Momentum building: Wigan Athletic season preview

On first look, it’s hard to blame the people who doom Wigan Athletic to relegation each year. On paper, our late August squad looks weaker than the lads that kept us up in May. We’ve typically lost our top player (or three) to bigger clubs and replaced them with little known youngsters from the Scottish league or unfashionable, though generally astute, Spanish-speaking gambles in their late twenties.

But this season irks more than any of the previous. How short is the memory? To repeatedly read paid journalists make the point that Latics will suffer without Hugo Rodallega and Mo Diame is more than lazy. The finest run of form in Wigan Athletic history — ultimately resulting in survival and the scalps of Liverpool, Manchester United, Arsenal, in-form Newcastle and almost European Champions Chelsea but for two horrific mistakes by match officials — was achieved with the pair of them reduced to cameos from the substitutes bench. They scored three goals between them since Christmas and all were in matches that we had already lost.

This is not a slight on either player. Both immensely talented, they were a pleasure to watch and have at the JJB/DW. Hugo, a poacher, was frustrating on the left wing but certainly a success overall and crowd favourite, and suffered from injuries last season. Diame was outstanding in the first half of the term when no one else was, before losing his place to the thoroughly committed and deservedly appreciated James McArthur after the African Cup of Nations. But the point stands that they played no real role in Latics’ sensational final two months.

If anything, that unforgettable survival run emphasized the transition of Wigan Athletic as a Premier League club where individuals come to make their name, to a club of players proud to play for Wigan that operate as a team. Mauro Boselli, recently returned after a year and a half on loan in Italy and Argentina, made the interesting comment that contrary to two years ago when he arrived, there were no longer any divisions in the squad — it feels like a team of players that play for each other. We’ll be publishing an exclusive interview with him later this week.

What people are missing is that, behind the scenes, we’ve been making steady progress. Most people see Wigan as just surviving every year. But each of Roberto Martinez’s three years have brought progress. The squad is deeper and stronger, investment in youth has been made, and our crowds are growing as a new generation grows up supporting their local team in the Premier League.

Replacing people like Valencia, Palacios and N’Zogbia was a nightmare, though their sales may have been necessary to keep the books steady. Things are changing. We would all like to hold on to Moses, but he only really clicked last season when the rest of the team did. If he leaves, there will be an adaptation period as the team re-shapes itself without him, but this is no longer a “get it out wide to Rodallega, N’Zogbia or Moses and see what they can do” situation. Roberto’s highly successful wingback system is extremely flexible, and it is intriguing to think about how it might set up. New boy Aruna Kone is an astonishing buy at a reported 2.75 million pounds or good buy at 5 million depending which price you believe — a 28 striker at the peak of his career that just managed 15 goals in the Primera Liga last season for (another) unfashionable club like Levante. Mauro Boselli is back after a good season in Argentina, and hungry. Ryo Miyachi has been signed from Arsenal and didn’t look half bad at Bolton last season. Not to mention Shaun Maloney and Franco Di Santo, two of the undisputed stars of our survival success last year.

Wigan Athletic is quietly gaining momentum. I suspect it will be the midfield and defense that will have to spend more time adapting if Moses leaves — he is truly excellent at holding the ball up and drawing fouls to give the (even) harder-working core a breather.

The other gaping hole in the squad was defensive cover for the three centre-backs. Steve Gohouri has been released. He had a rough time last year, jittery and lacking sharpness. Adrian Lopez, to whom we wish the best of luck this season, has been dodgy at best. He seemed to struggle with the pace and physicality of the game. Roberto has faith in him, but has also brought in Ivan Ramis — another very good signing at the peak of his career. There is no questioning his ability as an uncompromising centre-back, the question is how he will take to his new surroundings after a career and life spent on a gorgeous island in the Mediterranean.

I’ll save the rest of the new signings talk for Jakarta Jack, whose article is coming soon.

Prediction for the season? Not quite the lofty heights of mid-table comfort that the brilliant and much-appreciated optimists out there are suggesting, but not relegation either. Somewhere in between. I would expect a wobbly start if Moses leaves. The new signings will take time to bed in like Maloney did last year and many before him. I personally have high hopes for Boselli, although the Kone signing radically decreases his chances of a regular run in the team. Perhaps Di Santo will drop deeper into the Moses role? Or is it Crusat’s year to shine in the free role? Talented young loan signing Ryo Miyaichi?

The fixture list is never kind. With Chelsea and Man United in two of the first four fixtures, plus a hungry Stoke without the Cup distractions of last season. If there is a time to play Chelsea it is now, with all their new signings and an uncertain new era under the lucky Roberto Di Matteo (lets face it, his approach to the CL was equivalent to Roy Hodgson’s for England in the Euros — he just had a better centre-forward.) The Southampton match is crucial.

We welcome all Latics supporters to the new season. Please join us on Facebook, follow us on Twitter, or subscribe (scroll down, lower right) to this blog. Please leave comments — we look forward to hearing from you, and c’mon Wigan — keep the faith!

* To read Jakarta Jack’s even more optimistic take on the new season, click here.


Blind optimism and Latics’ new season

One of the lads in my class at school was called Brian. He claimed to be an Horwich RMI supporter.  I thought I was remarkable enough at the time, being a Latics fan, in a town dominated by the cherry and white. There were few of us Latic fanatics at school and if we dared to utter words of blind optimism about our club, our classmates were quick to shoot us down.  The message was – how can you support a measly little non-league football club? Don’t even dream of reaching the heights of our wonderful local rugby team or the football giants in neighbouring cities. However, I considered myself an optimist as far as Wigan Athletic were concerned. It was in my blood – and still is. I trust that those classmates are eating their words now.

To be honest, Brian was even more of an optimist than me. Horwich Railway Mechanics  Institute was in fact a much older football club than Wigan Athletic, having been formed in 1896. Their only major  success over those years was in winning the Lancashire Combination championship in 1957-58.  Coming up on Saturday afternoon at Springfield Park was a Lancashire Junior Cup tie between our two teams. It was akin to David and Goliath. Brian saw it differently — an epic tussle between two of Lancashire’s outstanding non-league clubs. He reeled off the names of RMI’s starting eleven, declaring each player a “good-un”, although it was clear from the intonations of his voice that some were more good than others. He had faith – I thought foolishly so – that RMI would get a good result.

Brian was right that day, the match ended in a draw. My Dad was so furious he said he wouldn’t go and watch the replay in the coming week. Their ground was a freezing, a God-forsaken place on the top if a big hill where the wind ruled the roost, he said. Their pitch was going to be rutted and would make good football impossible.

Fortunately, he relented and we took the short bus ride, and walked up to RMI’s ground at Grundy Hill.  Latics won 5-0, and Brian avoided me at school the next week, although I did quietly admire the genuine faith and optimism he seemed to have in his little club. Later, I became disillusioned to find out that he went to see Bolton more than Horwich.  But then again —  why would he announce himself a  fan of Horwich RMI rather than First Division Bolton? Strange how it turned out that Bolton now play home games  in Horwich, whereas the latest incarnation of RMI plays in Leigh.

So what would an optimist make of Wigan Athletic’s chances this season? That Bob and Dave are still here and therefore the club is continuing to move forward.  The appointment of the admirable Matt Jackson to spearhead the much needed youth system upgrade is to be commended. Boselli  is back and so far has averaged a goal a game in pre-season, having only played a half in each. He remains our potentially most clinical finisher, if not the silky skilled player that Di Santo has become. Both Fyvie and Ramis look like excellent signings. Roberto has also brought in two 19 year olds from elite Spanish clubs, each with good credentials. Assuming no major injuries or loss of form, a place in the top half of the table is a distinct possibility.

So what of Victor Moses? Why are Chelsea putting in such derisory bids for him? The odds are that he will go. He is far from the finished article, mainly with his decision-making in goal-scoring opportunities. He wasted a lot of chances last season. However,  there is a need for  a flair player like Moses, or N’Zogbia before him, to do the unpredictable and unsettle defences. Providing he can avoid injuries I expect Albert Crusat will make more of an impact this year. He is pacy, intelligent and David Silva has shown that slightly built players can flourish in the physical Premier League. It would be a mistake, however, to view Crusat as the replacement for Moses  — they are different types of player – and Dicko and McManaman will also compete for that spot.

Latics’ superb end of season performances, however, were built from the back. The three central defenders — Alcaraz, Caldwell and Figueroa – were outstanding, but one lived in fear of any injury to any of them. There was always the possibility of slotting Boyce into the centre but he was playing possibly the best football of his career at wing back. The signing of the experienced and highly capable Ivan Ramis is therefore welcomed. In fact, Figueroa might miss the first part of the season after being on Olympic duty for Honduras. Expect Ramis to slot in for him – if not it will be Lopez or Golobart.

In goal we have the outstanding Ali Al Habsi. The promising  young goalkeeper, Lee Nicholls, is clearly one for the future, but needs to get more experience before stepping in for the Omani. The 40 year old stalwart, Mike Pollitt, will be the first choice backup ‘keeper. There is newspaper talk about a promising young Australian coming on trial.

Latics are well served for wing backs. Ronnie Stam was in excellent form last season before being left out for Emmerson Boyce, who did spectacularly well. Jean Beausejour was the piece in the jigsaw puzzle that made a big difference in the latter part of last season. Wing back is not a position most clubs use, but Beausejour played in that position for Chile under Marcelo Bielsa. Both he and Stam are specialist wing backs. Ramis’ arrival allows Figueroa to serve as emergency wing-back in the event of injury to Beausejour.

Despite losing Diame and Thomas the midfield looks strong. The classy Ben Watson will fight to get his place back from James MacArthur, although he will face competition from Fraser Fyvie. The excellent James McCarthy is potentially as good as most midfield players in the Premier League and is likely to be our sought after by the big clubs before the end of the season. It may be that Fyvie is seen as his long-term replacement. He is a complete player and the goals that have been missing over the past season are likely to return. All he lacks is a little self belief.  David Jones remains a useful squad player able to play in a variety of positions. He has a great left foot and is an intelligent footballer. Hopefully he will steer clear of injuries this year.

Shaun Maloney was a revelation in the latter games of the season as the playmaker.  He has that kind of quality that can make a difference. His experience in a Celtic team that dominated the SPL has given him the level of self-confidence that most of his teammates lack. His career has been blighted by injury and one doubts his ability to make it through a full season unscathed. Jordi Gomez, the butt of some fans, remains a good footballer, able to play that role. Jordi has learned that he has to work hard off the ball and now covers a lot of ground. He is not a natural tackler, but does a lot of harassing of opponents to complement his considerable skills on the ball. Both Maloney and Gomez are likely to score goals, be it from open play or the penalty spot.

There has been talk of Conor Sammon going out on loan, although he does not seem to know anything about it. Sammon needs regular first team football if he is going to develop further. He is not likely to get it with Di Santo and Boselli ahead of him in the pecking order for the centre forward position. Speaking of loans, Lee Nicholls is already fixed up for a spell at Northampton.  One wonders how many more of last season’s loanees –  Golobart, Kiernan, Mustoe and Redmond – will be sent off again for more first team experience.

Perhaps I am being a blind optimist like my friend Brian, but with Bob and Dave still at the helm this club is going to be steered towards a bright future.  They are a great double act and deserve to succeed at the club. Whether Wigan Athletic have a good season in 2012-13 depends on the players. Shaun Maloney summed things up at the end of the season by suggesting that the great revival was brought about by hard work. We have a pretty good squad this year and with the full commitment of the players a mid-table position is a distinct possibility. Forget about the friendly loss to Real Mallorca. We are in for  a good season. Believe and keep the faith!!

Aston Villa – Wigan Athletic Preview: Lively first half needed

The was no shortage of drama between these two clubs during the summer, beginning with Roberto’s decision to reject an approach from Villa for the vacant managerial position, and ending with the sale of star man Charles N’Zogbia. While N’Zogbia has endured a slow start — give him time Villa fans, he’s quality — McLeish has quickly shored up Villa’s defense and led them to an unbeaten start to the season. Inconsistency in the atttacking third has deprived them of further points, but one can hardly fault the manager, who has had to rebuild said attack following the departures of key creative pair Ashley Young and Stewart Downing.

Despite this all, and Wigan’s recent run of bad results, there is reason to believe Roberto’s muchachos can come out of this one with something. Latics have not lost at Villa Park in six Premier League meetings. Last season, they took 4 out of 6 points against Alex McLeish’s Birmingham City side and did not concede a goal in either match (though they only managed to score one in two matches). And though unbeaten, McLeish’s Villa side have only managed one win so far, and that was at home to third-from-bottom Blackburn.

Still, Latics must improve. Defensively, the long-term absence of Antolin Alcaraz continues to sting, while Emmerson Boyce’s niggles and Steve Gohouri’s suspension (after missing five matches through injury) have been unfortunately timed. In their absence, Maynor Figueroa has been asked to deputise at centre-back, where he has been directly responsible for one goal, and beaten to headers for two others. A shame, because with an established central pairing in place, one tends to think Everton away and Spurs at home would have yielded points.

In attack, for all his promise, the club needs goals from Victor Moses. He has hit the post or bar three times this season so far. His excellence in creating chances deserves reward. Maybe this will be the week?

Far too often, Latics start matches slowly, only to deliver a much improved second half performance. Last week’s dismal first half and spirited second could not have been in starker contrast. Can they come out of the blocks firing for once? If they go down a goal, away to a defensive Villa side, it’s hard to see them getting back into it. A first half goal could force Villa to throw numbers forward, and Latics do have pace on the break.

Reports suggest Emmerson Boyce will be fit enough to return to the starting lineup. The hope is that he does so in a central role, partnering Gary Caldwell, with Figueroa restored to his natural position out left, and either Ronnie Stam or Adrian Lopez at right back. But Roberto has surprised us more than once with his starting lineups this year, rotating the squad and limiting opportunities for the new attacking signings. While Rodallega’s absence through injury appeared to provide the perfect opportunity to fully blood Shaun Maloney, or Albert Crusat, Roberto stuck with Jordi Gomez, who has shown some positive form when in midfield this season but confirmed once again against Spurs that he is the worst right winger the club has ever had. I tend to think the lineup will once again be conservative against Villa, with either Van Aanholt or Stam, naturally defenders, playing on one of the wings rather than our more attacking options, Crusat and Maloney. But you never know…

Watch out for: Barry Bannan, Aston Villa’s left-footed midfielder. Very promising young player with great technique. Charles N’Zogbia, who will have a point to prove to his new supporters. Darren Bent, who has had a slow start to the season and loves scoring goals against teams like Wigan.

We need: A good defensive performance. Victor Moses to score, or create a goal.

Prediction: with Boyce strengthening the defense and Villa under pressure to win this one, I’ll say honors even at 1-1, Wigan to score first, N’Zogbia to equalize.

Also of interest: a nice little interview with a Villa fan by Cockney Latic.

Swansea City vs. Wigan Athletic Preview: Big day for Roberto

Those who have followed Roberto Martinez’s career know that this fixture was destined to intrigue. After his six seasons in midfield at Springfield Park, he found his way to Swansea via brief stints at Motherwell and Walsall. Hugely popular with the Welsh fans, he was made captain and eventually player-manager, before returning in 2007 to take the managerial job on full-time basis. He achieved promotion to the Championship playing a stylish passing style of football seldom seen in the lower divisions of English football. Though several coaches have been and gone, the club has continued the Martinez philosophy, which was very much evident in their Premier League debut versus Man City on Monday, where they dominated possession for large periods in the first half but were eventually undone by City’s billions in attack.

It would be an understatement to say Roberto upset a few people when he accepted Dave Whelan’s offer to return to Wigan as manager, with some Swansea fans labeling him “El Judas.” But as much as he genuinely loved, and was loved by Swansea, it seems Wigan was his true adopted home. It didn’t help, however, that he brought leading scorer Jason Scotland, and then Championship player of the year Jordi Gomez, along with four members of the backroom staff, with him.

And so Roberto’s two teams meet in the top flight of English football. Destiny couldn’t have planned it better — Roberto returns for Swansea’s first home match. The crowd is going to be hugely influential in this one. It will be interesting to see what sort of reception Martinez receives. He may have left, but they have him to thank for much of their continued success. One suspects that even though Scott Sinclair didn’t quite make it in his year on loan at the then JJB, Roberto saw enough to recommend him to his old club. And what a season he had. I would hope that the more educated fans in the crowd will give him the ovation he deserves.

The Football:  A very tough one to predict. Swansea looked very decent in the first hour against Man City, passing and moving the ball well without really creating any clear cut chances.  The system and style is exactly the same as the Latics, with a lone target man and two fast, skillful wingers in Sinclair and Dyer. Their defensive effort was brave but eventually undone by City’s superior pace, a pretty familiar sounding story.

As for the Wigan line-up, I would expect a stronger side than the one that faced Norwich, based on the additions of Alcaraz and Rodallega.  Al-Habsi in goal; Figueroa, Boyce, Caldwell, Alcaraz; Watson, McCarthy and Diame; Moses, Rodallega and Di Santo. But there were a couple surprises last week and there could be again this week. Jordi Gomez was fantastic during his spell at Swansea and may be given a chance to impress. I read a terrifying rumor somewhere that Alcaraz is actually looking for a move away from the club. To break up his partnership with Gary Caldwell — so instrumental in the second half of the season last year — would be devastating.

My hope is that Wigan’s experience, and the return of Alcaraz and Rodallega to the starting lineup will be enough to counter the newcomers’ energy. But I have to say I’m a bit worried about this one. With a enthusiastic crowd behind then, celebrating the return of top flight football match to Wales, it seems destined to be Swansea’s party. It will be a sign of how far Roberto has come if he can come away with a result.