The fixture congestion around the festive season would have been exhausting enough for an injury-hit squad on a bad run of form, but after the exertions against Arsenal and Everton, and a vital away win against Aston Villa, the visit of high-flying Manchester United proved a bit too much for Wigan Athletic.
While Alex Ferguson had the luxury of recalling the fresh and rested duo of Robin Van Persie and Chicharito Hernandez, Roberto Martinez gave Arouna Koné his 20st consecutive appearance this season — every league match since his arrival in August — which will also be his last before jetting off to participate in the African Cup of Nations. To highlight the gulf between the clubs, Koné’s replacement in the squad will be Chilean loanee Angelo Henriquez, an 18-year-old Manchester United striker yet to make an appearance.
The game itself wasn’t much of a spectacle. Wigan had the best of the first half hour, controlling possession, limiting United’s strikers, and occasionally threatening themselves. The game turned sharply after a series of unfortunate events. James McArthur’s wayward headed clearance forced Gary Caldwell to scramble the ball away in haste. The ball ended up with Patrice Evra, who darted into the box, scuffed his shot, only for it to fall into his path for a second pop. Al-Habsi made a fine reflex save but the ball fell at Hernandez’s feet for the decisive goal.
A similarly lucky rebound fell to Hernandez moments later, who fed Van Persie. Ivan Ramis had slipped in the build-up but was then outclassed in what was a delightful finish by the Dutchman.
Wigan’s response in the second half was subdued and the team looked a bit drained until Arouna Koné stabbed in against the run of play, but the goal was ruled offside. It did provide some inspiration, however, and Latics enjoyed a good spell before a poor Van Persie free-kick was deflected into the path of Hernandez yet again, for the Mexican to hammer home.
It would not be a United fixture without a refereeing decision going favourably Ferguson’s way, however. Arouna Koné was hauled down by last man Chris Smalling only to be let off with a yellow card in circumstances that the rule book would have guaranteed a red.
Van Persie finished things off with a tap-in after England international Danny Wellbeck, a late sub, pounced on an error by Jean Beausejour.
Both United fixtures are out of the way, no injuries were sustained, or any red cards. The first half hour was positive, before the goal turned the tide. Maynor Figueroa and Emmerson Boyce had decent games despite some patchy defending around them. There is now a break for the first team as FA Cup play begins against Bournemouth this weekend. It will be interesting to witness possible debuts from Henriquez and Roger Espinoza — and the potential returns from injury of Antolin Alcaraz and Ryo Miyaichi. Callum McManaman and Jordi Gomez both looked sharp in their cameos against United and will also be champing at the bit to make an impression.
Much like the visit to Old Trafford earlier this season, this was a demoralizing experience. Most losses this season have felt close, but not this one — United were clearly the more potent side . Their strength — ruthless, clinical finishing — has been Wigan’s weakness.
After a clean sheet at Villa Park and the happy return of Ivan Ramis, the defense was wobbly and made mistakes. Ramis himself had a poor game and struggled with the quality of the opposition. Ali Al-Habsi looked nervous throughout. Gary Caldwell was substituted early, possibly as a pre-caution. Beausejour was clearly targeted for his lack of pace, as he was by Arsenal’s Oxlade-Chamberlain.
Glad to have it out of the way. After Bournemouth, the club faces Fulham away and Sunderland at home. The most intriguing storyline will be how Martinez adapts his lineup to cope with Koné’s absence. Franco Di Santo seems certain to lead the line, but Roberto has numerous options to ponder as to who partners him. Mauro Boselli and Angelo Henriquez will be hoping he opts for a direct swap and two up top. Jordi Gomez and Callum McManaman looked useful and keen and could fit in with a slight tactical adjustment. Or we may see a version of the formation used against Everton, with a three-man midfield — probably David Jones — behind Maloney and Di Santo. Four points would be an excellent return from those two fixtures.
Ali Al-Habsi: 6 — Nervy. In my opinion, not at fault for the first goal.
Ivan Ramis: 5 — Day to forget. Made a couple errors but generally struggled to contain United’s excellent strikers.
Gary Caldwell: 6 — Made several important blocks, but also struggled with Chicharito’s acceleration. His substitution allowed the pacier Emmerson Boyce to slot into the defense.
Maynor Figueroa: 7 — Covered for the mistakes of his teammates and defended well. May find himself in the wing-back role soon, however, with Beausejour looking in need of a break and Alcaraz’s return imminent.
Emmerson Boyce: 7 — Started at wingback, ended at centre-back. Solid in both roles.
Jean Beausejour: 5 — Has looked off the pace recently. The opposition has become wise to his importance to Martinez’s tactics. United pinned him back with both Ashley Young and Rafael attacking down his side.
James McArthur: 6 — Wigan ended the match with more possession than United, a testament to the Jimmy Macs.
James McCarthy: 6 — See McArthur.
Shaun Maloney: 6 — Quick and sharp, but not incisive on this day.
Franco Di Santo: 6 — Played a nice cross for Kone’s offside goal but not much joy otherwise.
Arouna Kone: 6 — Offside for the one half-chance that came his way, then hauled down by Smalling when he should have been one-on-one with De Gea.
Jordi Gomez: Made a difference when he came on, almost scored a spectacular free-kick.
Ronnie Stam: His energy was a plus once again when he came on. If his crossing was consistent he might keep his place.
Callum McManaman: Quick and positive, waiting for chance.