Can Wigan Athletic do it again? A survival analysis

As Latics supporters, we’re used to being written off before a ball is kicked. Wigan will finally go down this year, we’re told every year. Yet somehow this fantastic little club clings to its Premier League status again and again — we’ve become survival specialists. It was no mean feat under Paul Jewell, an enthusiasm-fueled season like Norwich are enjoying at the moment. Or under Steve Bruce, when he totally revived a team of strugglers and misfits. But in the Martinez era, it has been achieved on half the budget, allowing the club to allocate funds toward youth development and long-term sustainability.

Indeed the worst case scenario, that of relegation, is a lot less worrying than it was three years ago. The squad is deep and young, with few big name players on heavy wage packets. Latics would probably lose three or four quality players — Rodallega, Diame, Moses, and perhaps James McCarthy — but would still have a very competent side capable of winning the Championship. As evidence, Callum McManaman, who can’t buy playing time with the current squad, starred during his loan stint at Blackpool, who are 4th in said league. Nouha Dicko, yet to feature for the first team at Wigan, scored on his debut for the Seasiders several days ago. Jordi Gomez was far and away voted the best player in the Championship last time he played in it.

All this said, incredibly — despite a cruel fixture list featuring the newly promoted teams in days 1, 2 and 3; a stretch of back-to-back games over Christmas against big four opposition; an 8-match losing steak; a (separate) 9-match winless streak — we’re not down yet.

In fact, we’ve hung in there just long enough that opportunity knocks, and real optimism is brewing. It’s tighter this year than last, when more teams got sucked into the battle. But this year it will take less points. We are essentially in a five-team relegation mini-league at the bottom of the table, cut adrift from the other 15 not only by 7 points but a gulf in quality. Aston Villa will not get relegated despite Alex McLeish’s best efforts, nor will Fulham, Stoke or West Brom. Three of them have too much quality, and the other has Roy Hodgson. The best bet for anyone else joining the party appeared to be a collapse in form from one of the newly promoted sides, but Swansea’s strength at home should keep them safe, while Norwich are already only about two wins away from safety.

So we’re looking at a mini-league between QPR, Blackburn, Wolves, Bolton and ourselves, with the top two surviving.

The Opposition:

Bolton were poor last Saturday, with no imagination going forward and a leaky defense that Victor Moses ran rings around. The loss of Gary Cahill only makes things worse for them. The decline of Kevin Davies, coupled with the departure of Johan Elmander, has stripped them of firepower.

Wolves have been looking pretty poor too, but are likely to benefit from the galvanizing effect a new manager, after Mick McCarthy was sacked. Potential replacement Alan Curbishley has been out of the game for a while but is a decent manager, Steve Bruce has rescued teams before and Wolves’ squad would certainly suit his style.

QPR, I suspect, will win the mini-league. They bought proven quality, and Mark Hughes is a good manager. It’s hard to see a team featuring experienced players like Sean Wright-Phillips, Bobby Zamora, Joey Barton, Luke Young, Djibril Cisse going down. Look at their squad. That said, they play the top six in their last 13 matches, so there is little margin for error.

Blackburn are a bizarre bunch. Steve Kean is out of his depth, but has somehow turned an ageing, injury-prone Everton striker into a goal machine, something Harry Redknapp also gambled on with immediate success at White Hart Lane with Louis Saha. Take away Yak or Pedersen, however, and Blackburn are in trouble. Hard to predict. The away fixture at Ewood Park looms large.

A Favorable Fixture List:

Of the 13 matches left, only four are games we probably can’t win — Liverpool, Chelsea and Arsenal away, and Man United at home. Any points here would be a huge bonus. Of the remaining eight fixtures, six are at home against teams we are good enough to beat: Aston Villa, Swansea, West Brom, Stoke, Newcastle, Wolves. Leaving just Norwich, Fulham and Blackburn away, tough matches but in the scheme of things not that daunting. The normal 40 point target looks difficult to achieve, but everyone’s point total in the bottom five is so low that I doubt any more than 35 will be necessary.

Villa (H), Swansea (H), Norwich (A), WBA (H), Liverpool (A), Stoke (H), Chelsea (A), Man Utd (H), Arsenal (A), Fulham (A), Newcastle (H), Blackburn (A), Wolves (H)

* Wigan and QPR play 7 home games; Blackburn, Bolton and Wolves only play 6 more at home.

* Wigan have by far the most favourable crucial last game of the season: Chelsea – Blackburn, Wigan – Wolves, Stoke – Bolton, Man City – QPR

* Assuming the following big six: Man Utd, Man City, Arsenal, Spurs, Chelsea and Liverpool — QPR has the worst fixtures, facing them all. Wolves and Blackburn play five of them. Wigan faces four of them,  Bolton only face three.

A Fit Squad, Raring to Go:

Martinez spoke last season of the importance of youth and fitness in the season run-in. Having struggled with injuries in the first half of the season, it appears the squad is fit and ready for the run-in. Key players such as Emmerson Boyce, Antolin Alcaraz, Hugo Rodallega all missed significant time earlier in the season but are now in the clear. Shaun Maloney recently completed 90 minutes for the reserves and was quoted as saying he is ready to push for a place in the first team. Competition in midfield is outstanding, with James McArthur staking his claim but Mo Diame returning from the African Cup of Nations, and Ben Watson — untouchable in the lineup this time last year — on the fringes. The bench against Bolton including Ronnie Stam, Albert Crusat, Mo Diame, Ben Watson, Dave Jones and Hugo Rodallega must rank as the strongest in the club’s history, and  people like Shaun Maloney, Hendry Thomas, Conor Sammon, Callum McManaman didn’t even dress. The only truly irreplaceable player is Ali Al-Habsi.

#keeptheFaith

Few people expected us to be within 2 points of 16th place at this stage of the season given the horrific form before Christmas and fixtures that followed. There is still a lot wrong with the team, in particular in front of goal. But with a bit of luck in the injury and suspensions department, continued improvement from Victor Moses’ final ball, and favourable results elsewhere, we might just live the dream once again. Here’s hoping…

Blind optimist? Spot on? Leave a comment.

A BREATH OF FRESH AIR: A TACTICAL SWITCH – A Post Mortem of Wigan Athletic 3 Blackburn Rovers 3

What a breath of fresh air ! At last a major tactical switch from Roberto Martinez. Let’s not get too giddy about it – once again the result did not go Wigan’s way – but how refreshing it was to see an exciting new system put in place.

Playing three centre halves makes good sense, knowing how fragile Wigan’s centre of defence has been over recent seasons. What a shame that in the opening minutes they did not quite gel and it led to Blackburn’s opening goal. The wing backs – Stam and Jones – were probably our best players on the day and created opportunities from their wide play. That Wigan did not win is down to a bizarre goal with a player dribbling the ball in directly from a corner (have you ever seen that happen before?) and a moment of panic in the 7th minute of added time (6 minutes had been allocated). How unlucky can you get?

A run through of the goals:

0-1 Hesitancy from Gary Caldwell leads to Yakubu lobbing Al Habsi. Caldwell and Gohouri get in each other’s way trying to clear on the goal line. Visitors ahead after a minute.

1-1 Opportunist goal from Jordi Gomez after 7 minutes, with Robinson not reacting to a shot at his near post.

2-1 A well taken header from a Jones corner by the unmarked Gary Caldwell in the 31st minute.

2-2 David Dunn sent off for his second yellow card after 48 minutes. 11 minutes later we get a bizarre goal, Pedersen dribbling into the box, then crossing, directly from a corner kick. Al Habsi cannot hold the ball and Hoilett scores.

3-2 Opportunist goal after 88 minutes from Albert Crusat after a head down by Hugo Rodallega. Robinson at fault.

3-3 In the 97th minute goalkeeper Robinson goes up for the last chance of the game. As the ball comes to him he is recklessly kicked in the head by David Jones. Penalty well taken by Yakubu.

Wigan’s superiority in the game was such that they had 26 shots on goal (6 on target), Blackburn having 9 (3 on target). All in all a heartening display leaving lots of optimism for the future.

Let’s hope our luck will change!

Player Ratings

Ali Al Habsi: 7 – Hard to fault him with not dealing well with Pedersen’s illegal cross that led to Blackburn’s second goal. Otherwise as good as ever. One of the Premier League’s top ‘keepers.

Steve Gohouri: 6.5 – One of his better displays, including a goal-saving block on Yakubu. However, he or Caldwell could have kept Yakubu’s first goal out with better coordination. The right hand centre back in a block of three is probably his best position.

Gary Caldwell: 6 – His captain’s goal from Jones’ corner was inspirational. Not on his best form at the moment. The first goal was symptomatic of his loss of confidence. He probably bears the burden of poor results as captain. Let’s get behind him because he can help save our season. See Gohouri comment above regarding first Blackburn goal.

Maynor Figueroa: 6.5 – Did well in his position of left centre back in a block of three. Although he can make mistakes at times, his stats over the season so far rate him highly in terms of tackles won and interceptions made.

Ronnie Stam: 8 – His best performance since the win at Tottenham last year. Wing back is his natural position. Played with verve and determination.

David Jones: 7.5 – What a shame he lost his self discipline and gave away the penalty. Played a good game at left wing back. It could be his best position, if not one he would prefer

James McCarthy: 7 – Worked hard as always. Excellent in the tackle and in intercepting, rarely wastes the ball. One feels there is more to come but this was a good performance. A player of huge potential.

Mohammed Diame: 7 – A quality performer. Playing for Senegal has helped his confidence. A complete player, with the ability to slot in easily to a top four team. Let’s hope he signs a new contract.

Victor Moses: 6.5 – Once again looked dangerous, but faded out a little in the second half. His role needs more definition in this new system. He is not yet a clinical finisher. Potentially brilliant, but young and maturing.

Gomez: 6.5 – The new system put him closer to the action. A very well taken goal. The concept of a left footer shooting from the right forms a big part of Martinez’s strategy. Capable of scoring more goals.

Conor Sammon: 6 – Worked hard on the morsels he was fed. Could not be faulted for effort or technique. What a lonely role a Latics’ centre forward has!

Subs:

Hugo Rodallega: 7- Looked comfortable in his more central role. Really unlucky with a good effort from Jones’ cross. Put him in there as the second striker with a big man and see the difference.

Albert Crusat: 7 – Took his goal superbly and linked up well on the left. If played in his natural left wing role he can provide lots of quality crosses for our central striker(s).

James McArthur – Came on too late to comment, but a good squad player with more to come.

A share of the morsels or (another) nail in a coffin? Wigan – Blackburn Preview

For the past couple of seasons both Wigan Athletic and Blackburn Rovers have been stuck in dog-eat-dog relegation fights. Somehow, each has prevailed — but things are not looking good for either at the moment. When you are so hungry you sometimes have to settle for any morsels you can get. Odds are the two struggling teams will share points on Saturday. A loss for either would represent another nail in its coffin.

In order to survive relegation, a team needs to average around a point per game over the course of the season, although fourth-from-bottom Wolves needed 40 to stay up last year — an exceptional year. Wigan currently sit on 5 points, while Blackburn have one more, from 11 fixture. Two consecutive wins for either team would bring them within striking distance of the point per match relegation barometer.

So what to expect on Saturday? It will largely depend on whether either team is bold enough to go out and grab those three points or if the fear of losing will paralyze them. This columnist will continue to advocate the former approach for Wigan. A positive approach would be to start with at least three front players. In the Martinez system, this means a centre forward and two wide players. If Martinez is unwilling to adapt this tactical system to accommodate two central strikers, one would hope that two genuine wide players would be employed. Fine player as he can be, Hugo Rodallega is no left winger. The mistake of playing James McCarthy, a central midfield player, in a wide position against Bolton needs to be avoided. We have Moses, Crusat and Maloney for the wide positions. The centre forward position is up for grabs. Di Santo has proved to be a good target man and has scored spectacular goals, but one still lacks the belief that he can put himself into positions where it hurts, to get the tap-ins and scrappy goals typical of a top class central striker. Four of Wigan’s seven goals this season have come from shots outside the box, two more were penalties. The need for someone to latch onto those crosses, rebounds and deflections is crying out. Latics have the worst striking rate in the league with one goal per 17 attempts. Rodallega can do that but seems to be suffering a crisis of confidence. Being played on the left wing or as a lone forward with minimal support has not helped. Sammon remains a largely unknown quantity, not having had sufficient game time to prove himself. One recalls his opportunist goal that helped to turn the relegation match with West Ham last year, showing that there is definite potential. The midfield trio is likely to consist of Watson, Diame and Jones, but James McCarthy will probably appear at some point. In defence Gary Caldwell will return to replace the suspended Antolin Alcaraz.

Like Wigan, Blackburn can complain that luck (including refereeing decisions) has not favoured them this season. Again like Wigan, they have better players than their position suggest. However, they have only won two out of their last eighteen away matches in the Premier League. They have kept a clean sheet in only one game from twenty four. They are clearly beatable. Let’s keep an eye on the giant Chris Samba from set pieces and keep our concentration at the back and up front. More than anything else let’s go in with an aggressive, not passive, approach. A relatively bold team selection would send a message to the opposition that we mean business.

Prediction: draw or close win for Latics. Keep the faith!