Wigan Athletic 0 Manchester United 4: A match too far for Wigan

2012-united

The fixture congestion around the festive season would have been exhausting enough for an injury-hit squad on a bad run of form, but after the exertions against Arsenal and Everton, and a vital away win against Aston Villa, the visit of high-flying Manchester United proved a bit too much for Wigan Athletic.

While Alex Ferguson had the luxury of recalling the fresh and rested duo of Robin Van Persie and Chicharito Hernandez, Roberto Martinez gave Arouna Koné his 20st consecutive appearance this season — every league match since his arrival in August — which will also be his last before jetting off to participate in the African Cup of Nations. To highlight the gulf between the clubs, Koné’s replacement in the squad will be Chilean loanee Angelo Henriquez, an 18-year-old Manchester United striker yet to make an appearance.

The game itself wasn’t much of a spectacle. Wigan had the best of the first half hour, controlling possession, limiting United’s strikers, and occasionally threatening themselves. The game turned sharply after a series of unfortunate events. James McArthur’s wayward headed clearance forced Gary Caldwell to scramble the ball away in haste. The ball ended up with Patrice Evra, who darted into the box, scuffed his shot, only for it to fall into his path for a second pop. Al-Habsi made a fine reflex save but the ball fell at Hernandez’s feet for the decisive goal.

A similarly lucky rebound fell to Hernandez moments later, who fed Van Persie. Ivan Ramis had slipped in the build-up but was then outclassed in what was a delightful finish by the Dutchman.

Wigan’s response in the second half was subdued and the team looked a bit drained until Arouna Koné stabbed in against the run of play, but the goal was ruled offside. It did provide some inspiration, however, and Latics enjoyed a good spell before a poor Van Persie free-kick was deflected into the path of Hernandez yet again, for the Mexican to hammer home.

It would not be a United fixture without a refereeing decision going favourably Ferguson’s way, however. Arouna Koné was hauled down by last man Chris Smalling only to be let off with a yellow card in circumstances that the rule book would have guaranteed a red.

Van Persie finished things off with a tap-in after England international Danny Wellbeck, a late sub, pounced on an error by Jean Beausejour.

The Good: 

Both United fixtures are out of the way, no injuries were sustained, or any red cards. The first half hour was positive, before the goal turned the tide. Maynor Figueroa and Emmerson Boyce had decent games despite some patchy defending around them. There is now a break for the first team as FA Cup play begins against Bournemouth this weekend. It will be interesting to witness possible debuts from Henriquez and Roger Espinoza — and the potential returns from injury of Antolin Alcaraz and Ryo Miyaichi. Callum McManaman and Jordi Gomez both looked sharp in their cameos against United and will also be champing at the bit to make an impression.

The Bad: 

Much like the visit to Old Trafford earlier this season, this was a demoralizing experience. Most losses this season have felt close, but not this one — United were clearly the more potent side . Their strength — ruthless, clinical finishing — has been Wigan’s weakness.

After a clean sheet at Villa Park and the happy return of Ivan Ramis, the defense was wobbly and made mistakes. Ramis himself had a poor game and struggled with the quality of the opposition. Ali Al-Habsi looked nervous throughout. Gary Caldwell was substituted early, possibly as a pre-caution. Beausejour was clearly targeted for his lack of pace, as he was by Arsenal’s Oxlade-Chamberlain.

Conclusions:

Glad to have it out of the way. After Bournemouth, the club faces Fulham away and Sunderland at home. The most intriguing storyline will be how Martinez adapts his lineup to cope with Koné’s absence. Franco Di Santo seems certain to lead the line, but Roberto has numerous options to ponder as to who partners him. Mauro Boselli and Angelo Henriquez will be hoping he opts for a direct swap and two up top. Jordi Gomez and Callum McManaman looked useful and keen and could fit in with a slight tactical adjustment. Or we may see a version of the formation used against Everton, with a three-man midfield — probably David Jones — behind Maloney and Di Santo. Four points would be an excellent return from those two fixtures.

Player Ratings:

Ali Al-Habsi: 6 — Nervy. In my opinion, not at fault for the first goal.

Ivan Ramis: 5 — Day to forget. Made a couple errors but generally struggled to contain United’s excellent strikers.

Gary Caldwell: 6 — Made several important blocks, but also struggled with Chicharito’s acceleration. His substitution allowed the pacier Emmerson Boyce to slot into the defense.

Maynor Figueroa: 7 — Covered for the mistakes of his teammates and defended well. May find himself in the wing-back role soon, however, with Beausejour looking in need of a break and Alcaraz’s return imminent.

Emmerson Boyce: 7 — Started at wingback, ended at centre-back. Solid in both roles.

Jean Beausejour: 5 — Has looked off the pace recently. The opposition has become wise to his importance to Martinez’s tactics. United pinned him back with both Ashley Young and Rafael attacking down his side.

James McArthur: 6 — Wigan ended the match with more possession than United, a testament to the Jimmy Macs.

James McCarthy: 6 — See McArthur.

Shaun Maloney: 6 — Quick and sharp, but not incisive on this day.

Franco Di Santo: 6 — Played a nice cross for Kone’s offside goal but not much joy otherwise.

Arouna Kone: 6 — Offside for the one half-chance that came his way, then hauled down by Smalling when he should have been one-on-one with De Gea.

Subs: 

Jordi Gomez: Made a difference when he came on, almost scored a spectacular free-kick.

Ronnie Stam: His energy was a plus once again when he came on. If his crossing was consistent he might keep his place.

Callum McManaman: Quick and positive, waiting for chance.

Chelsea reaction: The good, the bad and the player ratings

Each week, after the dust has settled, we’ll be taking a look back on the latest Wigan Athletic result. This week, we examine the lessons from the 2-0 home loss to Chelsea. If you missed our match report, please check it out here.

The Good:

1. Momentum: Despite the wooden start, Latics played in very much the same flowing style and tactical shape as they ended last season. Even the most optimistic of us had felt there was a possibility the team would lose their momentum, or that Roberto might revert to his previously preferred 4-5-1 / 4-3-3 formation. Rustiness and fitness issues aside, the XI on the pitch looked no weaker than last season — while the seven on the bench looked stronger.

2. Maynor Figueroa, the wingback: While the signing of Ivan Ramis provides necessary cover and competition for the established back three, this match confirms it does the same at left wingback. Jean Beausejour remains untouchable when fit, a specialist in his position whose form swung Latics fortunes last season. But Maynor proved on Sunday that he is an excellent option, far more suited that the willing, but ill-suited Dave Jones, who filled the position before Beausejour’s arrival in January. His through ball for Franco Di Santo in the first half was particularly impressive — great vision.

3. Depth: Players like Ryo Miyaichi, Ronnie Stam and Callum McManaman weren’t even on the bench. Nouha Dicko was allowed to leave for a season-long loan at Blackpool. How far we’ve come in the last few years.

4. Statistics: While  we concede that Chelsea were 2-0 up for almost 90% of the match, Wigan were as good or better than them for most of the game. Latics enjoyed 7 corners to Chelsea’s 1, 15 goal attempts to Chelsea’s 6, and 52% possession of the ball.

The Bad:

1. Baptism of fire for Ivan: Having been turned a little too easily by Eden Hazard in midfield in the build-up to the first goal, the defender then lunged at the French attacker in the box, giving away a penalty minutes later. Rough start, but he improved as the match went on.

2. Injuries: Both Shaun Maloney and James McArthur had to be withdrawn with niggles. It has since been reported that they should be fit to play Southampton this weekend, but the McArthur back issue in particular has the potential to continue flaring up if he doesn’t get adequate rest and treatment.

3. Opportunity lost: With a better start, Latics might have gotten something out of this game. Chelsea were good on the break, but wouldn’t have been playing on the break quite as much if they hadn’t taken that early lead.

Player Ratings:

Ali Al-Habsi: 6 — Didn’t have much to do other than retrieve the ball from the back of his net.

Antolin Alcaraz: 6 — A little rusty in the first half but got better as the game went on, and even contributed the attacking effort in the second.

Gary Caldwell: 7 — Good display from the captain, steady in defense and strong in distribution.

Ivan Ramis: 5 — The early mistakes ultimately cost Latics the points, but there was much to like about his reaction to them. Should prove a good addition once settled.

Maynor Figueroa: 7 — Looked instantly comfortable in the left-wingback role.

Emmerson Boyce: 7 — Strong and steady when defending, delivered some quality crosses in the first half.

James McArthur: 6 — Did okay despite a bit of rust, before being withdrawn due to a recurrence of his back injury.

James McCarthy: 7.5 — Very strong in midfield, rarely gave the ball away, great range of passing. We only wish he would shoot more often.

Shaun Maloney: 7.5 — Excellent in the first half, creative, energetic and positive.

Victor Moses: 7 — Gave the Chelsea fullbacks a torrid time when he ran at them. A few poor crosses but a few excellent ones as well, plus a snapshot from an impossible angle that troubled Peter Cech in the first half. Hope he stays.

Franco Di Santo: 6 — Got into some good positions but headed narrowly over early on and took a heavy touch after being sent through by Figueroa late in the first half.

Subs:

Jordi Gomez: 6.5 — Latics did lose some of their positivity when Maloney went off, but Jordi was fairly involved, drew fouls for the team, and might have scored on several occasions.

Arouna Koné: 7 — His first few touches were nervy, but he kept the ball and his movement was hugely promising. He got on the end of two or three crosses and almost scored from each of them.

Ben Watson: 6 — A little rusty as many of his teammates, didn’t contribute an immense amount but didn’t let anyone down either.

Fulham vs. Wigan Athletic: In-form Latics visit bogey team Fulham

There are no two ways about it — Fulham are a pain in the neck. The last time we beat them was in 2006. They signed Clint Dempsey the following year, and he has feasted on us since. It’s not a case of outplaying or outclassing us, it’s just that no matter the manager from Hodgson to Hughes to Jol, their keeper always has a man-of-the-match performance, and their striker — usually the Texan — can’t miss.

Present circumstances promise for this to be quite an interesting iteration. Wigan are in dreamland, having produced their best every Premier League displays to earn wins over Liverpool, Stoke, Manchester United and Arsenal in their last five games. Fulham meanwhile, are about where you would expect them to be, playing well at home, dropping points on the road, but doing it with a pleasant continental style Martin Jol has brought to Craven Cottage. While classy Costa Rican striker Bryan Ruiz is out with a broken metatarsal and both Andrew Johnson and Pavel Pogrebnyak are doubtful with injuries, Clint Dempsey is enjoying his best ever season with 21 goals to his name and will likely start up front. Which could be trouble.

Hugo Rodallega and Shaun Maloney should be fit to make their comebacks, which should prove timely boosts given the exhausting fixture list Latics have just come through against the traditional top four and the most physical side in the league, Stoke City. Roberto said last year that one of the keys to the club’s survival run was their youth and endurance when the going got tough. The midfield engines of the Jimmy Macs and attacking outlets Victor Moses and Franco Di Santo have certainly provided evidence to that claim.

One would expect Roberto to name an unchanged lineup after the away day heroics at the Emirates. If he does, a bench involving people like Mo Diame, Shaun Maloney, Ronnie Stam, Ben Watson and Hugo Rodallega must surely go down as the strongest in the club’s history. Albert Crusat would be there too if he hadn’t suffered an injury in training before the Arsenal match.

But it’s a difficult one to call, this one. The amazing results against United and Arsenal have eased the pressure on this game, and although the players and manager are all saying the right things about maintaining the same level of intensity, it is hard to imagine that being possible against Fulham, away. But our Wigan heroes have done nothing if not earn the benefit of the doubt from us, their supporters. Long may this glorious form continue.

From Congleton to Swansea – A history of despair and elation

It is the early sixties and Latics have returned to the Cheshire League, where they first started in 1932. The Cheshire League is a now a superior league to the one they left, the Lancashire Combination, which has a reputation for the ‘big boot’ and ‘kick and rush’. Wigan Athletic, aristocrats of the northern non-league, away at Congleton. My Dad books the tickets on Eavesway coaches and away we go to South Cheshire. Congleton Town are a small club, even by Cheshire League standards. They made their way up through the Mid Cheshire League and their team is mainly amateur — some of their better players had previously distinguished themselves in the Wigan Athletic reserve team. Their ground is rustic to say the least, with an awesome slope from goal to goal, the pitch rutted and churned up. Their crowds are usually less than 200, but with Latics being the visitors they have their season high attendance of over 1,000. Latics’ visiting support can usually be relied on to give the home teams their best crowds of the season. Latics are in the top four at the time, while Congleton are pretty close to the bottom.

Opportunity for a Latics goal fest? No. A lenient referee allows Congleton to get away with dubious tackles and Latics fall apart, losing 2-1. Bobby Murdoch must have missed at least five goalscoring opportunities. The traveling Latics supporters are incensed with their team. How can a team of well paid semi professionals lose to a team of amateurs? Where is the pride in playing for your club? “A bunch of overpaid prima donnas!” say the enlightened. A senior citizen in the type of cloth cap so traditional among the men of his time, is so upset and incensed that at the end of the match he goes on to the pitch and accosts the referee. Crowd violence in an earlier era.

The next season Wigan Athletic won the Cheshire League. Congleton finished bottom and were relegated to the Manchester League. These days, they compete in the North West Counties League and their average attendance is around 150. Their Booth Street stadium has a capacity of 1,300. Meanwhile, Wigan Athletic are in their seventh season in the Premier League with an average attendance this season of 17,898.

So what happened to professional pride and why do we put up with the prima donnas playing for Latics? Beam us back to modern day. Swansea City were a better team on the day than Latics last Saturday. Dave Whelan is quoted as saying it is their worst performance for 5 years. Much as though I love what he has done for Latics, I can’t agree. There have been far worse performances. Swansea are not world beaters but they are a pretty decent team and play good football.

So why are Latics’ supporters so emotional after this match? For me, both Aston Villa and Everton were beatable, but many of us seemed to be satisfied with draws against them. I suppose we expected – or at least hoped – to beat Swansea, but it was not to be due to two spectacular strikes from Sigurdsson, playing a similar role to Jordi Gomez, behind the central striker.

Roberto Martinez has reached an all time low in the Latics opinion polls. If he were a Republican Party candidate at this time he’d be out of the race. Were his tactics poor against Swansea? They were certainly confused. Martinez had seemingly bowed to public pressure and started with two big central strikers, but Di Santo in particular did not seem to know where he was playing and Sammon was out of touch. (Ed– it has since emerged that Victor Moses was rested, having arrived back from international duty at 7pm the night before the match). In theory, it could have worked with two wing backs supplying crosses for the central strikers. Unfortunately, neither Sammon nor Di Santo is a good header of the ball. Rodallega, who can head the ball, was on the bench. Beausejour put in a fantastic cross in the 37th minute that Di Santo should have finished. The Chilean had a good first half, but faded out. This is not the first game in which he has put over mesmerising crosses which have not been attacked by the central strikers. Boyce is a solid fullback, but not a wing back, and when he goes forward it shows. The switch back to a four man defence achieved nothing. The manager’s insistence on playing an extra central midfield player meant that Gomez played there, leaving nobody wide on the right. We saw that before against QPR, and it did not work then. Tottenham have used a similar tactic at times this season, but Kyle Walker’s energy and attacking skills get closer to compensating for the absence of a wide player on their right flank. It was frustrating to once again see Boyce put in that role. Solid defender he is, but let’s play to his strengths, not expect him to play like Walker.

Dave Whelan’s main complaint was that three quality players were left on the bench. Moses was the most surprising omission from the starting lineup. He had not long arrived back from a long trip to Rwanda. He looked lively for ten minutes or so when brought on in the second half, but faded out. Diame and Rodallega both looked promising when brought on as substitutes but once again did not deliver. However, despite his mediocre season and poor finishing Rodallega still looks more likely to score than either Di Santo or Sammon. Diame too can look good but tends not to deliver that final defence-splitting pass or fluffs his shots on goal. Like the poor, it seems like Gomez will always be with us. After going through a purple patch he has been mediocre as of late and has not justified the faith placed in him by Martinez. He is also once again becoming the butt of the crowd.

From my viewpoint, however, the Swansea match was no surprise. They scored two fine goals, one on the stroke of halftime, the worst time psychologically for a Latics team that was already struggling. Rather than simply look at the Swansea game as a “must win” we need to look at the previous two home matches against Everton and Aston Villa in the same category. There is little to choose between any of those three teams – Everton, Aston Villa or Swansea. All three are capable of beating Latics on their day but they are also ‘beatable’ away from home. Failing to win against Everton and Villa put added pressure on Latics to beat Swansea : drawing with each of them in bore draws was not the end result we needed.

So where do we go from here? Fortunately the other bottom five teams fared badly this weekend. Latics and Bolton remain glued on 20 points, with Blackburn, QPR and Wolves on 22. To be frank, none of the five deserve to stay up based on their performances so far this season, but two of them will. Wigan are no worse than the others. Watch the other four teams play and you see the kinds of defensive errors and lack of definition in finishing that has characterized Latics all season. All have difficult fixtures between now and the end of the season. It could well boil down to whichever team gets the luck – a scrappy goal, lucky deflection, controversial refereeing decision or playing against weakened opposition – choose from any one of these. Which of these teams has the mental toughness to hang in there and not panic when things are not going to plan and the pressure mounts?

A major factor in Latics staying up last season was the support they got from the fans when the going got rough at the season’s end. Blackburn fans turned against their manager months ago, but like Martinez he remains there. To hear the chanting against Steve Kean when Blackburn visited the DW was depressing and hardly helped their players. It is to be hoped that this is not going to happen to the same degree at Wigan — Roberto Martinez is with us for the long haul. Many of us are frustrated with his tactics and team selections at times, but things are coming to a head. Let’s hope we don’t stoop to the level of those Blackburn fans. To do so could be the final straw that sends Latics in a downward spiral to the Championship and below.

This is not the first time Wigan Athletic supporters have been frustrated by a seeming lack of effort from their players. We all want to see a player give his one hundred percent commitment whilst donning a Latics jersey. We want to see pride and commitment towards our club. Let’s not forget that the main people running the football side of our club are Latics icons. Graham Barrow was one of the most committed players you could ever see play for Wigan Athletic, a great servant of the club as ex-player and ex-manager. Graeme Jones was a totally committed centre forward who would run himself into the ground for his team. He retains our record of top scorer in a season in league football, scoring 33 league goals in 1996-97. Roberto Martinez spent six years as a player at Wigan, a real fan favourite. He turned down a lucrative offer over summer, showing his loyalty and love of Wigan Athletic football club. So can the love of Wigan Athletic and the commitment from these three people in pole positions at the club be transmitted to the players?

Are there players in the current squad who are just there for the money or are biding their time until their contracts run down to move on to something bigger and better? I read the other day that Latics have nine of their squad out of contract at the end of the season. If this is the case do they remain totally committed to Wigan Athletic for the rest of the season? The benching of both Diame and Rodallega poses questions whether Martinez believes they can show the level of commitment required. One could also argue that playing time should not be given to players who are not willing to sign on for another year. Maybe that playing time should be given to someone who has proved their loyalty and could do a job for the team? We live in a cynical and mercenary world where footballers earn tens of thousands of pounds per week for sitting on the bench, sometimes not even that. However, it would be unfair to tar Diame and Rodallega and the others who are due to be out of contract by that same brush. Who is to say that their own professional pride should not prevail and they do their utmost to keep their current club in the Premier League? The overriding concern is how we could have so many players who have not committed themselves to new contracts. Is it that Dave Whelan is unwilling to give in to unreasonable wage demands or is that the players themselves do not expect Latics to be in the Premier league next season?

The bottom line is that we need to avoid that trap door of relegation first. Then we can deal with issues of players out of contract. Roberto Martinez is a beleaguered young manager with his back against the wall. The majority of Wigan Athletic fans now want him out, but Dave Whelan is not going to comply with their wishes. Wigan Athletic football club is run by a loyal management team that loves the club and wants it to grow. They are prepared to look long term, with a view towards finding stability for the club. The necessary infrastructure has been gradually put into place. Martinez has worked wonders in keeping a club with such a low operating budget in the Premier League over the past two seasons. He needs a minimum of five years to judge him a success or failure.

So what has changed from Congleton to Swansea? Most of our fans would not be old enough to have seen the teams that played in the Cheshire League in the sixties. The younger fans will only remember constant struggles to stay in the Premier League. Our club’s history has been a mixture of despair and elation. Wigan Athletic have come a long way and we don’t want to put back the clock and be spiraling down the leagues. One can only hope that the love of Wigan Athletic shown by the senior managers of the club is instilled into our players as much as it possibly can be. Let’s stick together and support the club through thick and thin. Latics are far from dead and buried and can maintain their Premier League status next year. Let’s keep the faith!