Wigan Athletic vs. Newcastle United: Positivity pervades

2012-alcaraz

A refreshing wind of optimism swirls around the DW Stadium ahead of Sunday’s crunch match against Newcastle. As painful as the Liverpool setback was a fortnight ago, Roberto Martinez’s team is enjoying a fine run of form that has seen Huddersfield, Reading and Everton dispatched by three-goal spreads, with two clean sheets obtained in the process.

The results are almost as concerning as they are remarkable, however, given the successes were achieved away while the 4-0 fracas was suffered at home. Much like the bulk of last season, Wigan just cannot seem to get going on their home patch. Of course, last time around it did finally click, and in some style, with the 4-0 demolition job of Newcastle a highlight. With Norwich next in line to visit, these two home fixtures are crucial.

In any case, the injection of positivity has not jut come from reaching the FA Cup semi-finals for the first time in the club’s history, but the manner in which it was achieved. I cannot remember a team so dominant at Goodison Park in the past decade — and this is certainly the strongest Everton team in that time. That Latics achieved it with a mixed lineup and attacking formation was all the more remarkable. It also makes the guess-work quite tricky for a potential lineup against Newcastle this weekend.

One unfortunate loss is that of Callum McManaman — a driving force in Wigan’s cup run — to an ankle injury. While he has not been starting in the league, he would have made a solid case to do so this weekend — particularly if Martinez continues with his more traditional back four and wingers, as opposed to his previously preferred wingback system. The switch has resulted in improved attacking play and offered much-needed unpredictability against opponents who had figured out that they key to stopping Wigan was to stop their wing-backs. It has also surprisingly improved the defensive record with two clean sheets out of four, although this may have more to do with the fitness levels of the personnel available now versus earlier in the season. Given the performances of Antolin Alcaraz and Paul Scharner against Everton, it is hard to foresee a return for captain Gary Caldwell this weekend.

If Martinez were to preserve the Everton back four, the only difference to the defence would be the return of Ali Al-Habsi. Up front, Franco Di Santo will probably join Arouna Kone, with Shaun Maloney taking McManaman’s place on the right wing. It’s anyone’s guess whether Jordi Gomez, excellent against Everton in a central midfield role, will retain his place or lose out to James McArthur.

Meanwhile, Newcastle are “fresh” from a 1-0 victory over Guus Hiddink and Samuel Eto’o’s Russian side Anzhi Makhachkala. The hope, of course, is that they will not be so fresh. Stand-in captain and Yohan Cabaye limped off in the first half of match on Thursday and will surely be a doubt. Hatem Ben Arfa has also been out with a hamstring injury. Both are quality players and important for the cause, but Newcastle nonetheless have the look of a refreshed side, reinvigorated by January signings and recent improvement.

Crucial to Wigan’s chances is striking the first blow. The team has a dangerous tendency to implode upon conceding, but has looked increasingly deadly on the break and likely to increase a lead when striking first. A patient first half approach would be wise, with a second half push if things remain cagey. A win would do wonders for the Wigan survival cause, but this is likely to be the trickier of the back-to-back home fixtures. Four points from them should be considered a success.

Newcastle 1 Wigan Athletic 0: Unlucky Latics beaten again

Never has a league loss given supporters so much cause for optimism. Perhaps it’s a knee-jerk reaction, having spent last week in the gutter following the depressing home loss to Bolton, but I’m tempted to say the first 45 minutes at St. James’ Park were the best we’ve seen of Wigan since Roberto Martinez took the job. Only the goals were missing. Ultimately, we tired, Newcastle improved, and their sustained pressure culminated in a sublime Yohan Cabaye strike that settled matters.

But those 45 minutes set a new benchmark. Ali Al-Habsi hardly touched the ball until the final minutes of the first half. The defense was alert, strong, and neat in distribution. The midfield was physical, energetic and inventive. And the attack was pacey, if hesitant when it mattered the most. Anyone out of the loop would have assumed Latics were the in-form, unbeaten side, not Newcastle. If we start the Fulham and Wolves fixtures in the same way, they should be over by halftime.

Unfortunately, the goals never came. The match commentator shared a damning statistic midway through the first half. Hugo Rodallega has only scored twice in his last 19 Premier League matches. This time, he had two chances. The first, a quick-thinking through-ball from David Jones. The second, an incisive ball from Ben Watson deep from midfield. Both times, the Colombian snatched his shot toward the near post, failing to test Tim Krul. But the best chance of the match had already fallen to Victor Moses, who volleyed from inside the box after Hugo had guided the ball into his path, only for Krul to pull off a magnificent reflex save. Towards the end of the encounter, Mo Diame was inches from poking home a Victor Moses cross, and headed agonizingly wide.

Goals will continue to be a concern, but even at our best, we don’t expect to score many. Which is why the defensive effort in this match was so encouraging. Not only were the first-choice back four restored to the lineup for the first time this season, so too was the spirit of last year’s relegation battle. Antolin Alcaraz was at his best, powerful, intelligent and composed, without risking the ball with unnecessary dribbling. Gary Caldwell was all heart, flinging himself in front of shots from the opposition. Emmerson Boyce was quiet but effective enough, although he did get beat by Ben Arfa in the second half, while Figueroa had a tough afternoon with Gabriel Obertan’s electric pace. In midfield, Ben Watson, Mo Diame and David Jones battled valiantly and will surely be the starting three against Fulham after that performance.

Further ahead, Albert Crusat and Victor Moses provided pace down both flanks that has been badly lacking, although both faded in the second half. Crusat looks a useful little player with speed and a nice touch, though his finishing on this showing was ineffective. It was his first start in a Wigan shirt, and will need time to get used to his teammates before judgement is passed. Victor Moses faded in and out of the match, was unlucky not to leave with a goal and an assist to his name. Rodallega worked hard, did everything right except finish his opportunities. With the departure of Charles N’Zogbia, he has become the club’s marquee player. He needs to rediscover the goalscoring touch that earned him said status.

A Neutral Would Say

Wigan were unfortunate not to get anything out of this one. Poor finishing let them down.

Player Ratings

Al Al-Habsi: 7.5 —  Might as well have been drinking mojitos in the first half, but much more active in the second, excellent as usual.

Emmerson Boyce: 6 — Good first half, tormented a bit in the second by Hatem Ben Arfa, who dangerously slipped past him on more than one occasion.

Gary Caldwell: 8 — A captain’s performance, he was commanding and all-action. Put his body on the line, making several crucial blocks in the second half when the pressure was on.

Antolin Alcaraz: 8 — Strong, classy, looked back to his best. Clearly out to make amends for his mistakes against Bolton.

Maynor Figueroa: 5.5 — Struggled with Gabriel Obertan in the second half, unable to get forward.

Ben Watson: 9 — Excellent. Truly got stuck in, and played some exceptional passing football. His best performance for the club.

Mo Diame: 8 — Played his part in a very tough battle with Newcastle midfielder Tiote. Worked his socks off, and was unlucky not to get on the scoresheet late in the game. Probably should have done better with the headed chance, but it’s a good sign that he continues to get in goalscoring positions.

David Jones: 7.5 — Very good performance as the attacking tip of the midfield triangle. Has an eye for a through ball and his left foot provides balance.

Albert Crusat: 6.5 — Looked lively and positive in the first half, with some neat touches and lots of pace. His final pass let him down on several occasions, but looks really promising.

Victor Moses: 7 — What a shame his volley did not go in. He continues to be Latics most dangerous player, but cursed with bad luck. His late crosses should have resulted in goals as well.

Hugo Rodallega: 6 — Worked hard and his build-up play was good, but the team needs him to finish his chances.

Subs:

James McArthur: N/A — Odd choice to come on after the Newcastle goal as he lacks the pace to be much of an attacking threat.

Conor Sammon: N/A — Ran around like a bull in a china shop, his work rate is exceptional. Unfortunately, didn’t have the ball in dangerous areas.