Can the Dream Come True Again?

Martinez

I don’t know if I will ever tire of watching the highlights of that FA Cup Final. I continue to be in love with the flowing football played by Roberto Martinez’s team and Ben Watson’s goal still brings tears to my eyes. It really was a dream come true.

Highlights can so often paint a false picture of a game. Watching the whole ninety minutes-plus can tell a different story.  But in this case the highlights were pretty close to representing a fair reflection of the match.

The key moments that stick in the mind? The superb interplay early on between Callum McManaman and Arouna Kone that almost led to an early goal for the youngster;  Joel Robles somehow getting his legs to Carlos Tevez’s shot that had “goal” written all over it; Shaun Maloney’s free kick  that hit the crossbar; Pablo Zabalata’s red card after McManaman went bursting through;  the celebrations after Watson’s goal.

The statistics showed that Latics more than matched their illustrious opponents. Possession was a close 52-48 in favour of City, both teams had 12 attempts on goal. Wigan had three corners, City had five. City had three yellow cards and a red, Latics had one yellow.

Incredibly for an underdog,  Wigan committed only five fouls (City had eleven). Latics’ football was sublime.

Who could have believed that a team built from bargain signings could compete on an equal footing with the City megastars? Will Wigan Athletic ever produce a display of such class again? How did Latics neutralize the threat of the star-studded midfield and forwards that City possessed?

Latics had been playing a 3-4-3 system, but an horrendous injury situation left Martinez short of defensive options. In the event he played midfielders James McArthur and Roger Espinoza as wing backs, with James McCarthy and Jordi Gomez in the midfield holding roles.  But he did have his first choice front three in Kone, McManaman and Maloney.

McManaman and Watson are the names that stick in the mind, as ‘Man of the Match’ and ‘Match Winner’, but it was the performance of the back three that was the cornerstone of Latics’ victory.  Antolin Alcaraz had come back from yet another injury to join Emmerson Boyce and Paul Scharner. The trio was absolutely superb in snuffing out the menace of Tevez and Aguero.

So what bearing does what happened in May have on Sunday’s sixth round tie at the Etihad?

City have moved on under Manuel Pellegrini and have scored forty three goals against nine in thirteen home matches in the Premier League so far this season.  That would not have happened in the regime of the more defensively-minded Roberto Mancini.  Moreover City thrashed Owen Coyle’s side 5-0 in a League Cup tie in September. Tevez has gone, but the Citizens now have Alvaro Negredo, Stefan Jovetic and Jesus Navas as potential threats together with Edin Dzeko and Sergio Aguero.

It will be an emotional return for Uwe Rosler to the club where he made his name. However, City can count on no favours from the pragmatic German. Rosler has shown himself to be tactically astute and he will not want to play into City’s hands. More than anything he needs to nullify the threat of City’s midfield and forwards. Doubtless he will adopt the high pressing game that has become the hallmark of his tenure so far at Wigan. Stifling the service to City’s talented midfield will lessen the goal threat, but he also has to keep their forwards on a tight leash.

Rosler is not afraid to vary his team’s shape and at times he has used a backline of three central defenders. It might well be his best bet in this match. An experienced central defensive three of Emmerson Boyce, Ivan Ramis and Leon Barnett is a distinct possibility. The defence becomes a back five with the wing backs – most likely James Perch and Jean Beausejour – dropping back. It is a tactic that has worked against City before.

Before the FA Cup Final the question being asked of Latics’ supporters was whether they would prefer Premier League salvation or an FA Cup win. Now it is a matter of promotion back to the big league or reaching the semi-final of the Cup.

Winning the FA Cup was the best thing that ever happened to Wigan Athletic.  But going out of the competition, with dignity, on Sunday would not be a tragedy with promotion a possibility.

The players that remain from the Wembley victory will be keen to confront City again. Roger Espinoza could not make the Honduras game yesterday because of injury, so might not make it. Jordi Gomez was ‘Man of the Match’ at Nottingham and will stake a strong claim for a place in midfield, with the excellent James McArthur and Chris McCann. If Callum McManaman is fit he will surely play upfront.  With Martyn Waghorn and Nicky Maynard cup-tied, Marc-Antoine Fortune will probably start up front, unless Nick Powell reappears from injury

Although the odds are once again heavily stacked against Latics, only a fool would count them out.

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Wigan Athletic vs. Bournemouth: Staking a claim

Whilst hardly a mouth-watering affair for the neutral, nor a crucial fixture in an unexpectedly dire league campaign, the FA Cup visit of Bournemouth has brought about a swell of interest and anticipation in the Wigan Athletic community.

Not only have two players been signed since the United match just a few days ago, Nouha Dicko and Rob Kiernan have been recalled from their loans, and Arouna Koné’s departure for the African Cup of Nations has raised all manner of debate about who will fill his shoes — and how. Further transfer rumours suggest the loan arrival of Atletico Madrid goalkeeper Joel is imminent to give Ali Al-Habsi some much needed competition.

While the senior XI looked badly in need of a rest at times during the United loss, the substitutes provided much cause for optimism. Jordi Gomez looked sharp and lively, while Ronnie Stam’s drive down the right resulted in a couple half chances in his short time on the pitch, and Callum McManaman showed some nice touches and offers what only Shaun Maloney seems willing to try — dynamism and dribbling.

Al-Habsi tends to start these matches and his confidence could certainly use an injection of positivity if things go to plan. The centre of defence in front of him should be strong — Gary Caldwell and Ivan Ramis should be given the bulk of the match as they work on their fitness post-injuries, while it is possible Antolin Alcaraz could make his first appearance in a long, long time. What a welcome sight that would be. More likely, though, is a game for Roman Golobart or the recalled Kiernan in place of Maynor Figueroa, who has more than earned a rest.

Roger Espinoza has been officially presented as a Latics player and could make his bow. Though his best work has come as a central midfielder, his left foot and versatility may see him given a chance in the Jean Beausejour left wing-back role. The Chilean’s form has not been as good as last season’s and competition would be welcome. Angelo Henriquez, his countryman, will hope to make his bow up front at some stage, although it’s anyone’s guess who he might play alongside. Franco Di Santo has been used sparingly and doesn’t exactly need a rest — in fact what he needs is a goal. Callum McManaman is almost sure to start, the question is where. And Ryo Miyaichi is back from injury — will he start over Ronnie Stam as a wingback or in a more advanced role.

And what of Mauro Boselli, so excellent in the League Cup earlier this season, but let down by poor service in his single league start of the season in the flat performance at Norwich. Where in the pecking order is he?

At this stage last season, Shaun Maloney had played no part to speak of, and look how important he turned out to be. By the end of 90 minutes tomorrow, we should have a much clearer picture of life without Arouna Koné, and who will be challenging to make that kind of impact this time around.

Aston Villa 0 Wigan Athletic 3: Latics punish fragile Villans

There was a vulnerability to Paul Lambert’s young Aston Villa side today thoroughly reminiscent of Wigan Athletic in Roberto Martinez’s first year at the club. Tactical naivety, inexperience and a struggle to adjust to the pace and physical demands of the Premier League to name a few similarities.

What Lambert is trying to do at Villa is not dissimilar in magnitude to Roberto’s undertaking at Wigan — it’s a long-term project. He has bravely frozen out Darren Bent, who must be on a huge financial packet, and put his faith in a promising but inexperienced crop of youngsters. They’ve now suffered three humiliating defeats in a row for a total score of 0-15. But if they survive, and by extension if Lambert is given time to see his project through, it will be intriguing to see where these lads take them. A risky, but refreshing approach. When you look at the more contemporary cash-driven approach of relegation rivals QPR, I know which one I’d like to stay up.

The match, however, should have been over within ten minutes. Ivan Ramis made a very welcome return to the starting lineup and thumped in — albeit unmarked — a Jean Beausejour corner a couple minutes in. Latics piled on the pressure and had a couple half chances before Shaun Maloney was rather violently taken down in the penalty box. It was the second time this week that the Scotsman was denied a stonewall penalty. There was absolutely no question — no debate at all — that this was another penalty denied. It was, at this stage, adding insult to injury as Chris Herd had clearly handballed in the box minutes prior.

Villa’s response gave their crowd hope and they enjoyed the better of the play towards the end of the first half including a goal disallowed correctly for offside, but Latics’ refreshed back line held firm. When Emmerson Boyce combined with Arouna Kone for a goal of great quality in the opening moments of the second half, it was game over.

The Good:

Plenty to be pleased about today. Ivan Ramis could not have made a more encouraging return to the starting lineup. His emphatic finish not only put Wigan in the driver’s seat but added to the tension in the stands. He looked like he’d never been gone, confident and excellent with his distribution. His return also resulted in Boyce’s return to the right wing-back position from which he scored.

Arouna Kone has now scored two in a row, and that boost in confidence might just be the difference between a first touch finish or moment of hesitation against United in the home fixture on New Year’s Day. Unfortunately, his improved form also coincides with a trip to the African Cup of Nations for most of January.

Shaun Maloney was a joy to watch at his former stomping grounds. Aston Villa supporters must have been wishing they could have him back. He was the modern playmaker exemplified in the first half in particular, popping up all over the pitch, creating and extremly unfortunate not to have won a penalty. That Martinez didn’t substitute him when 3-0 off speaks well of his fitness levels. That Villa didn’t heavily mark him as other sides have started to do speaks negatively of Lambert’s preparation.

Finally, a bit of luck with the fixture list. There probably couldn’t have been a better time to face Villa. A very valuable away win that allows for the possibility of a double over direct relegation rivals.

The Bad:

Penalty decisions and the continued cowardice of match officials when it comes to blowing the whistle in favour of Wigan Athletic. The fine Roberto had to pay earlier this season for criticism of match officials is becoming increasingly ludicrous in hindsight, but has effectively silenced him. What is happening to Wigan with these crucial decisions is astonishing. We all read through the lines when Martinez himself said after the Everton match that Latics have to “be even better” to compensate for the treatment they seem to get. But it is a sadly corrupt situation when Alex Ferguson’s assault on Mike Dean in the Newcastle fixture goes unreported by Dean himself — and Martinez, the most decent and principled man in British football is keeping his thoughts to himself for fear of punishment when his team is consistently wronged.

Player Ratings:

Ali Al-Habsi: 7 — Didn’t have very much to do, but the clean sheet is much-needed.

Maynor Figueroa: 7.5 — Very solid, with one last ditch clearance sticking out in the memory.

Gary Caldwell: 7 — Outjumped by Benteke a couple times but good otherwise.

Ivan Ramis: 7.5 — Strong return from injury with a goal to boot.

Jean Beausejour: 7 — Found space down the wing in the first half, faded in the second. Still not at his best, but enjoyed a bit of freedom with Boyce restored on the other side.

Emmerson Boyce: 8 — Scored a cracker and didn’t let the team down in any way. When he plays at wing-back, Beausejour is given more freedom on the left, as Boyce stays deeper. Latics are also stronger on set pieces.

James McCarthy: 6.5 — Did nothing wrong and indeed was involved in a lot of neat footwork in midfield, but we’ve come to expect a greater influence.

David Jones: 7 — Continued his fine run of form but went off with a knock.

Shaun Maloney: 7.5 — A joy to watch.

Franco Di Santo: 6.5 — Lovely ball for Kone’s goal, but it’s not just his goal-scoring statistics that are cause for concern — he doesn’t get in goal-scoring positions. Still, his hold-up play is second to no one’s.

Arouna Kone: 7 — Goal and assist for the Ivorian. Should have scored a second, but he’ll be pleased.

Subs:

James McArthur: Non-descript performance, kept it simple.

Jordi Gomez: Not enough touches to really have an impact.

Callum McManaman: Lively and unlucky with a good shot. This was a perfect match to give him some experience, but sadly only got about 8 minutes of it.

Twin strikers at Wigan Athletic — a trip down memory lane

1964-65 : Wigan Athletic 3 Oswestry 0. Harry Lyon gets on to a Walter Stanley cross as Carl Davenport lurks menacingly. Allan Brown looks on from midfield (photo from Wigan World). 

In the late 1970s, my Dad and I would typically go out for a beer on Friday nights. We would rarely discuss things like politics or the weather, preferring to focus our conversations on Wigan Athletic’s progress in the Cheshire League. Among our discussions would be recollections of trips to watch Latics in exotic places like Stalybridge, Mossley and Oswestry. We lived in the south of Wigan, rugby league territory, so the pubs around us were steeped in that kind of nostalgia. One of those was ‘The Waterwheel’, run by ex-Great Britain rugby player, John Stopford. In his heyday in the early 1960s Stopford had been a lightning-fast winger for Swinton. Although he never played for Wigan RLFC, Stopford would draw rugby enthusiasts to his pub. We mostly avoided such places, preferring to walk further afield to pubs that were more salubrious for Wigan Athletic supporters.

One rainy night we succumbed, and tried ‘The Waterwheel’. Upon opening the door and the sight of the scrum surrounding the bar we started to think twice about it. There were some burly men there, faces like boxers, some with arms in slings. We were just about to walk out when my Dad said “Look it’s Harry Lyon over there.” It was indeed my hero from my teenage years. Chatting with Harry was easy. He just made you feel comfortable talking with him. Although he had left the club a decade before you could tell that Wigan Athletic was his first love. He said that it was a wonderful feeling running down the tunnel at the start of a game at Springfield Park, with some 3,000 people urging you on.

Harry Lyon was a great favourite with the fans, Wiganers not only appreciating his incredible goalscoring record, but also loving his commitment on the pitch. I asked him who was the best manager he had worked under – he had 5 during his time at the club from 1962-1968 — his reply was Allan Brown. Brown caused waves in the non-league world in 1964 when he took over at Wigan as player/manager, hiring a swath of full time professionals in a semi-professional league. After training, Brown would sometimes take his players to the town centre restaurant where my mother worked. I would be thrilled when she would bring home players’ autographs, usually written on the backs of serviettes.

Brown’s teams played an attacking 4-2-4 with the manager orchestrating from the centre of midfield. Carl Davenport was Lyon’s striking partner in Brown’s first year. Like Lyon he was an excellent header of the ball. I recall going to the Anchor Ground – aptly named at the time, a real quagmire of a pitch – to watch Latics play Darwen in a cup match. My Dad would recall for many years how Davenport had risen so high that his head was well over the height of the crossbar as he put the ball in the opponents net. Although Davenport was often referred to as an inside forward in those days, he was in reality a twin striker with Lyon. No teams found it easy to cope with the two of them. That season Harry Lyon scored 67 goals!

However, when I asked Harry who was the best striking partner he had played with he immediately retorted: Bert Llewellyn. Unlike Carl Davenport, Bert Llewellyn was only 5 feet 4 inches tall. A headed goal was a rarity, but after joining Latics in the summer of 1965, he scored 49 goals in 39 league appearances over the course of the season. Llewellyn was far from an elegant player, but was a natural goalscorer, sniffing around the penalty box for deflections, toe-poking and scrambling the ball into the back of the net. In his four years at Springfield Park, Llewellyn scored 140 goals in 185 appearances in all competitions. Remarkably, he outscored Lyon in his time at the club. Check out this wonderful article on This Northern Soul on Bert Llewellyn.

Since that era there have been lots of twin striking partnerships at Wigan Athletic. What a pity that wonderful pairing of Jason Roberts and Nathan Ellington was broken up when Latics reached the Premier League. How refreshing that Robert Martinez has adjusted his tactical system to play with two big strikers this season. The interplay between Arouna Kone and Franco Di Santo is a joy to watch. It is almost like turning back the clock.

We would love to hear from our readers – which has been your favourite striking partnership at Wigan Athletic?

Swansea City 2 Wigan Athletic 1: That sinking feeling

Without doing a terrible amount wrong, Wigan Athletic has found itself sinking into the all-too-familiar lower depths of the Premier League. We might be telling a very different tale if Arouna Koné’s headed equaliser had not been incorrectly disallowed for offside, but in the end those small margins told and it was another tight loss. There have been several of them in recent weeks against beatable teams — Fulham, Sunderland, and now Swansea — in which the side showed positives but failed to get the result. The good news is that fellow basement dwellers Southampton, Reading, Aston Villa, Norwich City and QPR look a weaker set of competition than last year’s pack.

Of the aforementioned strugglers, Norwich were the only team to secure three points this weekend with a shock 1-0 victory over Arsenal. Chris Hughton’s side deserve full credit for an excellent performance, but it is no coincidence they got the result following an international break. Like Swansea, Norwich looked fresh and full of zip — both squads have few internationals and benefitted from two weeks of focused training. Like Arsenal, a majority of Wigan’s starting XI had played two matches in the previous week, spread across the far corners of the world. Between Al-Habsi, Figueroa, Beausejour, Caldwell, McArthur, McCarthy and Koné (who admittedly did not play but had an eventful week nonetheless) — Latics players covered four continents and hundreds of thousands of miles before this fixture. Thank goodness Barbados wasn’t playing. Maynor Figueroa, whose Honduran national team secured qualification after thumping Canada 8-1, certainly looked like he was in a different time zone.

A detailed analysis of post-international results will follow next time there is an international break. But in the meantime, it seems fair to raise the question why Roberto is not leaning a little more heavily on his squad for these fixtures based on recent post-international break results?

The Good: 

Despite a sharp-looking home performance from Swansea, Latics kept them out in the first half, and looked the more incisive team on the counter. James McArthur showed some touches of real class and vision. Arouna Koné was very good, despite seeing relatively little of the ball. After Latics conceded and bodies were pushed forward, Shaun Maloney was excellent, getting on the ball, making things happen.

The Bad: 

Figueroa had a bad day. The marking for the second goal was non-existent — they appeared to stand still as Michu ran in to score. The team didn’t show real urgency or ambition until it was 2-0. All of which was a shame against a team that demonstrated their attacking threat but were defensively wobbly throughout. Opportunity lost.

Player Ratings: 

Ali Al-Habsi: 7 — Caught flat-footed on the first goal, but there was not much he could do about either. Made one or two decent saves before then.

Ivan Ramis: 6 — Solid until he lost sight of Michu for the second goal.

Gary Caldwell: 6 — Solid until Hernandez got the better of him for the first goal.

Maynor Figueroa: 5 — Not solid. Looked out of sorts, substituted to accomodate an attacking tactical change.

Emmerson Boyce: 6.5 — Brilliant improvised goal, but didn’t have an easy afternoon with Routledge in fine form.

Jean Beausejour: 7 — Cracking cross for Koné, which would have been the equaliser but for an errant offside call. Also played a delightful ball in for Koné, which the Ivorian couldn’t make the best of. Need him to get forward more often.

James McArthur: 7.5 — Some real quality from the Scot, who always puts the miles in defensively but rarely gets a chance to show his skill.

James McCarthy: 6 — Not his strongest performance.

Shaun Maloney: 7 — Always trying to make things happen. But his finishing should have been better with both a first half opportunity and a disappointing second half free-kick.

Franco Di Santo: 6 — Only got one chance and telegraphed it.

Arouna Koné: 7 — Strong performance that deserved a goal. His strength and pace are impressive, but he showed he can dribble and head the ball as well. The complete striker — just needs a bit more service and luck now. Took a heavy touch on a lovely Beausejour cross, mind.

Subs:

Ben Watson: N/A — His introduction saw a formation change, which resulted in more bodies forward and sustained pressure on the Swansea rearguard. It also left Latics’ defense a bit exposed.

Jordi Gomez: N/A — Went backwards too many times, to the support’s frustration. Played so well in the corresponding fixture last year, maybe he should have been brought on sooner — before goals were needed urgently. Urgency is not his strong suit.

Mauro Boselli: N/A — No service, barely touched the ball.