Latics looking ready for the Premier League

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A week or two back Stuart Gray, manager of Sheffield Wednesday, commented that Wigan Athletic had a Premier League squad playing in the Championship. A similar comment was later made by Brian McDermott, Leeds United supremo, although he qualified his remark by saying that it was second to Leicester’s.

Whether Leicester’s squad is any better than Wigan’s is doubtful, but neither manager mentioned Queens Park Rangers, the most expensively assembled squad in the division. According to the Daily Star,  QPR got relegated last year although their budget was higher than that of Champions League runners-up Borussia Dortmund. Their budget this year has been scaled down, but is still unrealistically high for a Championship club.

There was talk in the pre-season that Wigan Athletic were going to have a splurge in the transfer market, using money brought in from their summer sales. Many fans were disgruntled when it did not happen, with Owen Coyle paying no more than around £2m for any of the players he brought in.

With catapult payments and transfer fees coming into play the club had a financial decision to make – how best to use that money. Given the extra six matches they were due to play in the Europa League they chose to spend on building a large squad, capable of putting up a good show in Europe and competing for promotion back to the Premier League. Little did they know at the time that Latics would also end up playing six matches in the FA Cup!

In February Latics played at Cardiff in the FA Cup 5th round in a televised game. At the time the commentators remarked on how one team had so much more Premier League experience than the other. But it was Wigan Athletic they were referring to. In fact every single player in their starting lineup had previously played in the Premier League.

Similarly at the FA Cup Semi Final last weekend all the starters had that experience. Moreover  Emmerson Boyce and Scott Carson alone had amassed almost 300 starts at Premier League level.

Some might say that Latics’ cup run this year has detracted from their league form. However, on their way to knocked out through the lottery of penalties, Latics were unbeaten within normal time against four Premier League teams, including two in Champions League spots. The self confidence garnered from such experience should not be underrated.

The displays against Arsenal and Manchester City have shown that this Wigan Athletic squad is good enough to challenge not only teams in the bottom half of the Premier League, but also those at the very top.

It has been a season of highs and lows for Wigan Athletic. Moreover the sheer volume of games they have had to play has contributed to poor results against teams that they would have otherwise beaten.

Uwe Rosler has done a fantastic job in raising Latics up into the playoff zone and being within a whisker of reaching another FA Cup Final.

It could be that sheer fatigue, injuries or controversial refereeing decisions will come into play over the coming weeks. However, Rosler will be mindful of the need to grind out enough points to secure that playoff place, but at the same time making sure that his key players peak at the right time – in the playoffs themselves.

The Championship playoffs are a pressure cauldron, where the unexpected can happen. However, Rosler has at his disposal an experienced and capable squad which has proved it can compete with the elite of English football.

The German’s challenge will be to ensure that the players are not complacent over the coming weeks. Latics fans are hoping for another Wembley visit on May 24th.

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The Dream refuses to die – but who will play?

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When Wigan Athletic won the FA Cup it really was a dream come true. Who could ever have imagined that they would be within close distance of making it come true again just eleven months later?

Just like last year Latics had a difficult time disposing of a team a division below them in the early rounds. Last season it was Bournemouth, this time around it was MK Dons. Martinez’s team had an amazing 3-0 win at Everton in the sixth round, while Rosler’s side also shocked the pundits with a 2-1 win at Manchester City.

However, Martinez’s team were to meet Millwall in the semi-final. Arsenal present a different proposition.

Whatever happens at Wembley tomorrow this team has done the club proud. They have got to the semi-final on merit following three successive victories over Premier League teams.

Latics had gone into the match at the Etihad following a series of good results, having won 4-1 at promotion-chasing Nottingham Forest in the previous game. Nevertheless they were facing a City team that had won 12 of its 13 home games in the Premier League and had already thrashed Latics 5-0 in the League cup.

As with the FA Cup Final last year against the same club, Latics’ manager got his tactics spot-on. Rosler’s team plays a more pragmatic style of football than that of Martinez. From the start they went at City, their high pressing game stemming the flow of the Citizens’ play. When Latics’ went 2-0 up not long after half time they dug in to conserve the result. City were to get a controversial goal that should have been disallowed for offside, but they were to pummel Wigan’s defence. With grim determination and a tiny bit of luck on their side Latics held on to get their victory.

At the Etihad, Rosler played a conservative 3-5-2 system, with Marc-Antoine Fortune and Callum McManaman upfront. However, the midfielders – Jordi Gomez in particular – pushed forward in the first half. He had surprised us by playing Chris McCann in the left of the backline trio. Leon Barnett was to take over that role after half time, due to the unfortunate injury to the Irishman.

Rosler will almost certainly adopt a similar approach tomorrow. Arsenal tend to pack their midfield with a lot of players and Wigan will need strength in numbers there to compete. James McArthur and Jordi Gomez will play in central midfield with James Perch and Jean Beausejour playing wide. However, it is that third central midfield position that will be up for grabs.

Jack Collison has the most experience, but played a full game in midweek plus most of the second half last Saturday. Would his knee stand up to him taking a starting role tomorrow? Josh McEachran played there at the Etihad, but has not figured much recently and was taken off at half time on Tuesday. However, this is an entirely different kind of match to the league encounter against Millwall and might well suit the young Chelsea loanee.

The lineup could well be that which began the second half at the Etihad, with the exception of Jean Beausejour for Stephen Crainey at left wing back : Carson ; Boyce, Ramis, Barnett; Perch, McArthur, Gomez, McEachran, Beausejour; McManaman, Fortune.

The 29 year old Michael Oliver has been named as referee for the encounter. Coincidentally he officiated last year’s semi-final against Millwall. One of the features of Rosler’s regime has been in the discipline shown by his players, with no red cards received. They will need to show that same kind of resolve tomorrow against a skilful Arsenal team whose supporters will be in the large majority at the Stadium, ready to pressurize the young referee.

The fourth placed team in the Premier League is playing against the fifth placed team from the division below, which has already played 55 matches this season. So once again the odds are heavily stacked against the Latics. However, only a fool would count them out.

The dream is still alive.

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Callum for Wembley

Manchester City v Wigan Athletic - FA Cup Final

Being ‘Man of the Match’ in an FA Cup Final can be hard to live up to. Callum McManaman knows that all too well.

Just eleven months ago McManaman was the toast of the town as he led Gael Clichy and the Manchester City defence a merry dance at Wembley. He had not only been the star of the Final, but also of the whole FA Cup tournament. He had started in all of Latics’ seven matches in that cup run, scoring three goals and making two assists. His free running in the final trapped Pablo Zabaleta into a red card, turning the momentum of the game. His superbly taken goal from Jordi Gomez’s exquisite pass had sealed the semi-final win over Millwall.

Who could have known that just three days later he would get an ankle injury that would not only put him on crutches, but seriously knock back his career prospects in the process. A burgeoning young talent had been coming through, with managers of the rich and famous clubs casting an eye in his direction. The injury put everything on hold.

Many Latics supporters had viewed McManaman’s injury as a kind of blessing in disguise. If it had not happened the young player would most likely have been whisked away to a big club rather than helping Latics get back to the Premier League. Moreover the excellent Shaun Maloney remained at the club following the large turnover of players in the summer. Latics had a new manager in Owen Coyle and he would have at his disposal two players who could tear the hearts out of the defences of Championship sides.

Those hopes were soon quashed as Maloney’s injury In September put him out of action long term. Moreover McManaman was dealing with illness and niggling injuries that hampered his return to full fitness. When Coyle left in December, McManaman had made hardly any impact up to that point. Fans were hoping that new manager Uwe Rosler could get the best out of the exciting young forward.

At this point of the season McManaman has started in only 14 of the 41 league matches played, scoring one goal and making one assist. Moreover he has rarely played the full ninety minutes. However, he has started in four of the five FA Cup matches Latics have played, scoring in the home tie with MK Dons.

It has been a disappointing season so far for Callum McManaman, but there is still time for him to make a major impact. He has clearly enjoyed playing at Wembley, judging by his performances against Millwall and Manchester City, maybe less so than in his appearance as a 60th minute substitute in the Community Shield.

Rosler will surely take McManaman into strong consideration for lining up in the semi-final against Arsenal at the weekend. Coincidentally it was against the Gunners that his career took that set-back last season. Saturday’s game will be one in which he will be keen to impress, showing a big audience that he still has that talent that has been hiding under the surface for so long this season.

If he is given the chance McManaman can get his career back on fast-track with a star performance against the Gunners. At his best there are few more exciting players to watch in English football.

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Proud Wigan slip away

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The week that brought Wigan Athletic its greatest moment in football has ended in sadness as the club’s eight-year Premier League history has been placed in the to-be-continued pile along with so many others.

Few Wigan supporters will feel anything but overwhelming pride tonight despite being relegated, as an injury-plagued and thoroughly exhausted squad gave Arsenal a real scare amidst rainy scenes at the Emirates. With the scores equal in the second half, it was Wigan playing the better football, narrowly failing to take the lead on several occasions before an Arsenal counter-attack swung the match and ultimately put Latics down.

Ensuing weeks will address questions about who will stay and who will go. For the time being, it is safe to say that the work of Roberto Martinez’s staff has ensured that Wigan is in very strong shape to bounce back in short order. When the club was first promoted in 2005 there was little in the way of youth development or reserves. Times are different — so much Latics progressed through the FA Cup using squad and youth players and, despite a number of injuries to key players, won the bloody thing.

Many have been mystified by Martinez’s Wigan. Capable of beating absolutely anyone on their day — often in style — they have found themselves embroiled in relegation battles more times than not in the Premier League years. Why wait until the final stretch to get going? The yearly process of replacing first team players lost in the summer window plays a key role and certainly did this season. Not until the rise of Callum McManaman a couple months ago were Wigan able to replace the direct and skillful Victor Moses. But the funds raised from the Moses sale are exactly what have aided the rise of young players like McManaman and the purchases and development of talents such as Roman Golobart, Nouha Dicko and others that may become key players in the Championship next year. Those sales and that period of rebuilding were necessary for the model. Wigan have taken a gamble with said strategy for the past number of years and it has paid off, allowing the club to maintain Premier League status while building behind the scenes. This year, they lost the gamble with Premier League salvation, but Wigan won the FA Cup and qualified for European football for the first time in the club’s history, a stunning achievement. True to form, Wigan Athletic have been relegated in what is arguably the club’s most successful season ever.

On the pitch, the obvious deficiencies this season were defensive. Last year’s player of the season and club captain Gary Caldwell was dogged by a troublesome hip injury from beginning to end, the excellent Antolin Alcaraz missed more than two thirds of the campaign, new signing Ivan Ramis has been out since January, while Maynor Figueroa, Jean Beausejour and Ronnie Stam were all injured in the crucial final stretch. Ali Al-Habsi, so influential in previous seasons, made several high profile mistakes and was dropped. Fixture congestion — with the FA Cup final played only three days before today’s match — certainly didn’t help. When yet another influential player, McManaman, went off injured in today’s match, you got the sense it was the final straw for Martinez’s ailing squad.

So an end has come to Wigan’s memorable maiden Premier League voyage. Detailed analysis will follow but the lingering feeling remains that of pride in the achievements of a small town club that has graced the Premier League with unpredictable, exciting football over the past decade, climaxing at Wembley last Saturday. Today is a sad day, but keep an eye on those plucky Latics and their unique brand of underdog football — they’ll be back.

Wigan 0 Arsenal 1: Robbery or something like it

Despite the absence of eight senior players through injury, Wigan Athletic were every bit as good as their illustrious and in-form visitors on Saturday, and their supporters will be entitled to a feeling of injustice after Arsenal ran away with all three points.

Martinez’s men were once again on the wrong end of refereeing decisions that ultimately determined the match’s outcome. First, a soft penalty was awarded after Theo Walcott went down under pressure from Jean Beausejour. Next, Franco Di Santo was refused re-entry to the pitch for a full four minutes after being asked to remove an earring or something of the sort. The incident riled Di Santo up, leading to his substitution minutes later. Referee Jon Moss passed on an opportunity to make things right when Jordi Gomez’s shot clearly struck Kieran Gibbs’ hand before rebounding out.

Refereeing and result aside, this was a very strong performance by Wigan despite a totally makeshift defence. Given the unavailability of his four first choice centre-backs, Martinez alternated between a Maynor Figueroa—Emmerson Boyce partnership, and a trio boosted by the excellent James McCarthy. The Republic of Ireland international was again outstanding, dropping in as a centre-back when the team was on the back-foot, and launching attacks when the team had possession of the ball. It has been a true pleasure to watch his development even if this level of performance will inevitably shorten his stay at the club.

The Good:

Ali-Al Habsi looked back to his best, with some very sharp saves, while Emmerson Boyce and Maynor Figueroa put in excellent defensive shifts. James McCarthy was everywhere, while David Jones had his best match for the club against very high-level opponents and was unlucky not to score the equalizer with a sweetly struck left-foot shot.

The Bad:

Arouna Kone missed badly after skillfully being put through by Di Santo. He later did very well to carve out a second opportunity but shot at the Arsenal keeper’s feet. He needs to start scoring goals.

The wingbacks’ crossing was poor. Beausejour has a bad game in general, against the impressive Oxlade-Chamberlain who skinned him a number of times and limited his forays forward. Ronnie Stam was poor until suddenly coming alive in the last half hour with purposeful running down the right. The heavy conditions probably didn’t help their crossing, but Martinez needs them to start clicking soon.

Player Ratings:

Ali Al-Habsi: 8 – That’s the Ali we know and love.

Emmerson Boyce: 8 – Disciplined and focused in his central role.

Maynor Figueroa: 8 – His best in some time. Wasn’t helped by Beausejour’s bad day, but he covered more than adequately.

James McCarthy: 8 – Excellent work-rate, and often the player to drag the team forward. Becoming a real leader.

Ronnie Stam: 6 – Poor crossing but dramatically improved in the last half hour.

Jean Beausejour: 5 – One to forget.

James McArthur: 7 – Neat, efficient.

David Jones: 8 – Excellent in midfield, didn’t put a foot wrong and almost scored.

Shaun Maloney: 7.5 – Inventive and lively.

Franco Di Santo: 7 – Had no chances, but some nice passing, including a through-ball that should have led to a goal.

Arouna Kone: 5 – Appears to have lost his confidence. Needs a goal.

Subs:

Callum McManaman: Given a big chance but looked unsure of his role and over eager, as he has done in the past. Needs a start when the team is in a more comfortable league situation, to give him time to adapt to the pace and level of play.

Jordi Gomez: Immediately involved despite the late substitution. Had two shots, one of which could easily have been given as a penalty.