Latics ready for a good second half at Huddersfield?

“I was disappointed that we dropped our intensity at the start of the second half and it started very much from the front…….Also the willingness to get on the ball dropped. We can’t hold the level for 90 minutes in certain positions – and that we have to address ….A football game isn’t 45 or 60 minutes, it’s 90-95, and we have to make sure we can play like we want for 95 minutes.”

Uwe Rosler was speaking with his usual openness about the flaws that were once again evident in his side’s performance, this time at Blackburn.

The first six league games have yielded just seven points for Latics, one less than Owen Coyle’s team had at this stage. Like Coyle’s team the current side has stayed unbeaten in its first three home games. But Coyle’s team started with an away win at Barnsley, before losing the next two on the road at Bournemouth and Leicester. This team has lost all three away games.

If the six league games played so far had finished at half time, Latics would be unbeaten with a record of W3 D3, having scored six goals and conceded one. However, they have lost all three matches so far in which the scores were level at half time. They have conceded seven goals in the second halves of their games, scoring only two. Latics certainly have been a first half team this season.

A win at Huddersfield would put Latics back into mid-table, within striking distance of the top six. Huddersfield have started the season poorly, with just one win so far. They have drawn one and lost two of their three home games. So is the scene set for Wigan to get their first away points of the season tomorrow?

Reading between the lines in what Rosler was saying the loss of intensity at Blackburn was started by the front players not closing down opposition defenders, then players not moving around to make themselves available to receive passes. The result was the Blackburn midfield receiving better service from defence and the Latics backline falling deeper. The cynics would say Scott Carson enjoys making those long kicks from his penalty box for the opposition defence to gobble up. Ali Al Habsi gets criticised for his poor kicking, but he is at least always looking for a teammate to throw the ball to. However, in Carson’s defence, if players are not moving to receive the ball his options are limited.

Were Latics to be able to play at full throttle for the 90 minutes-plus at Huddersfield a win would be on the cards. However, the manager seems caught between two stools. He wants to bring in his new players as soon as possible so that they can gel with their teammates, but all three have been short of match practice. On Saturday only William Kvist was remotely match fit and he only lasted 63 minutes. Andy Delort, who had not played a competitive game for weeks, was given the full 90 minutes. He was expected to press the opposition central defenders when they had the ball, together with doing all the onerous duties of a lone centre forward. Adam Forshaw was wisely only played for the final 10 minutes, given his lack of match fitness.

A player of the calibre of James McArthur is bound to be missed. It was evident at Blackburn. Moreover a central midfield of Don Cowie and William Kvist is not going to provide the kind of invention that Latics had when Auld Mac was there. Both are the kind of players who rarely get the plaudits, covering a lot of ground, making interceptions, winning tackles, making simple passes. Such types of player are essential in any effective and well balanced team.

In the long run we can expect the midfield to consist of either Cowie or Kvist in front of the centre of defence, with Forshaw on the right and Emyr Huws on the left. Chris McCann will eventually come back to challenge Huws for that left midfield position spot where he played so well last year. Ben Watson’s best position is probably in the centre of the midfield three, but he can also do a good job on the right. In the meantime Tim Chow, Roger Espinoza and Fraser Fyvie remain possibilities, but will never prove themselves without being given the chance. Neither will James Tavernier who can play at right back or midfield.

The backline of three central defenders was inevitably going to be tested against Gestede and Rhodes, but they looked ragged and uncoordinated at times in the second half. Perhaps Emmerson Boyce was suffering from his long trip to the Caribbean to play for Barbados, but he has not yet shown last season’s form. Ivan Ramis made some last gasp interceptions and put through some nice passes, but even he was looking short of composure by the end. Rob Kiernan will have to fight for his place, with Leon Barnett breathing down his neck, not to mention Thomas Rogne and Gary Caldwell.

We can expect Oriel Riera to return to the lineup tomorrow. It would not be a surprise to see a reversal to 4-3-3 with Martyn Waghorn returning on the right, with Callum McManaman on the left. James McClean will be keen to get a game, but Rosler really needs to be careful since the Irishman is another who is clearly not match fit. Better to give him a good run out with the development squad first.

Shaun Maloney is another of those players who is still not fully match fit, but Rosler will be tempted to put him in from the start. If Cowie and Kvist can provide the protection in front of the back four the Scot could play an advanced midfield role. Emyr Huws went off injured on Saturday so his participation must be in doubt.

Rosler might well rest Boyce and go for a central defensive pairing of Ramis and Barnett, although Kiernan cannot be discounted despite a disappointing game at Blackburn.

Rosler has lots of permutations and combinations possible for his team selection. However, he will need to provide some continuity and wholesale changes might well make things worse. Moreover he cannot afford to make the gamble of playing too many players whose fitness is questionable.

As always it will be fascinating to see the lineup he puts out. The bottom line is to put out a balanced team that can play with intensity for the 90 minutes plus. A tall order? Let’s hope not.

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Off to Blackburn in a mood of buoyant optimism

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It seems a long time has passed since the last away game. In fact it was a month ago when Latics went to Charlton in an air of uncertainty following a League Cup exit to Burton Albion. Uwe Rosler’s honeymoon period as manager reached its end when Charlton snatched the points with a freaky last minute goal.

In contrast Latics go to Blackburn tomorrow in a mood of buoyant optimism. Ewood Park has rarely been a happy hunting ground for Latics and there might well be another adverse result, but fans are now more confident about what lies beyond. As a result of recent transfer activity Rosler has built a formidable squad, with quality players competing for places in every position.

One of the questions fans are now asking is whether Rosler will revert to his squad rotation mode after keeping a consistent starting lineup in the last three matches. Moreover will he stick with that same 3-5-2 formation that has produced improved results? Will he bring in his new signings: Andy Delort, Andy Forshaw and William Kvist?

Squad rotation is a prickly issue with many supporters. Those opposed to it will cite the example of Burnley who won promotion after sticking to a consistent starting eleven throughout the course of the season. In fact, Burnley used 23 different players in league games last season. However, three players – Tom Heaton, David Jones and Jason Shackell – started in all 46. Moreover another seven started in 37 games or more.

In contrast Wigan used 34 players in the league last year. However, in all competitions they played 11 matches more than Burnley over the course of the season. Leon Barnett and Emmerson Boyce both started in 39 games, James Perch in 38 and James McArthur in 37.

Rosler will cite the example of Alex Ferguson, who never picked the same team twice. He remains a fan of squad rotation, dating back to his formative years as a player under Otto Rehhagel at Kaiserslautern. Rehhagel is one most successful coaches in German football history, but perhaps better known as the coach of the dour Greek side that won the European Championship in 2004. However, Rehhagel won the Bundesliga with Kaiserslautern in 1998 with a newly promoted team that attacked with verve and seemed to have hidden depths of energy. Rehhagel operated a rotation system, with the result that all players in the squad felt involved and had a part to play. The result was a strong team spirit.

Given his previous history and the fact that he now has a very strong and well balanced squad, Rosler is likely to continue his rotations. However, most fans will hope that he will not be making wholesale changes in consecutive matches. There is the alternative of giving a player a run of games, then resting him.

For tomorrow’s match Rosler will most likely field a similar lineup to the team that beat Birmingham some two weeks ago. If he continues to opt for 3-5-2 he will probably choose between Ivan Ramis and Leon Barnett to play alongside Emmerson Boyce and Rob Kiernan in the back line of three. The heading ability of Barnett could be a useful tool against Blackburn who play with two big men upfront.

Kiernan continues to have the backing of the manager, having kept his place despite more experienced central defenders challenging him for a place. The ex-Watford player is particularly strong in coming forward to intercept balls before they reach the strikers. Moreover his passing from defence is getting better and better. Last time Latics played at Ewood at the end of last season they were undone by the central strikers, the 6’ 4” Frenchman Rudy Gestede and the 6’1” Scot Jordan Rhodes, whom they are likely to face again tomorrow.

Of the new players neither Delort nor Forshaw is likely to be match fit, although one or both could appear on the bench. However, William Kvist has played two games in the past week for Denmark. He played a full 90 minutes in the friendly against Turkey, followed by 74 minutes in the European Championship win against Armenia.

Despite the loss of James McArthur, Rosler has options in midfield. He might be tempted to put a solid wall in front of his defence by including Kvist alongside Cowie in holding midfield, pushing Emyr Huws further forward.

James McClean has recovered from injury, although he is not yet fully match fit. He could well come off the bench for Callum McManaman at some stage of the proceedings.

Blackburn have beaten Latics in 6 of the last 7 matches at Ewood Park, in all competitions. They are currently level with Wigan having 7 points from 5 games.

Given past history and the strength of Blackburn’s squad, tomorrow is likely to prove a difficult test. Latics can expect a strong physical challenge from the home side with balls raining in to their penalty box.

Physical fitness has been problematic for Rosler’s squad so far this season. Tomorrow represents an acid test.

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QPR 2 Wigan Athletic 1 – a spirited end of an era

 

Hoilett goes down under Caldwell's challenge for a penalty.

Hoilett goes down under Caldwell’s challenge for a penalty.

Charlie Austin’s extra time goal heralded not only the end of the season, but the end of an era for Wigan Athletic.

The failure to beat the Londoners over two legs means another year in the Championship for Latics and a likely exodus of many of their most skilful players. This was a brave performance, full of spirit, against a strong QPR side.

Uwe Rosler kept the same lineup that played in the first leg except bringing in James McClean for Marc-Antoine Fortune. He was to use a tactic that had worked before in producing some of Latics’ best results of the season away from home – high pressing to disrupt the opponents’ play, followed by dogged defence. But defending a 9th minute goal for the remaining 81 minutes was always going to be a mountain to climb, let alone a team was playing its 62nd game of the season having to play extra time.

James Perch typifies the Rosler approach. He has been one of the mainstays of Wigan’s revival under the German, with his willingness to run himself into the ground for the cause. Just as he did at the Etihad, Perch got himself into the six yard box to convert an excellent 9th minute cross from the lively James McClean. QPR had been bamboozled by Rosler’s tactic of using McClean and Callum McManaman to high press their centre of defence. The result was the QPR defenders hoofing long balls, gobbled up by the Wigan defence.

McClean could have added a second as he ran on to O’Neil’s backpass, but instead of trying to round goalkeeper Rob Green he chose to make a theatrical dive. A good chance went begging and the Irishman got a yellow card from Mark Clattenberg for his actions. Not long after Shaun Maloney had a shot blocked by Green, but then QPR gradually got themselves back into the game. The high pressing had gradually disappeared from Wigan’s game and Harry Redknapp moved Kevin Doyle from right midfield to support Charlie Austin up front. Moreover James McArthur, who had been excellent in the midfield pressing, had to go off with an injury after 36 minutes, Roger Espinoza replacing him. It was a different contest now.

A shell-shocked QPR were gradually getting back into the game. Carson made a fine save from a fierce drive from Niko Kranjcar and McClean cleared Austin’s header off the line. But Latics went into the dressing room at half time with their lead intact.

McClean had another fine chance after the break, going through one on one with Green, but he did not have the control to convert it. Green blocked his first effort and McClean’s effort from the rebound hit the post and went wide. Although the home team’s attacks lacked coherence, Wigan became besieged. They could not hold on to the ball, the defenders hoofing it over the midfield to forwards who had little chance of retrieving it. Wigan’s three central defenders – Emmerson Boyce, Gary Caldwell and Rob Kiernan – had been superb in defence, repelling Rangers’ attacks.

Redknapp had brought on Korean left back Suk Yun-Young after 50 minutes for the combative Clint Hill, who had been lucky to survive the first leg after his deliberate elbowing of Kiernan. The pattern of play continued, with Latics unable to hold the ball and QPR applying pressure, but not convincingly. However, Redknapp’s substitution of big target man Bobby Zamora after 65 minutes for Doyle was to change the course of the game. Zamora’s striking rate is comparable with that of Fortune, but his physical presence and experience was to make the difference.

McManaman was replaced by Martyn Waghorn in the 71st minute. A couple of minutes later Zamora interchanged passes with Junior Hoilett who was brought down by a reckless challenge by Caldwell just inside the penalty box. Austin converted the penalty with ease. Moreover Caldwell had been injured in the challenge and had to be substituted by Leon Barnett. Zamora continued to cause problems and almost sealed it for QPR near the end of normal time, but his lob passed over Carson’s crossbar.

The game went into extra time with Latics playing with spirit, but the hoofing continued. The decisive goal came in the 96th minute when Zamora helped the ball through to Austin who got to it much quicker than Barnett to beat Carson. The final minutes of extra time saw Barnett pushed forward as Latics pumped in high balls. In the final minute a deflected shot from Kiernan passed narrowly wide of Green’s goal. It was not to be Wigan’s day.

The Good

The energy and passion shown by a Latics team playing its 62nd game of the season was truly exceptional. It was cruel that the game went into extra time, but those tired legs kept running to the bitter end.

The backline of Boyce, Caldwell and Kiernan had been immense in repelling the waves of QPR attacks until the penalty. It looked like Rosler’s gamble of starting Caldwell, who had played less than a handful of games in a year, was going to pay off until that fateful moment in the 73rd minute.

Rosler’s tactic of blitzing QPR from the start worked well. High pressing and a high level of physical fitness are key elements of the German’s approach to football and the players responded well, at least for the first quarter of the game. Starting without a centre forward was a brave ploy that almost came off.

It was sad to see Caldwell so visibly distraught on the sidelines after giving away the penalty and having to be substituted. It looks like his Wigan Athletic playing career is over. Up until that 73rd minute he had looked like the great defender and leader that he was in the closing part of the 2011-12 season when Latics ensured Premier League survival through beating the elite. He has also had some calamitous moments for Latics over the years, making rash tackles such as the one that turned this game. For some fans he has been a hero, for others a scapegoat.

Uwe Rosler deserves immense credit for the way he has lifted the club since the dark days of Owen Coyle. Reaching the semi-finals of both the FA Cup and the Championship playoffs has been a great achievement.

The Bad

Roberto Martinez would have scratched his eyes out if he had seen his team throw away possession as Latics have done, not only in this match, but in many others over these past months. Rosler has cut out the excessive sideways and backwards passing that could be so frustrating during the Martinez era. He has also tightened up the centre of defence. But he has not cut out the hoofing that started to rear its ugly head under Owen Coyle.

When a team “parks its bus”, as Latics did after scoring, it is important to hold on to the ball as much as possible. QPR did it fairly effectively at the DW last week.

In this match the Wigan defenders were once again prone to the big hoof, none more so than the goalkeeper. Carson is a fine ‘keeper, with a very powerful kick. But during Coyle’s reign he was making those long, speculative clearances and under Rosler he continues to do so.

The hoof is a part of Wigan’s play that needs to be cut out if Rosler is to maintain the continued support of Latics fans who have an expectation of good football.

Player Ratings

Scott Carson: 8 – a terrific defensive display. He made some fine saves and inspired confidence in his defence. Distribution poor.

James Perch: 8 – an excellent display. Took his goal well.

Emmerson Boyce: 9 –superb in his reading of the game. The best player on the pitch.

Gary Caldwell: 8 – excellent until the rush of blood for the penalty.

Rob Kiernan: 8 – excellent in defence.

Jean Beausejour: 6 – has not been at his best in recent weeks. Has a long summer ahead with the World Cup.

James McArthur: – led the high pressing with expertise. Badly missed when he went off after 36 minutes.

Jordi Gomez: 7 – not at his best, but got through a lot of work.

Shaun Maloney: 6 – still not at his sharpest.

Callum McManaman: 7 – worked hard closing the opposition down, but never received the service to make him more of a threat. When he was taken off after 71 minutes it dulled the Latics attack.

James McClean: 7.5 – an enigma once again. Worked so hard closing down the opposition and his powerful running was a constant threat to the QPR defence. His fine cross led to Latics’ goal. With better finishing he could have won the game for Wigan. What a pity.

Substitutes

Roger Espinoza: 7 – came on after 36 minutes. He was his usual energetic self, always involved, playing at high tempo.

Leon Barnett: – came on after 73 minutes. Has not been able to regain his previously good form since his injury at Ipswich.

Martyn Waghorn: – came after 71 minutes. Retrieving high balls is not his forte.

 

 

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After 59 games, Latics’ season is now starting

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“It’s a strange scenario that, after 59 games, our season really starts now.”

So said Uwe Rosler in the Alan Brazil Breakfast Show yesterday.

Dave Whelan might well agree. Getting back to the Premier League is clearly his number one priority. Preferably this season, rather than next.

A month or two back ago Rosler was quoted as saying that he wanted to be the first German manager in the Premier League. We saw it as a statement of ambition – to get Latics back to the top flight of English football, as well as a personal goal for someone who had started his football career in communist East Germany. However, the personal goal was to dissolve when Felix Magath took over at Fulham.

When Rosler was appointed in December few could have hoped for more than the German steadying a rocking boat and preparing Wigan Athletic for promotion the following season. Latics had drifted under Owen Coyle and there seemed to be little sense of direction. Rosler was seen as someone with a more clearly defined philosophy, who could put the club back on the rails.

Rosler has done so much more than that. His first match in charge saw Latics’ European dream sadly ended, largely due to a dubious refereeing decision that saw Chris McCann sent off in Slovenia. But rather than have a long run in the Europa League, it was to be in the FA Cup, reaching semi-final and being unlucky to lose on penalties. Moreover Rosler has secured a playoff place that looked practically out of reach when he was appointed.

Rosler manipulated the transfer window shrewdly, offloading high wage earner and under-performer Grant Holt to Aston Villa, whilst bringing in a swath of loan signings to strengthen his squad. When he signed Martyn Waghorn on loan from Leicester, the cynics questioned his move. Since then the Geordie has become a key component of his set-up, not only excellent in the high pressing that Rosler demands from his forwards, but scoring 5 goals and providing 6 assists to date. Waghorn has a good technique, a good temperament and is a team player. He epitomises the profile of the kind of player Rosler wants at Wigan. Rosler has rewarded him with a long term contract.

Latics’ rise into the playoffs has come at a physical cost to key players. Emmerson Boyce has played 54 games so far, James McArthur 50, Leon Barnett 49, and James Perch 48. Not surprisingly they have not been at their best in recent games. The question is whether they can get a second wind for the playoffs.

Playing such a large number of games in a short amount of time over these past months is one thing, but the high pressing puts heavy physical demands on the players too. At their best, Latics defend from the front in a manner that even the master of that technique, Pep Guardiola, would approve. At the worst, the pressing is uneven and Latics are pushed back into their own half as the opposition retains possession.

Wigan Athletic’s chances of getting back to the Premier League are going to depend largely on their ability to high press their opponents and disrupt their style of play. That high energy approach was easier to implement a couple of months ago when the players had not accumulated so many games.

The final league game at Blackburn tomorrow is the 60th this season. Perhaps Rosler was slightly off the mark by saying that the season was starting after 59 games. Unless he views tomorrow’s confrontation as more important than most of us think. Is he keen to get a result at Blackburn so Latics can face QPR next week, rather than the more in-form Derby, who have won their last five matches?

However, previous form can mean nothing in the pressurised climate of the playoffs. Last year’s winners Crystal Palace only had one win in their final ten league games but got the results when it really counted, defeating both 4th placed Brighton and 3rd placed Watford.

Rosler faces the challenge of rousing a tired group of players for a final push. However, he does have Gary Caldwell, Roger Espinoza and Shaun Maloney back from long term injuries.

They might well have a crucial role to play.

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Rosler planning route back to Wembley

 

Uwe Rosler got the result he needed last night when Latics ground out a 1-0 win at Birmingham. He can now focus on the route back to Wembley for the playoff final on May 24th.

Next week Latics are due to play the first leg of the first phase of the playoffs at the DW Stadium. They will entertain either Derby County on Thursday or Queens Park Rangers on Friday, depending on whether they eventually finish 5th or 6th.

Although Latics have limped to secure that playoff spot Uwe Rosler deserves great credit for getting them there. When he took over in mid-December they were in 15th place and had lost their preceding five matches. Moreover he took them to an FA Cup semi -final too.

Latics have looked jaded over recent matches, particularly the key players who played too many matches game over these weeks. Rosler has to rest them for Saturday’s final league match away at Blackburn. A draw or win at Blackburn will guarantee Latics 5th place and a confrontation with QPR. Whether they can get a result with a weakened team remains to be seen.

Both Derby and QPR are fine footballing sides with experienced and capable managers in Steve McClaren and Harry Redknapp. Rosler will have to get his tactics right, no matter which of the two Latics meet.

Last night Rosler played with a backline of three central defenders, with Gary Caldwell returning triumphantly. Both he and Rob Kiernan were preferred to the out of sorts Leon Barnett. That central defensive trio of Boyce, Caldwell and Kiernan could well line up in the first playoff game next week. Ivan Ramis is getting close to resuming training, but it might be a gamble to put him in, probably in place of Kiernan. Jean Beausejour is clearly at his best at left wing back, with James Perch operating on the other side.

None of Josh McEachran, James McClean and Nick Powell appeared in the nominated eighteen last night and one wonders if they will be in Rosler’s plans for what remains of the season. Lots of rumours have been flying around the social media, but there has been nothing from the club.

Rosler’s Latics team have shown the kind of determination to grind out results that will serve them well in the playoffs. From mid-February towards the end of March they went on an unbeaten run of 10 matches, where the football was not always pretty but it was certainly effective. High pressing was a key feature of that run.

Neither McClaren nor Redknapp will be keen to face Latics in the playoffs. They are likely to meet a Wigan team founded on a solid and experienced defence, but with potential match winners in Callum McManaman and Shaun Maloney further forward.

Another trip to Wembley is a distinct possibility.

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