Players who don’t seem to care – Norwich (H) match reaction

Can Mackay turn it around?

Can Mackay turn it around?

Over the years we have seen some abject performances from Latics with woeful scorelines. Too often when they were in the Premier League they would play a top of the table team and hold their own until the opponents scored their first goal. The confidence would sag and the legs would start to go. The exertion required to hold back the tide had taken too much out of the players, both physically and mentally. It almost looked like the players didn’t seem to care. It was akin to capitulation.

But those players did care. It was a learning experience for so many of them, but they would bounce back and get the most amazing results against those same elite clubs. One always felt with Roberto Martinez that he was trying to do something special, despite the very limited resources he had to work with. It was the mental side of things that he was building up. The players had to be mentally tough to compete against teams with so much more individual quality than they had.

After five decades of watching Latics I have rarely felt as depressed as I was after yesterday’s Norwich game. The stats show that Wigan committed just 5 fouls, to the Canaries’ 12. Neither side received a yellow card. Did those players really care? Where was the passion?

It was sad to see Uwe Rosler’s demise. It was inevitable, given the awful results that his team was getting this season. But Rosler at least had a vision of the kind of football he wanted, even if the players were unable or unwilling to produce it.

The football we saw yesterday was reminiscent of the worst days of Rosler’s predecessor, Owen Coyle. The goalkeeper and the defenders hoofing the ball upfield to a lone centre forward. To his credit Fortune did actually defy the odds and win some of those balls yesterday. But the possession he gained was too often squandered by teammates.

Despite his reputation as a motivational manager, Mackay was unable to motivate his players yesterday. His team selection and tactics surely did not help.

The local newspaper had got us excited about Shaun Maloney coming back after illness. When the team was announced it looked like he would play in the attacking midfield position, in front of Chris McCann and Ben Watson. But Maloney was to be confined to the left wing and James McClean occupied that role. McClean was like a fish out of water. He has a repertoire of skills,  but not those needed for that position. Maloney never got into the game and was substituted after 47 minutes.

Mackay left Emmerson Boyce on the bench and neither Gary Caldwell nor Thomas Rogne even appeared there. Instead Mackay brought in Maynor Figueroa at centre back. Figs rarely played for Latics as a centre half in a conventional back four in the Martinez days. When he did it was not particularly successful. He could be excellent playing on the left of a back line of three central defenders, but that is quite distinct from the position he played yesterday.

Mackay took most of us by surprise when he named both of the previously long-term absentees, McCann and Watson in the team to play at Sheffield. It was even more of a shock to see them paired together again yesterday. McCann had actually performed well in his first two matches, but he and Watson were unable to turn it on yesterday. The two are crucial to Latics turning the season around. Mackay is taking a gamble in playing the two so much after their long recuperations from injury. He runs the risk of losing them with their bodies taking a toll of not playing for 8-9 months.

As expected, Don Cowie made his first appearance under Mackay, who had been his manager at both Watford and Cardiff. Cowie went to right midfield where he performed as he has before in that position. Pedestrian to be sure, but Cowie will at least make the effort. The result was Callum McManaman being pushed inside and not seeming to know where he was playing.

The hard-working Fortune was taken off after 82 minutes to be replaced by Roger Espinoza. Given the insipid, characterless stuff we had seen up to that point it was a pity Espinoza had not been brought on earlier. The player has many qualities, not the least of which is to fight for the ball and run forward with enthusiasm. But, even then, he was a midfielder replacing a central striker with Latics a goal behind.

Mackay was to make his biggest gaffe of the afternoon by bringing on Andy Delort after 88 minutes for Chris McCann. Fortune can rarely be faulted for effort and he often does a remarkable job of bringing down and controlling Scott Carson’s long kicks. But he is rarely a threat to the opponents’ goal. Delort has been scoring goals for the development squad. Admittedly there is a gulf between the Final Third Development League and the Championship, but the Frenchman also has a fine goalscoring record in Ligue 2, not light years away. Bringing Delort on so late is hardly going to help his confidence.

Mackay has a difficult task ahead of him. However, for the last two games his players have not competed as they need to. Moreover he has made baffling team selections.

He needs to get his act together soon, or Latics will be in deep, deep trouble.

Wigan Athletic & Honduras: A love story

It was a chilly evening in Bloemfontein. The 2010 World Cup was in full swing, and while the rest of the world adjusted their TV sets for the decisive Group H match — Spain vs. Chile — my party set off for Free State Stadium amid a sea of blue and white stripes.

My wife Kat and I, fresh from a 12 hour drive from Port Elizabeth where we’d taken in England’s 1-0 win over Slovenia a couple days prior — wore Wigan Athletic shirts. My brother-in-law John, also dressed in Wigan from head to toe, had followed Honduras’ progress through the qualifiers and ensured we had tickets for the group match against Switzerland. Everyone else wore Honduras colours, but by the time we arrived at the stadium, the distinction was blurred.

On paper, the match was a drab 0-0 that dumped Switzerland out of the tournament (Honduras had already been knocked out after defeats against Spain and Chile). But for Hondurans, this was an historic night. Second World Cup, their first since 1982. And it might have been a first win but for some good goalkeeping from the Swiss. The draw was seen as a dignified way to bow out of an extremely tricky group, in their second World Cup appearance. Switzerland had defeated Champions-to-be Spain only a week prior — they were no slouches.

On the pitch, former Latics favourite Wilson Palacios bossed the midfield alongside Hendry Thomas, still a Wigan player at the time. They never got to play together at the JJB or DW, a shame based on the tenacity displayed that evening. Maynor Figueroa, heroic in previous matches despite the defeats, continued his fine form in defense. Current Latics target Roger Espinoza was on the bench. As Figueroa walked toward the tunnel at the end of the match, I shouted in Spanish, “Maynor, por favor quedate en el Wigan!” [Maynor, please stay at Wigan] As the words registered, he retreated back out of the tunnel, stuck his back out head out, and gestured a thumbs up my way. True to his word, he remains a fixture at Wigan Athletic to this day.

I’ve since learned that we were not the only Latics supporters following Honduras at that World Cup. For years now, a curious bond has formed between the Central American nation and the northern town of Wigan.

Having spent a large part of my childhood in Colombia, I know what it means for a Latin American country to see their footballer exports succeed abroad. My dad would pull me out of bed on Sunday mornings to watch Faustino Asprilla play for Parma, and later Newcastle. This was long before the days of Ivan Cordoba’s success at Inter Milan, or the present day golden generation of Colombians succeeding in Europe led by Radamel Falcao. There were two or three players plying their trade abroad, and their every movement was watched with pride.

In many ways, Wigan Athletic has become dear to Hondurans as Parma did to Colombians back in those days. If Roger Espinoza completes his rumoured move from the MLS upon the expiration of his contract, he will become the fourth Honduran to play for the Latics. It is no coincidence that Honduras qualified to their first World Cup in 2010, as their players found first team football in top level leagues. Wigan continue to give their players a stage, an opportunity to grow — and they are reaping the benefits. Needing a win to progress in CONCACAF qualifying yesterday, they annihilated Canada 8-1 and in turn leapfrogged them and Panama to win their qualifying group in the final fixture. Their excellent showing at the Olympics proved there is more talent coming through, Espinoza included. A second consecutive World Cup is a possibility.

And so, there is a real bond between Honduras and Wigan Athletic. Jet-lag aside, Honduras’ success in the qualifiers can only be good for the Latics. Maynor Figueroa has grown immensely over the years. Honduras was the first to use him as a left centre-half, and it wouldn’t be surprising if watching Honduras had persuaded Roberto Martinez to use him in the same way in Wigan. The experience these players gain in major tournaments ultimately strengthens their performances for the club. If Rodallega had been able to break into the Colombian team, he too, might have further developed. As it was, he fell down the pecking order and stagnated for both club and country.

So keep an eye out for our Honduran brethren in the final six-team CONCACAF group stage. With Mexico, USA, Costa Rica, Panama, and Jamaica for company — three automatic berths, and a playoff against Oceania — you may have another reason to travel to Brazil in 2014.

iSaludos a nuestros lectores en Honduras! Siguenos en Twitter y Facebook.

WIGAN ATHLETIC 3 WOLVERHAMPTON WANDERERS 2 – CHAMPAGNE FOOTBALL IN A PARTY ATMOSPHERE

What a pleasant way to end a season – champagne football played by Latics, with an appreciative home crowd lapping it up. How strange that after 8 minutes with the home crowd celebrating an upcoming 8th year in the Premier League, Matt Jarvis should dampen the party atmosphere by scoring a peach of a goal. Receiving a ball from Steven Ward he cut in from the left and put a peach of a shot beyond Ali Al Habsi’s reach.

Latics came back in the 12th minute with an opportunist goal from Franco Di Santo, kicking the ball between the legs of a Wolves defender into the left hand corner, after James McCarthy had dispossessed Stephen Hunt in midfield. The Jimmy Macs and Shaun Maloney were running the midfield and it came as no surprise when Emmerson Boyce scored two minutes later with a towering header from a Jean Beausejour corner. Latics dominated the remainder of the first half with their excellent movement and silky skills, but could not further add to their tally.

Wolves came out with more resolve in the second half and the Wigan defence had to be on its toes. Al Habsi produced an excellent save from Kevin Doyle, but Gary Caldwell was ruling the roost at the back. Wigan continued to produce waves of classy football, with Shaun Maloney orchestrating the play, giving the Wolves defence a torrid time. The lively Albert Crusat came on for Victor Moses after 58 minutes and Hugo Rodallega for Franco Di Santo after 79 minutes. Within the first minute of coming on it was Rodallega who headed the ball for Boyce to hit a screamer of a half volley into the net. Jordi Gomez came on for Shaun Maloney after 82 minutes.  In the 84th minute Boyce went through the Wolves defence with the chance of a hat trick. However, he unselfishly tried to square the ball to Rodallaga and the chance was lost. Steven Fletcher got a consolation goal for Wolves on 86 minutes, after Adrian Lopez – in for the injured Antolin Alcaraz – got caught in possession on the edge of his penalty area. In another sweeping move Rodallaga was unlucky to see his shot hit the post in the final minute of added time. The final whistle signaled a pitch invasion by delighted fans.

The Good

The scoreline did not truly reflect the gulf between the two teams. This was champagne football from Latics, with Shaun Maloney being at the core of practically all of our best attacking moves. The Latics fans have been fantastic over the past few months, in sharp contrast to the doom and gloom that pervaded the earlier part of the season. The belief shown by the fans has galvanised a team previously lacking self confidence.

 It is not only the prospect of an 8th season in the Premier League that makes me look forward to the resumption in August. More than that it is the prospect of Latics playing this brand of football and not being afraid of the rich and bloated clubs who dominate the league. We have to shed the image of “Little Wigan” and move up a notch in our own estimation. If Bob and Dave both stay for a few years longer we will not be perennially looking to avoid relegation, but towards being in the top half of the table, seeking a Europa league place.

The Bad

After being outstanding in recent games Antolin Alcaraz suffered a thigh injury in training. Estimated time of recovery is 6 weeks so let’s hope all will be well for him at the start of next season. He was missed in defence.

Player Ratings


Ali Al Habsi: 8 – Did all he could to keep Wolves out.  A top class ‘keeper.

Emmerson Boyce: 9 – This defensively minded player has become a real attacking option in the right wing back position. Has scored three cracking goals in recent matches.

Adrian Lopez: 6 – Tried hard to impose himself physically, but looked nervy. His lack of match fitness and practice probably contributed to him losing the ball for Wolves’ second goal.

Gary Caldwell: 9 – Superb at the back once again.

Maynor Figueroa: 8 – Excellent yet again.

Jean Beausejour: 8 – Played more of an attacking role than usual. Put in some lovely crosses that might have led to more goals.

James McCarthy: 8 – Excellent yet again.

James McArthur: 8 – Probably our most under rated player. Excellent performance.

Shaun Maloney: 9 – A brilliant performance from the Little Magician.

Victor Moses: 6 – Ineffective, taken off after 58 minutes. Maybe unsettled by transfer talk?

Franco Di Santo: 8 – Must be one of the best in the Premier League in his skilful hold-up play. Scored an opportunist goal.

Substitutes

Albert Crusat: 8 – Made a major impact as a substitute, coming close to scoring on at least three occasions. Promises well for the future.

Hugo Rodallega – Has been a great servant for Wigan Athletic. What shame he was unlucky in the last minute, hitting the post as his Latics career was coming to a close.

Jordi Gomez – Worked hard and put through some nice passes. This has been his best season at the club and he has managed to silence many of his critics.

WIGAN ATHLETIC 0 MANCHESTER CITY 1 – A VALIANT DISPLAY FROM LATICS

A valiant display by Wigan Athletic, but in the end not enough to share the points. It was heartening to see the amount of fight and conviction shown by the Latics against a team way beyond their league in resources and sheer footballing talent. This was certainly no capitulation: no player could be faulted for effort from my viewpoint.

Latics switched their tactical lineup to the old 4-2-1-3 system, with Albert Crusat coming in on the left wing and James McArthur brought in to play the holding midfield role with James McCarthy. Mohamed Diame was absent on Senegal duty and David Jones out injured. Manchester City played Dzeko and Aguero up front and they were to give the Latics central defenders, Caldwell and Alcaraz, a very testing afternoon.

The first 20 minutes or so were really quite open with Wigan attacking with some verve and City promising, but not quite delivering. There was a warning sign after 10 minutes when a cross from Clichy found Dzeko unmarked, but luckily for Wigan he headed wide. It was therefore no surprise when he scored an opportunist header in the 22nd minute from Silva’s free kick. Neither Caldwell nor Alcaraz were close enough to challenge him in his leap. It was a pity to lose a goal like that because Latics had played some good football and had some half chances. Al Habsi made a great save from the dangerous Aguero as the first half was coming to an end.

The first part of the second half saw increasing City pressure, only the excellence of Al Habsi keeping them out. His double saves from Aguero, then from Silva, were absolutely outstanding. Not long after that Aguero skated through the Wigan defence, but somehow Dzeko got in his way and Wigan were let off the hook. Despite this pressure Wigan had still not thrown in the towel and seemed to grow in confidence. Watson and Di Santo were brought on to replace the tiring McArthur and Crusat and Wigan began to attack with some gusto. Their best effort came when a fine pass by Rodallega put McCarthy through, only for his cross shot to be blocked by Hart’s foot.

In the 88th minute Maynor Figueroa deliberately handled the ball when Aguero would have been clean through. He was fortunate to escape with a yellow card, although much has been made in the press since of Mancini’s cynical waving of the imaginary red card at the refereeing team. Mancini should have no complaints about the refereeing: practically every time City went down they got a foul whereas they were not afraid to stifle any attacking intent from Latics with tactical/professional fouling. City average over 12 fouls per game this season, significantly higher than those other clubs in the top six. The match stats read 17 fouls committed by Wigan and 15 by City, but those figures could have been easily reversed given the number of calls he made for 50-50 challenges, almost all of which went against Latics. Both teams finished with 3 yellow cards.

The Good

Martinez showed tactical flexibility in reverting to the old system and the lineup was well balanced. He played with three front players plus Jordi Gomez in the hole behind the centre forward. A bold move against such formidable opposition. Latics played some good football at times and, with luck, could have snatched a result in the last 20 minutes. There was certainly no capitulation and they were taking the game to City in that last quarter of the match. A spirited performance.

The Bad

The defence looked leaky throughout, despite really gritty efforts from the back four to hold back the floodgates. Having said that Dzeko and Aguero are two of the best strikers in the league and are going to cause problems for any defence. However, failing to challenge Dzeko in the air led to one goal and it was lucky it was not two in the first half.

Player Ratings

Ali Al Habsi: 9 – Another superb display. Kept Latics in the game with outstanding saves.

Ronnie Stam: 5 – Has been outstanding in recent games as a wing back, but in this game he had to revert to full back, where he struggles.

Antolin Alcaraz: 4 – The poorest game I have seen him play for Latics. We rely on him to win the ball in the air and he did not do it enough in this match.

Gary Caldwell: 4 – At times looked out of his depth. Tends to really struggle against the quality strikers of the top teams.

Maynor Figueroa: 5 – Not one of his best days, but as always he hung in there and tried his hardest. Lucky not to be sent off.

James McCarthy: 8 – Worked tirelessly in shielding his defence from the City onslaught, showing good skills. Good to see him getting forward, unlucky with his shot on goal in the second half.

James McArthur: 6 – The perennial substitute was given a starting role in the Premier League for only the second time this year. Given his lack of match practice he did a pretty good job. Although he misplaced some passes he did a lot of solid defensive work and put some nice balls forward. Showed his technique with a good snap-shot in the first half.

Jordi Gomez: 7 – Worked hard to try to engineer Latics attacks. Put in some nice touches and covered a lot of ground.

Victor Moses: 5 – Was too greedy in this match, too many times opting to dribble when teammates were in better positions awaiting a pass.

Hugo Rodallega: 7 – Worked tirelessly as the lone centre forward. Gradually regaining his form.

Albert Crusat: 6 – Hardly got the ball. Looked good when he had it. Showing improvement in the defensive side of his game.

Substitutes

Ben Watson: – Surprising to see McArthur preferred to him in the starting line-up. Did a useful job after coming on in the 68th minute.

Franco Di Santo – Tried hard but to no end result after coming on in the 68th minute.

Callum McNamaman – Only came on in the last 10 minutes and had little chance to shine.

WITHIN STRIKING DISTANCE OF SALVATION – END OF YEAR REVELATIONS – A LOOK BACK AT WIGAN ATHLETIC IN 2011

Christmas is past and it is the time of year when we reflect back on events of the past twelve months and make our resolutions for the coming year. As a Wigan Athletic fan I have to admit that 2011 has been an extremely stressful, frustrating year. But the fact is that we are still in the Premier League – even if the establishment might not want us there and is doing us no favours. It is going to continue to be an uphill battle for us to hang in there, but we are within striking distance of salvation. We have got through an horrendous December fixture list with pride intact and have maintained our status quo in the table.

What revelations we have seen since the Wolves defeat in November. Revelation number one was Roberto Martinez changing his tactical system in a way that has got better performances from the players he has at his disposal. However, for me the biggest revelations have been the form of the previously unfavoured Ronnie Stam and the much maligned Jordi Gomez.

Ronnie Stam joined Latics after helping FC Twente win their first ever Eredivisie championship in 2009-2010. He was their player of the year that season. He was called up for his first Netherlands cap at the end of the season but was unable to make it through injury. Clearly an accomplished player noted for his strong motivation and work ethic. Taking over from his fellow Dutchman – the elegant Mario Melchiot – was never going to be easy and Stam was unable to provide the level of combative tackling required for a Premier League full back. However, at wing back he has the energy and drive to shield his central defenders whilst making surging runs upfield and providing tantalizing crosses. What a transformation!

Jordi Gómez is a product of the superb Barcelona youth system. He left the club when 22 years old in 2007 to join their city rivals Espanyol. He was later recruited by Swansea in a season-long loan in summer 2008, scoring 14 goals in the Championship division. Steve Claridge provided a scouting report of Gomez for the Guardian newspaper in February 2009 where he quotes that “Roberto Martínez has certainly used his knowledge of Spanish football to get Jordi Gómez on loan for the season from under the noses of three La Liga sides. Languid was a word that sprung to mind after I watched Gómez play as he is rarely rushed into doing anything, even in tight situations, and instead remains cool, calm and collected on the ball, making at times a difficult game look easy.” It is that languidity of style that has helped make Gomez the butt of frustrated fans who demand a more high action approach. In his first Premier League season at Wigan he was constantly fouled, prompting comments that he was slow on the ball. He was lambasted for his lack of tackling ability. Earlier this season he was asked to play on the right wing, clearly not his best position. This did not help him look good in front of the fans. However, I would challenge anyone who could criticise the man after his recent performances, where he has looked every ounce a Premier League player, playing the midfield general role with panache, but also covering a huge number of yards in each December game. I once heard a quote that we would only see Gomez show his real self when Latics were playing well. Hats off to Jordi for hanging in there, despite the pressure on him.

Going back to our tactical lineup. Having three central defenders is really helping to provide more stability in defence. Some weeks ago there were many who questioned the class of our captain, Gary Caldwell, some suggesting that he was a Championship player out of place in the Premier League. His recent performances have proved so many people wrong. It is no coincidence that the stats place him among the highest in the division for interceptions made: who is more likely to put his body in the way to save his team but this determined Scot? Maynor Figueroa had a difficult start to the season, playing as an orthodox centre half, but has been excellent in his new position of left centre half. Antolin Alcaraz has had a topsy turvy season, but for me, remains our best defender. The best is yet to come from him.

So what is our revelationary new system? How does it work and who plays where? We seem to have a legion of midfield players, a lone centre forward and another player with licence to roam in Victor Moses. In the Chelsea game I recall seeing Victor Moses haring down the left wing with David Jones running on his inside. Although one might have expected Jones to be the one going down the left wing and Moses inside the whole thing seemed to work. No matter what the system you have to have players coming into the penalty box for you to score most of your goals. Our old friend, Garry Birtles, pointed out the lack of support for the lone centre forward in the Arsenal match. Since then there has been a significant improvement, the midfield players getting further forward in support. However, the question remains whether the implementation of the system provides a consistent and adequate level of support for the central striker. Moreover orthodox wingers do not fit into that system, so one wonders whether the role of Albert Crusat is nullified by the system. It has been disappointing not to see more of Shaun Maloney, but this system may well suit him, if he can get back in there. However, Martinez retains the option to move to the old 4-3-3 setup, if the situation demands. All in all, a good situation where you have tactical flexibility. Well done, Roberto!

What kind of quality do we have in the Latics’ squad? A tough question to answer, but the bottom line is that we have enough to be edging towards mid-table. We have a lot of players who can be considered “a work in progress” . Some of them are good enough to play for a top four team with comfort. Our goalkeeper, Ali Al Habsi, competes with the best in the division. James McCarthy has become an excellent “Makelele” although we miss his attacking prowess. Ben Watson is a fine footballer who has fallen foul in some way – maybe the perception that he would not fit so well into the new system or perhaps something off-field? Victor Moses is potentially an international class player, but is young and lacks definition to his exciting runs. He needs more time. Mohammed Diame has probably been our best outfield player this season. A complete player who would fit comfortably into any of the top four teams. We have players like Franco Di Santo, with wonderful technique, but not the confidence to go with it. Alcaraz is potentially a class above his partners in defence, although this is not yet fully proven. The on-loan Van Aanholt is clearly a class player and we may well see him step into the left wing back position, as a stronger player defensively than David Jones. We have no real problem players in the squad – a far cry from recent years when we have had some people who were happy to pick up fat cheques for minimal work. Over the past two years Martinez has patiently unloaded such players. There are some real good pros there who work hard and do their best. Callum McNanaman will challenge for a position following a successful loan spell at Blackpool. Roman Golobart, a potential defensive giant, is doing so well at Inverness they want to extend his loan until the end of the season. Still only nineteen he could be the revelation a year from now.

Well done, Roberto Martinez, in sticking to your guns and having an expectation of good football. Your long term planning is exceptional and you have managed to keep Wigan Athletic in the Premier League despite the financial restraints you have had to deal with. You are to be commended on your faith in players, such as Stam and Gomez, and in your belief that we can compete at this level. We remain the in the mire, but there remains more than a glimmer of hope that we will be in the Premier League again next season. A week or two back I was getting pessimistic about our chances of hanging in there. Now we are within striking distance of salvation and there have been genuine revelations in player performances. My New Year Resolution must be to “KEEP THE FAITH” and not waiver. We can do it, despite the obstacles the Premier League puts in our way.