It was a lovely mild spring evening and the walk through Bishops Park by the Thames was as delightful as any approach to a football ground. But then again, despite its great location, Craven Cottage had rarely been a happy hunting ground for Wigan Athletic.
It was Gary Caldwell’s first game as manager. What kind of tactical formation would he play? Would it be the 3-4-3 from his days under Roberto Martinez? Could he get the commitment from the players that has been lacking for so much of the season? Would he bring back players who had been left out in the cold under Malky Mackay? But more importantly could he steer his players away from the hoof that typified the era of his predecessor? Could they play football in the “Wigan Athletic way”?
It proved to be an entertaining 2-2 draw and Latics were well worth their point. A win was just beyond their reach and relegation has crept even closer. But the bright side was that, after just two days of training, Caldwell had got the team moving towards a brand of football reminiscent of the club’s best of times in the Premier League.
The starting lineup showed two changes from the last game with Scott Carson being preferred to Ali Al-Habsi and Jerome Pennant came in for Leon Clarke. Caldwell employed a flat back four, with William Kvist and James Perch in holding midfield and Kim Bo Kyung in the hole behind the lone centre forward, Marc-Antoine Fortune. James McClean was played wide on the left and Jerome Pennant on the right, although the latter tucked inside in the earlier proceedings.
Fulham’s goal after just 4 minutes was beautifully taken by the skillful Ross McCormack, as he curled the ball home from the edge of the box. However, once again the Wigan defence had not closed down a player in a shooting position, as has so often happened this season. Going a goal down so early on was a hammer blow and given their inability to get back into games after conceding the first goal in previous games one wondered if Latics might be doomed.
However, Caldwell’s new Latics began to dominate possession, largely resisting the hoof. Fulham were put on the back foot but there was little penetration in Wigan’s play. The forwards were simply not making the runs necessary to unlock a stubborn home defence with two giant central defenders who were ready to gobble up anything that went in the air. However, in the 22nd minute McClean was upended as he set off on a mazy run at speed. Pennant stepped up to score a delightful free kick, just like the first one he scored at Rotherham. Latics were clearly delighted and Pennant and Gaetan Bong ran to the other end of the field to celebrate in front of the visiting support.
Matt Smith’s beautifully taken long range goal after 35 minutes put the home team ahead again. Despite the excellence of the finish the Latics’ defence had once again backed off and allowed an opposition player a clear shot on goal.
Despite Wigan dominating the possession Fulham were a goal up as the teams went in for half time. One wondered if Caldwell would be able to find an answer to the lack of penetration of the Wigan attack.
Latics started the second half unchanged and the game continued in a similar vein although Fulham looked dangerous in flashes. The Wigan central defenders had looked uncomfortable playing the ball out of defence. Jason Pearce sometimes found a midfield player with a short pass, but largely passed the ball sideways or backwards. Harry Maguire’s passing was repeatedly off target as he went for long diagonal balls to the flanks. Carson’s distribution was also poor as he launched his customary long kicks that were too often ineffective against the height in Fulham’s defence. Meanwhile Latics continued to lack penetration up front.
However, Fortune was taken off after 56 minutes, the visiting supporters loudly cheering the arrival on the pitch of Martyn Waghorn. Latics then started to show more movement up front, players running off the ball to support those in possession. As a result their passing became more incisive and they deservedly got back in the game as Maguire headed on a Pennant corner for Pearce to slide home.
Chris McCann replaced the tiring Emmerson Boyce after 70 minutes with James Perch moving to a more familiar full back position. Josh Murphy replaced Pennant after 83 minutes as both teams attacked trying to get a winner. Both teams had chances in the closing minutes but the game was to finish in a draw that guarantees safety for Fulham but leaves Latics in deep relegation trouble.
Despite the inability of his team to win the three points, Caldwell was clearly happy with their performance. Good football has returned and there were signs in the second half that the forwards were able to make the kinds of incisive runs that will unlock defences.