Missed chances rued as Webb steals the show

When I was younger my father used to say the benchmark of a good referee is how little you notice them, and yet whenever the World Cup Final referee Howard Webb is on the pitch, he appears to seek the exact opposite. You get the sense he enjoys the jeers from the terraces because they acknowledge his role as a protagonist. Indeed Sunderland fans spent much of the first half booing him after he correctly awarded a series of non-consequential professional fouls Wigan’s way. And he repaid them, true to form, by harshly dismissing Jordi Gomez and then ignoring worse tackles the other way.

Saturday’s 1-0 loss was a familiar story for Wigan Athletic, left to rue their excellent early chances after Webb’s decision-making effectively killed off the match. Roberto Martinez, a diplomat and gentleman not noted for vocal dissent, has now raised his voice twice in the last three league fixtures. In this instance, it was the sending off of Jordi Gomez — the least likely player on the pitch to deliberately injure another — that swung the game. It was a clumsy challenge, albeit studs up and therefore a defendable dismissal by the letter of the law. The chief complaint is not about the red card itself, but the double-standard when Seb Larsson and James McLean tried their hardest to join Gomez later in the match — with a nastier tackle and string of yellow card infractions respectively.

The Good:

Latics deserved to be up at half-time. James McCarthy’s early burst into the box resulted in a one-on-one that Mignolet somehow kept out. Jean Beausejour’s sensational skill and cross for Arouna Koné should have made it two. McCarthy was again unlucky with a viscious drive later in the half. Meanwhile, Sunderland were limited to set pieces and couldn’t find a way to break the defence down.

McCarthy’s performance was exceptional. He has been given license to venture forward in the last couple fixtures, and has the fitness to do so without neglecting his defensive duties. His technique is wonderful, and if he gets in shooting positions two or three times per match, the goals will come.

Maynor Figueroa’s first half passing stands out, despite the windy conditions. Despite being reduced to 10 men for half the match, Latics had the same number of shots, an equal amount of possession as their opponents, and the most clear-cut chances. The first half overall, was very heartening.

The Bad: 

This is the second game in a row where excellent chances have been created not been converted. Koné is getting in decent positions, but failing with his final shot. You do get the sense he is a confident finisher and will come good. But Mauro Boselli must have been frustrated to see those early chances go to waste after his brace at West Ham earlier in the week.

The substitutions came too late. It had been clear for much of the second half that Latics were not getting anywhere with 10 men, even after Di Santo came on. When McManaman and Miyaichi were finally introduced, there was an immediate injection of energy and urgency, if not any actual clear cut chances.

Player Ratings:

Ali Al-Habsi: 7 — A little wobbly on a windy day and Seb Larsson’s dangerous crossing. But kept the ball out and can’t be faulted for the goal.

Ivan Ramis: 6 — Gets better every match, although he did get beaten for pace on a couple occasions.

Gary Caldwell: 6 — Resorted to hoofing the ball in the second half, which is unlike him and suggests desperation.

Maynor Figueroa: 6.5 — Some fantastic passing in the first half, but the cross for the goal came down his side.

Emmerson Boyce: 6 — Solid but not as much attacking thrust as Jean Beausejour on the other side. Having said that, more goals against seem to originate on the left, which is testament to the defensive solidity Boyce adds on the right.

Jean Beausejour: 7 — If Koné had managed to beat Mignolet with the far post tap in, Beausejour’s piece of skill that provided the chance would have gone down as the assist of the season. Faded as the game went on though.

James McArthur: 6 — Solid if unspectacular, occasionally rusty.

James McCarthy: 8 — Imposing performance by a player who is coming into his own. Has been unlucky not to score in the last couple matches. If he adds goals to his game he will be complete, and unfortunately probably gone to a top four club not too long after.

Shaun Maloney: 6 — A few useful touches in the first half, but unable to impact the match as he has in the past. Substituted after Jordi’s red card.

Jordi Gomez: 5 — Of the two playmakers, he was actually having the better day, drifting in and out of dangerous positions and playing a lovely dinked through ball for Koné in the first half. But his lunge was unnecessary and the red card that ensued essentially lost us the match.

Arouna Koné: 5 — Didn’t have a tremendous amount of service, but fluffed his lines with the chances he had. Credit to Mignolet for an astonishing save, but we need our strikers to bury those chances. His opposite number, Steven Fletcher, only got on chance, a difficult one at that, but won them the match.

Subs:

Franco Di Santo: Unable to get on the ball and influence the match.

Callum McManaman: Energetic and positive.

Ryo Miyaichi: When he comes on, he sees a lot of the ball. Which means he wants it and is asking for it, but also that his teammates believe he can make something happen.

Gomez and Maloney: wingers or playmakers?

How did Wigan Athletic stay up last season? Was that incredible late run due to a tactical transformation? Or was it due to new players coming in and changing things? The acquisition of a specialist left wing back – Jean Beausejour in January – certainly helped the system flow more effectively. However, if you were to ask a room full of Latics supporters which player made the biggest difference the answer would surely be Shaun Maloney.

Maloney’s season had not really started until he came on as a substitute against Norwich in March 2012. He put through a fantastic pass to Victor Moses to get the goal that earned an invaluable point at Carrow Road. Following that match, his ex-Celtic colleague , Gary Caldwell, dubbed Maloney as “Our Secret Weapon” quoting that “He picks up the ball in the final third and he can either beat his man and he can pick out that killer ball – like you saw with the goal.” Caldwell was proved to be right.

Maloney was later to score the Latics’ goal of the season to defeat Manchester United. His ice cool penalty in the victory over Liverpool at Anfield sticks in the memory, as does his cutting in from the left and putting a brilliant narrow angled finish in the 4-0 drubbing of Newcastle. But more than the goals he scored it was that role as a “playmaker”, linking between defence and attack that helped transform the quality of football Latics were able to play.

Maloney had come to Wigan following  a difficult final period at Celtic. His career had been blighted with injury. Moreover he had been struck by homesickness during his previous spell in the Premier League — at Aston Villa in 2007-2008. These factors made it unlikely that a Premier League team would come for him, until Roberto Martinez knocked on his door. During his two spells at Parkhead he had won five SPL Championships, Scottish Cups and three Scottish League Cups. His acquisition by Wigan Athletic is summer of 2011 was therefore a calculated gamble. For the first half of the season, he made four appearances as a substitute and played in two awful team performances in the FA and League Cups. Fitness remained the issue. It was through sheer hard work and dedication that Maloney got back to a level of fitness that would help him be able to showpiece his skills in the Premier League.

Wigan Athletic’s starting lineup last Saturday included both Jordi Gomez and Shaun Maloney. Normally, only one of them makes the starting lineup, with the other coming on as a substitute. Both are playmakers, who need to receive a lot of the ball to be effective. However, each has learned during his time at the club that defensive duties are also required. Neither is a natural tackler but they both do their share in trying to win the ball back. Both cover huge amounts of ground during a match. Both are cool penalty takers. Both score goals which are not from the penalty spot.

Jordi Gomez is a player who divides Latics fans. He is derided by those “Darksiders” who prefer more the more traditional English approach of “up and at ‘em” . The fans who appreciate him will say he is a skilful player who can bring order to a game through his cultured technique, keeping the ball while under pressure and drawing fouls. I have heard it said that we will never see how good Gomez can be until Latics are playing the level of skilful football that Roberto Martinez seeks. We have seen some really magic moments from Gomez during his time at Wigan. At Arsenal in April he put through the pass that sent Di Santo through to score then got an opportunist goal himself. He has been unlucky so many times with fine efforts that have hit the woodwork – last Saturday against Fulham was another example.

How do the playmakers – Gomez and Maloney – fit into the current tactical system? Are they wingers or central midfielders? Can they play together?

Maloney still finds it difficult to complete 90 minutes. Gomez is the natural replacement. Their styles differ greatly. Maloney will dribble with the ball more than Gomez who will seek the wall pass more frequently. Gomez does not have the pace or dribbling capacity to be a winger. When played wide on the right he inevitably turns towards the middle where he is going to be more comfortable and effective. However, he is not afraid to shoot – he has a good technique and can hit the target. Maloney was used mainly as a left winger by Aston Villa. Although right-footed he can cross the ball with his left foot. He can dribble past defenders and cause danger. However, it is when they move into the “hole” in midfield – behind the central striker- that both Gomez and Maloney are most effective.

Playing Gomez and Maloney together is unlikely to be effective because their basic function is too similar. They are players who make themselves available to receive the ball, providing the link between defence and attack. Both are good players. Let’s not forget that David Jones can also play in that position and is a capable and creative player. He added the incision in the Capital One victory at West Ham last night.

Let’s play the playmakers in their natural position in central midfield, ahead of the holding midfielders, but behind the forwards. Martinez has done well to adjust the tactical system following the loss of Victor Moses. The presence of two big central and pacy strikers is a real plus. There remains the possibility of playing without the central playmaker and having two wide players supporting the central striker. Well done, Roberto, in being open-minded towards further tactical innovation. But please – let’s not see Gomez and Maloney playing wide, flanking a single centre forward.