Overloading the midfield

Preferred position - central midfield.

Preferred position – central midfield.

Owen Coyle had left it late, but he finally got his man on the last day of the summer transfer window in 2013. Nick Powell was 19 years old and still in Alex Ferguson’s plans. Manchester United had paid Crewe £6 million for his services in July 2012. Powell had made his debut for United just a couple of months later, scoring against Latics after coming on as a 71st minute substitute for Ryan Giggs.

“We see him as a central midfield player. Crewe played him as a forward in behind the striker, but I asked a question of [Alex director of football] Dario Gradi as to whether he thought central midfield was his position. That’s what he thinks, and Nick thinks that’s his position too, so we’re all in accord on that.”

Ferguson’s comment seemed to fall on deaf ears with Coyle, who was faced with injuries to his two main central strikers, Marc Antoine Fortune and Grant Holt. Powell was to be played as a centre forward, a position he had played earlier in his career. Over the next couple of months he was to establish himself as the club’s best striker, scoring three goals in Latics’ inaugural appearance in the Europa League. The disastrous Coyle reign ended in early December, but new manager Uwe Rosler continued to play him in the starting lineup. But niggling injuries started to take effect and Powell lost form. By the end of the season he looked a shadow of what we had seen in the short-lived Coyle era.

When Powell returned to Wigan a couple of weeks back many of us looked at his arrival as a boost for an attack so dependent on Will Grigg. Powell could step in as a centre forward, or play just behind the central striker. But in Powell’s first two matches against Blackburn Rovers and Birmingham City he was played as a central midfielder.

Although it was not a position he played in during his earlier days at Wigan, Powell has already looked the part playing there. It is his preferred position, although Gary Caldwell has acknowledged that Powell offers him flexibility through being able to play in different positions. However, if Powell is to be a regular starter in central midfield, who will be giving way for him?

Last season’s central midfield lynchpins were David Perkins and Max Power. They were joined in January by Sam Morsy, who had some highly impressive displays in the “Busquets role” in front of the back four. However, the ex-Chesterfield man also had some disappointing performances. However, many of us saw the 24 year old Morsy as a player for the future, someone who could add steel to the midfield, but who was also able to spray out pinpoint passes.

It was therefore a surprise to hear rumours that Latics were trying to sell Morsy. Both Chesterfield and Sheffield United have apparently matched Wigan’s asking price of around £400,000, but Morsy remains at Wigan, for the time being at least. Morsy will surely be loath to step back down to League 1, after reaching the Championship. He is within his rights to put his foot down and refuse to move on, having two years remaining on his contract at Wigan.

But over the past couple of years we have seen what a powerful machine there is at the club in “helping”, or maybe cajoling, players into moving on. The likelihood is that Morsy will be gone soon, with Latics recently signing a replacement in Shaun MacDonald.

The main contenders for a central midfield role are now MacDonald, Perkins, Powell and Power, with Tim Chow as back up. Alex Gilbey has so far been played a more advanced role, but could also challenge for a holding role.

The term “midfielder “ these days can include wing backs and other wide players. Yanic Wildschut is what might have been described in the old days as a “winger”, nowadays labelled as a midfielder, although he can also play a twin striker role. Michael Jacobs can also be classed as a winger, although his best position is probably in the hole between the midfield and the central striker. Ryan Colclough is usually played wide, but is another who might be more effective in an advanced central midfield role. However, Latics have now signed Jordi Gomez who can operate effectively in that role. Jordan Flores is a bright young talent, also an attacking midfielder. It could be a make or break season for Flores who has struggled with the physical demands of the game, despite his excellent technique and footballing vision. Andy Kellett will provide another option when he regains fitness after surgery.

Caldwell has such a wealth of midfield talent at his disposal that some would say it is an overload. Others would say that there are 46 games to play in a Championship season and you need to rotate your midfielders to keep them fresh. However, Morsy is not likely to be alone in leaving.

Caldwell continues to search for another centre forward of the quality of Grigg. Such players cost big money and he will be looking at raising funds to pay for it. It would not be a surprise to see other players from last season’s League 1 team following Morsy out of the door. In the meantime there could be loan moves for the some of the younger midfielders on the fringes of selection.

For the moment Latics have midfielders who have proven goalscoring records. Gomez and Powell both scored goals in their previous spells at the club and last season Colclough scored 9, Wildschut 7, Jacobs 8, Power 6 and Gilbey got 5. However, Caldwell will also look at protecting his defence and it would be no surprise to see MacDonald in the “Busquets role” if Morsy departs.

The transfer window is nearing its close. Having expected Caldwell to stick with the backbone last year’s team it was notable that the starting lineup in the first league game at Bristol City included five new faces.

Even more change is on its way.

Holgerrson to stay?

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Markus Holgerrson is one of several Latics players whose contracts expire this summer.

The big Swede, Markus Holgerrson, at last made his debut for Wigan Athletic, albeit coming on at Blackburn as a substitute after 72 minutes.

Holgerrson was signed as a free agent from New York Red Bulls in early February, with glowing references. His contract is until the end of the current season, which is impending.

Uwe Rosler took a gamble at Blackburn by surprisingly playing Ivan Ramis in a central back line of three. The Spaniard came off at half time, to be substituted by Leon Barnett. Knowing that Ramis could be a key player in the playoffs, Rosler took the gamble of playing him despite the risk of it being too early following the hamstring injury from which he has been recuperating. Only time will tell if Rosler was right to put Ramis in there. A fit Ramis could make a big difference to the promotion push. But will he make it?

At this stage Holgerrson’s future at Wigan is uncertain. Rosler has been able to assess him in training, in the development squad and in about 20 minutes of competitive league play.

Were Holgerrson not to be offered a further contract it would not be a surprise following previous occurrences at the club. At the beginning of last season Roberto Martinez brought in two young players from Spain who had represented their country at youth and schoolboy levels. Eduard Campabadal was an exciting young right back from Barcelona who had put in good performances for the development squad. Martinez gave him his league debut in the last match of the season against Aston Villa and he did not play badly. However, for some unstated reason the 20 year old left the club over the summer and is now back in Spain playing for Cordoba. The other young prospect, forward Guillermo Andres, signed from Villareal, remains in the development squad.

The fate of Nouha Dicko does not bode well for Holgersson and others struggling to get frontline experience. As has happened with other young players at Wigan, Dicko was never given a run of games in which to establish himself. Under Roberto Martinez he went to Blackpool on loan and played well, scoring 9 goals in 32 appearances. Owen Coyle’s arrival saw him shipped off to Rotherham where he once again gave a good account of himself and scored 5 goals in 5 appearances. Despite never giving him a chance in the first choice lineup, in January Uwe Rosler sold him to Wolves where he since has scored 13 goals in 19 appearances. Given Latics’ lack of a forward who can regularly score goals the Dicko transfer was hard to fathom.

The dearth of first team opportunities for young players in particular has been a sore point at Wigan for some time. Callum McManaman had to wait so long to get his chance, as did Lee Nicholls. Their contemporaries Danny Redmond and Jordan Mustoe still have not started in a single league match despite being 23 years old and successfully negotiating Latics’ youth system and the development squad. They still remain on Latics’ books.

During his tenure at Wigan, Roberto Martinez was loath to blood young players from within the club in league games. More surprisingly Martinez gave young midfielder Fraser Fyvie little opportunity outside cup games to prove his worth. Fyvie was certainly no raw recruit, having made more than 50 appearances for Aberdeen in the SPL up to the age of 20, when he joined Latics. The current season has been a disaster for the skilful midfielder with injuries and unfortunate loan spells at Yeovil and Shrewsbury taking their toll. He has now had three managers at Wigan who have not had the confidence to give him a further league start to add to the single one he received at the same time as Campabadal against Aston Villa.

Owen Coyle took Adam Buxton to the USA for pre-season, but the young defender soon disappeared from the limelight. Over recent months he has had loan spells at Burton Albion and Accrington Stanley .

The news came out today that Honduras coach, Luis Fernando Suarez, has named both Roger Espinoza and Juan Carlos Garcia in his squad of 23 players for Brazil. The Colombian has also included ex-Latics favourites Maynor Figueroa and Wilson Palacios. Given that Garcia has played only one senior game all season at Wigan, Suarez clearly has faith in the player’s abilities. It was a surprise that Rosler did not include Garcia in the squad for the Blackburn game on Saturday. The player still has two more years remaining on his contract.

Holgerrson is not alone in that he has a contract expiring in summer. He is joined by Jean Beausejour, Emmerson Boyce, Gary Caldwell, Stephen Crainey, Jordi Gomez and Mike Pollitt. Moreover the loan periods will expire for Jack Collison, Josh McEachran, Nicky Maynard and Nick Powell.

For the moment Rosler will be focusing on the playoffs, which will decide which division Latics play in next year. Should it be the Premier League he might well look at retaining some of those end of contract players who have proven experience at that level. Should it be the Championship, Rosler will look at bringing down both the average age and the salary costs of his squad.

It is going to be a very different Wigan Athletic squad we will see at the beginning of next season.

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Latics can win their next penalty shootout

Penalty

Can one single incident define a club’s season?

Blackpool fans might well cite Matt Gilks’ superb save from Martyn Waghorn’s penalty on Saturday as the event that saved them from relegation. Latics had been well on top in that first 20 minutes and if they had scored the Tangerines might well have fallen apart. Waghorn did not hit his penalty badly, but the goalkeeper guessed right and made a spectacular save.

Latics have been awarded 7 penalties in the Championship this season, of which they have scored 4, each taken by a different player. Grant Holt, Shaun Maloney, Ben Watson and Jordi Gomez were the successful scorers. Gomez has had two penalties saved, against Yeovil and Bolton. The opposition have converted 5 out of the 8 penalties they have received.

It was a surprise to many of us when Waghorn took the penalty against Blackpool. Despite his 1 in 3 conversion rate in the league this season, Gomez has a 100% record in cup competitions. He scored one in the Europa League and two famous ones – at the Etihad and Wembley – in the FA Cup. Having scored Latics’ last penalty in the pressure cauldron of an FA Cup semi-final it was expected that Gomez would take the spot kick against Blackpool. Moreover they also had Shaun Maloney who had previously been successful in converting penalties. Waghorn did have previous success as a penalty taker, scoring 2 out of 2 for Leicester City, but it was in the 2009-10 season. He had not taken penalties in competitive football since then.

The fateful penalty shoot-out in that Wembley semi-final continues to haunt Latics fans. If the likes of Holt, Maloney, Watson and even Waghorn had been at hand to join Gomez at the time, maybe Latics would have had a chance of beating Arsenal. But looking at the available players on the pitch at the time there was not much hope for optimism even before the kicks had started.

Should Latics reach a stage in the playoffs where penalties are going to decide the result are they going to be competitive? Uwe Rosler will surely bear this in mind with the players he has on the pitch in a game going into extra time. He will surely find time for his players to get ample penalty kick practice before the event.

Since the formation of the Premier League in 1992 the average conversion rate for penalties has been 85%. Less than 4% were missed, just over 11% saved.

During their eight seasons there Wigan Athletic received 28 penalties, of which they scored 22, a conversion rate of 79%. Ben Watson and Amr Zaki were Latics’ leading goalscorers through penalties, each scoring four. However, Watson also missed two, unlike the Egyptian who missed none and remains Latics most successful penalty taker in top flight competition. There were only two seasons when Latics received more penalties than they conceded, those being in the Steve Bruce era 2007-09. For the full stats see myfootballfacts.com

Of the current squad, in league and cup games, Maloney has converted 2 out of 2. Gomez has scored 7 out of 10, Watson 6 out of 9.

Gary Caldwell was the first to have a penalty saved at Wembley, but later stated that he had taken penalties before, even in the Champions League. The second taker was Jack Collison, whose shot was also saved. However, Collison had been successful earlier on in the season, scoring for West Ham in the 94th minute in a League Cup tie at Burnley.

Collison would not usually have a chance to take a penalty for the Hammers, as Mark Noble would usually take them. Noble has scored every penalty he has taken since 2009. Leighton Baines shares a similar record. However, Rickie Lambert has gone even better by scoring every single one of his 31 penalties in competitive matches for Southampton. Matt Le Tissier remains the most outstanding penalty taker in top flight English football in recent years, having missed only one of his 49 penalties.

Research into penalty shootouts in the World Cups, European Championship and Copa America reveals a success rate of around 87% for the first kick, 82% for the second, 79% for the third, 73% for the fourth and 80% for the fifth. See penaltyshootouts.co.uk for more details.

Clubs typically get an average of around four penalties in regular play per season and they are often taken by the same player. That is certainly the case for QPR, who have had exactly four, all converted by Charlie Austin.

However, the cases of other playoff contenders, Derby and Reading, differ. Referees have awarded Derby 11 penalties, of which they converted 7, but they have conceded only 2. They have used three penalty takers in Bryson, Martin and Russell. Reading have converted 7 of their 9 penalties, whereas the opposition have scored all 6 conceded. The Royals have used four penalty takers in Blackman, Le Fondre, Pogrebnyak and the unfortunate Sharp who missed his penalty against Latics.

Should Wigan Athletic get into a penalty shootout over the coming weeks it could well define their season. If Latics confirm their place in the playoffs then Rosler will surely give his players lots of practice at taking penalty kicks.

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Wigan Athletic 2 Leicester City 2 – exciting contest ends in a draw

 

Table

Latics remain in contention for a play-off place.

An 87th minute headed equalizer by Dean Hammond robbed Wigan Athletic of a merited victory over a fine Leicester side. Despite an uncertain opening Latics had attacked with exciting abandon until the closing minutes when tiredness crept in. It was a game full of good football and a treat for spectators.

As expected Uwe Rosler played a backline of three central defenders, but surprisingly brought in Rob Kiernan in place of Leon Barnett, who was on the bench. Ivan Ramis and Emmerson Boyce made up the trio. As in the Watford game Rosler pushed his wing backs – James Perch and Stephen Crainey – well forward, effectively creating a five man midfield, together with James McArthur, Jack Collison and Jordi Gomez. Nicky Maynard and Nick Powell played up front.

Nigel Pearson had made six changes to his lineup, but his team remained formidable opponents with their high pressure approach, full of good movement off the ball. The Foxes could have had a goal after just three minutes, Ramis clearing Liam Moore’s header off the line. Wigan had been under considerable pressure in those opening minutes but rallied, taking the game to the visitors. They took the lead in the 37th minute when Ramis headed home from an accurate Gomez free kick. However, the Foxes equalized four minutes later with a fine goal from Andy King, who turned and placed a low shot beyond Al-Habsi’s reach in the right hand corner of the goal.

The advent of the second half saw Wigan’s high tempo approach unsettling the visitors’ defence and it was no surprise that Latics got their second in the 62nd  minute, Kiernan heading in his first professional goal from a Gomez corner. Latics continued to play in an attacking, cavalier fashion and another goal looked due. James McClean had come on for Maynard after 52 minutes and his direct running caused more problems for Leicester, but his finishing did not match his promise. Marc-Antoine Fortune was introduced for Powell after 66 minutes as Latics continued to attack.

The central midfield trio for Latics had been dominant in the second half, but the tiring Gomez was replaced by Josh McEachran after 79 minutes. Leicester had started to apply pressure and Latics looked in need of their second wind. In the 87th minute Crainey gave away a free kick and Hammond rose to equalize. There were to be 5 minutes of added time but a tired-looking Latics managed to hang on for a well-earned draw.

The Good

Following a lethargic display at Bolton this was quite the opposite. Latics tore into Leicester and with better finishing would have got the win they deserved. It is a tribute to the manager and his squad that they could play a game at such high tempo despite it being their 51st encounter of the season.

The midfield was outstanding. Collison fits into the system seamlessly, McArthur and Gomez were excellent in their passing and recuperation of the ball. Penalty misses aside, Gomez is playing the best football of his Latics career.

With the wing backs pushed so far forward the 3-5-2 system at times resembled 3-3-4. Playing with such attacking abandon places a heavy reliance on the backline, but the trio held things together under pressure. Moreover they contributed the two goals. Kiernan was a revelation. Eyebrows were raised when he was given the nod over the popular Barnett, but he defended well and his passing was much improved. Having fine passers of the ball like Boyce and Ramis playing alongside, he followed their example. His goal was well deserved.

The Bad

The lack of a natural goalscorer in the team is Latics’ Achilles Heel. The game should have been killed off in the second half, but there was nobody with the composure needed to convert chances to goals. Maynard and Powell looked lively in the first half, but could not score. The attacking duo of Fortune and McClean in the second half looked promising, but neither has a pedigree in turning chances into goals. Callum McManaman, more of a natural goalscorer, remained on the bench despite a good performance at Bolton.

Player Ratings

Ali Al-Habsi: 7 – did all that could be expected of him.

Emmerson Boyce: 6.5 – not at his best, but has a calming influence on his defence.

Ivan Ramis: 7 – defensively sound and passing excellent. Topped off a good performance with a goal.

Rob Kiernan: 8  – calm and solid at the back, did not waste the ball and got a fine headed goal.

James Perch: 6 – worked hard.

Stephen Crainey: 7 – clearly enjoys playing in the wing back position. After a difficult settling-in period at the club, he is becoming a real asset. Full of energy and commitment.

James McArthur: 8.5 – a classy display from a very accomplished midfield player.

Jack Collison: 7 – kept things ticking over, making himself available to receive passes, solid in his tackling.

Jordi Gomez: 8.5 – an all-action display from the technically gifted player. What a change there has been in his play since Rosler arrived.

Nicky Maynard: 6.5 – good movement, tried hard. Taken off after 52 minutes.

Nick Powell: 6 – looked promising but could not deliver. It was good to see him played in a more central role. Taken off after 66 minutes. The fitter he gets the more dangerous he will become to opposition defences.

Substitutes

James McClean: – added energy to the attack, coming on after 52 minutes. He is an exciting sight when he attacks defences like this. Hopefully the finishing will come as he matures.

Marc-Antoine Fortune: – came on after 66 minutes but could not stamp his mark on the game.

Josh McEachran:- came on after 79 minutes.

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Watford and beyond – Latics and promotion

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At half time during the Ipswich match last Saturday the Wigan Athletic substitutes came on the pitch to play ‘Piggy in the Middle’. Latics had gone into half time 2-1 ahead  after James McClean’s well taken equalizer and Leon Barnett’s header .

The quality of players in that group was impressive . Carson, Crainey, Kiernan, McEachran, Maynard, McManaman, Powell – a strong bench that most Championship clubs would envy. But it was more than that – there was an almost tangible atmosphere of camaraderie among those players. Football clubs these days are experts in telling fans that there is a team spirit among their players. In fact even Owen Coyle would tell us the same thing, although one seriously doubted that was the case.

However, there can be no doubt that Uwe Rosler has built up a strong team spirit at Wigan. The German’s preferred style of football is as physically demanding as it could possibly be for the players. But the players have adjusted and since his arrival fitness levels have improved.

Rosler made five changes for the midweek match against Yeovil, but the team spirit was still there when they were 2-1 down five minutes from the end. It led to two goals before the end of regular time and it reminded one of that late comeback against Charlton when the three points seemed to be lost. However, this time it was not to be as Yeovil got a scrambled equaliser in the last minute of added time.

Over the last couple of weekends Latics had been full of running and energy in victories at Manchester City and Ipswich. However, in the midweek games against Sheffield Wednesday and Yeovil they have looked jaded and lethargic. Which Wigan Athletic will we see against Watford tomorrow?

In the next six weeks Wigan Athletic have to play twelve matches. That kind of schedule needs a strong squad with a rotation policy that involves adjustments, rather than wholesale changes. Much of Latics’ defensive stability in recent weeks has been underpinned by the presence of James Perch on the right, with various combinations of Leon Barnett, Emmerson Boyce and Ivan Ramis in the centre of defence. The mutual understanding among those players has helped to them to play as a very solid unit.

When Perch went off injured after 27 minutes on Tuesday it caused a disruption to that smooth running unit. With no recognized right back on the bench Rosler was forced to move Boyce across. Thomas Rogne, who had not played since December, paired up with Ivan Ramis in their first game as a central defensive partnership. Rogne is a fine young player and Ramis possibly the best central defender in the division, but Yeovil centre forward Ishmael Miller proved too much for them on the night, scoring two well taken goals and missing an easier chance before that.

Even if Perch is available tomorrow Rosler will have to think hard about playing Boyce. Although 34 years old the captain has already played 46 matches this season, more than any other player. Boyce is a key player for Rosler and has been in great form, but badly needs a rest. Playing too many matches in a condensed period of time puts the player at higher risk of receiving an injury, let alone burnout.

Rosler has been unlucky with long term injuries to Ben Watson and Chris McCann, who were part of the nucleus around which his team was built. Moreover the consistent and reliable Leon Barnett is out with a hamstring injury, hopefully for not too long.

A strong defence has been the key to Wigan Athletic’s surge under Rosler. He now has to shuffle his pack and some coherence in defence will be lost. Thomas Rogne and Markus Holgersson will probably have a part to play over the coming weeks. Jean Beausejour continues to play at left back, not his natural position, but outstanding in attack.

In the absence of Watson and McCann in midfield much of the pressure will be on the admirable James McArthur. A midfield without the Scot is hardly worth contemplating, as like Boyce in defence, he is a lynchpin of the team.

Jordi Gomez has been excellent in recent matches and deserves his place. He has adjusted to Rosler’s style of play. Josh McEachran is a quality player, but has struggled to meet the physical demands of Rosler’s pressing style over 90 minutes. But watch out for him in the coming weeks. Ryan Tunniciffe has struggled to adjust to that system, but has high ratings from Ipswich fans from his time there. He is clearly not short of confidence and should get better. New loan signing Jack Collison could have a major part to play, although playing  multiple games in a week is probably beyond what his knee can withstand.

Rosler has a wealth of players available to him upfront, although he lacks a natural goalscorer. Both Marc-Antoine Fortune and Nicky Maynard are capable centre forwards, of differing styles. Callum McManaman remains a potential match winner, despite his indifferent form so far. Martyn Waghorn has a great left foot, is excellent in the delivery of corner kicks, and a team player who complies at both ends of the pitch. James McClean is a much better player under Rosler. He is now lifting his head at key moments and becoming a more mature player. If he continues in his current vein of form he will attract interest from the big clubs. Nick Powell remains a wild card, the position in which he will play being uncertain. Being played wide is not his best position, but Rosler has the option to play him at centre forward or in the hole in midfield, which might be his best position.

Latics have the luxury of quality goalkeepers with not only the excellent Ali Al-Habsi and Scott Carson, but the exciting young Lee Nicholls waiting for another chance. Al-Habsi and Carson can be expected to rotate over coming weeks.

Given the injuries and the hectic schedule, Latics are likely to experience some ups and downs before the end of the season. It will be hard to maintain the level already established by the German.

Rosler has built up a fine team spirit and a strong squad. The aim is for Latics to be in the top six at the end of the season. If they can do that they have the players to take them back to the Premier League.

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