Southampton vs. Wigan Athletic: Match Preview

I was wondering yesterday when the last time was that Wigan Athletic played Southampton and all I could remember was a cup tie that I went to in the mid 1980’s. It was at The Dell, an awfully designed stadium, but a cauldron of  atmosphere. Latics were in the 3rd division at the time and Southampton in the 1st. My abiding memory is of Danny Wallace’s pace being too much for Cribley , Butler and Co in the Latics defence. We lost 3-0.

Checking the facts today I found this was their last encounter. The two teams have strangely never met before in a league match. Times have certainly changed. Southampton have been through lean times in recent years, the purchase of their new ground in their spiritual home of St Mary’s (hence the ‘Saints’ nickname) seemingly a millstone around their necks. However, under the excellent leadership of old Latics’ goalkeeping favourite, Nigel Adkins, they are back in the big league.

Once again Latics play a newly promoted team early in the season. Southampton put up a very spirited display last week, before going down 3-2 to champions, Manchester City. Spirit and high morale is something we can expect from a promoted team, used to getting good results. They are not team of household names, but nevertheless strive to play good football under Adkins’ influence. In Rickie Lambert they have a centre forward with a superb goalscoring record. He scored a well taken goal against Man City last week, but the jury is still out as to whether he can make the transition to the Premier League. He has scored 79 goals in 129 appearances for the Saints since joining them in 2009! A man marking job by Gary Caldwell might well be on the cards.

Wigan Athletic come into the match following a 2-0 reverse at home to Chelsea, both goals down to the kinds of defensive errors that have dogged them since joining the Premier League. Such errors cannot be afforded against a resurgent Southampton side. Despite Maynor Figueroa’s good performance at wing back last week one hopes that Jean Beausejour is fit so that the Honduran can move back into the centre of defence. The mutual understanding between Figueroa, Caldwell and Alcaraz was a key part of Latics’ success last season. Ivan Ramis is clearly a very capable defender, but it is going to take him time to adjust to the pace of the English game.

As expected it seems Victor Moses is on his way to Chelsea. In terms of excitement he will be sorely missed – with that  “buzz” he has caused around the ground when taking on multiple defenders. His crossing and finishing in general will not be missed. Martinez has the prospect of playing two of his central strikers – Di Santo, Boselli and Kone – together. However, given his previous history and tactical preferences this is unlikely. A wide player is a more likely possibility and there are Crusat, Miyaichi and McManaman to choose from. However, there remains the prospect of playing Gomez in the nominal wide position.

As a newly promoted team Southampton are likely to come into this match with an air of confidence. However, the long term question is whether they have the quality and depth in their squad to stay the course. My hope is that Martinez will field a well balanced, positive lineup, signaling to the opponents that Latics are not a team to trifled with. Too often we have gone into these matches nervously. Let’s have genuine forwards, with wing backs overlapping and central midfield players going box to box. This, combined with a strong defence and work ethic, helped us get fantastic results in the latter part of last year. Let’s go to win it!

Wigan Athletic vs. Newcastle Preview: I’m a Believer

What wonderful enthusiastic support Wigan Athletic had at Fulham last Saturday. Stuck  in the worst possible vantage point in the corner behind the goal at the Craven Cottage end they nevertheless gave it all they had. The constant chanting of “I’m a Believer” made a clear statement to the team that they had loyal support, which will be crucial in the remaining three matches.

After the elation of the wonderful displays against Manchester United, Arsenal and Chelsea came the disappointment of that late defeat at Fulham. On top of that, favourable results for fellow strugglers. The bottom line is that Wigan Athletic remain in the mire and the only way to get out of it is to win games. On paper, the Newcastle match looks the hardest of the three remaining. One might point out that playing away at Blackburn is no joy ride and a Wolves team with nothing to play for might be a tough nut to crack. Sometimes teams play better when the pressure is off.  The good news is that QPR and Blackburn have tough fixtures remaining and Aston Villa are now in that same mire, having won only one out of their last 11 games. And Bolton? Who knows? They seem to be able to play poorly and still get good results. They have the easiest fixture list remaining, but can they continue to get away with it?

On the team front Hugo Rodallega is likely to be back and he could appear at some time in the game. Watching the Fulham match,   I got into a conversation with a young man who is an AFC Wimbledon supporter. He was taking a break from his team’s match against Torquay to bring his little brother to Fulham to watch a Premier League encounter.  He said he liked Wigan’s style of football and their organization and hoped they stayed up. However, he said that Latics didn’t seem to have anybody upfront. I explained to him that Di Santo went off injured in the first half with Sammon replacing him. However, the young man had a point. Looking back on the match and the second half in particular, Latics looked jaded and unambitious.  The tough games prior to going to Fulham had taken their toll. More worrying – probably due to fatigue – was the lack of support for the lone centre forward. The midfield was just not going the extra mile and getting into the box. Whether it be Di Santo, Sammon or Rodallega playing there they need some support.

Let’s hope that the bruised and battered among Latics’ first choice starting eleven recover sufficiently well for the Newcastle game. Newcastle are a physically powerful team, brimming with confidence, and it is going to need a lot of running and harassing to knock them off their game. Their away record reads W7D3L6.

That said, they have been  punching above their weight all season.  They have two very dangerous central strikers in Ba and Cisse, a well balanced midfield and a very solid defence marshaled by Coloccini. However, they are definitely beatable. Alcaraz, Caldwell and Figueroa have played wonderfully well in recent games against the likes of Drogba, Rooney and Van Persie. The midfield of Boyce, the Jimmy Macs and Beausejour have competed on at least equal terms with star-studded opposition in the same matches.  Back in October, Latics played pretty well at Newcastle, being unlucky to lose to a superb effort from Cabaye. They certainly matched Newcastle that day. This Saturday, with a tiny bit of luck and fair refereeing decisions, they can certainly beat Newcastle. I’m certainly a believer!

Fulham vs. Wigan Athletic: In-form Latics visit bogey team Fulham

There are no two ways about it — Fulham are a pain in the neck. The last time we beat them was in 2006. They signed Clint Dempsey the following year, and he has feasted on us since. It’s not a case of outplaying or outclassing us, it’s just that no matter the manager from Hodgson to Hughes to Jol, their keeper always has a man-of-the-match performance, and their striker — usually the Texan — can’t miss.

Present circumstances promise for this to be quite an interesting iteration. Wigan are in dreamland, having produced their best every Premier League displays to earn wins over Liverpool, Stoke, Manchester United and Arsenal in their last five games. Fulham meanwhile, are about where you would expect them to be, playing well at home, dropping points on the road, but doing it with a pleasant continental style Martin Jol has brought to Craven Cottage. While classy Costa Rican striker Bryan Ruiz is out with a broken metatarsal and both Andrew Johnson and Pavel Pogrebnyak are doubtful with injuries, Clint Dempsey is enjoying his best ever season with 21 goals to his name and will likely start up front. Which could be trouble.

Hugo Rodallega and Shaun Maloney should be fit to make their comebacks, which should prove timely boosts given the exhausting fixture list Latics have just come through against the traditional top four and the most physical side in the league, Stoke City. Roberto said last year that one of the keys to the club’s survival run was their youth and endurance when the going got tough. The midfield engines of the Jimmy Macs and attacking outlets Victor Moses and Franco Di Santo have certainly provided evidence to that claim.

One would expect Roberto to name an unchanged lineup after the away day heroics at the Emirates. If he does, a bench involving people like Mo Diame, Shaun Maloney, Ronnie Stam, Ben Watson and Hugo Rodallega must surely go down as the strongest in the club’s history. Albert Crusat would be there too if he hadn’t suffered an injury in training before the Arsenal match.

But it’s a difficult one to call, this one. The amazing results against United and Arsenal have eased the pressure on this game, and although the players and manager are all saying the right things about maintaining the same level of intensity, it is hard to imagine that being possible against Fulham, away. But our Wigan heroes have done nothing if not earn the benefit of the doubt from us, their supporters. Long may this glorious form continue.

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!

West Brom – Wigan Preview: Living in hope

Let’s start with an admission. I don’t have the faintest clue what is going to happen at the Hawthorns tomorrow.

Since Roberto’s tactical switch three matches ago, we’ve seen all shades of Wigan. The best attacking performance of the season came in the Blackburn draw, which would have been a win but for Andre bloody Mariner. The best defensive performance came in the away win at Sunderland. The worst performance full-stop, began the second Mikel Arteta scored Arsenal’s first.

Football has way of clouding one’s judgement. Having most recently watched 65 minutes of capitulation against an Arsenal team at their imperious best, co-starring ourselves at our demoralized worst, it’s hard to view this next fixture with any real optimism. And yet, in the first 25 minutes of the game against that same Arsenal side, we played some of our best football all season. How would I feel if Arsenal had gone 4-0 up and Latics had finished with those excellent 25 minutes of football. Ok, still probably not great, but certainly a bit more optimistic.

If Latics were a craft beer, it would be high gravity stuff. One week I’m blabbering about turning points and the next I can’t see a way out.

The encouraging thing about this Latics side, that separates it from most sides doomed to relegation is that, in more matches than not, we look capable of winning. We haven’t been getting the points yet, obviously, but we didn’t last year either. I had an exchange with a fellow supporter on Twitter earlier today, during which we discussed the lack of goals from our forwards. He felt that Rodallega was on his way and wasn’t too sad to see the back of him. So I asked him who he’d rather see up front, Franco Di Santo or Conor Sammon? His response pretty much sums up what it’s like to be a Wigan supporter these days: “Probably Franco, but it’s hard. Sammon looks like he can score goals but isn’t. Franco doesn’t look like he can, but has.” In recent times, the match we actually won was one of the few (against beatable opposition) that we didn’t deserve to. On the other hand, quite how we didn’t beat Blackburn, Newcastle, Fulham, Norwich, Swansea is beyond me. If we’d managed even two wins out of those, we’d be 14th, the position West Brom is currently in.

So off we go to the Hawthorns, living in hope. Or faith? West Brom away was an exciting fixture last year. It may have even been the one that got Roberto Di Matteo the sack (not beating us has proven to be the final straw for quite a few teams over the years). They are usually fairly open affairs, 2-1s or 2-2s. There is obviously a lot of pressure, in last place, with fixtures against Chelsea, Liverpool, Man United, and a resurgent Stoke away coming up. But did the walloping by Arsenal lift some of it?

Most everyone is fit, to my knowledge. Emmerson Boyce and Antolin Alcaraz will be welcome returnees. Roberto has been answering a lot of questions about Hugo Rodallega, who has still not signed a new contract and has presumably been spending his time begging someone else to sign him. Which in fairness is some task since he is a striker but hasn’t scored since May. But there have been hints in there that suggest the Colombian will make an appearance at some point tomorrow. Lets just all hope it’s not on the left wing. That said, I don’t think Conor Sammon has done anything to deserve losing his place — he did well against Blackburn and Sunderland, starved of service against Arsenal. Nor has Franco Di Santo, for that matter, he remains the only Latics striker to score a goal this season.

I won’t predict a lineup this time, but will instead suggest one (assuming the same tactical system with wingbacks):  Ali Al-Habsi, Figueroa-Alcaraz-Boyce in the middle, Stam and Jones as wingbacks; McArthur & Diame in the centre of midfield; Jordi & Moses, but only if they are allowed to roam, rather than getting stuck on the wing. What’s the point of having wingbacks if it doesn’t allow these two to cut inside; Franco Di Santo up top.

Heart says: West Brom are organized and committed as all Roy Hodgson teams (except Liverpool) tend to be. But they aren’t particularly creative, so our defence holds strong and we run out 2-0 winners. C’mon Latics!!

Mind says: Hard to see a clean sheet here, but we should be good enough to score a goal. 1-1.