Looking back at MAF’s time at Wigan

 Fortunemiss

“The centre-forward is often a tall player, typically known as a target man, whose main function is to score the majority of goals on behalf of the team. The player may also be used to win long balls or receive passes and “hold up” the ball as team-mates advance, to help teammates score by providing a pass (‘through ball’ into the box); the latter variation usually requiring quicker pace. Most modern centre-forwards operate in front of the second strikers or central attacking midfielders, and do the majority of the ball handling outside the box.

I had been looking for a description of the role of the centre forward and after a bit of searching I found the above on Wikipedia. It sums up more or less what I thought the role involved. But why didn’t I trust my own judgment in the first place? After decades of watching football surely I knew what a centre forward should do. But events over the past year or so had clouded my judgment.

My boyhood hero as a centre forward was Harry Lyon. Lyon was by no means a giant, but he had the jumping technique to out-do defenders on high crosses. He certainly scored the majority of the goals for Latics in his heyday. In fact he netted a remarkable 67 times in the 1964-65 season. But the following season saw his goalscoring tally drop, when he scored less than his strike partner Bert Llewellyn who got 49.

Lyon was a scapper, lacking elegance in his tussles against opposition defenders, but he would always chase the long ball and fight hammer and nail to hold possession. Memory fades, but I don’t recall Harry as the kind of player to provide through balls into the box, but his strike partner would be there sniffing for the rebound of one of his ferocious shots. Llewellyn and his predecessor at Wigan, Carl Davenport, were good at putting those loose balls in the net.

But football has changed since Lyon’s day. Defenders are much fitter and most teams have a couple of large guys in the centre of defence who are very good at clearing the ball, especially if it is in the air.  For decades after Alf Ramsey brought in 4-4-2, teams used that system. The twin strikers would tussle with the twin central defenders of the opposition, but after a while the fashion changed.

Perhaps it had become too easy for those central defenders. Marking for them had been straightforward – you take one and I take the other being the order of the day. They were later to be faced with just one central striker, with support coming from the flanks and the midfield. Their roles became more complicated, sometimes confusing.

In the higher levels of English football not so many teams now play 4-4-2. The job of the centre forward has become an almost thankless task, extremely physically challenging in having to chase balls and hold up against often two big defenders. Then he has to have the energy and enthusiasm to mount attacks on goal. Not surprisingly good centre forwards are hard to come by in this day and age. Some are good at scoring goals, but not so efficient in chasing lost causes and holding up the ball. Others are the reverse. The average goal tally for a centre forward has not surprisingly dropped, given his onerous other duties.

However, this does not mean that modern day systems don’t work. The top teams have midfield players moving into the “hole” behind or to the side of the centre forward, notching opportunist goals. Those typically towering central defenders have a hard time coping with their runs.

Uwe Rosler was clearly a disciple of the “modern” approach. In his first season he often used MAF – Marc-Antoine Fortune – in that lone centre forward role, with two players wide of him. Fortune did a good job in holding up the ball and worked hard. MAF had been used sparingly by Owen Coyle, with Nick Powell being on the scene, but Rosler often used him as the target man following Powell’s loss of form and Grant Holt’s fall from grace. Over the course of the 2013-14 season,  MAF was to make 17 league starts, with 20 appearances off the bench. He scored four goals.

Rosler had clearly decided that MAF would not be his first choice centre forward when he signed Oriol Riera before the beginning of last season. This was underlined when Andy Delort was signed just before the close of the summer transfer window. But neither of the two overseas players could settle in their roles. MAF was brought back in.

In Malky Mackay’s first game in charge in late November, Latics were home to Middlesbrough. MAF was given the lone centre forward role, with Callum McManaman and Shaun Maloney playing wide. MAF was to become a regular fixture in Mackay’s teams, even when he switched to 4-4-2. Fans had been hopeful that more goals would come with a switch to the system that had done Latics proud in their heyday. However, Mackay was to pair up MAF with James McClean, a winger playing as a central striker, or Leon Clarke, a journeyman who rarely delivered. Mackay had scorned the idea of linking him up with Billy Mckay or Martyn Waghorn. By the end of the season, MAF had made 27 league starts, with 8 appearances off the bench and scored one goal.

MAF had become a feature in the Mackay era through his ability to chase those lost causes and hold up the ball. Although he offered a minimal goal threat the team often suffered when he was not on the field. MAF had become an important cog in Mackay’s long ball tactics.

MAF was like Marmite to Wigan Athletic fans. You either loved him or you hated him. Despite his whole-hearted play and willingness to sacrifice for the team, few loved him. MAF had become synonymous with the most disappointing season in living memory for most fans.

At Wigan MAF had become the target man, not always his role at previous clubs. Indeed at West Bromwich he had often been played wide. Perhaps Latics would have got more out of the player if they had done that. MAF’s career record as a goalscorer was weak when he arrived at Wigan as a 32 year old, but playing as a lone centre forward helped make it even worse. Moreover his concentration could lapse and he could too often be caught offside.

We might well ponder what might have happened if Latics had persevered longer with the overseas strikers, Delort and Riera. Had they been written off by the coaches or was it an economy measure to send them off on loan in January? On top of that, the reluctance of Mackay to give Waghorn and Mckay a genuine chance was hard to fathom, given the impotent strike force he was regularly fielding. There are fans who even suggest that Latics have avoided relegation if Mackay had not so often fielded MAF.

MAF sadly became the scapegoat of an awful season. Unlike Harry Lyon he could not score goals. Neither could he make assists.

MAF is by no means a bad footballer, neither does he shirk in his duties. But he is not a goalscorer.

We wish him well in his next move.

The controversial MAF

Fortunemiss

“Marco is a quality player and we were very impressed by just how well he did for us last season. People say he didn’t have a fantastic scoring record. But look at the goals from midfield after he came in. The goals the other boys scored because the way he played was phenomenal. Marco had a great ethic about him in his training as well as his playing. He was a privilege to work with.”

So said Peter Grant when Marc-Antoine Fortune signed for Celtic in July 2009. Grant had moved to a coaching position at Celtic after a spell at West Bromwich Albion, where he had previously worked with the French Guianan.

Celtic had paid Nancy a fee of £3.8m for “MAF”, after he had impressed in a loan spell with West Bromwich in the second half of the 2008-09 season. MAF had become a fan favourite at the Hawthorns and after 18 appearances and 5 goals he was voted ‘’Player of the Season”.

Sadly times have changed for MAF. A mere mention of his name among Wigan Athletic supporters will cause controversy.

The player appears shot-shy, unwilling or unable to make the probing runs off the ball that are expected of a striker. But despite a record of 7 goals in 70 appearances (including 43 starts), MAF continues to figure prominently in Malky Mackay’s plans. It causes a considerable amount of consternation among the majority of fans. Put simply, how can a player with such a striking record regularly make the starting lineup?

However, MAF does have his supporters who will say that he is a real team player, with his strong hold-up play and willingness to chase. Moreover on occasions when he has been substituted during the course of a game, Latics’ play has got worse, not better. The team so often seems to play better when he is on the pitch.

At 33 and nearing the end of his contract, will there be a possibility of him staying at Wigan? He has never been a prolific goalscorer, but there have been spells at clubs where his record has been well within the acceptable range. Is he at the end of his career now or can he still show that he can score goals more often?

That move to Celtic had been potentially the high point of MAF’s career, but despite scoring 10 goals in 32 appearances for the Glasgow club, he could not live up to his price tag and new manager Neil Lennon shipped him off to West Bromwich a year later.

MAF was not able to relieve his previous highs in his second spell with the midlands club, but nevertheless stayed with them for three more years. He was to score 10 goals in 62 appearances.

When Owen Coyle took over as Wigan Athletic manager in the summer of 2013 he had a major rebuilding job to do with a squad that had been decimated following relegation from the Premier League. Coyle had been given a year to get the club back into the Premier League. His recruitment plan was to largely focus on seeking experienced professionals who had played in the Premier League.

In his signing of Grant Holt and MAF it looked like he had found a good blend of strikers. Holt was the bustling, goalscoring centre forward, with MAF the foil, through his unselfish and hardworking support. Sadly the partnership never really got together , with Holt dispatched off on loan in January.

Their lack of success had drawn criticism from many fans of Coyle’s signing of two 32 year olds on long term contracts. With the departure of Holt on loan the focus fell more and more on MAF. Under Coyle he had made 19 appearances, which included only 8 starts. His solitary goal had come ironically from a superb crossfield pass from Grant Holt at Yeovil. However, he was to find favour with new manager Uwe Rosler under whom he made 15 starts and 15 appearances off the bench, scoring 4 goals.

When Oriol Riera and Andy Delort were signed early on in the current season, and with Martyn Waghorn’s proven goalscoring record, it had looked like MAF would fall well down the pecking order. But he has come bouncing back. Riera and Delort are gone, Waghorn is marginalised and new signing Billy Mckay finds himself warming the bench. MAF has weathered the storm, working under three managers at Wigan, all of whom have shown faith in his abilities.

So far this season MAF has made 22 starts, with 5 appearances off the bench. He has scored 2 goals and made no assists. The last time he scored a goal at the DW Stadium was in February 2014.

Despite the value MAF might add through his hold-up play and commitment can Malky Mackay continue to justify his inclusion in a team desperately short on goals?

Has Mackay considered playing MAF wide on the right, where he can play an effective role but not labour under the burden of scoring goals?

The controversy appears set to linger on until the end of a bitterly disappointing season.

 

 

Getting the best out of the strike force

Will Billy Mckay go the same way as his predecessors, Delort and Riera?  Photo courtesy of BBC Sport.,

Will Billy Mckay go the same way as his predecessors, Delort and Riera?
Photo courtesy of BBC Sport.,

When the lineup was announced prior to the Leeds match on Saturday it was a sadly depressing moment. The mood had been positive and people had started to “Believe” again. But a look at the team sheet was enough to send many of us into despair. How can you keep faith in a manager who just does not seem to realize that some things just do not work?

The dampener on the proceedings was the selection of a strike force of Marc-Antoine Fortune and James McClean.

This is not to suggest that the two players do not have their merits.

Despite scoring only one league goal in 24 appearances the controversial MAF continues to get his place in the team. His holding up of the ball, commitment and willingness to sacrifice for the team make him a good team player. He has played under three managers at Wigan, all of whom have appreciated his attributes. In fact since signing in summer 2013 he has made 35 league starts and 25 appearances off the bench, scoring 5 goals.

McClean is on his way to be being voted “Player of the Season”. Fans have been impressed by his willingness to run himself into the ground for the cause, in a season when so many of his teammates have not shown that level of desire and commitment. Malky Mackay clearly believes he can become a bona fide central striker, through his speed, physicality, a powerful left foot and willingness to run at defences. As a left winger he has always been a committed team player, so often running back to help out his left full back. He is the club’s top scorer with six goals.

However, McClean has always had his critics. They will say he lacks the “trickery skills” that the best wingers possess, that he runs around like a headless chicken, not lifting his head, not providing the level of assists to be expected of an experienced Premier League practitioner. As a central striker he is too often caught offside and does not make the kind kinds of runs off the ball that are needed.

The Derry-raised forward deserves commendation for his commitment and enthusiasm to help the cause. He is the leading scorer with 6 goals this season, but as a central striker he has a lot to learn.On Saturday he was to be switched to the left flank during the course of the game.

Neither Fortune nor McClean are what might be called “natural strikers”. Those are the kinds of players who are in the right place at the right time to get the tap-ins to those balls fizzing across the box. Moreover their combined goalscoring records do not suggest they are going to do so.

The likelihood is that neither will be at the club at the end of the season. Fortune is now 33 and it would be a surprise if he were given a further contract. According to reports, McClean is one of the highest wage earners at the club (some suggest he is on £30k per week) and is likely to be released whether or not Latics stay in the Championship.

However, Latics do have other strikers. The big centre forward Leon Clarke – who has played for 14 clubs – is very much a “journeyman”. Nevertheless his physical presence has added to the forward line and his commitment has been excellent. Add to that a debut goal against Bournemouth.

Billy Mckay and Martyn Waghorn continue to be marginalized by Mackay.

Waghorn was Uwe Rosler’s first permanent signing and made a positive impact in the latter half of last season. Often played wide he nevertheless scored 5 goals in 15 appearances. Moreover he was a consummate team player, strong defensively, so often dropping back to defence to help his full back. During that period Waghorn was never a spectacular player, but one who fitted into the framework of the team, a very useful asset. Many of us expected Waghorn to continue to be one of Rosler’s mainstay players, but injury combined with the signing of new strikers pushed him out of contention. He has made just 6 starts this season, with 12 appearances as a substitute, scoring 2 goals.

Like Oriol Riera and Andy Delort who preceded him, Mckay is a proven goalscorer. He had scored 10 goals in 23 appearances for Inverness Caledonian Thistle this season, prior to joining Latics. In his two previous seasons in the SPL he scored 18 and 22 goals respectively.

Sadly it looks like Mckay is going the same way as his predecessors. The woeful treatment of Delort and Riera has continued with Mckay, albeit under a different manager. Is there a disconnect between recruiting and coaching at the club? Under Rosler good performance in training was paramount to his process of team selection. It continues with Mackay. Is Mckay not fit enough for the demands of the Championship or does he just not impress the coaching staff on the training field?

Mckay will have arrived with confidence, after banging in the goals in Scotland. But being given no starts and six appearances off the bench, his confidence will surely have already dissipated. Granted, he has failed to impress so far, but players need a run of games in the starting lineup to show their worth. Surely he must soon be given that opportunity?

Since Malky Mackay’s arrival Latics have not won a single home game, drawing two and losing eight. They have only scored 5 goals in those 10 matches at the DW Stadium.

Given his woeful record, it is a wonder that Mackay continues to be employed by the club. But it looks like he will continue at least until the end of the season.

In the meantime his coaching staff need to take a long hard look at themselves to explain how so many players with genuine talent have fallen by the wayside this season. It is their role to help players adjust, to make them into effective performers at the appropriate level.

Let’s hope that Mckay does not get consigned to the same level of mismanagement as Delort and Riera.