Late heartbreak for classy Latics

2013-city

A very strong Wigan Athletic performance lacking only a goal ended in misery as a Carlos Tevez wonderstrike settled the affair with five minutes to go.

Wigan had been outstanding all over the pitch but more than once found themselves thwarted by excellent goalkeeping and defending at the crucial moment.

It is a cruel blow, but if ever a defeat could offer encouragement, this would be a good one to watch. For large periods of the match, Wigan out-passed and out-classed the defending champions on their own patch and deserved at least a point for their efforts.

Any concerns about the FA Cup being a distraction from league survival were put to bed in the first half, as Latics had earned two corners inside the first three minutes. Having reverted to the wingback formation with Franco Di Santo pairing Arouna Koné up front instead of a traditional right winger in Callum McManaman, Wigan enjoyed as much possession as their counterparts and without a doubt fashioned the best scoring opportunities. Di Santo was involved in two of them, first cutting his pass too far behind the on-rushing Koné, and then doing exceptionally well from a Shaun Maloney flick only to be sensationally stopped by Manchester City keeper Joe Hart.

Meanwhile, City were restricted to largely hopeful crossing although Paul Scharner’s struggles with Sergio Aguero and Carlos Tevez foreshadowed trouble. The midfield duo of James McCarthy and Jordi Gomez were neat and incisive and continued to fine tune their blossoming partnership. All in all, things were going very well indeed, though you got the feeling the missed opportunities would eventually prove costly.

The second half continued in much the same vein with a Maloney shot cleared off the line, followed by a sensational one-touch move involving Jordi Gomez, Maloney, Di Santo and Kone foiled by Vincent Kompany at the last second. City grew into the game as time went on, but Wigan threatened on the break and good running by McManaman — on for the injured Di Santo — could have done with a more assertive finish.

The Good:

This was a team performance reminiscent of the golden run-in last year, on the defending champions’ home patch. The midfield was outstanding, the forward play was strong and positive, and the defending, save for Scharner who struggled throughout, was top class.

The Bad:

An opportunity lost, given the level of performance and chances squandered. Di Santo generally looked sharp and hungry but was unable to take his chance. A difficult loss to swallow.

Player Ratings:

Joel Robles: 7 — Not much to do in first half, but made a couple very good saves in the second — one from Edin Dzeko in particular.

Paul Scharner: 5 — Had a hard time. Got beaten in one-on-ones, notably in the build-up to the goal, and gave away possession on several occasions.

Antolin Alcaraz: 8 — Commanding, with some intelligent and controlled slide tackling.

Maynor Figueroa: 7 — Good shift from the Honduran despite making a mess of a very promising breakaway in the second half with an overhit pass.

Emmerson Boyce: 7 — Worked very hard defensively and had to cover for Scharner more than once.

Jean Beausejour: 7 — Though his crosses were not finished off, he got forward frequently and played a number of them, some very tasty indeed. Also disciplined in defensive duties.

James McCarthy: 9 — Dominant in midfield, he grew as the match went on. Complete performance.

Jordi Gomez: 8 — Looking ever more comfortable in the holding role with some good positive passing and good break-up play. Showing more urgency and forward passing in recent weeks, which is great to see.

Shaun Maloney: 8 — Another excellent performer, denied on the line with a curling effort in the first half, and should have been on the assist sheet with a clever flick for Di Santo in the first. Was a pest all night darting, weaving and threading passes.

Franco Di Santo: 7 — What a shame he couldn’t tuck that one away. Did extremely well to shrug off his defenders but telegraphed it. Still, it was an excellent save by Hart and the Argentine had a good game. Lets hope the injury is minor.

Arouna Koné: 8 — Confident and strong target man play, he was in the right place at the right time more than once only for City’s excellent defenders to make last ditch tackles.

Subs:

McManaman: Looked confident when he came on and quickly created a good shooting opportunity, but failed to trouble Hart.

McArthur: Came on right after the goal and didn’t have enough time to affect the game.

Espinoza: A late sub.

Stoke City v Wigan Athletic: Bogey team again?

2013-lopez2

There was a bad joke being bandied about last summer that Pep Guardiola might be going to Stoke – after all he had been talking about taking a year out of football. Joking apart, a match against Stoke should not be taken lightly. Despite their emphasis on physicality they do have players who can play good football. Moreover the crowd noise at the Brittania Stadium places them at the peak of the league’s decibel table.

Wigan Athletic go into this match with relegation breathing down their backs. Is it a good time to go to Stoke? The Potters have had a torrid time recently, with only one win in the last 8 league matches. However, they have lost only a single  home match this season, that one being largely influenced by Jon Walters’ two own goals and penalty miss in the 4-0 loss to Chelsea. The Potters are a level above Wigan in terms of financial outlay and their fans are getting increasingly frustrated at the lack of delivery of their more well paid players. Peter Crouch and Kenwyne Jones will compete for the centre forward position, alongside leading scorer Walters. Michael Owen scored a goal in the defeat at Swansea last week, after coming off the bench for the last 5 minutes. It was his fifth appearance as a substitute and he has not started a game all season.  Neither Charlie Adam nor Matthew Etherington have been regulars in the team this season. Stoke’s game is built on a physical, but capable defence. They have conceded 27 goals so far this season, compared with Wigan’s 43.  The giant Robert Huth forms a formidable centre of defence with Ryan Shawcross. Huth is 6ft 3in tall, but so are  full backs, Ryan Shotton and Geoff Cameron.

Wigan are likely to approach this match cautiously with a conservative starting lineup containing only one mainline striker, Franco Di Santo. If Stoke’s defence does have a weakness it is probably at full back, but Wigan lack a genuine winger to take advantage, both Ryo Miyaichi and Albert Crusat out with long-term injuries. Following a good display in the cup tie at Macclesfield, Callum McManaman might well be introduced at some stage, but Martinez is likely to start with Jordi Gomez and Shaun Maloney behind lone centre forward, Di Santo. Given the strong possibility of an aerial bombardment by Stoke, Martinez will be looking at having height in his defence. Emmerson Boyce, Gary Caldwell and Maynor Figueroa will most likely form the back three, with Ronnie Stam and Jean Beausejour at wing back. However, there remains an option of providing more height in defence by bringing in either Adrian Lopez or Roman Golobart at centre back, with Boyce at right wing back. The two Jimmy Macs will almost certainly anchor the centre of midfield, although Martinez may choose to deploy a  third holding midfielder  there – David Jones or Roger Espinoza – at the expense of Gomez.

Given the fixture list coming up, Wigan will be anxious to get at least a point out of this match. They are going to have to work hard physically if they are to keep Stoke at bay. At the same time, they will also want to stay free of red cards or further injuries, given the key game against Southampton coming up on Saturday. Let’s hope Roberto Martinez surprises us and puts forward a well balanced lineup, resisting the temptation to pass the initiative to Stoke by playing with only one mainline striker.

Like us on Facebook, or follow us on twitter here.

Twin strikers at Wigan Athletic — a trip down memory lane

1964-65 : Wigan Athletic 3 Oswestry 0. Harry Lyon gets on to a Walter Stanley cross as Carl Davenport lurks menacingly. Allan Brown looks on from midfield (photo from Wigan World). 

In the late 1970s, my Dad and I would typically go out for a beer on Friday nights. We would rarely discuss things like politics or the weather, preferring to focus our conversations on Wigan Athletic’s progress in the Cheshire League. Among our discussions would be recollections of trips to watch Latics in exotic places like Stalybridge, Mossley and Oswestry. We lived in the south of Wigan, rugby league territory, so the pubs around us were steeped in that kind of nostalgia. One of those was ‘The Waterwheel’, run by ex-Great Britain rugby player, John Stopford. In his heyday in the early 1960s Stopford had been a lightning-fast winger for Swinton. Although he never played for Wigan RLFC, Stopford would draw rugby enthusiasts to his pub. We mostly avoided such places, preferring to walk further afield to pubs that were more salubrious for Wigan Athletic supporters.

One rainy night we succumbed, and tried ‘The Waterwheel’. Upon opening the door and the sight of the scrum surrounding the bar we started to think twice about it. There were some burly men there, faces like boxers, some with arms in slings. We were just about to walk out when my Dad said “Look it’s Harry Lyon over there.” It was indeed my hero from my teenage years. Chatting with Harry was easy. He just made you feel comfortable talking with him. Although he had left the club a decade before you could tell that Wigan Athletic was his first love. He said that it was a wonderful feeling running down the tunnel at the start of a game at Springfield Park, with some 3,000 people urging you on.

Harry Lyon was a great favourite with the fans, Wiganers not only appreciating his incredible goalscoring record, but also loving his commitment on the pitch. I asked him who was the best manager he had worked under – he had 5 during his time at the club from 1962-1968 — his reply was Allan Brown. Brown caused waves in the non-league world in 1964 when he took over at Wigan as player/manager, hiring a swath of full time professionals in a semi-professional league. After training, Brown would sometimes take his players to the town centre restaurant where my mother worked. I would be thrilled when she would bring home players’ autographs, usually written on the backs of serviettes.

Brown’s teams played an attacking 4-2-4 with the manager orchestrating from the centre of midfield. Carl Davenport was Lyon’s striking partner in Brown’s first year. Like Lyon he was an excellent header of the ball. I recall going to the Anchor Ground – aptly named at the time, a real quagmire of a pitch – to watch Latics play Darwen in a cup match. My Dad would recall for many years how Davenport had risen so high that his head was well over the height of the crossbar as he put the ball in the opponents net. Although Davenport was often referred to as an inside forward in those days, he was in reality a twin striker with Lyon. No teams found it easy to cope with the two of them. That season Harry Lyon scored 67 goals!

However, when I asked Harry who was the best striking partner he had played with he immediately retorted: Bert Llewellyn. Unlike Carl Davenport, Bert Llewellyn was only 5 feet 4 inches tall. A headed goal was a rarity, but after joining Latics in the summer of 1965, he scored 49 goals in 39 league appearances over the course of the season. Llewellyn was far from an elegant player, but was a natural goalscorer, sniffing around the penalty box for deflections, toe-poking and scrambling the ball into the back of the net. In his four years at Springfield Park, Llewellyn scored 140 goals in 185 appearances in all competitions. Remarkably, he outscored Lyon in his time at the club. Check out this wonderful article on This Northern Soul on Bert Llewellyn.

Since that era there have been lots of twin striking partnerships at Wigan Athletic. What a pity that wonderful pairing of Jason Roberts and Nathan Ellington was broken up when Latics reached the Premier League. How refreshing that Robert Martinez has adjusted his tactical system to play with two big strikers this season. The interplay between Arouna Kone and Franco Di Santo is a joy to watch. It is almost like turning back the clock.

We would love to hear from our readers – which has been your favourite striking partnership at Wigan Athletic?

Di Santo comes into his own

A bit unusual at first, Roberto Martinez’s strategy in the transfer market has become quite familiar. He likes to shop in Scotland and Spain — markets he knows well and can compete with financially. He’s not afraid to dip into lower divisions, and values a season-long loan from a top club to boost competition for places in the squad. He is astute in his timing, snapping up players like Victor Moses and Nouha Dicko at cut rate prices when their clubs were in financial need. His buys normally fall in one of three brackets: young, upcoming but unproven; players who have fallen to the fringes and want to re-establish their careers; or foreign players seeking a stage on which to earn a move to a bigger club.

The policy has yielded strong results. Signing two young central midfielders from Hamilton Academicals and moulding them into a Premier League partnership that out-tackled and out-passed the midfields of Manchester United, Arsenal, Chelsea and Liverpool last season borders on genius. Ali Al-Habsi, a reserve at neighboring Bolton, has been nothing short of outstanding. And Shaun Maloney, rescued from a hiccuping career for Celtic, has been revitalised in blue and white stripes after a slow start. But of all his success stories in the market — and there are plenty more — one signing stands out as an exception to his regular policy.

Franco Di Santo arrived from Chelsea for 2 million pounds on deadline day at the beginning of the 2010-2011 campaign. The Argentine had been plucked from Chilean outfit Audax Italiano in 2008 after a decent scoring record in the Chilean League, the South American Copa Libertadores (Champions League equivalent), and the Copa Sudamericana (Europa League equivalent). Having failed to break into the first team, Di Santo spent time on loan at Sam Allardyce’s Blackburn, but finished it with a desperate strike rate of 1 in 23 appearances, having been stuck out on the wing in a kick and rush system that clearly would not have suited him.

The move was surprising because Latics had never before shopped directly from a top four club. Scott Sinclair had come in on loan the year before and it was largely assumed that Franco would follow the same path. The fact that Wigan bought him outright, at a bargain 2 million price, was taken by many to mean that Chelsea simply didn’t rate him. The consensus around the league, and in the media, was that he didn’t have the finishing to cut it in the Premier League.

His transformation has been a joy to watch, but didn’t happen over night. Indeed, the goals took a long time to come. In his first season with the club, Franco was largely starved of service. In hindsight, it is not surprising that he, along with Mauro Boselli and Jason Scotland before him, struggled to score when flanked by Charles N’Zogbia and Hugo Rodallega — players who more often than not wanted to finish the move themselves.

But there have been several turning points in the past year for young Franco. He started last season with a couple spectacular — if slightly fortunate deflected — strikes, which did his confidence a world of good. Then, in December, Roberto switched to the current tactical system employing wing-backs rather than wing-ers. The switch did more than change the shape of the team. It transformed the way the team attacked. Instead of the right-footed winger on the left, cutting in to shoot, we started seeing the wing-backs, left-footer on left and right-footer on right, bomb forward and launch crosses into the box. The higher number of crosses resulted in higher number of chances for the centre-forward, and Franco has benefited — as have Arouna Koné and Mauro Boselli in their appearances this season. The strike rate per minute on pitch of all three strikers if you include league and cup matches this season, is higher than any Latics striker in the Roberto Martinez era. They are the top three.

The third and most recent catalyst, was the most recent tactical switch following Victor Moses departure and Arouna Koné’s arrival. Di Santo now has a strike partner, whose threat has freed up space for his clever running, and two of Di Santo’s three strikes this season have been assisted by the Ivorian. Di Santo now has service, confidence, and space — and his finishing has been been top class.

If he can keep up this level of finishing, there is nothing to stop Di Santo’s progress. His technique is excellent, he has pace and strength, excellent work rate, fantastic hold up play and is an intelligent passer of the ball. But it is more than his attributes on the pitch that catch the eye. Sometimes, when players take the step down from a larger club, their egos get in the way. When you watch Di Santo play, his enthusiasm is clear, and his body language is that of a man proud to play for the club. His enthusiasm is infectious, and no doubt an important element in the dressing room. Martinez likes to speak about bringing in not only the right talent, but the right personalities. In Franco, he has a winner who also seems a genuinely nice guy happy to be there.

As with many young prospects before him, this has not happened overnight. The club is only now starting to reap the benefits of the striker’s steep learning curve. But it has been a joy to watch his come into his own — long may it continue. At Wigan Athletic.

Much to appreciate despite late equalizer

An outstanding afternoon of Premier League football at the DW saw former hero and youth system product Leighton Baines cap a man of the match performance with the most emphatic penalty finish in recent memory. He has always been a tremendously skilled player, but the fact that Everton have built their team around him — a left back — is mightier praise than any words could offer. A slightly more muted celebration might have been welcome at the DW, but he remains a source of pride for those who witnessed his beginnings in Wigan.

Before the equaliser, Latics had enjoyed a very good first half, filled with the kind of crisp passing, pace and attacking incision Roberto has been working toward for some time now. Everton were always dangerous — little surprise with the amount of quality on display — but had fallen 2-1 behind and were a bit lucky to remain on even footing after Marouane Fellaini appeared to elbow Figueroa in the face. He’d been growingly frustrated throughout the half as Latics clearly sought to reduce his aerial threat on set pieces with a gentle shove here and there. The decision not to send him off was probably influenced by an earlier talking point. Latics’ first goal, an Arouna Kone header from a Sean Maloney cross, was marginally offside.

In the end, pressure told and Latics’ rearguard were undone by panic and good attacking pressure by their opponents, giving away a penalty with three minutes of regulation time to play. Baines stepped up, and despite a late flourish from the Latics including a glorious spurned opportunity by Sean Maloney, the result stood.

The Good:

The front three were in devastating form. Franco Di Santo showed no signs of rust after missing a game and a half through injury. His was a performance of pace, quality and intelligent passing and movement. His goal was well-taken, and he has now scored 3 for the season, despite missing the aforementioned game and a half. Arouna Kone put in his best performance in a Latics shirt and was a constant threat. He looks to have developed a good understanding with his attacking teammates and in this form, will never be far from the scoresheet. Sean Maloney was bright and dangerous all match, free to roam the pitch as lone playmaker, and might have sealed the win for Latics on a couple occasions with better finishing.

Particularly in the first half, the Jimmy Macs were showing the kind of energy and ferocity that led to Latics’ big results last season. First to every 50-50%, competitive but generally clean, they were a joy to watch. McArthur gave the ball away a couple times, McCarthy once — but in general their passing too, was of a high standard.

The Bad:

The lack of defensive composure to hold on to the result as pressure mounted. The McManaman-for-Di Santo substitution made sense but didn’t amount to much. The bigger question was why an extra ball-playing midfielder wasn’t introduced to try and regain possession when Everton were turning the screw. Still — Everton have the air of a team on the ascendancy. While always appreciative of David Moyes results on a tighter budget that their direct competitors in the upper part of the table, I’ve never been convinced of the type of football his teams display. But this is a side with real balance, understanding, and attacking flair. Credit where it’s due.

Conclusions:

We said in our preview that three points were needed. I’m personally satisfied with the result and performance, despite the disappointment of being unable to hold onto the three points. The way our attacking players linked up together in the first half in particular, but also in that late flourish, shows real promise. Sure, we are light on points, but there is quality in this side.

Kone has bedded in. It was bound to take a few matches, but his link-up play with Di Santo and Maloney was outstanding. His passing was intelligent and pace a threat.

Maloney is much more effective as the lone playmaker, as Jakarta Jack previously wrote about on this blog. He is a versatile attacker, full of invention, flicks and an eye for the killer through-ball. But it was his dribbling that left Seamus Coleman on his bum for the first goal. The freedom to move from one side to the other, identify and then run at the weaker defenders, brought out the best in him despite the missed opportunity at the end of the match.

On the surface, Emmerson Boyce’s season has been below the high standard he set last season. His attacking contribution has been small. But even on a tough day like this one, the advantage of having him in the side was evidenced in the number of clearances made with his head from set pieces. When you are only playing with three at the back, having him act as a fourth centre back on set pieces is crucial.

Player Ratings:

Ali Al-Habsi: 8 – Made some very good saves; one first half dipper in particular, was world class.

Ivan Ramis: 7.5 – My pick of the centre-backs, this might have been his best match so far in blue and white despite facing the outstanding pair of Steven Pienaar and Leighton Baines.

Gary Caldwell: 6 – Flustered towards the end.

Maynor Figueroa: 6 – Did okay despite the threat of the lively Kevin Mirallas, but might’ve ended up the villain if Kevin Friend had awarded a penalty aginst him in a 50-50 challenge with Jelavic.

Emmerson Boyce: 6 – No attacking contribution, which is entirely understandable when you have Leighton Baines and Steven Pienaar running at you. Defended well on set pieces.

Jean Beausejour: 6 – Some nice touches, passes and deliveries in the first half, but faded with the rest of the team in the second.

James McCarthy: 7 – There was a moment in the second half when he misplaced a pass and the whole stadium seemed to gasp and groan at the same time. You just don’t expect it. His pass completion rate is outstanding. He was immense in the first half but found it harder in the second.

James McArthur: 6.5 – Also fantastic in the first half, fading in the second.

Sean Maloney: 7.5 – Energetic, inventive 95 minutes from the little magician. Loses marks for uncharacteristically opting to shoot instead of squaring for an easy tap-in in the dying minutes of the match. Set up the first goal with a good piece of skill.

Franco Di Santo: 8.5 – Rarely loses the ball, and his use of it just keeps getting better. Developing into an elegant and mobile centre forward, with a vastly improved goals-per-game ratio.

Arouna Kone: 9 – Thoroughly impressive. On his own up front for large stretches for the match, but did a lot more than hold the ball up and knock it back — he seeks to create chances with his passing and running. A dynamic and highly promising performance.

Subs:

Callum McManaman: Must be personally pleased to be chosen to enter the fray at such a crucial time in the match. Has leapfrogged quite a few players in the pecking order in the last few months. More to come, hopefully…