Millwall Preview – a cameo role for Maloney in preparation for the FA Cup semi-final?

 

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A cameo role for Shaun Maloney tonight?

Given the sheer volume of fixtures Wigan Athletic have had to play over the past months it is no wonder that their form has been intermittent. There have been matches where they have looked full of energy, playing enterprising football, followed another a few days later where they would appear jaded and placing an over-reliance on the long ball.

The 1-0 win over Leeds on Saturday was typical of the latter. One could say it was because Uwe Rosler made only two changes from his lineup in the previous game, but then again the introduction of three substitutes in the second half did not catalyse any sort of spark. In the event Leeds did not have the quality to seriously challenge a solid Wigan defence and Latics ground out an important win.

If events continue to follow this recent pattern we can expect a more dynamic performance against a Millwall team struggling against relegation. However, there is the by no means small matter of an FA Cup Semi-Final coming up on Saturday. So what is going to happen tonight?

On Saturday Rosler took a risk by using all three substitutes by the 68th minute. Providing Latics are ahead midway through the second half he might do something similar tonight.

One of those coming on later tonight could well be Shaun Maloney, in preparation for including him on the bench at Wembley where he scored a goal in last year’s semi-final, coincidentally against Millwall. The Scot has been on the bench for the last two games, but Rosler felt the intensity of the Leicester match was too high for a player returning from long-term injury, then understandably did not bring him on against an over-physical Leeds.

It is an indication of the rotation policy that Rosler has operated that in the last five league matches twenty players have been employed on the pitch. Three players – Ali Al-Habsi, James McArthur and James Perch have started in all five. Five more – Emmerson Boyce, Jordi Gomez, Rob Kiernan, Ivan Ramis and Martyn Waghorn have started in four of those games. Josh McEachran, Callum McManaman and Nicky Maynard have been underemployed during the five matches, each starting in only one.

Rosler will certainly have to shuffle his pack following the limp display on Saturday. However, Latics have some tricky league fixtures coming up and the Millwall game appears the easiest to win, at least on paper. However, Millwall are locked in a relegation struggle and desperately need points. They can be expected to come out with guns a blazing. Rosler will therefore need to tread with caution, keeping a backbone of his regulars in the lineup, rather than make wholesale changes.

He has already announced that Ali Al-Habsi will be rested, with Scott Carson coming in. James Perch is overdue a rest, having played 43 games this season. Moreover Perch is sitting on nine yellow cards and one more would put him out of the FA Cup semi-final. James McArthur too needs resting, also having played 43 games.

Jean Beausejour is back from suspension. Rob Kiernan, Ryan Tunnicliffe and Martyn Waghorn are ineligible for the Arsenal game so have a good chance of playing, together with McEachran, McManaman and Maynard.

It is not going to be an easy match. Millwall had a crucial 2-1 win at promotion hopefuls Nottingham Forest at the weekend. They sit in 23rd place but still retain hopes of lifting themselves out of the relegation zone. Under the management of Ian Holloway they will not go down without a fight.

Moreover the Lions will recall their 2-1 win over Wigan at the New Den, Latics’ sixth successive defeat at the time. Martyn Waghorn was on loan at Millwall at that time and was one of their top performers in a match watched by Rosler, prior to his taking the reins at Wigan. The Lions wanted to keep Waghorn, but their financial situation would not allow. Will Waghorn be the star player tonight?

It is never easy to predict Rosler’s starting lineups, but given the proximity of the Arsenal Semi-Final, it is all the more difficult this time around.

Which Wigan Athletic will we see tonight – the energetic or the lethargic? It could well be a mixture of the two.

 

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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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Manchester City 1 Wigan Athletic 2 – the dream is coming true again

James Perch gets Latics'second

James Perch gets Latics’second

Wigan Athletic defied the odds once more with a remarkable victory at the Etihad. They now face Arsenal in the semi-final at Wembley.  The dream simply refuses to die.

Latics went into the game on the top of a run of good results, but were facing a side that had won 12 of its 13 home games in the Premier League and had already beaten them 5-0 in the League Cup. However, Uwe Rosler’s team were by no means overawed by their star-studded opponents and played with great spirit and organization and with no mean level of skill.

As expected Rosler fielded three central defenders, pushing back Chris McCann to the left side, with Emmerson Boyce on the right and Ivan Ramis in the centre. Scott Carson made a return in goal and Josh McEachran took over the Ben Watson role in midfield. Marc-Antoine Fortune and Callum McManaman played upfront with Jordi Gomez playing behind them in a forward midfield role.

Latics had started brightly, showing no fear, taking the game to the home team. In the 27th minute Marc-Antoine Fortune turned past Martin Dimichaelis near the byline for the Argentinian to make a clumsy challenge within the penalty box. Jordi Gomez was coolness personified as he slotted home the penalty. Latics continued to play the better football and City had not tested Carson as the half time whistle sounded.  Latics high pressing tactic had stemmed the flow of City moves and they deservedly went in ahead.

The second half saw a change for Latics with Leon Barnett coming on for Chris McCann. The Irishman had been outstanding, solid in defence, building up play from the back via his cultured left foot. He had been injured in the 40th minute following a powerhouse tackle on Micah Richards.

The question was whether Latics would have the energy  to continue to operate their high pressing game, boldly leaving two players up front even when under pressure.

Incredibly Latics went 2-0 up just two minutes into the second half. Lethargic defence by the home team saw James McArthur receive the ball outside the penalty area. The Scot ran through the defence before putting in a superb low cross from the left. It looked like Gael Clichy was going to clear it, but somehow James Perch got a foot to it between the Frenchman’s legs to put the ball in the net.

Manuel Pellegrini took a calculated risk after 53 minutes, using his substitute allotment by bringing on James Milner, David Silva and Edin Dzeko.  Soon after Dzeko was unlucky to head against the post and Latics were on the back foot. City scored a controversial goal after 68 minutes when Samir Nasri  shot from outside the box with Joleon Lescott trying to connect, but the ball passing between his legs to beat Carson.

Latics had brought on James McClean for McManaman after 58 minutes and Roger Espinoza for McEachran after 66 minutes. Following their goal City continued to bombard the Wigan defence, but somehow it held firm. Boyce made an amazing block to prevent Dzeko from scoring, but it was not to be City’s day. A breakaway saw Fortune wastefully blazing the ball over the bar from distance when a simple pass would have seen McClean put through on a direct route to goal.

Sheer resilience saw Latics through five minutes of added time to gain a win that was richly deserved.

The Good

Uwe Rosler had clearly done his homework and his tactics were spot-on.  In the first half the three central defenders passed the ball out of defence with composure and snuffed out the danger of strikers Aguero and Negredo. The combination of McCann and Crainey proved too much for the flying winger Navas, who was taken off after 53 minutes.  Crainey was to have his best game yet in a Latics shirt in the left wing back position. At right wing back, James Perch was as solid as ever and capped his display with an opportunist goal. It is an indication of the type of attacking approach that Rosler encourages when a wing back gets into that kind of scoring position.

Boyce gave an inspirational display. His performance in the FA Cup Final was huge, but this one might have been even better.  He forms a fine partnership with the intelligent Ramis. Barnett once again gave his all for the cause.

McArthur was his usual tireless self in midfield and made an assist for the second goal. Apart from one sloppy pass that put his defence in danger McEachran played his part until going off after 66 minutes. Gomez played well, linking up the play in the first half, putting in a lot of hard graft. Who else do Latics have who could take a penalty with such aplomb, despite the huge pressure?

Fortune gave Dimichaelis a match to forget, playing the target man role. City had clearly recognized McManaman as a danger man and although he came in for rough treatment, he made a valuable contribution.

The Bad

One wonders what might have happened had the referee, Antony Taylor, correctly disallowed City’s goal for offside.  As one might expect City did have some shouts for penalties but Taylor rightly ignored them.

Player Ratings

Scott Carson: 7 – a welcome return from the excellent ‘keeper. Did all that could be expected of him.

Emmerson Boyce: 9.5 – has he ever played a better game for Latics? Superb.

Ivan Ramis: 8 – another fine defensive performance from a quality central defender. His anticipation is a real advantage to his team mates.

Chris McCann: 8 – excellent. Let’s hope the injury is not serious. He has become a key player for Latics.

James Perch: 8 – excellent in defence and we will remember his goal for years to come.

Stephen Crainey: 8 – it has taken the Scot some time to adjust to the quality passing game that Latics favour. Today he was solid in defence and his use of the ball good.

James McArthur: 8- a midfield dynamo.

Josh McEachran: 7 – still lacking match fitness, but could become a key player over the coming weeks.

Jordi Gomez: 8 – a tireless display, capped by his goal.

Callum McManaman: 7.5 – looked useful.

Marc-Antoine Fortune: 8 – a fine performance as the central striker.

Substitutes:

Leon Barnett:-  came on after half time.  Solid and committed.

James McClean: – high on endeavour, but his control lets him down when switching over to the right.

Roger Espinoza: – tried hard to stem the tide of City attacks.

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Rosler building on Coyle’s legacy

Is it a false dawn? Or are the dark days well and truly behind us now?

Has Uwe Rosler really cleared the rubble left behind by his predecessor? Will the German become a long-standing Premier League manager with Wigan Athletic?

A mood of optimism is sweeping through the Wigan Athletic fold as Rosler has become the man to lead the club back into the Promised Land. The frustrations of the Owen Coyle era are being left behind and now, once more, we have a man with a plan.

One wonders if Owen Coyle ever received any thanks for the work he did at Wigan. In fact he might well go down as the least popular manager Latics have ever had. Being an ex-Bolton boss was clearly never in his favour. Neither was suffering relegation with the Horwich club.

However, the league season started for him in near perfect fashion with a 4-0 win at Barnsley. With Coyle at the helm people were getting excited about a swift return to the Premier League.

The Scot had a nigh impossible task to fulfil. He had to rebuild a squad devastated by the consequences of relegation. He was expected not only to get Latics back into the Premier League in one season, but also to put up a good show in the Europa League.  Moreover Latics were now the FA Cup winners – surely good enough to put the sword the kinds of teams they would meet in the Championship.

In the early days of Coyle’s reign, results were mixed. Latics were struggling to win their league games, although they made a decent start to their European campaign.  Many fans were critical of the manager’s lack of tactical nous and his long-ball approach. Others, seeing him as an improvement on Roberto Martinez, were more supportive. They wanted a more direct approach and not the tiki-taka of the previous four years. Coyle had brought in a lot of new players and there were rumours of rifts between them and those from the Martinez era.

One can only speculate as to where Latics would be now if Bernard Malanda had not scored a spectacular late winner for Zulte Waregem at the DW in late November. It was possibly the defining moment for Latics’ season, the loss of morale contributing to a subsequent home defeat by Derby and Coyle’s departure.

Rosler has since stepped in and lifted the team up to the play-off zone. His dealings in the January loan and transfer window seemed underwhelming to many fans at the time, but are looking good now.  Significantly Rosler brought in younger players, to a squad which had an average age of just below 28.  He now has a blend of players signed by Martinez, signed by Coyle and signed by himself.  Players who did not perform at potential under Coyle are now starting to shine under Rosler.

Unlike Coyle, Rosler does not have to get Latics into the Premier League this season to keep his job. Despite an excellent run of results it is highly unlikely that Latics can reach an automatic promotion spot. The best they can hope for is to win the play-offs, not an easy matter in the pressure cauldron that prevails at the end of the regular season.  Moreover the play-offs are often won by the team that peaks at the right time. Are Latics peaking too early or can they maintain this level of performance?

Should Rosler succeed in winning promotion does he have players of genuine Premier League class in his squad? How many have actually played there before?

Emmerson Boyce started in 216 matches in the Premier League, over seven seasons at Wigan and one at Crystal Palace. The next most experienced Premier League starters are Scott Carson (185) and Ali Al-Habsi (111). Gary Caldwell has clocked in 100; Ben Watson has 89 and Jordi Gomez 61. They are followed by Jean Beausejour (48), James McArthur (45), James McClean (44), Shaun Maloney (42), James Perch (41), Marc Antoine Fortune (35), Stephen Crainey (31), Leon Barnett (29), Ivan Ramis (16), Callum McManaman (8), Chris McCann (7), Roger Espinoza (6) and Martyn Waghorn (2).

Three of the four most experienced Premier League campaigners – Boyce, Al-Habsi and Caldwell – are well into their thirties. Carson is 28 years old. It is ironic that the three that follow in terms of experience – Watson, Gomez and Beausejour – are out of contract at the end of the season.

The last time Latics got promoted Paul Jewell had to bring in the likes of Henri Camara, Arjan De Zeeuw, Stephane Henchoz, Damien Francis and Mike Pollitt at the start of the season, with  more to follow later. However, Rosler has a bigger squad than Jewell had and might not need to bring in so many new players.

Were Rosler to achieve promotion this year he would have two experienced Premier League goalkeepers in Al-Habsi and Carson.  The possibility of Boyce playing on for at least one more season cannot be ruled out, although Caldwell’s injury problems might prevent his return. However, Rosler could call on the experience of the likes of Perch, Barnett and Ramis in defence.  Were the three out of contract players to re-sign he would have an experienced midfield available.

Rosler’s mode of operation is clearly different to that of his predecessors. Bringing in young players on loan gives him the opportunity to closely assess possible permanent signings in the future. Over the years Latics have sometimes speculated big money by their standards on players who have not proved successful.  Rosler’s approach is more patient, preferring to work with players to maximize their potential.  He is unlikely to splash out big money.

Rosler is topping the opinion polls with Wigan fans in contrast to his predecessor, Coyle. Whether he can continue to maintain the current level of momentum remains to be seen. If he cannot his ratings will fall.

Whatever else may be said about Coyle there can be little doubt that he did a good job in recruiting so many quality players in such a short amount of time.  So much criticism has been made of his signing of the misfiring Grant Holt but players such as Carson, Perch, Barnett, McCann and McClean could well be at the club for years to come.

Rosler has built upon the foundations left by Martinez and Coyle, but has added a further tier through his own signings. He now has a well balanced and capable squad capable of beating any team in the Championship division.  The bookmakers are now starting to lower their odds against Wigan Athletic getting back to the Premier League this season.

It does not look like a false dawn.

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