Wigan Athletic 0 Manchester United 4: A match too far for Wigan

2012-united

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.

The Good: 

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.

The Bad: 

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.

Conclusions:

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.

Player Ratings:

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.

Subs: 

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.

Wigan vs. Fulham: Battle of the strikers as Hugo returns

Wigan’s record Premier League goalscorer Hugo Rodallega returns to the DW Stadium this weekend with his new club, but most eyes will be on his illustrious strike partner, Dimitar Berbatov.

The Bulgarian notched his first two goals in a Fulham shirt in the 3-0 win over West Brom, while Hugo hit the post from three yards out, something he specializes in. The Colombian has already amassed more shots per minute than any other striker in the league — it is no wonder Mauro Boselli didn’t get any service playing between Hugo and Charles N’Zogbia. But the reception should be warm for a player who worked his socks off in that lone striker role, scored some very important goals, and developed a warm relationship with the Latics support in his years with the club.

Interest should not be fully reserved for Fulham’s strikeforce, however, as Roberto came out with a public promise of playing opportunities for Boselli yesterday. Franco Di Santo has been excellent with two brilliant finishes in four matches, really beginning to fulfill his huge potential; Arouna Koné is still adapting but has pedigree and looks a little sharper with his touch as the days go by.

Assuming Antolin Alcaraz is not yet ready to return to action, Roberto should be able to field the same XI as he did at Old Trafford. But he has options if he is looking to mix things up. Home games like this where we would expect to control possession should theoretically be ideal for Boselli, with crosses flying in from both sides. Ryo Miyaichi looks fast and skillful and offers something closer to what Victor Moses did. There is cover in midfield, though it is hard to imagine any interference there.

Aside from Swansea, whose style of play was instilled by Roberto long before Brendan Rodgers or Michael Laudrup came along, Martin Jol’s Fulham have become one of the more pleasant teams to watch. They’ve lost the excellent Moussa Dembele, playmaker-in-chief Danny Murphy and Clint Dempsey. But if fit, Bryan Ruiz is a very exciting player behind the front two of Rodallega and Berbatov. New left winger Alexander Kacaniklic looks lively and has already contributed goals and assits, while Damien Duff has had an effective start to the season on the right. Steve Sidwell has been waiting for regular football for years and now has it. He will provide steel in midfield, though he can play a bit too. And the defense is well established, with Haangeland and Hughes, and Schwarzer behind them always difficult to beat. They were the one team we didn’t outplay in the fantastic run-in last season.

So a tricky but intriguing encounter on the cards. The good news is that both Clint Dempsey and Andy Johnson have moved on and therefore cannot score against us anymore — for Fulham, anyway. The bad is that Berbatov has a very decent record against us, while Hugo has scored a few at the DW as well. Lets hope this is a day for Latics’s stikers to rise up and keep them in the shadows.

Manchester United vs. Wigan: Will jet lag tell?

One of the problems with a global recruitment policy as far flung as Wigan’s — Oman, Japan, and Honduras for a start — is that when international break comes round, half of the starting XI are likely to be jet lagged for the ensuing Premier League match.

Latics famously under-performed in the home loss to Swansea last season after players like Maynor Figueroa and Antolin Alcaraz had only landed in Manchester a day before the match. This year, ahead of the always daunting trip to Old Trafford, Roberto has again made the point that it is extremely difficult to prepare for a match without knowing who you have at your disposal.

Players like Antolin Alcaraz have played two matches in the past week, sandwiched by two day-long trips to the other side of the world, and will likely need — but not get — two full days to recover. Even if they survive the 90 minutes, proper rest and recuperation is never achieved.

Manchester United supporters might point to similar troubles, but replacing a tired Luis Antonio Valencia with Ashley Young or Nani is a bit different than, say, Adrian Lopez on for Antolin Alcaraz.

The Paraguayan (groin) is one of two major doubts for the Latics going into the fixture, with Jean Beausejour the second (hamstring). If Alcaraz misses out, we’ll expect to see the Ramis-Caldwell-Figueroa trio that figured against Stoke at the back. If Beausejour doesn’t make it, Maynor Figueroa will be pushed forward into the wingback position. If neither are available, the beneficiary will likely be David Jones at left wingback. The midfield should be the standard Scottish/Irish diamond, with Di Santo and Koné up front. The only variation in the attacking third I can imagine is the more conservative addition of Jordi Gomez at the expense of one of the strikers. Or — you never know — the introduction of the lightning-quick Ryo Miyaichi for added counter-attacking threat.

Manchester United, meanwhile, only have two international strikers to choose from after Robin van Persie picked up a knock  playing for his country. Wayne Rooney is still sidelined thanks to that unfortunate encounter with Hugo Rodallega’s boots. They’ll have to rely on Chicharito Hernandez and Danny Wellbeck, which will undoubtedly feel quite a hardship.

The clubs live in different realities. Watching Wigan outplay and topple Ferguson’s side on that special evening last April was one the greatest football spectator experiences I can remember. They played with belief, desire and no shortage of skill. One suspects that the ultimate significance of said result will not be lost on United’s players or fans — and they’ll be looking to put it behind them this Saturday at Old Trafford. But the gap on the pitch narrows each time these two teams play each other. If Latics can retain that belief and sin miedo attitude, a first result at Old Trafford is possible.

Arsenal – Wigan Athletic: Beware of euphoria

Wigan Athletic travel to Arsenal on Monday on a euphoric high after two performances that have confounded their critics. There have been many among the Wigan Athletic faithful who have doubted the capability within Roberto Martinez’s squad. There was talk of several players not being up to Premier League standard. The last two games have proved that this is not the case. The display against Chelsea was excellent, being robbed of a deserved win by two offside goals. Latics were the better team on the day — hard to believe they could reach such a level after the frustrating season we have been through.

Wigan Athletic were also the better team at the DW Stadium on Wednesday and their performance was such that Manchester United rarely looked like scoring. The quality of Latics’ football in that game was way beyond anything we have seen from them before in the Premier League. The stats reveal Latics having 13 attempts on goal, Manchester United 9. Wigan Athletic had 55% of possession with 7 corners, compared with 3 from the visitors. Latics commited 8 fouls, United 14. One yellow card for Wigan two for United. As has become the Premier League norm when a little club plays a top four team,  Latics had to deal with adverse refereeing decisions, which would have broken the backs of many teams. A rare headed goal from Victor Moses was disallowed by a linesman who focused on the protesting De Gea. Caldwell, stood in front of the Spaniard, did nothing against the rules but the goal was annulled. In the 60th minute Jonny Evans made a tackle that would have been a yellow card 99% of the time, but the referee decided it wasn’t. Maybe his decision was influenced by the yellow card he had given the same player earlier? It is not the first time Evans has escaped like this against Latics.

We have an appalling away record against Arsenal. It has been a history largely of capitulation. Arsenal have won 8 of their last 9 games and are in 3rd place. Can Wigan Athletic summon up the psychological and physical fortitude to make a go of it on Monday?

The matches against Chelsea and Man U must have taken their toll. Moreover they are almost certainly going to have an unsympathetic referee and a hostile crowd of 65,000 to deal with. The referee will be Andre Mariner, who famously allowed that Blackburn goal to stand after Morten Gamst Pedersen ran the ball in from a corner. If the goal hadn’t stood, by the way, we would have a 6-point cushion over Blackburn — all the difference in the world. Let’s be fair though – it is not only Latics who have suffered from refereeing decisions – other teams near the bottom of the table have to deal with the same thing. But sometimes one irrationally thinks that the Premier League does not want unglamorous clubs like Wigan Athletic in its ranks.

However, relegation continues to threaten. A good result at Arsenal would be a fantastic boost – a walloping could set us back to where we were before. Worse still would be injuries or suspensions. During Roberto Martinez’s reign he has never been afforded the opportunity to play a settled team, particularly in defence. Alcaraz, Caldwell and Figueroa have been superb over the past few games – to lose one of them would throw a spanner in the works that we don’t need. The defensive cohesion of a back three used to playing together is paramount. I hate to say it, but a damage limitation approach if things go awry against Arsenal might be the way to go. Particularly given the favorable results of direct rivals Blackburn and QPR yesterday.

On the team front it looks like Hugo Rodallega is going to miss out again through injury. Franco Di Santo was superb in his ball-holding skills against Man U but Rodallega remains the best goalscoring centre forward we have. Let’s hope he will be back soon. Having a settled team is a big plus for Latics. The question is whether they are going to have the collective energy and mental fortitude to make this an even contest. There were some severely tired legs towards the end of the Manchester United contest. We need to beware of the euphoria that has followed the defeat of the league champions, hope that we can continue with the positive approach that we have seen recently, but not be surprised if our players are not quite ready for a game against another top five team. Let’s hope for a good result against Arsenal but also look ahead at the remaining fixtures, which are more easily winnable. Let’s keep the faith!