Wigan vs. Arsenal: Latics out to defy reason

2012-arsenal

If the deepest injury crisis of Wigan’s Premier League existence has led to a slide down the table, Saturday’s home fixture against Arsenal — on paper — promises to extend the misery. Not only are the Latics potentially without two more players, bringing the injured or doubtful list to nine senior players — the London club are enjoying a resurgence and love nothing more than a leaky defence.

The last time these two clubs met was a glorious occasion for Martinez’s men, but it would be a minor miracle if Wigan could repeat the feat on home soil with the casualty list so strong and morale so fragile.

The biggest question is who will play alongside Maynor Figueroa and Emmerson Boyce at the heart of the defence. Gary Caldwell, Ivan Ramis, Antolin Alcaraz and most recently, Adrian Lopez, are injured. While it is feasible one of the four will recover in time to play, there are no guarantees. David Jones deputised at left centre-half against QPR, but a similar move would force Maynor Figueroa into an unfamiliar central role. Roman Golobart is untested at this level and it would be a baptism of fire to face Walcott, Cazorla and company in this sort of form. A change of shape would be an option if there was another left back in the available squad, but not so.

And yet, in situations like these when it all seems impossible, Wigan is capable of surprising everyone. Shaun Maloney has been eased back from injury and should start after being Latics’ brightest spark in a poor team performance against Norwich. Franco Di Santo has also been used a little more sparingly recently but could return to partner Arouna Kone up front. The big question is whether Jordi Gomez will be dropped for one of them. And whether James McCarthy’s ankle injury heals in time. His importance to the team grows by the match.

It’s always an unfair contest when Wigan faces Arsenal. But when you have nine senior players injured, including your four senior centre backs, against a team that just scored five goals away from home, all you can do is your best. Reason says straightforward win for Arsenal today — Wigan will be out to defy it.

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

Wigan vs. QPR: Clean sheets unlikely

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Wigan Athletic returns to the DW to face a Harrified QPR with even fewer available players than they left it — some feat! — including all four of the club’s first-choice centre-backs. The injury total now stands at eight senior players.

Word on the street is Roberto Martinez will revert to a more traditional four-man defence featuring Emmerson Boyce and Adrian Lopez as centre-halves — which sounds fine until reminded of Ronnie Stam’s defensive frailties as a traditional right-back, and the lack of a Maynor Figueroa understudy on the left. The idea of Boyce and Lopez being flanked by two wing-backs playing as full-backs — Stam and Beausejour — is not a warm and fuzzy one, not least because the team’s attacking play has largely been built around their ability to get forward and put crosses into the box.

A perhaps more fluid adjustment, if not without its own set of risks, would be the inclusion of promising Spanish youngster Roman Golobart as third centre-half. This would allow Beausejour and Stam to play in their natural positions and the rest of the team could remain unchanged.

Whichever way Martinez decides to go, statistics suggest the rest of us are in for some goals tomorrow. While Southampton lead the goals conceded table with a remarkable 32 — more than 2 per game — Wigan is close behind with 28, followed by QPR on 27. Considering Wigan’s four first choice defenders are unavailable and the goalkeeper is suffering from a bit of a confidence crisis, a clean sheet does not look likely, though stranger things have happened. If reports of Julio Cesar’s fitness struggle are true, we could even be in for another Robert Green appearance at the DW, thus furthering the argument.

Have you ever sat down to write something and realized five paragraphs in that it’s all coming out wrong?

Despite the defensive crisis and unlikeliness of a clean sheet, I am backing Wigan to win this fixture. Harry has already made big improvements at QPR, with the defence tightened up and Sean Wright-Phillips enjoying a second chance. They showed last week that they are quite good at hitting the post, which should sound familiar. But despite the negative results of the last two fixtures, Latics’ form overall has not been okay. If the general play and discipline of the City match can be retained, three points should be up for grabs.

Prediction: Wigan 2 QPR 1, Jordi Gomez style.

Swansea vs. Wigan Athletic: Goals guaranteed

Of all the clubs that voluntarily or otherwise replaced their managers over the summer break, the Swansea revolution has been the most intriguing. Steve Clarke’s positive start at West Brom has been surprising in its results, but not in approach or style. Norwich’s decline had been gloomily predictable, while their old boss Paul Lambert is going to need years and quite possibly a magic wand to steady Villa’s sinking ship. Andre Villas-Boas endured a rocky start but has started to show signs of the fast-paced attacking football that won him a treble with Porto a year and a half ago. All four of them were relatively known quantities or familiar faces.

Enter Michael Laudrup, and Swansea.

When Brendan Rodgers left to pursue a career in corny one-liners on “Being Liverpool,” many wondered if the style of play would go with him. It is often overlooked that it was not Rodgers, but our very own Roberto Martinez, that instilled such a style of play at Swansea long before Mr. Ok came along. That said, Rodgers deserves enormous credit for an excellent season brimming with possession-based, continental-style football. Until that magical final stretch for the Latics, watching Swansea last season had been like watching Wigan 2.0 — a new and improved version of our team with goals and clean sheets added.

In appointing Laudrup, they made a real statement. As successful as Brendan Rodgers was in Wales, he was never a big name. Appointing the Dane, such a stylish and well-travelled player, brings an air of prestige to the Liberty Stadium. And it opens up markets.

New signings Jonathan De Guzman, Michu and Chico admitted the Dane was the main draw in their respective moves to the Liberty Stadium, while Pablo Hernandez said he was his childhood idol. All four are proven performers in the Spanish league and Michu already looks like the signing of the season at 2 million pounds. Ki Sung-Yeung, signed from Celtic, has been described by the Swansea writer on ESPN FC network as “being able to do everything Joe Allen does at a third of the price.” Tidy business indeed.

And the style has changed. And not necessarily for the worse, from an entertainment perspective. They look a more potent threat in attack, committing more men forward, which in turn renders them a bit more susceptible at the back. Their results are extreme to say the least — starting with 5-0 and 3-0 wins before a 2-2 draw, then a three match losing streak, and another 2-2 draw. At home, they’ve won 3-0, lost 3-0, and drawn 2-2 twice. There appears to be a bit less tikki-takka and more direct attacking play. Still skillful and on the ground, but less patient, and more adventurous. The result is possibly an even more entertaining brand of football, but less reliable.

All of which should contribute to a mouthwatering fixture tomorrow. Wigan’s front three of Koné, Di Santo and Maloney showed tremendous movement and understanding against Everton and were unlucky not to win it for their teammates on the day. If Swansea take the initiative as one would expect playing at home, there should be space on the counter. The key will be who scores first. When Everton visited Liberty Park several weeks ago, Swansea were vulnerable on the break and conceded two more. Reading put two past them before a spirited second half fightback that rescued a point.

Wigan should expect to start with the same XI that faced Everton — unless anyone returns from international duties with injury or severe jet-lag. Maynor Figueroa will be buzzing after Honduras thumped Canada 8-1 to advance to the final phase of CONCACAF qualification. Jean Beausejour fared less well, with Chile losing both of their qualifiers. Ali Al-Habsi’s Oman beat Jordan to keep their dream alive, though Australia’s late winner against Iraq pegged them back on goal difference. James McArthur, Gary Caldwell and Shaun Maloney all featured for Scotland, while James McCarthy played two matches for the Republic of Ireland. Comparatively, Swansea lost few of their starters to international travel and may have an advantage there.

A difficult one to predict, but all signs point to goals galore. 2-2, anyone?

Sunderland vs. Wigan: Time for a shake-up?

While Latics were missing three important players in the home loss to Fulham, the Capital One squad’s performance will surely weigh on Roberto’s mind as he selects his XI for the tricky trip to the Stadium of Light.

Mauro Boselli is now the club’s leading scorer with three and must be pushing for contention, particularly if Franco Di Santo fails to recover from the calf injury sustained against Manchester United. All three of his goals have been well-taken, but the chip for Latics’ third against West Ham was sublime. David Jones was another strong performer in London hoping to force his way into the starting XI after a rusty Ben Watson performance last weekend, though this too will depend on whether James McArthur is fit enough to reclaim his spot in midfield.

What is certain is that options abound. Young attackers Ryo Miyaichi and Callum McManaman have had an impact on the last two matches and have left Albert Crusat in the shadows. Emmerson Boyce has done nothing wrong, but surely Ronnie Stam will get a chance to impress in the league at some point. And will Roberto drop Ivan Ramis after his impressive mid-week goal, if Antolin Alcaraz is fit to return from injury?

The hope is that such healthy competition will translate into intensity and focus on the pitch. Sunderland away is always a tricky fixture, but particularly so on this occasion as they seek their first win of the season. They missed out narrowly at West Ham last weekend and were held at home to Liverpool the week before. Steven Fletcher has hit the ground running in his new stripes with four goals in three games and will be a threat, while James McLean and Stephane Sessegnon will provide the pace behind him. Seb Larsson’s free-kicks are always dangerous, and Adam Johnson is on the books these days. As their 0-0 draw away at Arsenal will attest, their defense is well-versed and midfield organized in the Martin O’Neill tradition.

 

Predicition:  Sunderland are a tough side, but with the exception of the second half at Old Trafford, our away form has been sensational. 1-1.

Related: if you haven’t already, please check out my interview on Salut! Sunderland, as part of their pre-match coverage.

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