Wigan vs. QPR: Clean sheets unlikely

2012-qpr

Wigan Athletic returns to the DW to face a Harrified QPR with even fewer available players than they left it — some feat! — including all four of the club’s first-choice centre-backs. The injury total now stands at eight senior players.

Word on the street is Roberto Martinez will revert to a more traditional four-man defence featuring Emmerson Boyce and Adrian Lopez as centre-halves — which sounds fine until reminded of Ronnie Stam’s defensive frailties as a traditional right-back, and the lack of a Maynor Figueroa understudy on the left. The idea of Boyce and Lopez being flanked by two wing-backs playing as full-backs — Stam and Beausejour — is not a warm and fuzzy one, not least because the team’s attacking play has largely been built around their ability to get forward and put crosses into the box.

A perhaps more fluid adjustment, if not without its own set of risks, would be the inclusion of promising Spanish youngster Roman Golobart as third centre-half. This would allow Beausejour and Stam to play in their natural positions and the rest of the team could remain unchanged.

Whichever way Martinez decides to go, statistics suggest the rest of us are in for some goals tomorrow. While Southampton lead the goals conceded table with a remarkable 32 — more than 2 per game — Wigan is close behind with 28, followed by QPR on 27. Considering Wigan’s four first choice defenders are unavailable and the goalkeeper is suffering from a bit of a confidence crisis, a clean sheet does not look likely, though stranger things have happened. If reports of Julio Cesar’s fitness struggle are true, we could even be in for another Robert Green appearance at the DW, thus furthering the argument.

Have you ever sat down to write something and realized five paragraphs in that it’s all coming out wrong?

Despite the defensive crisis and unlikeliness of a clean sheet, I am backing Wigan to win this fixture. Harry has already made big improvements at QPR, with the defence tightened up and Sean Wright-Phillips enjoying a second chance. They showed last week that they are quite good at hitting the post, which should sound familiar. But despite the negative results of the last two fixtures, Latics’ form overall has not been okay. If the general play and discipline of the City match can be retained, three points should be up for grabs.

Prediction: Wigan 2 QPR 1, Jordi Gomez style.

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.

The reserve team: An anachronism? What is the role of the second team?

Harry is his team’s outstanding striker. He can hit the ball with either foot with rocket-like precision. He can leap like a salmon and gets great headers. He has scored more goals than anyone has ever done for his club. He is an icon. But he is going through a bad spell. No goals for five games now and he is getting tense. The manager ‘drops’ him and it makes the headlines. Harry has to play for the reserves. A blow to his dignity. He is angry, but being a true professional, he accepts his fate. His first game for them is not a success: no goals and a poor performance. He scores a hat trick in his second game. But he is not recalled to the first team. Harry goes to see the manager. The manager tells him that he needs to do more: only then he will look at bringing him back to the first team. Harry responds and gets back into the first team. He continues on his successful career path.

Those times have gone. Let’s be fair: Harry’s career at the club could well have been waning, but in those days the reserve team was a different beast. They played on the same day as the first team. If you couldn’t make it to your first team’s away game you could go and watch the reserves. You could see the young players playing with some seasoned pros. Both benefited: the first team players could regain confidence, reap havoc against less experienced opposition. The younger players in the reserve team could learn exponentially through playing with the seasoned pros. A bygone era!

These days the reserve leagues serve a different function. The basic concept is that of the ‘development squad’ where young players are seemingly groomed for the Premier League. In reality, the players who play in the Premier Reserve League are from all over the world. Few of them make the jump to the Premier League. Worryingly fewer of them are English. The top clubs find ways to recruit the best teenagers worldwide, although their ethics can leave a sour taste in the mouth.

Take Wigan Athletic as an example. Twenty-one players have represented them — either started or come off the bench — in the 13 Premier League matches played this year. The development squad/reserve team have played 12 matches. 8 of those games were played without any of the aforementioned ‘first teamers’. James McArthur has played two games for the WADs; six others have played one game each. However, four of those were in one match against Everton Reserves. Hendry Thomas is still nominally a member of the first team squad, but he has not appeared on the pitch in the Premier League this year. In that time he has played one game for the WADs. An even more extreme case is that of Mike Pollitt who has not stepped on the pitch for either the first team or the WADs. How can these players possibly be match fit when they are playing no competitive football?

Wigan Athletic are not alone in having players who have been playing for neither their first or second strings up to this point. Reserve teams are regarded primarily as development squads for younger players, rather than as a means of keeping highly paid, underused senior professionals match fit. Wigan are one of the few Premier League clubs to have largely English players in their development squad. The club’s official site lists 17 ‘young professionals’ of whom only the young Spaniards, Roman Golobart and Abian Serrano, come from outside the UK. Looking at Manchester United’s reserve team lineup in the recent match against our WADs, they are largely foreign players. Last year was the best reserve team Wigan Athletic has ever had. They came close to winning the Premier Reserve League North, amid fierce competition, with a team largely composed of players born within a 40 mile radius of Wigan. Two of the outstanding performers – Callum McMananan and Roman Golobart – have since been sent off on loan in an attempt to give them a taste of first team football. However, seasoned development squad veterans such as Daniel Redmond and Jordan Mustoe must wonder whether they will ever make the jump to Premier League football. A make or break season for them.

Hats off to Roberto Martinez, Graham Barrow and the coaching staff for revitalizing our youth system, bringing in so many capable young professionals. Those young pros who are fortunate enough to play in the Premier Reserve League are meeting good quality opposition. Unfortunately this cannot be said of our third string team who play in the Football League Youth Alliance against the likes of Macclesfield and Tranmere. They have won only 2 of their 12 matches this season. Although it can be argued that results are not the key factor with this age range there is clearly a lot of work to be done by the new coach John Doolan. A pity that we cannot compete with the bigger clubs at this level.

My overriding concern is that of first team squad players who simply do not play enough competitive football to be match-fit. Our strikers cannot score goals but Rodallega and Sammon have each played only one game for the reserves and Di Santo has played none. Putting senior players into the reserve team helps them move toward match sharpness while their presence benefits the younger members of the squad. A balance needs to be achieved, between using the reserve team to maintain levels of match fitness among the senior squad, and providing a nurturing environment for the young pros. There is an imbalance in this respect not only at Wigan ,but at most clubs in the Premier League. It needs to be addressed.