QUEENS PARK RANGERS 3 WIGAN ATHLETIC 1 – A SENSE OF FOREBODING

An hour before any Wigan Athletic game is due to start I like to trawl along to the official club website and look for news of the team lineup. I did it last weekend and got an immediate sense of foreboding. Gohouri in for Alcaraz and only one winger in the lineup. A return to playing Jordi Gomez on the right wing? A question of pack your team with midfield players to stifle the opposition? Then maybe bring on another attack minded player later? Was this to be the way to get a good result against another struggling team?

My sense of foreboding was to be temporarily lifted in the first few minutes with Latics going close to scoring on a couple of occasions. However, this was to be only a temporary respite. Wigan were playing without any attacking player on the right. Gomez would track back to help Boyce when the opposition attacked on their left, then move back to a central midfield position to receive the ball. As the half progressed a nervy QPR started to get on top. Their nerves were calmed after 32 minutes when James McCarthy idiotically palmed the ball away from a Barton corner. Helguson scored the resulting penalty with ease. The situation was exacerbated in the 45th minute when Gohouri ‘s trip on Campbell gave Buzsaky the chance to curl a wonderful free kick in off the post.

Martinez brought on Conor Sammon after the break for McArthur – an attacking move but still leaving Wigan with only one real wide player, Victor Moses. However, Albert Crusat was to be brought on the 61st minute, with Latics scoring four minutes later. Set pieces really have not been Wigan’s speciality in the Martinez era and when I saw Hugo Rodallega stride up to take a free kick it did not ease my sense of foreboding. I had visions of his kick hitting the spectator on the back row of the stand behind the goal, but had a pleasant surprise as he stroked the ball home with aplomb from 25 yards. Well done, Hugo! However, after 73 minutes the referee gave QPR a ridiculous second penalty, once more against Gary Caldwell, but Al Habsi pulled off a wonderful save. Once again the goalkeeper had been Latics best player and kept us in the game. The nail in the coffin came when Tommy Smith hit a beauty from 30 yards from open play in the 81st minute.

The Good

Another goal for Hugo Rodallega who is regaining his form. Yet another excellent goalkeeping display from Ali Al Habsi.

The Bad

The last time I had that same kind of foreboding feeling was when I saw the team sheet against Bolton in mid October. We had only one wide player – with James McCarthy nominally on the left wing – and the end result was a 3-1 defeat to a struggling team. This was like déjà vu.

Who knows what might have happened had James McCarthy not palmed away the ball after 32 minutes. It changed the game, giving QPR that confidence that they did not have before. However, let’s not beat about the bush here. When you play with a lone central striker you need two natural wide players to provide an attacking threat and to give balance. The sight of Emmerson Boyce moving into the opponent’s half and putting in long crosses was depressing. No blame attached to Boyce here – what else could he do with nobody else supporting him on that side of the pitch?

During the Martinez era we have seen some good football mixed with farcical errors. More often than not individual errors have lost us matches, or their mistakes have proved to be turning points in converting potential victory into defeat. It is hard to blame the manager for individual errors. This is largely down to the players, probably related to their lack of self confidence. Martinez has to operate a relatively low budget, being unable to bring in the kind of experienced, hardened Premier League pro who demands exhorbitant wages. This means developing players within the club and getting others from overseas leagues or the lower divisions in England. Given the club’s financial restraints – and I applaud Dave Whelan on his insistence on coming close to balancing the books – it means that the club needs to operate a “farm system” to survive. Put simply we need to develop players and sell the odd one each summer to keep the whole thing going. The trick is to have the replacement player groomed to take over from the one due to depart. Last year Charles N’Zogbia was to be the departing star, Victor Moses his potential replacement. Unfortunately Moses struggled with injury for part of last season and just did not get enough appearances under his belt. The result has been that this season he has shown huge promise, but so often the final pass or shot has been lacking. Centre forward has been a problem position under Martinez. This season Rodallega has been off form and has not signed a new contract. Neither Di Santo not Sammon has shown sufficient consistency or self belief to command a regular place.

The manager has a difficult job in terms of the tight budget he has to work within and in getting players to come to what is perceived to be a small club. The irony of the situation is that this year we have probably as good a squad as we have had in the past seven Premier League seasons. It is that self-belief that remains lacking among the players, following an accumulation of horrendous thrashings against top four clubs and the frustrations of individual errors giving the points away against average, and often less than average, teams. A few weeks ago I commended Roberto Martinez on his tactical innovation of playing with three central defenders. It was a welcome change from a manager who had not shown such tactical flexibility in the past. If he has an Achilles heel as a manager then it is in this area.

So Martinez has shown that he is able to adapt his tactics to suit the players he has at his disposal. He will almost certainly continue to pack his midfield and play with a lone centre forward. That is something I do not love, but which I can live with. However, I have to admit my frustration at his repeated tactic of playing either a centre forward or central midfield player on the flanks. Hugo Rodallaga has time and time again shown that he is not a left winger. He simply does not have the dribbling skills or the pace to play in that position. Neither do I want to see Franco di Santo or Conor Sammon assigned to the wings. If we have a lone centre forward let’s at least have two genuine wide players to pose an attacking threat on each side of the pitch. Please, please, please – let’s not see Jordi Gomez nominally on the right wing! Play him in his natural position in the centre of midfield.

Player Ratings

Ali Al Habsi: 9 – Another excellent display. Kept Latics in the game.

Emmerson Boyce: 5 – Had to go off after 69 minutes. Has made too few appearances in the past two seasons. Let’s hope he can get back to the match fitness that is required for him to be a regular fixture.

Steve Gohouri: 5 – Lacks confidence. He has never had a long run inn the team in his natural position as a centre half.

Gary Caldwell: 5 – Is this controversial player a target for referees? I doubt whether the second half penalty given against him would have happened with most centre halves.

Maynor Figueroa: 5 – Once more tried hard but was left exposed at times.
James McCarthy: 5 – Giving away the penalty was not typical of him. He is a mature player for his age, but maybe the nerves are getting to him too.

Ben Watson: 5 – Solid, but uninspired.

James McArthur: 6 – Industrious as usual. Taken off at half time.

Jordi Gomez: 5 – Ineffective in his hybrid role. Substituted after 61 minutes.

Victor Moses: 6 – Tried hard despite the lack of good service coming to him.

Hugo Rodallega: 6 – Worked hard, scored an excellent free kick.

Substitutes


Conor Sammon: 5 – Huffed and puffed, but no end result.

Albert Crusat: – Did not get a lot of the ball. What a shame he was not on at the start.

Ronnie Stam: – took over from Boyce, but had a frustrating time.

STOKE CITY – WIGAN ATHLETIC PREVIEW: GOOD FOOTBALL OR ROUTE ONE?

Think of Stoke City and what comes to mind? The pulsating final game of last season when Hugo Rodallega’s goal sent us into raptures – safety assured? Let’s go further back in time. Historians might point out that Stoke City are the second oldest professional football club in the world, founded in 1863, after Notts County who started a year earlier. Stanley Matthews – one of the greatest English players of all time – played 259 times for Stoke City, being 49 years old in his last season. The most fantastically skilful winger you could see in an era when full backs could play with ultimate thuggery and get away with it most of the time. He played 54 games for England, despite World War II taking away his “peak” years between 24 and 30 years of age. The superb goalkeepers – Gordon Banks and Peter Shilton – also played for Stoke for long periods. I warmly recall the era of Tony Waddington, a manager who believed in entertainment and the sheer artistry and elegance of Alan Hudson in his mid 1970s Stoke team, that made them a joy to watch.

Stoke City has a history of high quality football. They dwarf Wigan Athletic in their longevity, although their only notable success in all those years was in winning the League Cup in 1972. As befitting a club with such a long history they have a loyal and passionate support and stats tell us that the noise level of the crowd in their stadium is second to none in the Premier League.

So what do Wigan Athletic face at Stoke tomorrow? Sadly the days of good football at Stoke are no longer with us. They play a kind of football that would not be tolerated in other parts of the world. They are a blight upon the landscape of the Premier League. The pragmatist will say that Stoke are playing to their strengths – this is a valid argument – but is it unlikely that they could get away with it in other European countries. Frankly speaking, their football is ugly – they resemble the hideous Bolton teams under Sam Allardyce or even the “Crazy Gang” Wimbledon team of the 1980s.

Stoke are a big team, in the true sense of the word. So many of their players are physically large, and they can be very ruthless in their tacking. They get most of their goals from centres or set-pieces. So far this season 61% of their goals have come from the latter. Their pitch measures 100 meters by 64 meters, the lowest permissible by UEFA. There is certainly going to be a contrast in footballing styles between the teams. So far this season Stoke have played 721 long balls – the highest in the division – and Latics only 244, the lowest.

So Latics will be facing a truly physical team tomorrow at Britannia Stadium. Rory Delap has been out injured over recent weeks, but even if he does not make it they have Ryan Shotton available for their long throw-ins. Let’s not forget the skill they have on the wings with players like Mathew Etherington and Jermaine Pennant who can put dangerous centres across for strikers of the quality of Peter Crouch, Kenwynne Jones, Jonathan Walters and Cameron Jerome. However, Latics have shown that they can match Stoke physically in the past. In the six matches they have played together in the Premier League, four have ended up in draws, with one win for each side.

For once the Premier League hierarchy have given Latics a favourable decision in rescinding Conor Sammon’s ridiculous red card at Old Trafford. Although Sammon is available he may not start, facing competition from Franco Di Santo and a Hugo Rodallega eager to end his goalscoring drought. The remainder of the team is likely to remain unchanged, although Martinez might be tempted to shore up his defence by playing Patrick Van Aanholt at left wing back. My hope is that good football can triumph over route one. Wigan Athletic can bear up to the physical pressures and head tennis that Stoke may throw at them and come back with a good result.

A BREATH OF FRESH AIR: A TACTICAL SWITCH – A Post Mortem of Wigan Athletic 3 Blackburn Rovers 3

What a breath of fresh air ! At last a major tactical switch from Roberto Martinez. Let’s not get too giddy about it – once again the result did not go Wigan’s way – but how refreshing it was to see an exciting new system put in place.

Playing three centre halves makes good sense, knowing how fragile Wigan’s centre of defence has been over recent seasons. What a shame that in the opening minutes they did not quite gel and it led to Blackburn’s opening goal. The wing backs – Stam and Jones – were probably our best players on the day and created opportunities from their wide play. That Wigan did not win is down to a bizarre goal with a player dribbling the ball in directly from a corner (have you ever seen that happen before?) and a moment of panic in the 7th minute of added time (6 minutes had been allocated). How unlucky can you get?

A run through of the goals:

0-1 Hesitancy from Gary Caldwell leads to Yakubu lobbing Al Habsi. Caldwell and Gohouri get in each other’s way trying to clear on the goal line. Visitors ahead after a minute.

1-1 Opportunist goal from Jordi Gomez after 7 minutes, with Robinson not reacting to a shot at his near post.

2-1 A well taken header from a Jones corner by the unmarked Gary Caldwell in the 31st minute.

2-2 David Dunn sent off for his second yellow card after 48 minutes. 11 minutes later we get a bizarre goal, Pedersen dribbling into the box, then crossing, directly from a corner kick. Al Habsi cannot hold the ball and Hoilett scores.

3-2 Opportunist goal after 88 minutes from Albert Crusat after a head down by Hugo Rodallega. Robinson at fault.

3-3 In the 97th minute goalkeeper Robinson goes up for the last chance of the game. As the ball comes to him he is recklessly kicked in the head by David Jones. Penalty well taken by Yakubu.

Wigan’s superiority in the game was such that they had 26 shots on goal (6 on target), Blackburn having 9 (3 on target). All in all a heartening display leaving lots of optimism for the future.

Let’s hope our luck will change!

Player Ratings

Ali Al Habsi: 7 – Hard to fault him with not dealing well with Pedersen’s illegal cross that led to Blackburn’s second goal. Otherwise as good as ever. One of the Premier League’s top ‘keepers.

Steve Gohouri: 6.5 – One of his better displays, including a goal-saving block on Yakubu. However, he or Caldwell could have kept Yakubu’s first goal out with better coordination. The right hand centre back in a block of three is probably his best position.

Gary Caldwell: 6 – His captain’s goal from Jones’ corner was inspirational. Not on his best form at the moment. The first goal was symptomatic of his loss of confidence. He probably bears the burden of poor results as captain. Let’s get behind him because he can help save our season. See Gohouri comment above regarding first Blackburn goal.

Maynor Figueroa: 6.5 – Did well in his position of left centre back in a block of three. Although he can make mistakes at times, his stats over the season so far rate him highly in terms of tackles won and interceptions made.

Ronnie Stam: 8 – His best performance since the win at Tottenham last year. Wing back is his natural position. Played with verve and determination.

David Jones: 7.5 – What a shame he lost his self discipline and gave away the penalty. Played a good game at left wing back. It could be his best position, if not one he would prefer

James McCarthy: 7 – Worked hard as always. Excellent in the tackle and in intercepting, rarely wastes the ball. One feels there is more to come but this was a good performance. A player of huge potential.

Mohammed Diame: 7 – A quality performer. Playing for Senegal has helped his confidence. A complete player, with the ability to slot in easily to a top four team. Let’s hope he signs a new contract.

Victor Moses: 6.5 – Once again looked dangerous, but faded out a little in the second half. His role needs more definition in this new system. He is not yet a clinical finisher. Potentially brilliant, but young and maturing.

Gomez: 6.5 – The new system put him closer to the action. A very well taken goal. The concept of a left footer shooting from the right forms a big part of Martinez’s strategy. Capable of scoring more goals.

Conor Sammon: 6 – Worked hard on the morsels he was fed. Could not be faulted for effort or technique. What a lonely role a Latics’ centre forward has!

Subs:

Hugo Rodallega: 7- Looked comfortable in his more central role. Really unlucky with a good effort from Jones’ cross. Put him in there as the second striker with a big man and see the difference.

Albert Crusat: 7 – Took his goal superbly and linked up well on the left. If played in his natural left wing role he can provide lots of quality crosses for our central striker(s).

James McArthur – Came on too late to comment, but a good squad player with more to come.