Wigan Athletic vs. Sunderland: Big opportunity

Despite Sunderland’s recent and rather convincing hammering of West Ham, Wigan must be looking at this fixture as a golden opportunity to put some space between themselves and the relegation zone.

The morning’s news that former Latics keeper Nigel Adkins has been inexplicably sacked down at Southampton has added an extra layer of intrigue to a tight-as-ever survival race. The Saints’ comeback against Chelsea at Stamford Bridge just the other day was simply stunning, but the owners have chosen another path. Adkins’ replacement will be the relatively inexperienced Mauricio Pochettino. The February 2nd fixture against Wigan will be his third in charge, following the visit of Everton and trip to Manchester United. Baptism of fire, then. On the surface, it appears Southampton have committed suicide.

Meanwhile, Sunderland are probably this season’s biggest under-achievers, expected to kick on under the guidance of Martin O’Neill and boosted by the attacking signings of Steven Fletcher and Adam Johnson. Instead, they’ve been poor, with apparent dips in form from important players such as Seb Larsson, Stephane Sessignon and James McLean in the first half of the season. All three looked sharp against West Ham, mind.

The reverse fixture at the Stadium of Light was cruelly decided by the extremely harsh sending off of Jordi Gomez. Prior to that, Latics had enjoyed the better chances with James McCarthy and Arouna Kone going particularly close. One would expect Martinez to plan for this match with attacking intentions.

The big question — once again — is whether Mauro Boselli will be given another chance following his stunning cup strike against Bouremouth with a league start. A repeat lineup featuring a packed midfield and Maloney as a second striker would be extremely conservative. Franco Di Santo showed again that while his poaching leaves a little to be desired, his ability to break from a deeper position is a good natural fit. To pair the Argentineans together would result in each playing in their natural position.

Of course, their success will depend heavily on service. Jean Beausejour will start, but there is a question mark over whether Emmerson Boyce will be allowed to continue his fine run of form in the right wingback position, or will be used as a centre-half to cover for the injured Ivan Ramis. If so, Ronnie Stam will get another opportunity.

Always a tricky fixture to predict, this is a massive opportunity for Wigan. Three points would not only put some distance between themselves and those in the relegation zone — it would bring Latics level with Southampton, heaping pressure on new manager Pochettino in the process. Sunderland are no mugs, however — last season’s corresponding fixture showed that a game can turn on a moment of brilliance, and they have several individuals capable of mustering just that.

Dreaming of financial fair play — can Wigan ever win the league?

Ask a room of Premier League fans if Wigan Athletic could ever win the Premier League title, and your question will be met with derision and laughter. It is widely accepted that such an achievement is beyond a club of Wigan’s size and means. But what if the fundamental nature of financial competition were to radically change within English football? Is a future Premier League that Wigan Athletic could win, feasible?

It is not likely to happen this year. In fact, Ladbrokes are currently offering odds of 3500/1 against it. On the other hand they have Manchester City at 13/10, Manchester United 19/10 and Chelsea at 3/2. After that, the odds on the remaining clubs range from 14/1 to those of Latics. The bookmakers are clearly convinced that  the title will be gained by one of the two Manchester giants or Chelsea. However, if the financial ground rules under which the Premier League operates were to change radically, maybe a door would open for such dreams to come true?

In other sports, and in other countries, systems are put in place to stop elite clubs signing on dozens of highly paid players, preventing them from being available to other clubs. They also try to ensure that games are not so heavily weighted to one side that it almost seems like a foregone conclusion who is to win. Having the top players more evenly distributed between the clubs means that all clubs have some hopes for success. Their supporters are then more likely to stay with them, rather than being drawn to other sports, other entertainment, or other more wealthy clubs.

The Premier League was formed in 1992, after First Division clubs broke away from the Football League. The elite clubs had considered doing so for some time and the idea of a European League was mooted. At the time, English clubs lagged behind the top clubs in Italy and Spain in terms of revenues. Television money was burgeoning and the First Division clubs wanted a much larger slice of that cake, not wanting to share it with those in the lower divisions.

Since then the Premier League has become the most economically powerful league in the world, largely through selling itself to a global TV market. Its attendances are the second highest in Europe. Last year the average Premier League attendance was 34,601, beaten only by Germany 41,205.
It is no surprise in a league dominated by the elite that Premier League television revenue is far from evenly distributed among the 20 clubs. In the 2011-2012 season. Wigan Athletic received  £42.8 million in TV money. Manchester City received  £60.6 m and Manchester United  £60.3 m. Wolves received the lowest with  £39.1 million. It will be argued that the public are more likely to want to watch the elite teams, but the inequality clearly exacerbates the huge financial gap between rich and poor in the league.

In the 2013-2014 television rights are set to steeply rise, making it even more lucrative for Premier League clubs. At the same time, footballers’ salaries have escalated almost beyond control, the absurd spending of Manchester City and Chelsea exacerbating the problem. The League is looking at ways to provide more financial control. One realistic option is to follow UEFA’s initiative, which will require clubs to break even financially. According to BBC.co.uk, Dave Whelan supports the adoption of a financial fair play policy, saying that a proposal in this area has come from Manchester United. The strong inference is that United are envious of their near neighbour’s success last season.

Clearly a move towards Manchester United’s proposal would favour the interests of big clubs with huge fan support  like themselves and Arsenal, cutting out the excesses of clubs like Chelsea and Manchester City. This might help to redress the issue of spiralling player salaries and stop multi-millionaires financing huge debt in top clubs. However, the end result is still going to be a huge divide between rich and poor in the league.

This columnist advocates the implementation of not only financial fair play rules, but also of a salary cap per club. The latter would prevent the elite clubs hoarding so many top players, making them unavailable for other clubs. It sets a limit on the total salaries that a club can pay each season. This does not preclude a club paying the ridiculous wages to some players that have become the norm, but it does limit how many players they will be able to accommodate this way.

The salary cap concept is used widely in American sports as means of stopping wealthy clubs achieving dominance by signing up the majority of outstanding players available. The National Football League (NFL) of the USA had a salary cap of $120 million per club in 2011. It is to be noted that since the Premier League was formed in 1992 only 5 clubs have won championship titles. Manchester United have won it 12 times, Arsenal and Chelsea 3 times each, Blackburn and Manchester City once. In comparison the NFL has had 12 clubs winning its championship in that time.

The implementation of financial fair play rules and club salary caps would not be easy. There are so many potential loopholes involved. However, there has to be a way forward from the current situation which has such inequities that it makes it virtually impossible for any club without huge revenues or massively rich benefactors to reach the top. Let’s at least give the average club in the Premier League some chance – although it may be slim – to win the title.

It is highly unlikely that Wigan Athletic will ever win the Premier League. At present, their chance is almost zero. Lets at least lower the odds and give clubs outside the elite few at least a chance to dream.

Wigan Athletic 0 Chelsea 2: Fatal five minutes mask a promising display

There was a time, not long ago, when conceding two goals in the first few minutes against a top six side almost guaranteed a hammering. Indeed, Chelsea have inflicted two such high-scoring morale wreckers in the last three years. Say what you will about the first five minutes in yesterday’s season opener, this team is lights years ahead of where it was, even a single year ago.

If you’d picked up the match seven minutes in (and ignored the scoreboard), you would have witnessed a pleasing first-half display of cultured possession football. Crosses were flying in from both sides of the pitch, Victor Moses was enjoying himself, the midfield looked comfortable, and but for a heavy first touch, Di Santo might have scored.

Unfortunately, as Roberto did in his post-match interviews, we must acknowledge those hapless opening exchanges. The match had barely gotten underway when Eden Hazard skilfully — but all too easily — turned Ivan Ramis near the midfield circle and found Branislav Ivanovic with a perfect through ball down the right wing. Chased by Figueroa, who was playing at left wing-back rather than his customary left centre-back position due to an injury to Jean Beausejour, the Chelsea fullback finished coolly past Al-Habsi to make it 1-0. Moments later, Chelsea’s marquee summer signing was causing panic once again, tempting Ramis into a lunge in the penalty box. Referee Mike Jones pointed to the spot and Frank Lampard rarely misses.

It was a tough start for the Spanish centre-back, who is not only adapting to a new country and culture, but a new tactical system with three centre-backs, and faster pace of play. All only a week or so after joining the club, and against the defending European Champions. Midfielders and strikers often get the benefit of being given 15-20 minutes at the end of the match to bed in, as new Ivorian striker Arouna Koné did later on. For Ramis, it was straight into the fire. But he improved as the game went on, and indeed cleared off the line brilliantly to deny Fernando Torres a second-half goal. Despite the mistakes — which were not characteristic of his game in Spain — he showed enough to suggest that once adapted, he will be a good addition.

Jean Beausejour missed his first match through injury since signing for the club in January. In his place, Maynor Figueroa performed well enough to suggest we now have cover, not only for the three centre-back positions, but for the wing-backs on both sides as well. Emmerson Boyce, down the right, was great and just seems to get better with age.

Much of Wigan’s momentum was lost when Shaun Maloney had to be withdrawn with a groin injury early in the second half. Roberto has since admitted both Maloney and MacArthur were taken off with little niggles as a precaution rather than due to serious injuries. Jordi Gomez, Maloney’s replacement, drew fouls and got himself in good positions, but ultimately failed with his finishing. Ben Watson, on for MacArthur, looked a little rusty but is a fine option from the bench. Neither of them filled the void left by Maloney, who along with Moses, has become our creative spark.

Things started to turn Chelsea’s way and a third goal looked likely. But some exciting end-to-end stuff produced Ramis’ aforementioned goal-line clearance and a surging Victor Moses run and cross down the other end. By then Arouna Koné had come on for his Wigan debut, and showed great promise with a trio of decent half-chances. He immediately appeared to have what Di Santo lacks — the movement and instincts necessary to know where to be when a cross comes into the box. Di Santo has just about everything else, but seldom gets on the end of crosses to head, poke, prod, or hammer home.

Wigan finished the match in the ascendancy and were quite unlucky not to emerge goalless. The usual questions will emerge about profligacy in front of goal, but Chelsea won the Champions League on the back of excellent defending (and a healthy slice of luck). They are not easy to break down.

All things considered, this was an encouraging performance. News outlets have of course focused on Hazard and Chelsea’s exciting new strikeforce, but Latics enjoyed more possession, created 15 goal attempts to Chelsea’s six, seven corners to the visitors’ one. The boys played in much the same way they ended last season — minus the defensive intensity in those first few minutes — and the news signings got a game under their belts.

Southampton promises to be a tricky fixture after their near-miss at the Etihad on Sunday. But if we play the way we did for 80 minutes, we’ll be in with a good chance to notch our first points of the season. Stay tuned for The Good, The Bad and Player Ratings, coming soon.

Momentum building: Wigan Athletic season preview

On first look, it’s hard to blame the people who doom Wigan Athletic to relegation each year. On paper, our late August squad looks weaker than the lads that kept us up in May. We’ve typically lost our top player (or three) to bigger clubs and replaced them with little known youngsters from the Scottish league or unfashionable, though generally astute, Spanish-speaking gambles in their late twenties.

But this season irks more than any of the previous. How short is the memory? To repeatedly read paid journalists make the point that Latics will suffer without Hugo Rodallega and Mo Diame is more than lazy. The finest run of form in Wigan Athletic history — ultimately resulting in survival and the scalps of Liverpool, Manchester United, Arsenal, in-form Newcastle and almost European Champions Chelsea but for two horrific mistakes by match officials — was achieved with the pair of them reduced to cameos from the substitutes bench. They scored three goals between them since Christmas and all were in matches that we had already lost.

This is not a slight on either player. Both immensely talented, they were a pleasure to watch and have at the JJB/DW. Hugo, a poacher, was frustrating on the left wing but certainly a success overall and crowd favourite, and suffered from injuries last season. Diame was outstanding in the first half of the term when no one else was, before losing his place to the thoroughly committed and deservedly appreciated James McArthur after the African Cup of Nations. But the point stands that they played no real role in Latics’ sensational final two months.

If anything, that unforgettable survival run emphasized the transition of Wigan Athletic as a Premier League club where individuals come to make their name, to a club of players proud to play for Wigan that operate as a team. Mauro Boselli, recently returned after a year and a half on loan in Italy and Argentina, made the interesting comment that contrary to two years ago when he arrived, there were no longer any divisions in the squad — it feels like a team of players that play for each other. We’ll be publishing an exclusive interview with him later this week.

What people are missing is that, behind the scenes, we’ve been making steady progress. Most people see Wigan as just surviving every year. But each of Roberto Martinez’s three years have brought progress. The squad is deeper and stronger, investment in youth has been made, and our crowds are growing as a new generation grows up supporting their local team in the Premier League.

Replacing people like Valencia, Palacios and N’Zogbia was a nightmare, though their sales may have been necessary to keep the books steady. Things are changing. We would all like to hold on to Moses, but he only really clicked last season when the rest of the team did. If he leaves, there will be an adaptation period as the team re-shapes itself without him, but this is no longer a “get it out wide to Rodallega, N’Zogbia or Moses and see what they can do” situation. Roberto’s highly successful wingback system is extremely flexible, and it is intriguing to think about how it might set up. New boy Aruna Kone is an astonishing buy at a reported 2.75 million pounds or good buy at 5 million depending which price you believe — a 28 striker at the peak of his career that just managed 15 goals in the Primera Liga last season for (another) unfashionable club like Levante. Mauro Boselli is back after a good season in Argentina, and hungry. Ryo Miyachi has been signed from Arsenal and didn’t look half bad at Bolton last season. Not to mention Shaun Maloney and Franco Di Santo, two of the undisputed stars of our survival success last year.

Wigan Athletic is quietly gaining momentum. I suspect it will be the midfield and defense that will have to spend more time adapting if Moses leaves — he is truly excellent at holding the ball up and drawing fouls to give the (even) harder-working core a breather.

The other gaping hole in the squad was defensive cover for the three centre-backs. Steve Gohouri has been released. He had a rough time last year, jittery and lacking sharpness. Adrian Lopez, to whom we wish the best of luck this season, has been dodgy at best. He seemed to struggle with the pace and physicality of the game. Roberto has faith in him, but has also brought in Ivan Ramis — another very good signing at the peak of his career. There is no questioning his ability as an uncompromising centre-back, the question is how he will take to his new surroundings after a career and life spent on a gorgeous island in the Mediterranean.

I’ll save the rest of the new signings talk for Jakarta Jack, whose article is coming soon.

Prediction for the season? Not quite the lofty heights of mid-table comfort that the brilliant and much-appreciated optimists out there are suggesting, but not relegation either. Somewhere in between. I would expect a wobbly start if Moses leaves. The new signings will take time to bed in like Maloney did last year and many before him. I personally have high hopes for Boselli, although the Kone signing radically decreases his chances of a regular run in the team. Perhaps Di Santo will drop deeper into the Moses role? Or is it Crusat’s year to shine in the free role? Talented young loan signing Ryo Miyaichi?

The fixture list is never kind. With Chelsea and Man United in two of the first four fixtures, plus a hungry Stoke without the Cup distractions of last season. If there is a time to play Chelsea it is now, with all their new signings and an uncertain new era under the lucky Roberto Di Matteo (lets face it, his approach to the CL was equivalent to Roy Hodgson’s for England in the Euros — he just had a better centre-forward.) The Southampton match is crucial.

We welcome all Latics supporters to the new season. Please join us on Facebook, follow us on Twitter, or subscribe (scroll down, lower right) to this blog. Please leave comments — we look forward to hearing from you, and c’mon Wigan — keep the faith!

* To read Jakarta Jack’s even more optimistic take on the new season, click here.

 

Arsenal – Wigan: Gooners preview the match for us

* in an effort to mix things up a bit, we’ve invited a couple Arsenal supporters to contribute a match preview from their point of view. For a traditional preview from Jakarta Jack of the Amigos, please click here.

Tony Marzelli

It’s been a crazy week for the Gunners; two big wins, both could have been by more but somehow made my breakfast come up. In my time as an Arsenal supporter I feel there has been a transformation in how I perceive not only the club but also football in general.  Even in the days of the untouchables season or in the run to the Champions League final, I have never hyper-focused on an end of a season in this way, match-to-match.  In the aftermath of the Gunners hammering of the mercenaries in baby blue, I stopped singing long enough to return my shirt to my torso and thought to myself, “Wait, who are we playing next?”  I got the same feeling after the lackluster pounding of Wolves. Maybe this is a new feeling because third has never meant so much, maybe I was younger, more fearless, or maybe we had the likes of certain Henrys, Bergkamps, Pires’, and Campbells’ to carry us through?  But who is up now?  Oh right, Wigan.

I have always been a fan of Wigan.  Or least, lets put it this way: I have always been a fan of the Roberto Martinez’s Wigan.  With all the Hughes’, Pardews’ and Rednapp’s to occupy the hate compartment in my brain, why take anything out on a man with so much swagger?  Look at this season alone.  The January Beasejour move and the resurgences of Maloney, Moses, Alcaraz.  It’s a fun team for the neutral.  However, neutral the Lactics are not this Monday.  You don’t have to be a seasoned Gunner to say this season has had its hills, valleys, and that crazy pit in return of the Jedi.  We are undoubtedly playing the best we have all season, and in my opinion the best in sometime.

If Wigan’s game plan is to do exactly as they did against Chelsea and United one could hardly argue.  Or should they?  Or January blips against Fulham and Swansea showed our vulnerability — which also showed against Wolves last week: a lack of attacking cohesion and killer instinct to finish the opposition off early.  Against United and Chelsea, the Latics brought the game to them.  They will probably need to adopt a more patient tactic against Arsenal.  Every associated with Arsenal is expecting a win on Monday. It will be important for Wigan to show Arsenal respect, while also frustrating them.

I would love to “dance with Koscielny” on Monday but because he couldn’t wait six hours to commit a late tackle, it will be the one and only Johan Djourou starting alongside the Verminator.  I think many Gunners would rather see videos of him learning how to not ball-watch than discussing who has the best music taste in the squad, and touring the locker room. But enough of that — the doc has told me to be less negative — and I promised. He is growing and has much to prove and could be a weak spot for the Gunners.  He lacks confidence and gets skittish on the ball, though his defending is improving.   Second, and perhaps more obvious, is the Brazilian-ness of our Brazilian left back.  Andre Santos can’t defend.  He doesn’t want to.  But he does bring a great attacking presence and threat.  The Lactics should look to play crosses deep to that left of the penalty area as Santos has had trouble finding his positioning in those situations. Kevin Doyle for Wolves showed this before a marvelous save by Szczesny on Wednesday.  Wigan will need to be patient and take their chances when presented because if they do try to play Arsenal straight up, and the game becomes open, RVP will slice into them faster than a Mitt Romney speech at Berkeley.

There’s no hiding it.  Robin Van Persie is the lifeblood of this club at the moment. It will take constant concentration of the Caldwell-Alcaraz-Figueroa axis to deal with the clever Dutchman.  He loses his mark so effortlessly and it only takes once.  I can praise RVP all day…maybe the rest of my life, but there is more to this club on Monday.  One notable contributor to the recent form is the resurgence of Tomas Rosicky.  Tommy was flawless against Spurs, a maniac against Milan, and an absolute handful for City.  He showed up Na$ri and tirelessly kept the Gunners high pressure on the City defense.  Rosicky unfortunately did not play against Wolves, and I see that as a much needed rest, a chance for Ramsey to get his confidence back in a central role, and the Welsh captain did everything needed to beat a poor Wolves side. Gunners will be hoping to see Rosicky in that advanced central midfield role Monday.  With likes of Gervihno to possibly return for a start on the left and Walcott to keep his place on the right, the Lactics will have their hands full.

The partnership of Song and Arteta has been a true stroke of genius by Arsene Wenger.  However, with Song’s recent run of assists and wandering higher up the pitch it’s obvious the baby-dreaded monster sometimes gets caught out. This was evident against QPR when there was no cover for (as Arseblog.com so rightly puts it) “Bambi on Ice” Thomas Vermaelen. Don’t get me wrong — his vision and precision for a defensive midfielder is sublime but his offensive play and awful backheels can land the squad in awkward positions.  Arteta has also been a rock the squad so badly needed this season.  Yes his hair is immaculate, but this can hardly be the account for his vision and rocket of a right boot.  He is a very consistent footballer and for the exception of the City and Villa strikes he remains the silent hero connecting the team one guapo pass at a time.  Song and Arteta are the backbone of the system and if Wigan are to break and if there is a gorgeous hair magnet attached to Al Habsi, Wigan could have a chance. Arsenal will be focused on moving the ball quickly and precisely, tiring the Lactics.

It would be silly for one to say that I wasn’t the slightest jealous Balotelli got to touch Song’s leg, however violent it may have been (maybe that’s all it was, just a friendly gesture), but even more inane is to say Wigan does not have a chance on Monday.  They will indeed be up for the challenge. Losses to Blackburn and QPR will lift the Lactics. The Gunners will need to keep the mindset they had against Milan and City.  Not be complacent, and do what they do best: attack, attack, attack until it is said and done. In the meantime, a weekend of FA Cup derbies to get us through.  There truly just isn’t enough beer.

* you can follow Tony on Twitter at whitethrash3

Mike Provenza

Wigan at home has been a positive fixture for Arsenal over the last few years.  This year’s meeting is more interesting than years past, however, because A) both teams are at their most confident and are playing their best football of the season; and B) unlike many clubs in the EPL at the moment, both have something vital to play for.  From an Arsenal perspective, there is reason to be confident.  As I mentioned, Arse are playing very well as of late.  While the continued excellence of RVP, the outstanding play of Szczesny, the resurrection of Tomas Rosicky’s ghost, and the solidity of the Song-Arteta midfield axis have all contributed to this run of form, I see the biggest difference coming in two areas.  First, goals are starting to come from people other than RVP.  As great as he’s been, it seemed like he was papering over the cracks for much of the year as no one else could find the net.  Now that goals are beginning to come from Walcott, Arteta, and random defenders as well, we seem much more resilient to a bad day for RVP.  Second and most important, the back four are playing well together and have become a solid unit.  The individual players have been good enough all year, but the unit did not begin to play well together until recently, which I think has coincided with the outstanding run.

This leads back to the match because there seems to be a good chance that Gibbs will miss out, which I think would be our main area of concern.  Andre Santos is a strange player, in that he is a defender who seems to have little experience defending.  If Santos plays, Wigan’s recently-excellent wing play could exploit this, and I think we could see lots of crosses coming in from Arsenal’s left (and “lots of crosses” often leads to “lots of goals and poor defending”).  Still, I think Arsenal should have enough to get by Wigan tomorrow.  As the Amigos mention in their preview, Wigan should be more fatigued than Arsenal.  Also, Wigan’s confidence will likely lead to them playing more open football, leaving space for Arsenal to play in.  Typically Arsenal can out-attack attack-minded teams from lower down the table.  Besides, Wigan can’t possibly beat Arsenal, Man United, and Chelsea (by rights) in a row can they?