Norwich City 1 Wigan Athletic 1 – Good, but not good enough?

Was this going to be the turning point in our season? It’s the 85th minute, all equal at 1-1, Wigan Athletic dominating and Norwich on the back foot. Mohamed Diame has just come on as a substitute. Shaun Maloney skillfully beats the right-back and plays a lovely ball across from the left, leaving an open goal for him. Diame somehow kicks it over the bar.

It was an all-too-familiar pattern. So many times this season Latics have been the better team but have not been able to kill off the opposition. The result — Latics remain in the mire, glued to the bottom, with very difficult fixtures against top teams fast approaching. Norwich continue to punch above their weight, 15 points ahead of Latics this season with a squad that is certainly no better than ours. They seem to be experts at getting goals out of the blue, as did Hoolahan in the 10th minute when he somehow got a poke of the ball ahead of Caldwell from a speculative cross. In the 68th minute, Victor Moses had leveled the score after latching on to a lovely through ball from Shaun Maloney, finishing with aplomb. A far cry from the wretched finishing we have seen from him in previous games. One of our two main strikers, he has now scored 3 goals in 28 appearances. The other striker on the day was Hugo Rodallaga, energetic and involved,  going close on several occasions. He has scored 2 in 22, although half of those appearances were made as a substitute. But goalscoring is not merely in the strikers’ domain. The midfield sadly lacked a goalscoring touch in this match, Diame the main culprit on more than one occasion, but he was not alone in his profligacy.

Match statistics show that Wigan enjoyed 55% of the possession and committed 8 fouls to Norwich’s 12. Although it was not a rough match, each team ended the match with four yellow cards. Wigan had 20 shots (7 on goal) to Norwich’s 14 (2 on goal). Ruddy made 6 saves, Al Habsi just one, thought it was a brilliant one, keeping out a goal-bound header from Morison in the last minute.

The Good

Latics did not lose and played with some degree of confidence. They were clearly trying to win, rather than not to lose. They showed commitment and played some good football in an entertaining match.

The substitution of an ineffective Gomez for Maloney brought forth a much more creative midfield. Maloney was a risky signing over the summer, given his previous injury record. In this match he looked classy and for once Wigan had a midfield player who could put forward a defence splitting pass. The question is whether he can stay fit long enough to make a real impact on the end of the season.

The Bad

This was a point gained, but in reality two points lost. You have to be able to beat lower mid table teams like Norwich if you want to maintain your Premier League status. Three points were needed. Perhaps if we had beaten Everton, Swansea or Blackburn at home, this result could have been viewed as a success. But our poor home form has meant we need maximum points from all fixtures against teams mid-table or lower.

The lack of finishing tarnished an otherwise good performance. Rodallega continues to struggle with his finishing and none of the big clubs is going to want him on current form, even as a free agent. If Diame was a better finisher a top tier club would have paid serious money for him several transfer windows ago. He has huge potential, but is out of contract at the end of the season. Much though I admire his skill and technique he has repeatedly wasted goalscoring opportunities in his stay at Wigan and rarely puts through the killer pass for his strikers. The irony is that he is only 24 and we will probably only see him at his best when he goes to another team and matures there.

Much of the Wigan fans’ frustration continues to be vented at Jordi Gomez. For several matches now he has been below par, but has still made the starting lineup. Roberto Martinez’s shows a lot of faith in players, Gomez in particular. However, there comes a point at which you need to make some changes. Given current form Gomez does not merit a place in the starting lineup.

Our best wing back, Ronnie Stam, has been noticeably absent from recent lineups. Playing Emmerson Boyce at right wing back gives us more defensive strength and this could be key in the matches coming up against the top teams. However, against mid range teams Stam’s attacking skills should be used to effect. Why was he not brought on against Norwich?

Player Ratings

Ali Al Habsi: 7 – An outstanding save in the last minute saved a point. Otherwise solid.

Emmerson Boyce: 7 – Solid in defence but limited going forward.

Antolin Alcaraz: 8 – Back to form, looks a good player again.

Gary Caldwell: 7 – Playing well at the moment, although shares some blame for Norwich’s goal.

Maynor Figueroa: 8 – A good performance. Seems to play better as a third centre back than as a left full back where his distribution can let him down.

Jean Beausejour: 5 – Not his usual self. Apparently he was carrying a slight injury, sustained during the warm-up.

James McCarthy: 7 – Worked hard in front of the defence, but still not showing the kind of attacking flair we need. It is time he got on the scoresheet. Taken off after 85 minutes.

James McArthur: 7 – Worked hard as usual in closing the opposition down and putting through passes.

Jordi Gomez: 4 – Poor, justifiably taken off after 56 minutes for Shaun Maloney.

Victor Moses: 8 –. Played well, taking his goal beautifully and causing headaches for the Norwich defence.

Hugo Rodallega: 6 – Energetic enough but let down once again by poor finishing.

Substitutes

Shaun Maloney: 9 – Provided the kind of midfield creativity that has been sadly lacking previously this season. His passes should have led to more goals.

Mohamed Diame: – Came on after 85 minutes for McCarthy and immediately involved. Went on a fantastic mazy run only to trickle his shot into the keeper’s hands. Then had an empty net to tap into, but put the ball over the bar. Should have won the match for Wigan.

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WIGAN ATHLETIC 0 MANCHESTER CITY 1 – A VALIANT DISPLAY FROM LATICS

A valiant display by Wigan Athletic, but in the end not enough to share the points. It was heartening to see the amount of fight and conviction shown by the Latics against a team way beyond their league in resources and sheer footballing talent. This was certainly no capitulation: no player could be faulted for effort from my viewpoint.

Latics switched their tactical lineup to the old 4-2-1-3 system, with Albert Crusat coming in on the left wing and James McArthur brought in to play the holding midfield role with James McCarthy. Mohamed Diame was absent on Senegal duty and David Jones out injured. Manchester City played Dzeko and Aguero up front and they were to give the Latics central defenders, Caldwell and Alcaraz, a very testing afternoon.

The first 20 minutes or so were really quite open with Wigan attacking with some verve and City promising, but not quite delivering. There was a warning sign after 10 minutes when a cross from Clichy found Dzeko unmarked, but luckily for Wigan he headed wide. It was therefore no surprise when he scored an opportunist header in the 22nd minute from Silva’s free kick. Neither Caldwell nor Alcaraz were close enough to challenge him in his leap. It was a pity to lose a goal like that because Latics had played some good football and had some half chances. Al Habsi made a great save from the dangerous Aguero as the first half was coming to an end.

The first part of the second half saw increasing City pressure, only the excellence of Al Habsi keeping them out. His double saves from Aguero, then from Silva, were absolutely outstanding. Not long after that Aguero skated through the Wigan defence, but somehow Dzeko got in his way and Wigan were let off the hook. Despite this pressure Wigan had still not thrown in the towel and seemed to grow in confidence. Watson and Di Santo were brought on to replace the tiring McArthur and Crusat and Wigan began to attack with some gusto. Their best effort came when a fine pass by Rodallega put McCarthy through, only for his cross shot to be blocked by Hart’s foot.

In the 88th minute Maynor Figueroa deliberately handled the ball when Aguero would have been clean through. He was fortunate to escape with a yellow card, although much has been made in the press since of Mancini’s cynical waving of the imaginary red card at the refereeing team. Mancini should have no complaints about the refereeing: practically every time City went down they got a foul whereas they were not afraid to stifle any attacking intent from Latics with tactical/professional fouling. City average over 12 fouls per game this season, significantly higher than those other clubs in the top six. The match stats read 17 fouls committed by Wigan and 15 by City, but those figures could have been easily reversed given the number of calls he made for 50-50 challenges, almost all of which went against Latics. Both teams finished with 3 yellow cards.

The Good

Martinez showed tactical flexibility in reverting to the old system and the lineup was well balanced. He played with three front players plus Jordi Gomez in the hole behind the centre forward. A bold move against such formidable opposition. Latics played some good football at times and, with luck, could have snatched a result in the last 20 minutes. There was certainly no capitulation and they were taking the game to City in that last quarter of the match. A spirited performance.

The Bad

The defence looked leaky throughout, despite really gritty efforts from the back four to hold back the floodgates. Having said that Dzeko and Aguero are two of the best strikers in the league and are going to cause problems for any defence. However, failing to challenge Dzeko in the air led to one goal and it was lucky it was not two in the first half.

Player Ratings

Ali Al Habsi: 9 – Another superb display. Kept Latics in the game with outstanding saves.

Ronnie Stam: 5 – Has been outstanding in recent games as a wing back, but in this game he had to revert to full back, where he struggles.

Antolin Alcaraz: 4 – The poorest game I have seen him play for Latics. We rely on him to win the ball in the air and he did not do it enough in this match.

Gary Caldwell: 4 – At times looked out of his depth. Tends to really struggle against the quality strikers of the top teams.

Maynor Figueroa: 5 – Not one of his best days, but as always he hung in there and tried his hardest. Lucky not to be sent off.

James McCarthy: 8 – Worked tirelessly in shielding his defence from the City onslaught, showing good skills. Good to see him getting forward, unlucky with his shot on goal in the second half.

James McArthur: 6 – The perennial substitute was given a starting role in the Premier League for only the second time this year. Given his lack of match practice he did a pretty good job. Although he misplaced some passes he did a lot of solid defensive work and put some nice balls forward. Showed his technique with a good snap-shot in the first half.

Jordi Gomez: 7 – Worked hard to try to engineer Latics attacks. Put in some nice touches and covered a lot of ground.

Victor Moses: 5 – Was too greedy in this match, too many times opting to dribble when teammates were in better positions awaiting a pass.

Hugo Rodallega: 7 – Worked tirelessly as the lone centre forward. Gradually regaining his form.

Albert Crusat: 6 – Hardly got the ball. Looked good when he had it. Showing improvement in the defensive side of his game.

Substitutes

Ben Watson: – Surprising to see McArthur preferred to him in the starting line-up. Did a useful job after coming on in the 68th minute.

Franco Di Santo – Tried hard but to no end result after coming on in the 68th minute.

Callum McNamaman – Only came on in the last 10 minutes and had little chance to shine.

WITHIN STRIKING DISTANCE OF SALVATION – END OF YEAR REVELATIONS – A LOOK BACK AT WIGAN ATHLETIC IN 2011

Christmas is past and it is the time of year when we reflect back on events of the past twelve months and make our resolutions for the coming year. As a Wigan Athletic fan I have to admit that 2011 has been an extremely stressful, frustrating year. But the fact is that we are still in the Premier League – even if the establishment might not want us there and is doing us no favours. It is going to continue to be an uphill battle for us to hang in there, but we are within striking distance of salvation. We have got through an horrendous December fixture list with pride intact and have maintained our status quo in the table.

What revelations we have seen since the Wolves defeat in November. Revelation number one was Roberto Martinez changing his tactical system in a way that has got better performances from the players he has at his disposal. However, for me the biggest revelations have been the form of the previously unfavoured Ronnie Stam and the much maligned Jordi Gomez.

Ronnie Stam joined Latics after helping FC Twente win their first ever Eredivisie championship in 2009-2010. He was their player of the year that season. He was called up for his first Netherlands cap at the end of the season but was unable to make it through injury. Clearly an accomplished player noted for his strong motivation and work ethic. Taking over from his fellow Dutchman – the elegant Mario Melchiot – was never going to be easy and Stam was unable to provide the level of combative tackling required for a Premier League full back. However, at wing back he has the energy and drive to shield his central defenders whilst making surging runs upfield and providing tantalizing crosses. What a transformation!

Jordi Gómez is a product of the superb Barcelona youth system. He left the club when 22 years old in 2007 to join their city rivals Espanyol. He was later recruited by Swansea in a season-long loan in summer 2008, scoring 14 goals in the Championship division. Steve Claridge provided a scouting report of Gomez for the Guardian newspaper in February 2009 where he quotes that “Roberto Martínez has certainly used his knowledge of Spanish football to get Jordi Gómez on loan for the season from under the noses of three La Liga sides. Languid was a word that sprung to mind after I watched Gómez play as he is rarely rushed into doing anything, even in tight situations, and instead remains cool, calm and collected on the ball, making at times a difficult game look easy.” It is that languidity of style that has helped make Gomez the butt of frustrated fans who demand a more high action approach. In his first Premier League season at Wigan he was constantly fouled, prompting comments that he was slow on the ball. He was lambasted for his lack of tackling ability. Earlier this season he was asked to play on the right wing, clearly not his best position. This did not help him look good in front of the fans. However, I would challenge anyone who could criticise the man after his recent performances, where he has looked every ounce a Premier League player, playing the midfield general role with panache, but also covering a huge number of yards in each December game. I once heard a quote that we would only see Gomez show his real self when Latics were playing well. Hats off to Jordi for hanging in there, despite the pressure on him.

Going back to our tactical lineup. Having three central defenders is really helping to provide more stability in defence. Some weeks ago there were many who questioned the class of our captain, Gary Caldwell, some suggesting that he was a Championship player out of place in the Premier League. His recent performances have proved so many people wrong. It is no coincidence that the stats place him among the highest in the division for interceptions made: who is more likely to put his body in the way to save his team but this determined Scot? Maynor Figueroa had a difficult start to the season, playing as an orthodox centre half, but has been excellent in his new position of left centre half. Antolin Alcaraz has had a topsy turvy season, but for me, remains our best defender. The best is yet to come from him.

So what is our revelationary new system? How does it work and who plays where? We seem to have a legion of midfield players, a lone centre forward and another player with licence to roam in Victor Moses. In the Chelsea game I recall seeing Victor Moses haring down the left wing with David Jones running on his inside. Although one might have expected Jones to be the one going down the left wing and Moses inside the whole thing seemed to work. No matter what the system you have to have players coming into the penalty box for you to score most of your goals. Our old friend, Garry Birtles, pointed out the lack of support for the lone centre forward in the Arsenal match. Since then there has been a significant improvement, the midfield players getting further forward in support. However, the question remains whether the implementation of the system provides a consistent and adequate level of support for the central striker. Moreover orthodox wingers do not fit into that system, so one wonders whether the role of Albert Crusat is nullified by the system. It has been disappointing not to see more of Shaun Maloney, but this system may well suit him, if he can get back in there. However, Martinez retains the option to move to the old 4-3-3 setup, if the situation demands. All in all, a good situation where you have tactical flexibility. Well done, Roberto!

What kind of quality do we have in the Latics’ squad? A tough question to answer, but the bottom line is that we have enough to be edging towards mid-table. We have a lot of players who can be considered “a work in progress” . Some of them are good enough to play for a top four team with comfort. Our goalkeeper, Ali Al Habsi, competes with the best in the division. James McCarthy has become an excellent “Makelele” although we miss his attacking prowess. Ben Watson is a fine footballer who has fallen foul in some way – maybe the perception that he would not fit so well into the new system or perhaps something off-field? Victor Moses is potentially an international class player, but is young and lacks definition to his exciting runs. He needs more time. Mohammed Diame has probably been our best outfield player this season. A complete player who would fit comfortably into any of the top four teams. We have players like Franco Di Santo, with wonderful technique, but not the confidence to go with it. Alcaraz is potentially a class above his partners in defence, although this is not yet fully proven. The on-loan Van Aanholt is clearly a class player and we may well see him step into the left wing back position, as a stronger player defensively than David Jones. We have no real problem players in the squad – a far cry from recent years when we have had some people who were happy to pick up fat cheques for minimal work. Over the past two years Martinez has patiently unloaded such players. There are some real good pros there who work hard and do their best. Callum McNanaman will challenge for a position following a successful loan spell at Blackpool. Roman Golobart, a potential defensive giant, is doing so well at Inverness they want to extend his loan until the end of the season. Still only nineteen he could be the revelation a year from now.

Well done, Roberto Martinez, in sticking to your guns and having an expectation of good football. Your long term planning is exceptional and you have managed to keep Wigan Athletic in the Premier League despite the financial restraints you have had to deal with. You are to be commended on your faith in players, such as Stam and Gomez, and in your belief that we can compete at this level. We remain the in the mire, but there remains more than a glimmer of hope that we will be in the Premier League again next season. A week or two back I was getting pessimistic about our chances of hanging in there. Now we are within striking distance of salvation and there have been genuine revelations in player performances. My New Year Resolution must be to “KEEP THE FAITH” and not waiver. We can do it, despite the obstacles the Premier League puts in our way.

CAPITULATION OR SURPRISE? A PREVIEW OF WIGAN ATHLETIC –CHELSEA

“ Beam me up Scottie” said Captain Kirk. Scottie was an Aberdonian with the skill of beaming people out of difficult situations in the original iconic “Startrek” series.  One only wishes  that Kirk and Scottie were here to help us now. As a Latic fanatic I would like to be beamed out of the upcoming fixtures. How unfortunate to be playing Chelsea after their high of defeating previously unbeaten  Man City, on the back of qualifying for the next stage of the Champions League with their victory over Valencia .

To be frank I am worried about Wigan Athletic going down this season.  We have better players than many of the teams near the bottom, but our luck leaves something to be desired.  What is “luck”? Is it when  the ball hits the woodwork and bounces out? Or is it a defensive inability to cope as a unit?     Or is it the bizarre  refereeing  decision such as the one that killed us in the Blackburn match? Or is it meeting other teams at the wrong time? Look at our fixture list. Having to play  the three newly promoted teams in the first three games, then getting this stuff that is coming up? Chelsea, Liverpool, Man U   and away at Stoke?

Sometimes it is the timing that you need on your side. The timing was right for  Norwich City last weekend.  A  potential challenger for relegation they gained an invaluable  three points  against a Newcastle team  “in a bad moment”, as a familiar Spanish football manager  might put it.  This was not the same Newcastle team brimming with confidence that we were unlucky to lose to in October. The Norwich  victory came through  traditional English football, by scoring from crosses. This was aided by the lack of any genuine centre half in the injury-hit Newcastle defence. You could say that Norwich played to Newcastle’s weaknesses, but to be honest, that is all you usually get from them. They are a typically English side – albeit with a Scottish manager – playing on the confidence  of success in the Championship. Their play is simple: get wide and put crosses in. They don’t play the passing game of Latics, but they are above us in the league. Let’s hope that will not be the case at the end of the season.

Let’s try to be positive about the Chelsea game. A couple of years ago Latics beat Chelsea 3-1. It was their first win against a top four team in 34 attempts in the Premier League. Chelsea had Petr  Cech sent  off that day, but the consensus was that Wigan deserved their victory. On paper the current Wigan Athletic team is at least as strong as the one of two seasons ago. Chelsea can be beaten! However, we are going to have to be at our best against a  team who have scored 15 goals without reply against us the last three times we have played them.

What a pity Antolin Alcaraz had to go off with a rib injury against West Brom. He played an excellent role in the position of right-sided  centre  back in a block of three.  When Latics were playing with an orthodox back four it was Alcaraz who had to play on the left of centre. Being a right footed player he looks more comfortable on the right hand side. Besides Maynor Figueroa, naturally left footed,  has regained his form and is currently playing well in his new role of left hand centre back. If Alcaraz is unable to play Steve Gohouri will probably take his place, although Emmerson Boyce might be fit enough to step in after six weeks out through injury. A good understanding between those three centre halves is going to be crucial if we are to keep Chelsea out.  I expect that the rest of the team will remain unchanged from the West Brom lineup.

Whatever happens I just hope we won’t get into the capitulation mode against Chelsea. Let’s go in with a positive team lineup and show some steel. So will it be capitulation or surprise? The latter is by no means impossible – go for it Wigan! Let’s give them an unpleasant surprise!

West Brom – Wigan Preview: Living in hope

Let’s start with an admission. I don’t have the faintest clue what is going to happen at the Hawthorns tomorrow.

Since Roberto’s tactical switch three matches ago, we’ve seen all shades of Wigan. The best attacking performance of the season came in the Blackburn draw, which would have been a win but for Andre bloody Mariner. The best defensive performance came in the away win at Sunderland. The worst performance full-stop, began the second Mikel Arteta scored Arsenal’s first.

Football has way of clouding one’s judgement. Having most recently watched 65 minutes of capitulation against an Arsenal team at their imperious best, co-starring ourselves at our demoralized worst, it’s hard to view this next fixture with any real optimism. And yet, in the first 25 minutes of the game against that same Arsenal side, we played some of our best football all season. How would I feel if Arsenal had gone 4-0 up and Latics had finished with those excellent 25 minutes of football. Ok, still probably not great, but certainly a bit more optimistic.

If Latics were a craft beer, it would be high gravity stuff. One week I’m blabbering about turning points and the next I can’t see a way out.

The encouraging thing about this Latics side, that separates it from most sides doomed to relegation is that, in more matches than not, we look capable of winning. We haven’t been getting the points yet, obviously, but we didn’t last year either. I had an exchange with a fellow supporter on Twitter earlier today, during which we discussed the lack of goals from our forwards. He felt that Rodallega was on his way and wasn’t too sad to see the back of him. So I asked him who he’d rather see up front, Franco Di Santo or Conor Sammon? His response pretty much sums up what it’s like to be a Wigan supporter these days: “Probably Franco, but it’s hard. Sammon looks like he can score goals but isn’t. Franco doesn’t look like he can, but has.” In recent times, the match we actually won was one of the few (against beatable opposition) that we didn’t deserve to. On the other hand, quite how we didn’t beat Blackburn, Newcastle, Fulham, Norwich, Swansea is beyond me. If we’d managed even two wins out of those, we’d be 14th, the position West Brom is currently in.

So off we go to the Hawthorns, living in hope. Or faith? West Brom away was an exciting fixture last year. It may have even been the one that got Roberto Di Matteo the sack (not beating us has proven to be the final straw for quite a few teams over the years). They are usually fairly open affairs, 2-1s or 2-2s. There is obviously a lot of pressure, in last place, with fixtures against Chelsea, Liverpool, Man United, and a resurgent Stoke away coming up. But did the walloping by Arsenal lift some of it?

Most everyone is fit, to my knowledge. Emmerson Boyce and Antolin Alcaraz will be welcome returnees. Roberto has been answering a lot of questions about Hugo Rodallega, who has still not signed a new contract and has presumably been spending his time begging someone else to sign him. Which in fairness is some task since he is a striker but hasn’t scored since May. But there have been hints in there that suggest the Colombian will make an appearance at some point tomorrow. Lets just all hope it’s not on the left wing. That said, I don’t think Conor Sammon has done anything to deserve losing his place — he did well against Blackburn and Sunderland, starved of service against Arsenal. Nor has Franco Di Santo, for that matter, he remains the only Latics striker to score a goal this season.

I won’t predict a lineup this time, but will instead suggest one (assuming the same tactical system with wingbacks):  Ali Al-Habsi, Figueroa-Alcaraz-Boyce in the middle, Stam and Jones as wingbacks; McArthur & Diame in the centre of midfield; Jordi & Moses, but only if they are allowed to roam, rather than getting stuck on the wing. What’s the point of having wingbacks if it doesn’t allow these two to cut inside; Franco Di Santo up top.

Heart says: West Brom are organized and committed as all Roy Hodgson teams (except Liverpool) tend to be. But they aren’t particularly creative, so our defence holds strong and we run out 2-0 winners. C’mon Latics!!

Mind says: Hard to see a clean sheet here, but we should be good enough to score a goal. 1-1.