Selling off quality

“We need the right offer. I don’t want to stop the lad from going into the Premier League.”

The words of Dave Whelan regarding the probable departure of James McArthur over the coming days. Once again Latics are playing the role of a club selling off quality.

When thinking of James McArthur the words “automatic choice” come to mind. In fact his would be the first name most Latics supporters would pencil into a team lineup. The Scot might not be the most elegant of movers, but he has been the key man in the engine room of the team. McArthur grew up under the tutelage of Roberto Martinez, where good football was of the essence, even if the results did not always match.

Working under three different managers in less than a year, McArthur stayed with the club when relegation happened. He is a player of genuine Premier League quality, with a massive work rate to supplement his considerable skills. Even in the dark days of long ball under Owen Coyle, McArthur did not succumb. He stuck to his footballing principles, providing the link between defence and attack, preferring to keep the ball on the ground rather than make hopeful long passes. With McArthur on the pitch there has always been a chance of good football coming from Latics.

The same could also be said for Ivan Ramis, the club’s most classy defender. Ramis might well have proved to be one of Martinez’s most astute signings, had he not suffered that cruciate knee ligament injury at Fulham in January 2013. Ramis remains a class act and if he can maintain his fitness he can still be a top flight player. Martinez never had much luck with injuries to his squad and one can only ponder on what might have been if Ramis and Antolin Alcaraz had been able to play together in the centre of defence on a regular basis.

Reports suggest that Ramis is on his way to join Deportivo  La Coruña in Galicia, now back in La Liga after a year’s absence. No fee has been mentioned, but if there is one it is likely to be modest, given the player’s injury record over the past 18 months. Ramis is reputed to be one of the highest earners at the club and his departure has been imminent.

The media reports that both Burnley and Leicester City have made bids for McArthur, the latest one being around £5m from the Foxes. Whelan will probably try for £7m, but the final figure is likely be closer to £6m. The lure of playing in the Premier League and earning a commensurate salary will be hard for the Scot to resist, although the cynics might say that he could well be back in the Championship a year from now if he joins either of those clubs. However, possibilities remain for other Premier League clubs to get involved as the week progresses.

At the moment it looks like Latics are going to take one step forward – in signing Adam Forshaw – and two steps back in allowing players of the quality of McArthur and Ramis to leave.

The dismantling of Roberto Martinez’s squad continues. In July  Latics lost both Jean Beausejour and Jordi Gomez, skilful players who added poise to the team.  Martinez himself did his old club no favours a year ago when he took James McCarthy and Arouna Kone to Everton, along with Alcaraz and Joel Robles. Four of the players remaining from the Martinez era – Emmerson Boyce, Gary Caldwell, Ali Al Habsi and Shaun Maloney – are now well into their thirties. Al Habsi is playing second fiddle to Scott Carson and might well be gone over these coming days.  Roger Espinoza and Fraser Fyvie have not impressed  Rosler sufficiently to push for regular first team places. Even Ben Watson could have left in summer if it had not been for his double leg fracture. On a more positive note Callum McManaman is getting back to his best form and both Rob Kiernan and Lee Nicholls have come up through the ranks.

Times have changed at the club. Few fans these days expect Whelan to get out his cheque book as he did in not only in helping Latics rise to the Premier League, but in keeping them there.   They made losses for six successive years in the elite league despite selling off prized assets like Antonio Valencia and Wilson Palacios. However, when Whelan brought in Martinez he cut the budget and somehow the Catalan managed to keep the club up there for three more years,  an horrendous injury list contributing to relegation in his fourth and final year.

A few years ago fans might have expected Whelan to back the manager in retaining quality players like Beausejour, Gomez, McArthur and Ramis. Uwe Rosler does not have such luxury. He is now likely to lose his classiest players in both defence and midfield. Rosler has to balance the books, using money brought in from transfers to fund his own searches for players.

Ramis played at his best for Rosler when in the centre of a back line of three. Although Latics remain well stocked for central defenders only Caldwell has experience in that position.

It looks like Forshaw will be McArthur’s replacement.  A young player who has excelled at League 1 level compared with an experienced campaigner who played in all of the most eventful games in the club’s history in the higher echelons of English football.However, Rosler clearly has confidence in Forshaw’s ability to make it in a higher level of football.

However, fans will hope that the proceeds of the sales of Ramis and McArthur will go towards improving the squad. The media reports that Latics are in negotiations to sign central striker Andy Delort from French second division side, Tours. It is rumoured that they are offering around  £2m-£3m for the player. This added to an investment of around £5m for Riera and Forshaw would come close to what Latics would recoup. However, the possibility remains of more players leaving, particularly those on higher salaries or out of favour with the manager.

In McArthur and Ramis, Latics will be losing two more players of genuine Premier League quality. However, Rosler has to take a wide overview and make sure that his squad is well balanced and competitive in all positions. At the same time he needs to make sure that he not only breaks even on his transfer dealings, but that he keeps a cap on the wage bill.

Rosler does not have the financial backing that Paul Jewell or Steve Bruce had during their time at Wigan. His situation is more akin to that faced by Martinez. Although he has recruited mainly UK based players he has had to look further afield to find strikers that he can afford.

Fans will be disappointed to see McArthur and Ramis go, less so the Spaniard given his injury problems. They are quality players capable of performing at a high level in the first tiers of football in both England and Spain.

 

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Are Latics a one half team?

Fitness

It reared its ugly head again. It is nothing new, but Latics fans had surely hoped that it had gone away. Unfortunately it is still there and it is something Uwe Rosler has met, not just at Wigan, but at Brentford before.

The pattern goes like this. Latics are sharp and competitive in the first half, playing better football than their opponents and deservedly going in front. In the second half it is a different scenario. Latics look lethargic. Playing hoof ball out of defence does not help because the opposition retain the ball and it seems a matter of time until they score.

It started during Owen Coyle’s reign last year. When Latics got tired in the second half we said they were not fit. What kind of training regime was Coyle running after all?

By the time the derby game with Bolton came around Latics had a new manager. It was Rosler’s first league match in charge. Latics got off to a storming start scoring two goals in the first half hour. But Bolton came back strongly in the second half, leveling the score. Callum McManaman then got a third for Latics, who hung on for victory.

After the match fans accepted that the players were just not up to the level of fitness that Rosler sought. It was clearly Coyle’s fault and we would have to wait until next season to see the players get the kind of fitness level Rosler required for his high pressing, high tempo football.

That same pattern recurred frequently in the games that were to follow during the second half of last season. Many times Latics hung in there, backs to the wall, holding on defensively to their lead. Even the best of teams will go on to the defensive after taking a lead, inviting the opposition to push forward and leave holes at the back that can be exploited. But Rosler’s Latics have rarely looked comfortable in such a situation. Rather than calmly organize themselves back in their own half, ready to launch counterattacks they are prone to simply hoof the ball away.

The cynics will say that Rosler prefers Scott Carson over Ali Al Habsi because he can kick the ball further. Both are top goalkeepers and opinion is divided as to which of the two is better. Fans will say Al Habsi is a better penalty saver, but his kicking is poor. Carson has a very powerful kick, but it is rare that he makes a long throw to set off an attack. During Coyle’s time Carson repeatedly sent long kicks on to the opposition’s central defenders’ heads. He has continued to do it under Rosler and one can only assume he has the German’s approval for doing so.

Who would want to be a lone centre forward with the ball being hoofed in their general direction so often? It could have even contributed to Grant Holt’s demise. Put simply, if the central striker spends most of his energy chasing hopeful punts it detracts from his role as a goalscorer. To score goals you need a degree of mental and physical sharpness, but if you are using most of your energy chasing lost causes your sharpness will be blunted.

Is Rosler’s team any fitter than that of his predecessor, Coyle? Defenders are more likely to hoof the ball when there is nobody moving to receive it. A fully functioning central midfield will be ready to receive the ball from defence to build up attacks. Moreover they will get into the box to support that lone centre forward.

It is early days to talk about fitness levels. On Saturday Rosler chose a lineup that was strong on paper, but several players had had minimal preparation through the pre-season games. That James McArthur could go the full match and still find the energy to get in the box and score a last-gasp equalizer, given so little playing time in pre-season, is impressive. He was joined in midfield by Don Cowie and Emyr Huws, who had almost as little playing time. Moreover it was a midfield trio that had never played together before. Add to that the appearance of Shaun Maloney off the bench in the second half, with zero pre-season playing time.

Last season the two teams who were to gain automatic promotion, Leicester City and Burnley, drew their first games of the season, both playing at home. There are another 45 league games remaining. That said, there are things that Rosler needs to look at minimizing the use of the hoof. Measured long passing is one thing, but the hoof has become an ugly and ineffective part of Latics’ play under the German.

Ex-Latics goalkeeper and now Reading manager, Nigel Adkins,  clearly did his homework for Saturday and he was unlucky not to come away with a win. Reading are not a side known for their passing football, but the stats show that in a game truncated by 33 fouls, Reading made 379 passes, Wigan 281. Rosler will often change the shape of his teams when things are not going well, but in this case he did not react. Ivan Ramis was sat on the bench and bringing him on, with a switch to 3-5-2 when Reading were in the ascendency, might have made a difference.

When Rosler chose his midfield he would surely have given consideration to Fraser Fyvie, who played more minutes in the pre-season than any other player. Sadly Fyvie did not even come off the bench, despite the fact that Latics were losing the midfield battle. However, Rosler will certainly persevere with Don Cowie and Emyr Huws, who are possible replacements for Ben Watson and Chris McCann, until they are fit to return. The German might well have used Roger Espinoza if it were not for injury. Shaun Maloney needs several more games under his belt before he will be effective. Sometimes we can expect too much from him.

Rosler has built up a good squad, with a couple more additions likely. The scary part of it is not who might come in, but who might leave.

Rosler remains in his honeymoon period at the club, with strong approval ratings from the fans. However, that will soon be over unless he addresses the hoof. Wiganers expect their team to try to play good football. The jury is out in this case.

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Bolton Wanderers 1 Wigan Athletic 1 – woeful Latics almost steal it

 

Rosler consoles Gomez after penalty miss.  Thanks to Latics Officlal for the photo.

Rosler consoles Gomez after penalty miss.
Thanks to Latics Officlal for the photo.

Adam Bogdan prevented Latics going away with an undeserved three points with a penalty save in the last minute of added time. Bolton’s Hungarian goalkeeper moved superbly to his right to parry Jordi Gomez’s shot.

Uwe  Rosler made seven changes to his side, with Leon Barnett making a surprise return to the centre of defence, where he was to partner Emmerson Boyce. James Perch and Jean Beausejour lined up in the full back positions. James McArthur, Ryan Tunnicliffe and Jordi Gomez made up the midfield, with a front three of Martyn Waghorn, Marc Antoine Fortune and James McClean.

The match was to prove one-sided. Latics were up against an enthusiastic Bolton side, keen to beat their near neighbours. Bolton are in a fairly safe position in the table, with no chance of reaching the play-offs and this was a big game for them.

Wigan were lucky it took as much as 31 minutes for Bolton to score when lone striker Lukas Jutkiewicz stretched to get a toe to an inswinging free kick from Rob Hall on the right. Al-Habsi could not prevent it reaching the net.

The home team had dominated the match, their wide players Lee and Hall preventing Wigan’s full backs from overlapping and their direct approach causing Latics problems. Bogdan had little to do in the Bolton goal.

The match continued in this pattern for the first hour, with Latics having to rely on the fine goalkeeping of Al-Habsi to keep them in the game. Callum McManaman had been brought on at half time to replace the ineffective McClean. However, Wigan’s main tactical ploy was for the defenders to send in high balls to lone centre forward Fortune who must have been bruised and battered at the end of the match in his efforts to win the ball against the giants in the Bolton defence. In fact the whole display up to that point reminded one of the Coyle era at Wigan.

The introduction of Jack Collison for Tunnicliffe after 58 minutes signaled a slight upturn in the quality of football played by the visitors. The jaded McArthur was finally substituted after 70 minutes, with Nick Powell coming on, but being deployed on the left wing. Wigan had survived a scare early in the second half when Barnett fouled Liam Trotter just outside the penalty box. The Latics defender was lucky to receive a yellow card, rather than a red.

Thanks to the heroics of their goalkeeper Latics somehow survived until the 88th minute when Powell scored a fine opportunist goal from Waghorn’s cross. The tide then turned and it was Wigan who now looked the more dangerous, with McManaman testing left back Tim Ream, normally a central defender. Latics’ pressure continued and it was no surprise when McManaman was pulled down by substitute Alex Baptiste in the fifth minute of stoppage time.

Jordi Gomez’s penalty was by no means a bad one, but in this case the goalkeeper guessed right and made a superb save. It contrasted with the penalty missed by Gomez against Yeovil when the goalkeeper was well off his line in making the save.

The Good

The flair of Powell and McManaman almost won the game for Latics. There were signs of better football from Wigan in the final stages, despite them looking lethargic and jaded for the majority of the time.

Collison continues to look the part in midfield. Providing his knee can withstand the pressure he could prove to be a key player over the coming weeks.

The Bad

The long ball has been rearing its ugly head in Latics’ play in recent matches. Against Watford they utilized it, but on that occasion Latics pushed up to five men forward in attack. However, putting long balls forward to an unsupported lone centre forward smacks of desperation.

All of Bolton’s back four were over six feet tall, with central defenders Zat Knight at 6’6” and David Wheater at 6’5”. The way to get past them was to play the ball on the ground, not give them food and drink by launching aerial passes.

Although Rosler had made seven changes to his lineup, the players still looked jaded. It is the worst game McArthur has played for a long time, but he clearly needs a rest and there is no obvious replacement for him. It is remarkable that he had been able to keep his momentum going until this match, playing so many games without a break.

Sadly Tunnicliffe still does not appear to have the quality Latics need in central midfield. He has been given chances but has not delivered.

The injuries to Ben Watson, Chris McCann and Roger Espinoza and the lack of emergence of Tunnicliffe mean that Rosler has few options available in midfield. The classy Josh McEachran still lacks full fitness and was not even on the bench at the Reebok. However, if Latics can make it through to the playoffs they are going to need players of his quality firing on all cylinders.

In the meantime Rosler might have to continue with Tunnicliffe, assuming that Fraser Fyvie remains out of consideration.

Player Ratings

Ali Al-Habsi: 9 – a superb display.

James Perch: 6 – solid in defence.

Emmerson Boyce: 6 – not at his best, but played with his usual mixture of technique and application.

Leon Barnett: 6 – brave in defence. Woeful in his passing of the ball.

Jean Beausejour: 6 – pressed back into defence by the dangerous Korean winger, Lee.

James McArthur: 5 – poor. Taken off after 70 minutes.

Ryan Tunnicliffe: 4 – poor. Taken off after 58 minutes.

Jordi Gomez: 6 – the main creative outlet and worked hard. A shame he could not convert the penalty.

Martyn Waghorn: 6 – hardworking as always.

Marc Antoine Fortune: 5 – received woeful service, having to fight for high balls most of the time. Wastefully fired wide near the end when a goal was on the cards, but probably exhausted by that stage.

James McClean: 5 – not in the game. Taken off at half time.

Substitutes:

Callum McManaman: – came on after half time. Looked dangerous when switched to the right and caused panic in the Bolton defence.

Jack Collison: – keeps the game simple, but makes himself available to receive the pass. A quality player at this level.

Nick Powell: – isolated on the left wing but showed his quality with a superb opportunist equalizer.

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Watford and beyond – Latics and promotion

HPIM6466

At half time during the Ipswich match last Saturday the Wigan Athletic substitutes came on the pitch to play ‘Piggy in the Middle’. Latics had gone into half time 2-1 ahead  after James McClean’s well taken equalizer and Leon Barnett’s header .

The quality of players in that group was impressive . Carson, Crainey, Kiernan, McEachran, Maynard, McManaman, Powell – a strong bench that most Championship clubs would envy. But it was more than that – there was an almost tangible atmosphere of camaraderie among those players. Football clubs these days are experts in telling fans that there is a team spirit among their players. In fact even Owen Coyle would tell us the same thing, although one seriously doubted that was the case.

However, there can be no doubt that Uwe Rosler has built up a strong team spirit at Wigan. The German’s preferred style of football is as physically demanding as it could possibly be for the players. But the players have adjusted and since his arrival fitness levels have improved.

Rosler made five changes for the midweek match against Yeovil, but the team spirit was still there when they were 2-1 down five minutes from the end. It led to two goals before the end of regular time and it reminded one of that late comeback against Charlton when the three points seemed to be lost. However, this time it was not to be as Yeovil got a scrambled equaliser in the last minute of added time.

Over the last couple of weekends Latics had been full of running and energy in victories at Manchester City and Ipswich. However, in the midweek games against Sheffield Wednesday and Yeovil they have looked jaded and lethargic. Which Wigan Athletic will we see against Watford tomorrow?

In the next six weeks Wigan Athletic have to play twelve matches. That kind of schedule needs a strong squad with a rotation policy that involves adjustments, rather than wholesale changes. Much of Latics’ defensive stability in recent weeks has been underpinned by the presence of James Perch on the right, with various combinations of Leon Barnett, Emmerson Boyce and Ivan Ramis in the centre of defence. The mutual understanding among those players has helped to them to play as a very solid unit.

When Perch went off injured after 27 minutes on Tuesday it caused a disruption to that smooth running unit. With no recognized right back on the bench Rosler was forced to move Boyce across. Thomas Rogne, who had not played since December, paired up with Ivan Ramis in their first game as a central defensive partnership. Rogne is a fine young player and Ramis possibly the best central defender in the division, but Yeovil centre forward Ishmael Miller proved too much for them on the night, scoring two well taken goals and missing an easier chance before that.

Even if Perch is available tomorrow Rosler will have to think hard about playing Boyce. Although 34 years old the captain has already played 46 matches this season, more than any other player. Boyce is a key player for Rosler and has been in great form, but badly needs a rest. Playing too many matches in a condensed period of time puts the player at higher risk of receiving an injury, let alone burnout.

Rosler has been unlucky with long term injuries to Ben Watson and Chris McCann, who were part of the nucleus around which his team was built. Moreover the consistent and reliable Leon Barnett is out with a hamstring injury, hopefully for not too long.

A strong defence has been the key to Wigan Athletic’s surge under Rosler. He now has to shuffle his pack and some coherence in defence will be lost. Thomas Rogne and Markus Holgersson will probably have a part to play over the coming weeks. Jean Beausejour continues to play at left back, not his natural position, but outstanding in attack.

In the absence of Watson and McCann in midfield much of the pressure will be on the admirable James McArthur. A midfield without the Scot is hardly worth contemplating, as like Boyce in defence, he is a lynchpin of the team.

Jordi Gomez has been excellent in recent matches and deserves his place. He has adjusted to Rosler’s style of play. Josh McEachran is a quality player, but has struggled to meet the physical demands of Rosler’s pressing style over 90 minutes. But watch out for him in the coming weeks. Ryan Tunniciffe has struggled to adjust to that system, but has high ratings from Ipswich fans from his time there. He is clearly not short of confidence and should get better. New loan signing Jack Collison could have a major part to play, although playing  multiple games in a week is probably beyond what his knee can withstand.

Rosler has a wealth of players available to him upfront, although he lacks a natural goalscorer. Both Marc-Antoine Fortune and Nicky Maynard are capable centre forwards, of differing styles. Callum McManaman remains a potential match winner, despite his indifferent form so far. Martyn Waghorn has a great left foot, is excellent in the delivery of corner kicks, and a team player who complies at both ends of the pitch. James McClean is a much better player under Rosler. He is now lifting his head at key moments and becoming a more mature player. If he continues in his current vein of form he will attract interest from the big clubs. Nick Powell remains a wild card, the position in which he will play being uncertain. Being played wide is not his best position, but Rosler has the option to play him at centre forward or in the hole in midfield, which might be his best position.

Latics have the luxury of quality goalkeepers with not only the excellent Ali Al-Habsi and Scott Carson, but the exciting young Lee Nicholls waiting for another chance. Al-Habsi and Carson can be expected to rotate over coming weeks.

Given the injuries and the hectic schedule, Latics are likely to experience some ups and downs before the end of the season. It will be hard to maintain the level already established by the German.

Rosler has built up a fine team spirit and a strong squad. The aim is for Latics to be in the top six at the end of the season. If they can do that they have the players to take them back to the Premier League.

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Ipswich Preview

portmanroad2

Wigan Athletic travel to Portman Road tomorrow to play their third game in six days. They will face an Ipswich Town side currently sitting in 9th place, with ambitions of reaching the play-offs.

On Wednesday Latics scraped out a win against a physical Sheffield Wednesday outfit, courtesy of an 88th minute penalty. However, they have won their last seven matches.

Ipswich will be a tough nut to crack. They have a home record of W9 D4 L4 and under Latics’ old adversary Mick McCarthy they will pose a strong physical threat. He has former Wolves players Sylvan Ebanks-Blake, Christophe Berra and Stephen Hunt in his squad. They will be out to avenge a 2-0 defeat at the DW Stadium in September.

The key Ipswich man to watch is full back, Aaron Creswell. The 24 year old Liverpudlian has two goals and a remarkable eleven assists in the 31 league games he has played this season. He has also had 28 shots on goal, a high figure for a full back. Not surprisingly there has been talk in the past of Latics trying to secure his services. Uwe Rosler will be keen to curb Cresswell’s attacks and will almost certainly place a winger on the left hand side to peg him back.

Latics have had good news this week with Gary Caldwell and Shaun Maloney each playing 45 minutes for the development squad. The bad news was that Chris McCann, a key figure in Uwe Rosler’s plans, will be out for the rest of the season with an injury to the knee cap. McCann was badly missed on Wednesday when Latics midfield could not maintain the quality of possession that one has come to expect. To lose the Irishman so soon after losing Ben Watson is a harsh blow for Rosler.

Rosler will look to field a well-balanced and competitive midfield at Ipswich. It will be interesting to see if he will field Ryan Tunnicliffe against the team for which he made 24 appearances in the first half of the season. Tunnicliffe struggled against Sheffield Wednesday, but he is clearly the type of player Rosler needs to replace Watson and McCann.

There remains the possibility of playing Jordi Gomez in a holding role, something he did at times under Roberto Martinez. Josh McEachran too is in contention, but like Gomez lacks the physical edge that Tunnicliffe might be able to provide. Roger Espinoza remains largely marginalized and Fraser Fyvie’s career has gone backwards this season. Rosler is going to need a midfield enforcer – someone who can help close down a match – and might well choose to employ Rob Kiernan in that role.

Both Markus Holgerrson and Thomas Rogne played for the development squad in midweek. One of them is likely to lineup in the centre of defence, given Rosler’s rotation policy. Emmerson Boyce is due for a rest and Ivan Ramis is likely to step in. Rosler might well revert to a system with three central defenders.

With the return of Nick Powell, Rosler now has a wide range of attacking options available to him. Up to this point he has managed to keep his forwards fresh through shrewd use of the rotation system.

Scott Carson made a successful return from injury at the Etihad and will challenge Ali Al-Habsi for a starting spot. Rosler has the luxury of being able to rotate two quality goalkeepers as he pleases.

Once again Latics will go up against a physical team keen to beat them. In order to match the Tractor Boys physically they are going to have to do a lot of running and much will depend on the ability of a patched-up midfield to give the forwards the service they need.

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