  In terms of team selection Martinez faces the dilemma of whether to stick with the nucleus of his cup  winning team or to look to the future. The match provides a great opportunity to give youth a chance.

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A Need for Height?

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Roman Golobart

In the early 1990s Arsenal had a couple of central  defenders – Tony Adams and Steve Bould – who my father used to call ‘gaspipes’. I never really asked my dad to explain what he meant by that term, but always assumed it had something to do with their height and shape: tall and slim. Adams was 6′ 3″ , Bould an inch taller. Not surprisingly these two central defenders were key to Arsenal’s successes in that era, when the long ball was in vogue. If a high centre were to be launched into the Arsenal box you could bet your bottom dollar that one of the two would be on to it.

Let’s get back to modern day. Brede Hangeland of Fulham is 6′ 61/2″ tall – and that, together with his lean shape  –  would certainly place him in  the ‘gaspipe’ category. Not surprisingly he dominates the air in the penalty boxes at each end of the field, very solid in defence, dangerous from corner kicks. His regular defensive partner, Aaron Hughes,  is a mere 6’0″ tall. Per Mertesacker of Arsenal is the second tallest Premier League defender at 6′ 6″. Both of Stoke City’s uncompromising central defenders, Robert Huth and Ryan Shawcross are 6′ 3 “. The same stats apply to the Liverpool pairing of Daniel Agger and Martin Skrtel. By and large Premier League teams typically have two central defenders well above 6 ft tall.

Latics have no gaspipes in their senior squad. According to the club website,  of the central defenders who have played for Wigan this season:  Antolin Alcaraz and Ivan Ramis are the tallest at 6’2”. Maynor Figueroa and Adrian Lopez are 6′ 0 “, Gary Caldwell and Emmerson Boyce  are 5’11”.  The two tallest players, Alcaraz and Ramis,  have played together only twice, in the opening two games of the season.

When Roberto Martinez installed a trio of central defenders midway through last season he bolstered Latics’ aerial defences. All too often over these past years Wigan have been undone with a ‘soft’ headed goal from the opposition at a crucial time in the game. Phil Jagielka’s recent  goal for Everton and Ryan Nelsen’s for QPR are two that most Premier League defences would have prevented. You can add to that Hoolahan’s goal for Norwich, although that was more down to the positioning of defenders than their ability to leap. Latics have lacked that type of tall, rugged centre back who can dominate the aerial defences.

One of the pioneers of recruiting big players in the old Football League was Jimmy Sirrel, a canny Scot who was a successful manager at Notts County for over a decade around the 70s. When asked on television why he recruited so many big players he said “If I have the choice between a good big ‘un and a good little ‘un,  I go for the good big ‘un.” Larry Lloyd’s promotion winning side of 1981-82 was probably the physically biggest team Wigan had ever had. Both Lloyd and Colin Methven in central defence were around the 6’3″ mark. Add to them the 6’5″ centre forward Les Bradd (previously with Sirrel at Notts County), 6’2″ Graham Barrow and the other 6 footers – Joe Hinnegan, Kevin Langley, Peter Houghton – and you can see why they were well prepared to cope with the aerial and physical challenges of the old Division 4.

Roberto Martinez’ style of football is far from that of the old Notts County and Larry Lloyd’s Wigan team. The current Latics team is typified by its elegance of passing from defensive positions, more than by  its physical and aerial power. The top tier of football in England has moved on from the times of the long-ball game, but there is still a need for strong aerial defence. This season injuries have prevented Wigan from fielding their first choice back three, the result being a lack of cohesion as players have had to be shuffled around. Although the lack of a towering central defender puts Wigan at some disadvantage, it is the lack of  cohesion and defensive discipline that has cost them dearly. Too many penalties and soft goals have been given away. Having an established back three, who play well as a unit, is the key to success in the second half of the season.

Hopefully Antolin Alcaraz will soon return to fortify the centre of defence. Wigan’s best defensive performances have tended to  coincide with his consistent presence in the starting lineup. One for the future is the young Catalan, Roman Golobart, who is 6’4″ and has strong physical presence. Providing he has the necessary pace to match he could become that towering central defender that the defence has been lacking.

Bradford preview: More for Mauro?

I have often thought that the League Cup is a waste of time. Shadow teams playing each other in empty stadia. What purpose does it really serve? However, in a disappointing season for Wigan Athletic up to this point it has been the League Cup matches that have been the highlight. We have seen two successive 4-1 away wins where the finishing has been lethal, an uncommon experience for Latics fans. Moreover the ties have also shown that the club has considerable strength in depth, with ‘fringe’ players putting in excellent performances.

Will the finishing in the game against Bradford City tonight once again be of that order? Leading the charge, with three goals already in the competition, will be the excellent Mauro Boselli. Boselli is well on the way to proving his doubters wrong. It has been all too easy for the cynics to knock him. All kinds of misleading statistics have been thrown his way. Recently I even heard a football commentator on television say that Boselli had not scored a Premier League goal in three years at Wigan. It is not unusual for such people to put Wigan Athletic down, with their condescending attitudes towards the club. However, this recent comment was palpably unfair. Boselli started only five times in the first part of the 2010-2011 season before going off to Genoa and Estudiantes on loan. He has not started for Wigan in the Premier League since returning in July.

At Estudiantes, prior to joining Wigan, Boselli had scored 22 goals in 29 league starts in 2009-10 and 10 in 23 league starts in 2008-09. Impressive stats when playing for a relatively small club in a league with tight defences. He was the leading goalscorer in whole of the Copa Libertadores competition in 2008-09, helping his team lift the trophy with the match winner in the final against Cruzeiro. Since his return to Wigan he has been carefully nurtured by Roberto Martinez, being limited to three brief  substitute appearances in the Premier League. However, the snippets we have seen of Boselli’s finishing for Latics League Cup and Under 21 teams have shown us how he scored so many goals in tough and competitive competitions in South America. We may well see that tonight.

Prior to cup ties Roberto Martinez typically reiterates that they are an opportunity for the fringe players to break into the first choice lineup. However, he was careful to provide a backbone of experienced first choice players in defence for the wins at Forest and West Ham. Tonight he is likely to play both Roman Golobart and Adrian Lopez in the back three. They come from the opposite sides of Spain and have contrasting styles.

Roman Golobart – a Catalan from Barcelona in the east of Spain – is a big, powerful central defender, nevertheless with good passing ability. Golobart joined the club from Espanyol as a 17 year old in August 2009. Last season he had a successful loan spell at Inverness, being voted fans’ player of the year. Playing under the influence of manager Terry Butcher, ex-England centre half, will surely have helped his game. Still only 20 he is an excellent prospect.

Adrian Lopez –from the province of Coruña in Galicia, north west Spain – signed for Wigan in December 2010 from local team Deportivo La Coruña, as a free agent after a heated dispute over his contractual situation. In the previous three years he had played 26 matches for Deportivo, scoring one goal. In Spain he was known under his nickname ‘Piscu’ to distinguish him from the other Adrian Lopez ,a forward who plays for Atletico Madrid. Now 25 years old, Piscu has had 6 starts since joining Wigan. According to the Wigan Athletic club website, Lopez “ brings cultured development to Latics’ back line”. Clearly a different type of player to the more muscular Golobart. Lopez has struggled with the physicality of the Premier League, but Martinez retains confidence in the player.

Other likely starters for the match are Callum McManaman, Ronnie Stam, Fraser Fyvie, David Jones and Jordi Gomez. There are doubts over the fitness of Ryo Miyaichi. Albert Crusat remains out injured. Martinez may once again opt to put in some of his first choice players, although maybe fewer  than in the previous League Cup games with the away match at Tottenham coming up at the weekend.

Although tonight’s match is at the DW Stadium it might seem more like a home game for Bradford City, who have sold all of their 5,000 ticket allocation. Bradford are currently in 5th place in League Two, but have the highest average attendance in the division at just below 10,000.

Prediction: at least one goal from Mauro Boselli and a win for Wigan Athletic.

WEST HAM UNITED v WIGAN ATHLETIC – CAPITAL ONE CUP PREVIEW

In the second round of the Capital One Cup Latics destroyed Nottingham Forest through superb finishing. They fielded a mixed team, but with an experienced back three providing defensive stability. Let’s  hope the back three for tonight’s game have that  kind of experience and resolve to deal with the aerial bombardment that is to be expected.

West Ham beat Crewe 2-0 in the last round, Nicky Maynard scoring the first goal, but refusing to celebrate against his old club.  We saw the same on Saturday with Rodallega’s goal at the DW Stadium. Let’s hope that Mohamed Diame does not appear on the scoresheet tonight to repeat that. He was most people’s man of the match in their last minute draw with Sunderland at the weekend. West Ham put out a mixed team for the encounter with Crewe. They have  a tricky London derby against QPR coming up on Monday, but still might be tempted to put on a few more first team regulars given the six day gap involved.

What can we hope for in this difficult match? Neither Callum McMananan nor Ryo Miyaichi started in the Forest match, but both came on as substitutes against Fulham on Saturday. We can expect Mauro Boselli to start at centre forward and the attacking option would be to put the two young wingers upfront alongside him, although Albert Crusat also justifies being brought back into the fold. However, this is not the normal Martinez formation. On Saturday we went back to the lone centre forward system, with midfield players on each side. Playing the pedestrian Gomez nominally on the right wing deprived the team of pace and power. Both Gomez and Maloney are creative players but playing them together just does not seem to work.

Antolin Alcaraz is still  unable to return from injury, so Adrian Lopez will probably replace him. More than anything else it has been the sheer physicality of the English game that has caused Lopez most problems since his move from Galicia. Tonight will provide him with another stern test if he is included in the lineup.  In the Forest game Ivan Ramis played in the most central position of the back three and looked comfortable there. Gary Caldwell was our player of the year last season, but his recent form has been  poor.  His apparent petulance after being rightly substituted on Saturday was not what one would expect from the captain who usually leads by example. His form has dipped – being outjumped by Rodallega for the opening goal on Saturday being symptomatic – so he may be given the chance to redeem himself tonight.

David Jones is likely to appear, either as left wingback or in central midfield. We can expect Ronnie Stam to come in at right wing back. Ben Watson has looked rusty after his long layoff from first choice duty, so he might figure in central midfield. There also remains the option of testing James McArthur’s fitness and giving the young and promising Fraser Fyvie his first start .

Whatever lineup Martinez puts out we can expect a hard and physical tussle. Sam Allardyce is not the Hammers’ fans favourite all time manager, but he has brought them back to the Premier League. For the Crewe  visit there was a crowd of over 18,000 at the Boleyn Ground, sizeable by League Cup standards. The small pitch and crowd support make West  Ham a difficult side to play away from home. Not knowing what strength of lineup each team is going to put out makes it hard to predict any kind of outcome to this encounter.  With the exception of the fine display at Forest, Wigan Athletic’s performance in cup competitions  over recent years has been infuriating. Let’s hope that whatever  the lineup the Wigan team will play with enthusiasm, style and pride.