Goalscoring drought to end against Derby?

George Graham once said: “The goalkeeper is the jewel in the crown and getting at him should be almost impossible. It’s the biggest sin in football to make him do any work.”

His comment reflects the old adage that if the opposition doesn’t score then you don’t lose. But what Graham did not mention is the corollary “If you don’t score you can’t win.”

Wigan Athletic have failed to score in four of their last five home games. All four ended up in defeats. In fact their home record this season of W2 D8 L10 is arguably the worst in the club’s history. They have not won a single home game since Malky Mackay’s arrival in November.

Despite the lack of goals in those home games, Mackay has stuck to the same formula. A 4-4-2 system that is attacking in intent, but ineffective in its execution. Too often the central strikers have not looked remotely like scoring a goal and the wide men have not only been poor in their delivery but also negligent in their defensive duties. The best wide man, James McClean, who both attacks and defends with gusto, has been largely played out of position as a central striker. One can only hope that Mackay will let the Irishman play what will most probably his final six games at Wigan in his natural position.

The 4-4-2 formation has just not worked in home games, but Mackay has stuck with it. On his arrival he had played with a lone centre forward system, which many fans thought was attributing to a low scoring record. Perhaps Mackay’s main concession to the fans was to introduce the 4-4-2 for which many canvassed through the message boards and social media.

However, with just two men in central midfield Latics have too often been outnumbered by the opposition. Moreover the repeated failure of wide men to provide adequate defensive cover has left the defence too often open to counterattacks. Two of the wide men Mackay has used are still novices in first team football, young players learning their trade. Joining a team in a relegation struggle is far from ideal for either them or the club.

Derby County come to the DW Stadium hungry for points following a disappointing run of results. Having been challenging for an automatic promotion spot they now find themselves struggling to maintain a place in the playoff zone, currently occupying sixth position on goal difference ahead of Ipswich and Wolves.

The run has coincided with the absence of leading scorer Chris Martin, although he made a comeback as a substitute in their 2-2 draw against 10 man Watford on Good Friday. It looks like he will make the starting lineup tomorrow.

Derby coach Paul Simpson has let it be known that he expects it to be a scrappy game tomorrow. Given the recent state of the DW pitch and that there was a rugby game on it on Friday he is likely to be right. Derby are a footballing side who resist the long ball that can be the wont of too many Championship teams.They will find the pitch frustrating. But so too will Wigan.

The bad state of the pitch can hardly have helped Wigan Athletic over recent weeks. The old phrase “It’s the same for both teams” rings true in many ways, but to play on a surface like that regularly surely wears you down. So often this season we have seen experienced and capable players fail to control a ball or make an accurate pass. Much of that in the past was down to a lack of confidence in a team with low morale. Now the pitch also plays a part.

Is Mackay capable of making a paradigm shift in terms of his tactics and personnel at this late stage of the season?

The midfield needs to be stiffened up with an extra player if Derby are going to be denied possession. William Kvist surely deserves a place in the starting lineup. Chris McCann is almost a forgotten man but was a lychpin of Rosler’s success last season. Providing he is over his injury niggles he could have an important role to play. A trio of Kvist, McCann and Kim Bo Kyung could provide the balance needed to counteract a strong Derby midfield. Emmerson Boyce has given his all in recent games, but needs a rest. James Perch would drop back to replace him.

McClean should be played in his natural position on the wing and Martyn Waghorn might finally get the nod from Mackay to team up with the controversial MAF.

Whether the unbending Mackay is up to such changes is open to debate. The worst case scenario is that he continues with the same formula that has not worked at the DW for months.

A win tomorrow would put Latics back into contention. A draw or defeat would be a sign that relegation is around the corner.

After 59 games, Latics’ season is now starting

Rosler4

“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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Wigan Athletic 1 Bolton Wanderers 3: Defensive disaster

Match Report: Wigan Athletic 1 Bolton Wanderers 3

If you’ve watched Latics at all in the past few years, you’ll be familiar with our two most basic failings — individual defensive mistakes, and a lack of killer instinct up front. When we lose matches, it’s generally the former, when we draw them, the latter. You might as well insert your joke here, as I’m basically saying we can’t defend or attack. But it’s not quite that simple. The amazing conclusion to last season proved that when concentration levels are high, and individual mistakes are cut out, there is enough talent up front to get the necessary points. But it is games like this one — a local derby no less — that just makes you scratch your head in disbelief.

How is it possible that these are the same players who battled so hard to keep us up last year — did they not learn anything at all from that experience? Each of the three defensive lapses was a direct result of being too casual, taking too much time on the ball, as though it were a kickabout at the park.

The key sentence in our match preview was “Whether Latics go on to beat Bolton resoundingly, or to even beat them at all, is going to depend on their approach to the game.” It’s hard to assign all blame to the coach when your defenders do silly things to give away goals, but Roberto’s lineup — and approach — was just too conservative. Packing the midfield is acceptable when you’re playing the big boys, but at home to Bolton, who were bottom of the table at kickoff? Come on. It sends the wrong message to the players, and affords too much respect to the opposition. Victor Moses was the only creative player on the pitch. Shaun Maloney could have started. We’ve seen all too little of Conor Sammon, who might’ve started as centre-forward, pushing Franco Di Santo out wide. We must assume Albert Crusat is injured, another shame, as his pace is much needed. What about Callum McManaman, Nouha Dicko, both of whom have been outstanding for the reserves?

All that said, I still thought we had enough to win it, in large part due to the return of Antolin Alcaraz. My optimism was short-lived, as it was a rusty Alcaraz who gave the ball away in the move that led to the first goal, and then later in the game for the third. Steve Gohouri, given the nod ahead of Maynor Figueroa at left-back — a strange move given Patrick Van Aanholt’s availability — had his worst match in a Wigan shirt. If he hadn’t cheaply given away possession right before half-time, Latics’ momentum probably would have carried them to victory in the second half.

The Good:

We should be pleased with Rodallega’s return, and that of Alcaraz, despite his mistakes. Ali Al-Habsi saved a penalty and remains someone we can rely on. Mo Diame scored again, and is emerging as our best midfielder. Victor Moses was dangerous as always, though he once again couldn’t score.

The Bad:

Lack of concentration. Individual mistakes. The manager’s defensive approach and tactical rigidity. The league table.

Credit Where it’s Due

Chris Eagles was a handful all afternoon and deserved his goal. David N’Gog’s goal was well taken, although all three goals exposed Gary Caldwell’s lack of pace in one way or another. If Latics players had even a percentage of the desire that Kevin Davis shows, in every single game, we’d be pushing for European places.

Player Ratings:

Ali Al-Habsi: 7 — Saved a penalty and wasn’t to blame for any of the goals.

Emmerson Boyce: 6 — Wasn’t involved in the poor defending that led to Bolton’s goals, but we didn’t see too much of him either.

Gary Caldwell: 5 — Beaten to the header by the less-than-lightning Nigel Reo-Coker for the first goal, gave the penalty away (though it was very soft indeed), and had his lack of pace exposed by David N’Gog for the second, and Chris Eagles for the third. A bad afternoon.

Antolin Alcaraz: 5 — Too casual, particularly given the fact it was his first match back from injury and he was bound to be a little rusty. Got caught in possession a few times, two of them led to goals. A shame, because he is our best centre-back.

Steve Gohouri: 5 — One to forget. Looked a bit confused at times at left-back, struggling with the impressive Chris Eagles. Caught trying to dribble his way out of trouble in the buildup to the second goal. Substituted at half-time. Not a left-back.

Ben Watson: 6 — I actually thought he was one of the better performers in the first half, but was sacrificed in order to bring on Hugo Rodallega at half-time.

Mo Diame: 7 — Took his goal very well, and the only Latics midfielder that consistently gets himself in scoring positions.

Dave Jones: 6 — Didn’t show his best, although his left foot set piece deliveries were useful (when he was allowed near the ball. What on earth was Di Santo doing taking direct free-kicks in the second half?!)

James McCarthy: 5 — For me, the biggest disappointment this season. Always works hard, but his class and attacking ability have been absent. So much potential, but if anything he has regressed. Still young, but we need him find his form.

Victor Moses: 7 — Same as every week. Dangerous, fast, powerful, a headache for the opposition, but needs someone to poke home the chances he creates. And a cooler head when he goes to finish them himself.

Franco Di Santo: 6 — Worked hard, a decent and skilful target man who has everything except the goalscoring instincts. He is rarely in the right place at the right time, when a cross comes into the box.

Subs:

Hugo Rodallega: 6.5 — Latics did look better with him on the pitch, but he ballooned a dangerously positioned free-kick and had most of his shots blocked.

Maynor Figueroa: 6 — Better than Steve Gohouri.

Shaun Maloney:  N/A — Not on the pitch long enough to make an impact. Wish he had been in the starting lineup.