Wigan Athletic 0 Swansea City 2: Martinez under pressure as former club out-Roberto’s him

Dark days at the DW as Roberto Martinez’s Wigan were outdone by a side he assembled and styled, but couldn’t break down. It was a painful, if strangely comforting realization that while Swansea are currently much better at executing the Spaniard’s footballing vision, at least they are living proof that it can actually work.

This fixture had been seen by most Latics supporters as a must-win — indeed three points would have boosted the side out of the relegation zone. It was one of three winnable fixtures before the terrifying weeks ahead involving trips to Stamford Bridge, Anfield, the Emirates, and the visit of Manchester United. Swansea, while a respectable side, had a poor away record, and we had deserved to win the reverse fixture. The mood before kickoff was optimistic.

Of course, it all went wrong. Martinez’s team selection has been criticized by just about everyone including Dave Whelan, who took issue with the absence of “three quality players” in the starting lineup — presumably Mo Diame, Hugo Rodallega and Victor Moses. The manager has since attributed their omissions to the effects of travel from the international break, with one player arriving late Friday night ahead of the Saturday afternoon kickoff. While this was true of Diame and Moses, both in Africa on international duty, it was not so of Hugo Rodallega, who has long lost his place in the Colombian national squad.

The biggest surprise was the inclusion of Conor Sammon at centre-forward, while Franco Di Santo would take over the free role traditionally reserved for Victor Moses. The pair delivered their weakest performances for the club, with Sammon making a mess of the single promising breakaway he was involved in and Di Santo completely lost in a position he was clearly not familiar with. Jean Beausejour was again lively in the first half, but neither Sammon nor Di Santo ever looked like tucking away his crosses. Emmerson Boyce went closest with a far post header.

Swansea had threatened on several occasions, with Ali Al-Habsi looking sharp and Gary Caldwell clearing off the line. They got their reward just before half-time, when Gylfi Sigurdsson was allowed to take two touches before curling an excellent shot past Al-Habsi from outside the box.

Martinez made two half-time changes, introducing Victor Moses and Mo Diame for James McArthur and Conor Sammon — almost to immediate effect. But just as a Latics equalizer looked possible, Sigurdsson struck again — this time from a direct free-kick. His two strikes were the kind of quality Latics have lacked this season that Charles N’Zogbia provided last time around. Jordi Gomez, one of the few in the side capable of shooting like that, has simply not done it.

He did, however, get himself fouled and Nathan Dyer received a red card to give Latics some hope. Hugo Rodallega’s introduction added a bit of movement to the attack moments later, but Michel Vorm was excellent and Wigan’s finishing was uninspired.

The Good:

Not much. Beausejour’s first half (his second was poor). Sustained pressure and a series of half chances in the second half. Rodallega when he came on.

The Bad:

This is a troublesome result. We can still survive, results elsewhere have been kind. But the club needs points urgently. If we fail to get at least 4 points from the next two matches, we could be cut adrift going into the final stretch. Roberto is hosting a Q&A with fans as I type. He needs to regain their support, and motivate his team for the crucial next two matches.

A Neutral Would Say

Latics improved dramatically with the introductions of Moses, Diame and Rodallega. But the finishing was poor. Swansea deserved the points.

Player Ratings

Al Al-Habsi: 7 —  Takes some blame for the second goal, but was otherwise outstanding, making a number of crucial saves.

Antolin Alcaraz: 6 — Not at fault for the goals.

Gary Caldwell: 6 — Was enjoying a decent performance with a couple key tackles/clearances. And then the goals flew in.

Maynor Figueroa: 6 — Struggled with Dyer. Ironically one of Latics best attacking players when he got forward — delivered two of the best crosses all match.

Emmerson Boyce: 6 — Did not contribute much going forward, and had trouble with Sinclair.

Jean Beausejour: 6 — Very good in first half, poor in second. It is becoming a pattern for him — lack of match fitness?

James McArthur: 6 — Worked hard but lost the midfield battle in the first half. Substituted in second.

James McCarthy: 6 — See James McArthur for first half. A bit more possession in second but no cutting edge.

Jordi Gomez: 5 — Did not produce.

Franco Di Santo: 5 — Looked lost and finished poorly, his weakest performance in some time.

Conor Sammon: 4 — Like a fish out of water.

Subs:

Hugo Rodallega: 7 — Looked far more likely to score when he came on than anyone else.

Mo Diame: 6 — His finishing was poor, but good attacking intent and skill to create openings.

Victor Moses: 6 — Bright start that faded after Swansea’s second, and the sending off.

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.

Bolton 1 Wigan Athletic 2: Vital win kickstarts revival

Wigan Athletic took a giant step towards revival (and survival?) with a 2-1 success over Bolton at the Reebok Stadium. A loss would have cut Latics eight points adrift and delivered a probably fatal blow to the side’s morale. Instead, the gap between the bottom five has been narrowed to an encouraging two points. Better still, the squad has a tasty fixture list coming up including three home fixtures against Aston Villa, Swansea and West Brom, with a trip to Norwich in between. Without getting ahead of ourselves, things are suddenly looking up at the DW.

Martinez’s men started slowly but started to take control of the match about 20 minutes in. Franco Di Santo, working hard up front with little service, received the ball deep and weaved before fizzing a powerful attempt just over and wide. Victor Moses embarked on a mazy trademark run, crashing a left-footed effort into the side netting (a trademark finish). Bolton’s approaches were largely limited to set pieces and hopeful shooting from outside the box, while Latics enjoyed the lion’s share of the possession. Pressure finally told when Gary Caldwell impressively beat David Wheater — who must have at least 5 inches on the Scot — in the air to power home a Jean Beausejour corner late in the first half. 1-0 Wigan at half-time.

The second half started in much the same vein, with Latics closer to a second than Bolton to an equalizer. A couple of penalty shouts that Howard Webb would have awarded Man United without second thought went unnoticed before Victor Moses spectacularly lost his man down the right flank and delivered the perfect final pass for James McArthur, who could only tap straight into Bolton’s Hungarian keeper’s arms. It was the kind of killer pass that Moses has so often been unable to pick out this season, instead going for glory himself or hesitating at the last second. Roberto spoke about the work they are doing with him on the training ground to address these situations in particular, lets hope it is a sign of things to come.

It was soon deja vu, and with the chance to go 2-0 up spurned, Bolton pull an equalizer out of a hat. The buildup was classic Bolton stuff — a mighty hoof from Adam Bogdan bouncing off the unwitting David N’gog’s back. But the finish was sublime, a left-footed thunderbolt from the underrated Mark Davies. James McArthur later expressed his relief at scoring the winner because Davies was his man. But there was little he could do on this one, and it spoke volumes of Jimmy Mac’s performance that he kept Davies quiet for the rest of the match.

The response was immediate. Latics went for it. With Rodallega now on the pitch, you could see a wave of Latics players pushing forward when Victor Moses broke free on the left and ran through unopposed. His low shot had enough power for the carrot-haired Bogdan to spill it straight into the path of the sprinting James McArthur. This time, the Scot made no mistake and you could see what it meant to the players as they celebrated in front of Latics’ traveling support.

There was a final scare when the impressive Ryo Miyaichi found space in the box after neat interplay and fired off a shot, but Ali Al-Habsi was at his best to deny him a debut goal. Latics created a couple half chances on the counter, but a confused-looking Rodallega made a mess of them. Latics’ defending was steady, on set pieces in particular — enjoying the extra height and defensive nous of Emmerson Boyce at right wing-back, in addition to the three centre-halves — and they held on for three points of gold.

The Good:

The performance and result. They dominated, passed the ball well, Victor Moses created at least three goal-scoring opportunities from open play, and the defending was strong. The commitment and desire matched that of Latics’ spectacular season run-in last year. McCarthy and McArthur were lions in midfield, everyone played their part in a good team win.

The Bad:

The game should have been killed off well before Bolton’s equalizer, and it highlights Latics continued lack of confidence in front of goal. A better team — like Everton a week prior — might have punished Latics’ wastefulness. Jordi Gomez, there to provide that killer pass, was unable to create anything of note. Aside from Moses, the best chances of the game fell to Emmerson Boyce and James McArthur, hardly known for their finishing.

A Neutral Would Say

Latics were good value for the three points here, with Victor Moses in particular proving a headache for a lacklustre Bolton side.

Player Ratings

Al Al-Habsi: 8 —  Didn’t have much to do, but made a match-winning save when called upon.

Antolin Alcaraz: 7 — Solid, kept it simple.

Gary Caldwell: 8 — Defended strongly and made the important breakthrough when Latics were struggling to find a way through.

Maynor Figueroa: 7 — Decent defensive performance.

Emmerson Boyce: 7 — A good choice by Martinez for a game of such importance. Provides less going forward than Ronnie Stam, but made an important contribution.

Jean Beausejour: 7.5 — Faded in the second half, but added another assist to his tally and was involved in much Latics attacking play in the first half. Proving a useful signing.

James McArthur: 8 — A selfless team player, he tackled well, distributed efficiently, and must have covered every blade of grass at the Reebok. The winning goal was great reward for his efforts. Has less in his arsenal than both Mo Diame and Ben Watson offensively but makes up for it in attitude. Very encouraging to see a midfielder busting a gut to get into goalscoring positions as he did twice in this match.

James McCarthy: 7.5 — Showed one moment of true class with a sharp half volley pass to Jean Beausejour in the first half. Fantastic work-rate, good distribution.

Jordi Gomez: 6 — Instrumental in keeping possession but ultimately didn’t create enough.

Victor Moses: 8 — Bolton couldn’t handle him. A constant menace, he created the winning goal and should have had an assist after serving it up on a platter for McArthur early in the second half.

Franco Di Santo: 7 — Did his job well, had a great effort from distance, but no real scoring chances.

Subs:

Hugo Rodallega: 4 — Didn’t know what day it was. Looked confused when given the ball. A shame, because he found himself in good positions and might have killed the game off.

Dave Jones: N/A — Wasted 45 seconds coming on for Di Santo, good man.

Wigan Athletic 1 Bolton Wanderers 3: Defensive disaster

Match Report: Wigan Athletic 1 Bolton Wanderers 3

If you’ve watched Latics at all in the past few years, you’ll be familiar with our two most basic failings — individual defensive mistakes, and a lack of killer instinct up front. When we lose matches, it’s generally the former, when we draw them, the latter. You might as well insert your joke here, as I’m basically saying we can’t defend or attack. But it’s not quite that simple. The amazing conclusion to last season proved that when concentration levels are high, and individual mistakes are cut out, there is enough talent up front to get the necessary points. But it is games like this one — a local derby no less — that just makes you scratch your head in disbelief.

How is it possible that these are the same players who battled so hard to keep us up last year — did they not learn anything at all from that experience? Each of the three defensive lapses was a direct result of being too casual, taking too much time on the ball, as though it were a kickabout at the park.

The key sentence in our match preview was “Whether Latics go on to beat Bolton resoundingly, or to even beat them at all, is going to depend on their approach to the game.” It’s hard to assign all blame to the coach when your defenders do silly things to give away goals, but Roberto’s lineup — and approach — was just too conservative. Packing the midfield is acceptable when you’re playing the big boys, but at home to Bolton, who were bottom of the table at kickoff? Come on. It sends the wrong message to the players, and affords too much respect to the opposition. Victor Moses was the only creative player on the pitch. Shaun Maloney could have started. We’ve seen all too little of Conor Sammon, who might’ve started as centre-forward, pushing Franco Di Santo out wide. We must assume Albert Crusat is injured, another shame, as his pace is much needed. What about Callum McManaman, Nouha Dicko, both of whom have been outstanding for the reserves?

All that said, I still thought we had enough to win it, in large part due to the return of Antolin Alcaraz. My optimism was short-lived, as it was a rusty Alcaraz who gave the ball away in the move that led to the first goal, and then later in the game for the third. Steve Gohouri, given the nod ahead of Maynor Figueroa at left-back — a strange move given Patrick Van Aanholt’s availability — had his worst match in a Wigan shirt. If he hadn’t cheaply given away possession right before half-time, Latics’ momentum probably would have carried them to victory in the second half.

The Good:

We should be pleased with Rodallega’s return, and that of Alcaraz, despite his mistakes. Ali Al-Habsi saved a penalty and remains someone we can rely on. Mo Diame scored again, and is emerging as our best midfielder. Victor Moses was dangerous as always, though he once again couldn’t score.

The Bad:

Lack of concentration. Individual mistakes. The manager’s defensive approach and tactical rigidity. The league table.

Credit Where it’s Due

Chris Eagles was a handful all afternoon and deserved his goal. David N’Gog’s goal was well taken, although all three goals exposed Gary Caldwell’s lack of pace in one way or another. If Latics players had even a percentage of the desire that Kevin Davis shows, in every single game, we’d be pushing for European places.

Player Ratings:

Ali Al-Habsi: 7 — Saved a penalty and wasn’t to blame for any of the goals.

Emmerson Boyce: 6 — Wasn’t involved in the poor defending that led to Bolton’s goals, but we didn’t see too much of him either.

Gary Caldwell: 5 — Beaten to the header by the less-than-lightning Nigel Reo-Coker for the first goal, gave the penalty away (though it was very soft indeed), and had his lack of pace exposed by David N’Gog for the second, and Chris Eagles for the third. A bad afternoon.

Antolin Alcaraz: 5 — Too casual, particularly given the fact it was his first match back from injury and he was bound to be a little rusty. Got caught in possession a few times, two of them led to goals. A shame, because he is our best centre-back.

Steve Gohouri: 5 — One to forget. Looked a bit confused at times at left-back, struggling with the impressive Chris Eagles. Caught trying to dribble his way out of trouble in the buildup to the second goal. Substituted at half-time. Not a left-back.

Ben Watson: 6 — I actually thought he was one of the better performers in the first half, but was sacrificed in order to bring on Hugo Rodallega at half-time.

Mo Diame: 7 — Took his goal very well, and the only Latics midfielder that consistently gets himself in scoring positions.

Dave Jones: 6 — Didn’t show his best, although his left foot set piece deliveries were useful (when he was allowed near the ball. What on earth was Di Santo doing taking direct free-kicks in the second half?!)

James McCarthy: 5 — For me, the biggest disappointment this season. Always works hard, but his class and attacking ability have been absent. So much potential, but if anything he has regressed. Still young, but we need him find his form.

Victor Moses: 7 — Same as every week. Dangerous, fast, powerful, a headache for the opposition, but needs someone to poke home the chances he creates. And a cooler head when he goes to finish them himself.

Franco Di Santo: 6 — Worked hard, a decent and skilful target man who has everything except the goalscoring instincts. He is rarely in the right place at the right time, when a cross comes into the box.

Subs:

Hugo Rodallega: 6.5 — Latics did look better with him on the pitch, but he ballooned a dangerously positioned free-kick and had most of his shots blocked.

Maynor Figueroa: 6 — Better than Steve Gohouri.

Shaun Maloney:  N/A — Not on the pitch long enough to make an impact. Wish he had been in the starting lineup.

Wigan Athletic – Bolton Wanderers Preview: Time For a Drubbing!

There has never been a better time for Wigan Athletic to give Bolton Wanderers a drubbing. The ‘auld enemy’ lies bottom of the table after seven matches with 21 goals conceded. They have lost 11 of their last 12 Premier League matches.

Whether Latics go on to beat Bolton resoundingly, or to even beat them at all, is going to depend on their approach to the game. To play the ‘cat and mouse’ stuff  that Wigan supporters  have seen too often in the past couple of years would surely play into Bolton’s hands. Despite the propaganda  that comes from Coyle, Cahill and company their confidence has to be at a low point and we cannot afford to show them too much respect. Let’s have an attack-minded lineup and get at them from the start!

Wigan Athletic’s season really needs a kick-start. As has happened so often in the past two years, the team has promised but not delivered. A dynamic performance in this game could prove to be a turning point for the season. Wigan Athletic  have the talent. It is the belief that they  need.

On the injury front it appears that neither  Antolin Alcaraz nor Hugo Rodallega will make this game, despite rumblings about the latter having a chance. There are doubts about the fitness of new signing Albert Crusat. It has been disappointing not to have seen more of the diminutive winger who can give many more  options to  the attack.  It looks like Steve Gohouri will come back into the centre of the Wigan  defence following his suspension. This will allow  Maynor Figueroa to return to his better position of left back. Although Figueroa has played most of his 70 plus games for Honduras in the centre of defence he has not looked the part in that position against the powerful forwards that grace the Premier League. So it would be Boyce and Figueroa at full back and Gohouri and Caldwell in the centre of defence.  The central midfield trio is likely to consist of Watson, McCarthy and Diame, but one cannot rule out the possibility of one of Jordi Gomez, James McArthur or David Jones stepping in there. Let’s hope that Martinez puts on an attacking front three. Moses and Di Santo are obvious choices, with either Shaun Maloney  or Albert Crusat (if fit) providing the best offensive options.  There is the  alternative of playing the more defensive minded Ronnie Stam, or even Jordi Gomez,  wide on the right.  A bold move would be to play three attack-minded forwards, with Shaun Maloney in the “hole” as the third central midfield player.

Bolton are going to have several players out with injury. This could include their excellent goalkeeper, Jussi  Jaaskelainen. Whatever lineup they put forward one can expect the usual Bolton level of  effort and commitment, together with their threat at set pieces.

Prediction: a good win for the Latics, hopefully a thumping. There has never been a better time to play Bolton in the Premier League. Victor Moses is due to get on the scoresheet and a goal from a defender is long overdue.