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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Holgerrson to stay?

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Markus Holgerrson is one of several Latics players whose contracts expire this summer.

The big Swede, Markus Holgerrson, at last made his debut for Wigan Athletic, albeit coming on at Blackburn as a substitute after 72 minutes.

Holgerrson was signed as a free agent from New York Red Bulls in early February, with glowing references. His contract is until the end of the current season, which is impending.

Uwe Rosler took a gamble at Blackburn by surprisingly playing Ivan Ramis in a central back line of three. The Spaniard came off at half time, to be substituted by Leon Barnett. Knowing that Ramis could be a key player in the playoffs, Rosler took the gamble of playing him despite the risk of it being too early following the hamstring injury from which he has been recuperating. Only time will tell if Rosler was right to put Ramis in there. A fit Ramis could make a big difference to the promotion push. But will he make it?

At this stage Holgerrson’s future at Wigan is uncertain. Rosler has been able to assess him in training, in the development squad and in about 20 minutes of competitive league play.

Were Holgerrson not to be offered a further contract it would not be a surprise following previous occurrences at the club. At the beginning of last season Roberto Martinez brought in two young players from Spain who had represented their country at youth and schoolboy levels. Eduard Campabadal was an exciting young right back from Barcelona who had put in good performances for the development squad. Martinez gave him his league debut in the last match of the season against Aston Villa and he did not play badly. However, for some unstated reason the 20 year old left the club over the summer and is now back in Spain playing for Cordoba. The other young prospect, forward Guillermo Andres, signed from Villareal, remains in the development squad.

The fate of Nouha Dicko does not bode well for Holgersson and others struggling to get frontline experience. As has happened with other young players at Wigan, Dicko was never given a run of games in which to establish himself. Under Roberto Martinez he went to Blackpool on loan and played well, scoring 9 goals in 32 appearances. Owen Coyle’s arrival saw him shipped off to Rotherham where he once again gave a good account of himself and scored 5 goals in 5 appearances. Despite never giving him a chance in the first choice lineup, in January Uwe Rosler sold him to Wolves where he since has scored 13 goals in 19 appearances. Given Latics’ lack of a forward who can regularly score goals the Dicko transfer was hard to fathom.

The dearth of first team opportunities for young players in particular has been a sore point at Wigan for some time. Callum McManaman had to wait so long to get his chance, as did Lee Nicholls. Their contemporaries Danny Redmond and Jordan Mustoe still have not started in a single league match despite being 23 years old and successfully negotiating Latics’ youth system and the development squad. They still remain on Latics’ books.

During his tenure at Wigan, Roberto Martinez was loath to blood young players from within the club in league games. More surprisingly Martinez gave young midfielder Fraser Fyvie little opportunity outside cup games to prove his worth. Fyvie was certainly no raw recruit, having made more than 50 appearances for Aberdeen in the SPL up to the age of 20, when he joined Latics. The current season has been a disaster for the skilful midfielder with injuries and unfortunate loan spells at Yeovil and Shrewsbury taking their toll. He has now had three managers at Wigan who have not had the confidence to give him a further league start to add to the single one he received at the same time as Campabadal against Aston Villa.

Owen Coyle took Adam Buxton to the USA for pre-season, but the young defender soon disappeared from the limelight. Over recent months he has had loan spells at Burton Albion and Accrington Stanley .

The news came out today that Honduras coach, Luis Fernando Suarez, has named both Roger Espinoza and Juan Carlos Garcia in his squad of 23 players for Brazil. The Colombian has also included ex-Latics favourites Maynor Figueroa and Wilson Palacios. Given that Garcia has played only one senior game all season at Wigan, Suarez clearly has faith in the player’s abilities. It was a surprise that Rosler did not include Garcia in the squad for the Blackburn game on Saturday. The player still has two more years remaining on his contract.

Holgerrson is not alone in that he has a contract expiring in summer. He is joined by Jean Beausejour, Emmerson Boyce, Gary Caldwell, Stephen Crainey, Jordi Gomez and Mike Pollitt. Moreover the loan periods will expire for Jack Collison, Josh McEachran, Nicky Maynard and Nick Powell.

For the moment Rosler will be focusing on the playoffs, which will decide which division Latics play in next year. Should it be the Premier League he might well look at retaining some of those end of contract players who have proven experience at that level. Should it be the Championship, Rosler will look at bringing down both the average age and the salary costs of his squad.

It is going to be a very different Wigan Athletic squad we will see at the beginning of next season.

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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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Watford and beyond – Latics and promotion

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At half time during the Ipswich match last Saturday the Wigan Athletic substitutes came on the pitch to play ‘Piggy in the Middle’. Latics had gone into half time 2-1 ahead  after James McClean’s well taken equalizer and Leon Barnett’s header .

The quality of players in that group was impressive . Carson, Crainey, Kiernan, McEachran, Maynard, McManaman, Powell – a strong bench that most Championship clubs would envy. But it was more than that – there was an almost tangible atmosphere of camaraderie among those players. Football clubs these days are experts in telling fans that there is a team spirit among their players. In fact even Owen Coyle would tell us the same thing, although one seriously doubted that was the case.

However, there can be no doubt that Uwe Rosler has built up a strong team spirit at Wigan. The German’s preferred style of football is as physically demanding as it could possibly be for the players. But the players have adjusted and since his arrival fitness levels have improved.

Rosler made five changes for the midweek match against Yeovil, but the team spirit was still there when they were 2-1 down five minutes from the end. It led to two goals before the end of regular time and it reminded one of that late comeback against Charlton when the three points seemed to be lost. However, this time it was not to be as Yeovil got a scrambled equaliser in the last minute of added time.

Over the last couple of weekends Latics had been full of running and energy in victories at Manchester City and Ipswich. However, in the midweek games against Sheffield Wednesday and Yeovil they have looked jaded and lethargic. Which Wigan Athletic will we see against Watford tomorrow?

In the next six weeks Wigan Athletic have to play twelve matches. That kind of schedule needs a strong squad with a rotation policy that involves adjustments, rather than wholesale changes. Much of Latics’ defensive stability in recent weeks has been underpinned by the presence of James Perch on the right, with various combinations of Leon Barnett, Emmerson Boyce and Ivan Ramis in the centre of defence. The mutual understanding among those players has helped to them to play as a very solid unit.

When Perch went off injured after 27 minutes on Tuesday it caused a disruption to that smooth running unit. With no recognized right back on the bench Rosler was forced to move Boyce across. Thomas Rogne, who had not played since December, paired up with Ivan Ramis in their first game as a central defensive partnership. Rogne is a fine young player and Ramis possibly the best central defender in the division, but Yeovil centre forward Ishmael Miller proved too much for them on the night, scoring two well taken goals and missing an easier chance before that.

Even if Perch is available tomorrow Rosler will have to think hard about playing Boyce. Although 34 years old the captain has already played 46 matches this season, more than any other player. Boyce is a key player for Rosler and has been in great form, but badly needs a rest. Playing too many matches in a condensed period of time puts the player at higher risk of receiving an injury, let alone burnout.

Rosler has been unlucky with long term injuries to Ben Watson and Chris McCann, who were part of the nucleus around which his team was built. Moreover the consistent and reliable Leon Barnett is out with a hamstring injury, hopefully for not too long.

A strong defence has been the key to Wigan Athletic’s surge under Rosler. He now has to shuffle his pack and some coherence in defence will be lost. Thomas Rogne and Markus Holgersson will probably have a part to play over the coming weeks. Jean Beausejour continues to play at left back, not his natural position, but outstanding in attack.

In the absence of Watson and McCann in midfield much of the pressure will be on the admirable James McArthur. A midfield without the Scot is hardly worth contemplating, as like Boyce in defence, he is a lynchpin of the team.

Jordi Gomez has been excellent in recent matches and deserves his place. He has adjusted to Rosler’s style of play. Josh McEachran is a quality player, but has struggled to meet the physical demands of Rosler’s pressing style over 90 minutes. But watch out for him in the coming weeks. Ryan Tunniciffe has struggled to adjust to that system, but has high ratings from Ipswich fans from his time there. He is clearly not short of confidence and should get better. New loan signing Jack Collison could have a major part to play, although playing  multiple games in a week is probably beyond what his knee can withstand.

Rosler has a wealth of players available to him upfront, although he lacks a natural goalscorer. Both Marc-Antoine Fortune and Nicky Maynard are capable centre forwards, of differing styles. Callum McManaman remains a potential match winner, despite his indifferent form so far. Martyn Waghorn has a great left foot, is excellent in the delivery of corner kicks, and a team player who complies at both ends of the pitch. James McClean is a much better player under Rosler. He is now lifting his head at key moments and becoming a more mature player. If he continues in his current vein of form he will attract interest from the big clubs. Nick Powell remains a wild card, the position in which he will play being uncertain. Being played wide is not his best position, but Rosler has the option to play him at centre forward or in the hole in midfield, which might be his best position.

Latics have the luxury of quality goalkeepers with not only the excellent Ali Al-Habsi and Scott Carson, but the exciting young Lee Nicholls waiting for another chance. Al-Habsi and Carson can be expected to rotate over coming weeks.

Given the injuries and the hectic schedule, Latics are likely to experience some ups and downs before the end of the season. It will be hard to maintain the level already established by the German.

Rosler has built up a fine team spirit and a strong squad. The aim is for Latics to be in the top six at the end of the season. If they can do that they have the players to take them back to the Premier League.

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Ipswich Preview

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Wigan Athletic travel to Portman Road tomorrow to play their third game in six days. They will face an Ipswich Town side currently sitting in 9th place, with ambitions of reaching the play-offs.

On Wednesday Latics scraped out a win against a physical Sheffield Wednesday outfit, courtesy of an 88th minute penalty. However, they have won their last seven matches.

Ipswich will be a tough nut to crack. They have a home record of W9 D4 L4 and under Latics’ old adversary Mick McCarthy they will pose a strong physical threat. He has former Wolves players Sylvan Ebanks-Blake, Christophe Berra and Stephen Hunt in his squad. They will be out to avenge a 2-0 defeat at the DW Stadium in September.

The key Ipswich man to watch is full back, Aaron Creswell. The 24 year old Liverpudlian has two goals and a remarkable eleven assists in the 31 league games he has played this season. He has also had 28 shots on goal, a high figure for a full back. Not surprisingly there has been talk in the past of Latics trying to secure his services. Uwe Rosler will be keen to curb Cresswell’s attacks and will almost certainly place a winger on the left hand side to peg him back.

Latics have had good news this week with Gary Caldwell and Shaun Maloney each playing 45 minutes for the development squad. The bad news was that Chris McCann, a key figure in Uwe Rosler’s plans, will be out for the rest of the season with an injury to the knee cap. McCann was badly missed on Wednesday when Latics midfield could not maintain the quality of possession that one has come to expect. To lose the Irishman so soon after losing Ben Watson is a harsh blow for Rosler.

Rosler will look to field a well-balanced and competitive midfield at Ipswich. It will be interesting to see if he will field Ryan Tunnicliffe against the team for which he made 24 appearances in the first half of the season. Tunnicliffe struggled against Sheffield Wednesday, but he is clearly the type of player Rosler needs to replace Watson and McCann.

There remains the possibility of playing Jordi Gomez in a holding role, something he did at times under Roberto Martinez. Josh McEachran too is in contention, but like Gomez lacks the physical edge that Tunnicliffe might be able to provide. Roger Espinoza remains largely marginalized and Fraser Fyvie’s career has gone backwards this season. Rosler is going to need a midfield enforcer – someone who can help close down a match – and might well choose to employ Rob Kiernan in that role.

Both Markus Holgerrson and Thomas Rogne played for the development squad in midweek. One of them is likely to lineup in the centre of defence, given Rosler’s rotation policy. Emmerson Boyce is due for a rest and Ivan Ramis is likely to step in. Rosler might well revert to a system with three central defenders.

With the return of Nick Powell, Rosler now has a wide range of attacking options available to him. Up to this point he has managed to keep his forwards fresh through shrewd use of the rotation system.

Scott Carson made a successful return from injury at the Etihad and will challenge Ali Al-Habsi for a starting spot. Rosler has the luxury of being able to rotate two quality goalkeepers as he pleases.

Once again Latics will go up against a physical team keen to beat them. In order to match the Tractor Boys physically they are going to have to do a lot of running and much will depend on the ability of a patched-up midfield to give the forwards the service they need.

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