A turning point at Carrow Road

Will the display at Carrow Road be the turning point for the season?

Will the display at Carrow Road be the turning point for the season?

I was looking forward to a pleasant visit. Norwich is a delightful city, having a centre with beautiful old buildings, remains of its medieval times and an impressive modern riverside development. On late Tuesday afternoon it was awash with supporters wearing the yellow and green of its local football club.

The visit to the city, and the fen areas surrounding it, was clearly something to look forward to. But the trip to Carrow Road was cause for trepidation. The Norwich team was going to be laden with ex-Premier League players, backed by a big partisan crowd. It was a Wigan team in transition, with so many new faces taking time to adjust to Gary Caldwell’s way of playing, its displays being littered with defensive errors. The portents were ominous.

When the results don’t come a football manager will always get flak from fans.

Vitriol was already flowing from the keyboard warriors on the social media prior to this game. Opinions were voiced in no uncertain terms. Caldwell had brought in too many new players, many of whom were no better than those of the League 1 title winning team. His team selections had left much to be desired and he had been out thought by opposition managers, particularly in his use of substitutes. There had been little defensive continuity and it showed. The defence was porous, with a lack of protection from midfield making things worse. The midfield or attacking players Caldwell had used in the problematic right wing back position had looked ill at ease. The 18 year old Luke Burke had done well when given the chance, so why was he not chosen for the position? Moreover Nathan Byrne had been signed to play there, but had not even made the bench at Sheffield. Why was the manager sticking to a 3-5-2 system that was clearly not working? Would he continue to stubbornly stand by it?

After going two goals behind in the first ten minutes things were looking bleak. Another defensive error had led to the softest of goals after just two minutes. The defence looked very suspect. The locals were baying for a 5 or 6 goal haul. Was it going to be one of those low points, a Championship equivalent to that horrendous 9-1 defeat at Tottenham in the Premier League? Or did this new Latics team have the character to fight back?

But Caldwell had changed the team’s shape from the start, opting for 4-3-3. Young loan signing Reece Burke and Stephen Warnock had been moved over to orthodox full back positions, with Dan Burn and Jake Buxton at centre half. Jordi Gomez was back, forming a midfield trio with Shaun MacDonald and Max Power. Yanic Wildschut had been left on the bench, with Alex Gilbey and Michael Jacobs on the wings, Will Grigg at centre forward.  Seven out of the starting lineup were new this season.

Caldwell is nothing if not brave.  Despite poor results he has continued to insist that his team build up from the back, even when things have gone awry. Some will blame Adam Bogdan for his lack of concentration in not looking to his right when Jacob Murphy took the ball from his feet, catching him unawares. Others put more blame the manager for putting the goalkeeper into a role where quick footedness is as important an ability as it is to catch the ball. But despite being on a hammering to nothing Latics continued to build from the back.

As the game progressed they got better and better and could have snatched at least a point in the closing minutes. This time Caldwell got his substitutions right. Despite taking off midfield anchorman MacDonald and bringing on Wildschut the midfield became dominant as the back four pushed further forward. When Byrne came on for Burke most of us expected him to play at right back, but Gilbey was moved there with Byrne playing as a right winger. But the result was Byrne and Wildschut adding much needed pace to the Latics attack.

Whether the players brought in are better than those who were already at the club is up for debate. Would the presence of the departed Sam Morsy and Jason Pearce have provided more defensive security? Only time will tell if Caldwell made the right decision in bringing in 14 new players.

Last season showed us that new players at Wigan need time, not only to settle into the club and to get to know their teammates on and off the field, but also to learn to play the “Caldwell Way”. Moreover so many of the new signings, despite previous records of success in the Championship or above, arrived short of first team experience over the previous season. Nick Powell had not made a league start in two seasons, Shaun MacDonald made none last season for Bournemouth, Jake Buxton none for Derby. Adam Bogdan made just two  for Liverpool, Jordi Gomez only five for Sunderland. Both Adam Le Fondre and Nathan Byrne made ten league appearances for Wolves last season.

For those players it is not only a matter of adapting to new teammates and a demanding style of play, but also for them to gain the match fitness and the sharpness that cannot have been aided by their lack of playing time.

The display at Norwich might well prove to be the turning point in a season of transition. There were signs in that second half that Latics are enjoying the style of play the manager demands. Moreover they showed real fighting spirit with their backs against the wall.

Caldwell has had a difficult time back in the Championship division.  Injuries have deprived him of important players and errors of individual players have punished him. However, the Scot is not easily deterred and has that same kind of belief that Roberto Martinez possessed in the abilities of his players and in his style of play.

So often things get worse before they get better. That was the case at Carrow Road. But although the performance there might ultimately prove to be a turning point there are going to be lots of ups and downs over the coming months.

It has been a frustrating time for us as fans up to this point. Even those most who are the most supportive of Caldwell are likely to admit that he has made mistakes this season. However, he must learn from them.

Players need to be played in their most suited positions and the manager needs to show the level of tactical awareness we saw last season. The right back/wing back position is likely to be resolved by playing either Reece Burke or Luke Burke in an orthodox back four, with Byrne being used as a wing back or winger.

Alex Gilbey was a central midfielder at Colchester, but has been pushed further forward by Caldwell. At times he has looked comfortable in a wide attacking midfield role. But to play him on the right wing in a 4-3-3 formation and to leave Yanic Wildschut on the bench was not a successful ploy. Gilbey is neither winger nor full back. He is a talented young central midfielder with a lot to offer.

Caldwell has some difficult decisions to make regarding the centre of defence. Craig Morgan has been out of contention due to injury, but was close to leaving the club during the transfer window. It remains to be seen how much he is in the manager’s plans. Dan Burn was dropped after his gaffe at Bristol and played quite well at Norwich. At his best, Burn forms a solid physical presence in the back four, but is the manager going to keep faith in a player who has a tendency to switch off at times?

Jake Buxton has been brought in on a three year contract at the age of 31, a clear indication that Caldwell sees him as a key defender. Stephen Warnock has often been pushed into a back line of three, although lacking height and physique for such a role. Caldwell will have high hopes for Reece Burke in the centre of defence. Despite his tender age is Burke going to be a key player this season?

A settled defence, with a midfield that provides due protection, is something that Caldwell will surely be looking to put in place. In the meantime, despite the poor results, his players have shown the resilience to fight back under adverse conditions.

Such qualities will be needed to rise out of the relegation zone over the coming months.

 

 

 

Wigan Athletic 1 Norwich City 0: Bottom half narrows as Kone does it again

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Arouna Koné scored another late goal to settle a poor contest against Norwich on a gusty day in Wigan. The lack of quality on display will be quickly forgotten by Latics fans, however, as a glance at the league table now reveals an amazingly slim six-point gap between 10th and 18th place. Wigan themselves have leapfrogged Aston Villa into 17th, and are now only a point behind Sunderland, three behind Newcastle, and four behind Norwich, Southampton and Stoke. All of which means there is no mid-table security this year.

The match itself was scrappy and characterised by misplaced passing and hopeful shooting from both sides. When Wigan did produce moments of quality, they were always born at the feet of Shaun Maloney and Jean Beausejour, while Norwich caused the occasional problem without looking an incisive threat. The goal came as a result from Wigan’s best passage of play, a period of quick, urgent passing football from minutes 70 to 80, in which they twice went close before Kone’s powerful strike beat Lee Camp at the near post.

The Good:

Another incredibly valuable three points at home. Despite not playing their best football, Martinez’s charges got the job done and kept a clean sheet in the process. Shaun Maloney was just fantastic, once again. Robles looked confident in goal, and Kone is enjoying his role as the main man up front. Jean Beausejour too, looks to be back to his best.

Despite Southampton’s second consecutive win against a big team, other results were positive. Sunderland lost at home to Manchester United, while Reading were thumped 4-1 by Arsenal. Newcastle lost to Manchester City, and Stoke are, at the time of writing, losing to Everton. The bottom half of the table is tight.

The Bad:

Despite laying on a nice pass for Kone to score from, Jordi Gomez put in an infuriating display, constantly slowing down Wigan’s attacks, forcing the team to go backwards rather than forwards, and dwelling on the ball far too long before being dispossessed. James McArthur, excellent upon introduction, may well have done enough to earn his place back into the starting lineup.

Paul Scharner had a wobbly game and did not look quite right. The clean sheet speaks well of the defence as a whole, but the Austrian looked off the pace today. His partnership with Antolin Alcaraz is potentially excellent, but showed signs of its relative youth at times.

Player Ratings: 

Joel Robles: 7 — Didn’t have a lot of shots to save, but showed good hands on crosses, catching the ball when it might have been tempting to punch. Promising.

Emmerson Boyce: 7 — Steady and uncomplicated.

Antolin Alcaraz: 8 — Made some outstanding tackles and interceptions.

Paul Scharner: 6 –Wobbly at times, but kept them out in the end.

Maynor Figueroa: 6 — One sloppy pass aside, did a professional job.

James McCarthy: 7 — His energy and running was important in regaining possession. Very unlucky with an excellent right-footed shot that kissed the upright. One magical nutmeg in the second half that the crowd savoured.

Jordi Gomez: 5 — Poor. Slow and negative with his passing. The one time he sought to play a through ball it was an excellent one and led to the goal. May have been instructed to try and keep possession, but surely not every pass needs to go sideways.

Shaun Maloney: 8 — Another outstanding attacking performance with of sharp movement, passing and dribbling. One poor shot, but he was involved in everything positive today including the build-up to the goal.

Callum McManaman:  6 — Quiet game on the right flank, but perhaps that’s what he needed. Occasionally booed by traveling support, but got on with his job and was positive when he did see the ball.

Jean Beausejour: 8 — Played some top class crosses in both halves that should have resulted in goals.

Arouna Kone: 8 — Got the winner, and looked a threat throughout.

Subs:

James McArthur: 7 — Looked hungry when he came on and moved the ball quickly and effectively.

Franco Di Santo: Brought on to waste time in the dying minutes of the game. Probably would have been brought on sooner if Kone had not found the back of the net.

Wigan vs. Norwich: Six-pointer at the DW

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If Wigan Athletic is a team in the ascendancy with four wins out of six, then Norwich is one fighting valiantly to arrest the opposite. After an amazing run of unbeaten games in late 2012, the Canaries find themselves just seven points clear of Latics in 12th place, having drawn five of their last seven matches.

Tellingly, all of those stalemates came against mid-table or relegation-threatened sides. All signs point to a loss of momentum for Chris Hughton’s charges, and if left to the Laws of Form, a victory for Wigan appears the most likely outcome.

Of course, it’s never that simple, and nothing shakes things up quite like an international break. Some players, most vocally Paul Scharner, have benefited from a two-week break. Internationals at both clubs, however, will have played two matches in the space of five days. People like Maynor Figueroa and Ali Al-Habsi were not only key performers for their countries in high stakes World Cup Qualifiers, but have had to recover from flights back from Panama and Australia and the jet lag that comes with it.

Enough has been written about Wigan’s post-international break struggles, however. There is a real opportunity at the DW this weekend, and there is a squad to achieve it. Many eyes will be focused on Callum McManaman, so influential in Latics’ two most recent victories. The last few weeks will have brought very mixed emotions for the young winger, after the ecstasy of scoring against Everton followed by the media witch hunt after his bad challenge on Massima Haidara. Glad that discussion is over. But it will be interesting to see how the player reacts. If recovered from his own injury, one would expect him to start. Roberto Martinez’s comments in the build-up to the match about his potential as a future England star should not only give him a shot of confidence, but hopefully minimize ill-treatment from the visiting supporters.

Given he has now fielded the same starting XI for consecutive victories over strong opposition, there is no reason to believe Martinez will not do the same tomorrow. This should mean another start for young Spaniard Joel Robles in goal, who looks increasingly likely to be permanent signing in the summer. He’ll — hopefully — be protected by a back four of Emmerson Boyce, Antolin Alcaraz, Paul Scharner and Maynor Figueroa. James McCarthy and Jordi Gomez would continue in midfield, with Shaun Maloney ahead of them in a free role. McManaman and Beausejour should retain their places on the wings, while Arouna Koné will lead the line. This leaves Franco Di Santo, who partnered Lionel Messi in attack for a period of time in Argentina’s 1-1 draw against Bolivia, on the bench once again. As it does Ali Al-Habsi, captain Gary Caldwell, and James McArthur.

A win tomorrow would heap pressure on Southampton, Sunderland and Aston Villa, who are four, four and three points ahead of Latics respectively having played an extra match. It could also suck Norwich into the battle — although with 34 points already and home fixtures against Reading, Aston Villa, West Brom and Swansea, they should be fine.

More importantly, another win would make it five in seven for Wigan and fuel the belief that they can do it yet again.

Wigan vs. Norwich: Time to turn things around

The week that saw Wigan drop back into the relegation zone ends with a trip to Carrow Road for a tricky away fixture against new-look Norwich City.

I was among those who suspected the wheels would come of for the Canaries this season after their impressive campaign last time around. The replacement of outgoing manager Paul Lambert with Chris Hughton, plus the additions of Sebastien Bassong and Michael Turner hardly said “we’re taking this team to the next level”.

But Hughton has done magnificent work and Norwich’s football has progressed. After a dismal start to the campaign, he has put together a tremendous run of form not dissimilar to Latics’ stylish end to the 2011-2012 season, claiming the famous scalps of Arsenal and Manchester United. The aforementioned defensive signings have returned to their best form and developed a solid partnership after years of bench-warming or team-hopping. And the conversion of Wes Hoolahan into a second striker, behind Grant Holt, has been a masterstroke. His role is similar to that of Shaun Maloney at Wigan, and has been hugely successful. The team whose success under Lambert was largely based on energy and getting the ball into the box early is now playing some lovely stuff.

That said, Latics’ not only need something from this match, but will feel they can get it. Victor Moses’ equaliser last season should have been followed by a winner. It was the game Shaun Maloney announced himself in Wigan colours, and he will be hoping to make his first start since returning from injury. Also returning is Maynor Figueroa — and despite the absence of the club’s three preferred centre halves — the defence now feels balanced with the Honduran lining up alongside Adrian Lopez and Emmerson Boyce.

It will be interesting to see if Maloney indeed starts, or if Jordi Gomez is given further opportunity to extend his run of matches in the starting lineup. Franco Di Santo may be sacrificed if Roberto employs a more conservative approach and uses both playmakers. Otherwise, one can only hope James McCarthy starts right where he left off against QPR, with marauding runs from midfield and a real desire to get into the box and score.

Norwich lost to Aston Villa  in midweek and have a few knocks of their own. I think Latics will edge this one. Prediction: 2-1

McCarthy injury a concern, but less so than last year

James McCarthy will miss the season opener against Norwich tomorrow afternoon with an ankle injury sustained in the 1-0 friendly win over Villareal, and there is no doubt he will be missed. His return from an injury to the same ankle last season kick-started the Latics’ revival, proving just how important he is to the side.

But I’m tempted to say his absence is a smaller blow with the Latics’ current squad than it proved to be last year. If Latics have a strongest department, it must be the midfield. In addition to the starting trident of Watson, Diame and McCarthy, Roberto can call on the tough-tackling and reliable Honduran Hendry Thomas, promising all-rounder James McArthur, or creative new signing Dave Jones. It’s anyone’s guess who will start tomorrow. Thomas is the most experienced of the bunch, McArthur would be the closest to a like-for-like, while Dave Jones could play the attacking role if Mo Diame drops a bit deeper.

It is comforting and somewhat unfamiliar however, to have three good options to replace a key player ahead of an important match. Now lets hope McCarthy’s replacement doesn’t have a shocker and prove me wrong.

James McCarthy se perdera el partido de mañana contra Norwich por una lesion en su tobillo (el mismo tobillo que lo mantuvo afuera de las canchas la temporada pasada). No hay duda que la ausencia de McCarthy le pesara al equipo, pero el tecnico Roberto Martinez maneja varias opciones en esa zona del campo. El Hondureño Hendry Thomas es el mas experimentado y podria cumplir una labor mas defensiva, permitiendo que Ben Watson y Mo Diame se lanzen al ataque. James McArthur ha mostrado mucha promesa y es buena opcion. Y Dave Jones, el nuevo fichaje, le prestaria creatividad al mediocampo si se le da la oportunidad.