Watford and beyond – Latics and promotion

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At half time during the Ipswich match last Saturday the Wigan Athletic substitutes came on the pitch to play ‘Piggy in the Middle’. Latics had gone into half time 2-1 ahead  after James McClean’s well taken equalizer and Leon Barnett’s header .

The quality of players in that group was impressive . Carson, Crainey, Kiernan, McEachran, Maynard, McManaman, Powell – a strong bench that most Championship clubs would envy. But it was more than that – there was an almost tangible atmosphere of camaraderie among those players. Football clubs these days are experts in telling fans that there is a team spirit among their players. In fact even Owen Coyle would tell us the same thing, although one seriously doubted that was the case.

However, there can be no doubt that Uwe Rosler has built up a strong team spirit at Wigan. The German’s preferred style of football is as physically demanding as it could possibly be for the players. But the players have adjusted and since his arrival fitness levels have improved.

Rosler made five changes for the midweek match against Yeovil, but the team spirit was still there when they were 2-1 down five minutes from the end. It led to two goals before the end of regular time and it reminded one of that late comeback against Charlton when the three points seemed to be lost. However, this time it was not to be as Yeovil got a scrambled equaliser in the last minute of added time.

Over the last couple of weekends Latics had been full of running and energy in victories at Manchester City and Ipswich. However, in the midweek games against Sheffield Wednesday and Yeovil they have looked jaded and lethargic. Which Wigan Athletic will we see against Watford tomorrow?

In the next six weeks Wigan Athletic have to play twelve matches. That kind of schedule needs a strong squad with a rotation policy that involves adjustments, rather than wholesale changes. Much of Latics’ defensive stability in recent weeks has been underpinned by the presence of James Perch on the right, with various combinations of Leon Barnett, Emmerson Boyce and Ivan Ramis in the centre of defence. The mutual understanding among those players has helped to them to play as a very solid unit.

When Perch went off injured after 27 minutes on Tuesday it caused a disruption to that smooth running unit. With no recognized right back on the bench Rosler was forced to move Boyce across. Thomas Rogne, who had not played since December, paired up with Ivan Ramis in their first game as a central defensive partnership. Rogne is a fine young player and Ramis possibly the best central defender in the division, but Yeovil centre forward Ishmael Miller proved too much for them on the night, scoring two well taken goals and missing an easier chance before that.

Even if Perch is available tomorrow Rosler will have to think hard about playing Boyce. Although 34 years old the captain has already played 46 matches this season, more than any other player. Boyce is a key player for Rosler and has been in great form, but badly needs a rest. Playing too many matches in a condensed period of time puts the player at higher risk of receiving an injury, let alone burnout.

Rosler has been unlucky with long term injuries to Ben Watson and Chris McCann, who were part of the nucleus around which his team was built. Moreover the consistent and reliable Leon Barnett is out with a hamstring injury, hopefully for not too long.

A strong defence has been the key to Wigan Athletic’s surge under Rosler. He now has to shuffle his pack and some coherence in defence will be lost. Thomas Rogne and Markus Holgersson will probably have a part to play over the coming weeks. Jean Beausejour continues to play at left back, not his natural position, but outstanding in attack.

In the absence of Watson and McCann in midfield much of the pressure will be on the admirable James McArthur. A midfield without the Scot is hardly worth contemplating, as like Boyce in defence, he is a lynchpin of the team.

Jordi Gomez has been excellent in recent matches and deserves his place. He has adjusted to Rosler’s style of play. Josh McEachran is a quality player, but has struggled to meet the physical demands of Rosler’s pressing style over 90 minutes. But watch out for him in the coming weeks. Ryan Tunniciffe has struggled to adjust to that system, but has high ratings from Ipswich fans from his time there. He is clearly not short of confidence and should get better. New loan signing Jack Collison could have a major part to play, although playing  multiple games in a week is probably beyond what his knee can withstand.

Rosler has a wealth of players available to him upfront, although he lacks a natural goalscorer. Both Marc-Antoine Fortune and Nicky Maynard are capable centre forwards, of differing styles. Callum McManaman remains a potential match winner, despite his indifferent form so far. Martyn Waghorn has a great left foot, is excellent in the delivery of corner kicks, and a team player who complies at both ends of the pitch. James McClean is a much better player under Rosler. He is now lifting his head at key moments and becoming a more mature player. If he continues in his current vein of form he will attract interest from the big clubs. Nick Powell remains a wild card, the position in which he will play being uncertain. Being played wide is not his best position, but Rosler has the option to play him at centre forward or in the hole in midfield, which might be his best position.

Latics have the luxury of quality goalkeepers with not only the excellent Ali Al-Habsi and Scott Carson, but the exciting young Lee Nicholls waiting for another chance. Al-Habsi and Carson can be expected to rotate over coming weeks.

Given the injuries and the hectic schedule, Latics are likely to experience some ups and downs before the end of the season. It will be hard to maintain the level already established by the German.

Rosler has built up a fine team spirit and a strong squad. The aim is for Latics to be in the top six at the end of the season. If they can do that they have the players to take them back to the Premier League.

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Yeovil Preview – Goliath versus David

Over recent years Wigan Athletic have typically been cast as the underdog, but nevertheless capable of slaying the biggest of giants. A second successive FA Cup victory over that Goliath of English football, Manchester City, shows what Latics can continue to do when the odds are stacked against them.

However, in tonight’s encounter at the DW Stadium it is Latics who will be the giant Goliath, with little Yeovil playing the role of David.

Like Latics, Yeovil have come a long way over the years. In fact their path up the ladder has been somewhat slower. It took them 108 years to get into the Football League after being founded in 1895. However, they  got promoted to League 1 at the end of their second season  there. They finished fifth in their first season in League 1, but languished in the bottom half of the table for the next six years.

Under manager Gary Johnson Yeovil won the League One play-offs last season. Remarkably they did that on an average crowd of 4,071 and with a budget reputed to be less than £1m.

“We’re definitely going in as the underdogs, but we said that in League One let alone the Championship. We’ve got to embrace it as a club and we’ve got to be excited about it.” said Johnson in summer.

The odds are that Wigan Athletic will be too good for a Yeovil team which stands in 23rd place, three points away from Millwall, the nearest club above the drop zone. Figures have been bandied about the social media contrasting the vastly different budgets of Latics and Manchester City. It would be interesting to get a comparison between tonight’s two clubs. Underpinned by parachute payments Latics have a large squad of players who are relatively well paid for the Championship division. The combined salaries of a handful of those players probably exceeds that of the whole Yeovil squad.

However, Lady Luck has once more stricken Wigan Athletic with a series of injuries. The excellent Leon Barnett limped off at Ipswich on Saturday and could be out for weeks with his hamstring injury. However, Latics have adequate cover in central defensive positions and Thomas Rogne will probably step in. Ivan Ramis had another good game at the weekend, but Uwe Rosler will have to weigh up whether he wants to risk the Spaniard in his second game in three days. Emmerson Boyce and James Perch are due to be rested, but Rosler will not want to disrupt the understanding that has developed in a settled defence by making too many changes. However, his hand may be forced.

It is in midfield that injuries are hitting hardest with Ben Watson, Chris McCann and Roger Espinoza unavailable. The press reports that Rosler is about to sign Jack Collison on loan from West Ham.  Although still only 25 years old Collison has made over 100 appearances for the Hammers. Not only is Collison experienced but he can play in either wide or central midfield. It is understood that Collison’s contract is up at the end of the season and that West Ham will probably release him. The situation parallels that of Martyn Waghorn, signed under similar circumstances on loan from Leicester in January. It appears to be another shrewd move by the East German.

Callum McManaman and Nicky Maynard are due to return, forming two of the front three. Nick Powell is likely to join them some time during the match. Josh McEachran is due to return in midfield and Jean Beausejour at left back.

It is unusual for Wigan Athletic to be playing the role of Goliath in a league match. They will need to roll down their sleeves to carve out a victory against a Yeovil side that has nothing to lose. Nobody expects the Somerset team to come out with a result, but Latics will surely know how Yeovil feel as the underdogs.

It promises to be a fascinating encounter.

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Ipswich Preview

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Wigan Athletic travel to Portman Road tomorrow to play their third game in six days. They will face an Ipswich Town side currently sitting in 9th place, with ambitions of reaching the play-offs.

On Wednesday Latics scraped out a win against a physical Sheffield Wednesday outfit, courtesy of an 88th minute penalty. However, they have won their last seven matches.

Ipswich will be a tough nut to crack. They have a home record of W9 D4 L4 and under Latics’ old adversary Mick McCarthy they will pose a strong physical threat. He has former Wolves players Sylvan Ebanks-Blake, Christophe Berra and Stephen Hunt in his squad. They will be out to avenge a 2-0 defeat at the DW Stadium in September.

The key Ipswich man to watch is full back, Aaron Creswell. The 24 year old Liverpudlian has two goals and a remarkable eleven assists in the 31 league games he has played this season. He has also had 28 shots on goal, a high figure for a full back. Not surprisingly there has been talk in the past of Latics trying to secure his services. Uwe Rosler will be keen to curb Cresswell’s attacks and will almost certainly place a winger on the left hand side to peg him back.

Latics have had good news this week with Gary Caldwell and Shaun Maloney each playing 45 minutes for the development squad. The bad news was that Chris McCann, a key figure in Uwe Rosler’s plans, will be out for the rest of the season with an injury to the knee cap. McCann was badly missed on Wednesday when Latics midfield could not maintain the quality of possession that one has come to expect. To lose the Irishman so soon after losing Ben Watson is a harsh blow for Rosler.

Rosler will look to field a well-balanced and competitive midfield at Ipswich. It will be interesting to see if he will field Ryan Tunnicliffe against the team for which he made 24 appearances in the first half of the season. Tunnicliffe struggled against Sheffield Wednesday, but he is clearly the type of player Rosler needs to replace Watson and McCann.

There remains the possibility of playing Jordi Gomez in a holding role, something he did at times under Roberto Martinez. Josh McEachran too is in contention, but like Gomez lacks the physical edge that Tunnicliffe might be able to provide. Roger Espinoza remains largely marginalized and Fraser Fyvie’s career has gone backwards this season. Rosler is going to need a midfield enforcer – someone who can help close down a match – and might well choose to employ Rob Kiernan in that role.

Both Markus Holgerrson and Thomas Rogne played for the development squad in midweek. One of them is likely to lineup in the centre of defence, given Rosler’s rotation policy. Emmerson Boyce is due for a rest and Ivan Ramis is likely to step in. Rosler might well revert to a system with three central defenders.

With the return of Nick Powell, Rosler now has a wide range of attacking options available to him. Up to this point he has managed to keep his forwards fresh through shrewd use of the rotation system.

Scott Carson made a successful return from injury at the Etihad and will challenge Ali Al-Habsi for a starting spot. Rosler has the luxury of being able to rotate two quality goalkeepers as he pleases.

Once again Latics will go up against a physical team keen to beat them. In order to match the Tractor Boys physically they are going to have to do a lot of running and much will depend on the ability of a patched-up midfield to give the forwards the service they need.

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Barnsley Preview – The Pressure is on


Fresh from their hard-earned FA Cup victory at Cardiff, Wigan Athletic are due to entertain Barnsley tomorrow in their 43rd game of the season. What’s more is that three difficult away games follow for Rosler’s men who seek promotion to the Premier League and further progress in the Cup.

At first glance Barnsley at home does not appear to be the most difficult task ahead. Owen Coyle enjoyed his most successful result at Wigan after giving the Tykes a 4-0 hammering on the first day of the season. Barnsley remain anchored in the bottom three with only one away win all season.  A win for Latics would appear a formality.

However, Uwe Rosler’s side have not performed well against teams closer to the lower end of table. The elation of away wins at promotion-chasing Derby and Reading has been tempered by defeats at Doncaster and Huddersfield.  Moreover it will be Wigan’s fifth match in eighteen days in the month of February. The victory at Cardiff means that the difficult home match against league leaders Leicester City will have to be rearranged, creating even more fixture congestion.

But thanks to some astute dealings in the loan and transfer market Rosler has a strong and well balanced squad at his disposal. The German has already shown that he can successfully operate a rotation policy, achieving results. The quality in depth within the squad is such that Rosler could choose an entirely different starting eleven tomorrow and still have a good chance of beating Barnsley.

Rosler wisely rested the dependable Leon Barnett on Saturday. The ex-Norwich man has played 40 matches so far this season, much more than any other player. However, the lack of cover for the central defensive positions has now been alleviated by the signing of Markus Holgerrson and the return from injury of Ivan Ramis and Thomas Rogne. Given that strength in numbers Rosler might be tempted to play a backline of three, especially against teams whose main mode of play is putting high balls into the box. Moreover it would free up Emmerson Boyce and Jean Beausejour to play in their best positions as wing backs.

Following a successful return at Cardiff, Ramis will be rested tomorrow. Rosler has already said that the Spaniard is not yet up to playing more than one game a week. Barnett will almost certainly return, but Boyce is likely to be rested, meaning a possible debut for Holgerrson, although Rogne is also a possibility. Rosler has also talked about giving Lee Nicholls a chance and this might be the one for the young goalkeeper.

Ben Watson went off injured at Cardiff, but James McArthur will be ready to return. Josh McEachran will be pushing for a start in midfield, as will Roger Espinoza.

Both Martyn Waghorn and Nicky Maynard are due to return after being cup-tied and fans will be hoping that Nick Powell is fit after missing the last five matches. Although still only 19 years old, Powell has started in 25 matches this season and come off the bench in five, scoring 10 goals. Rosler is aware of the physical demands on the young man and will try to get the best use out of the highly talented player, without overstretching him.

With tricky away matches at Brighton and Nottingham Forest looming, Latics will be keen to claim the three points available from the Barnsley game. Rosler is looking at an average of two points per game until the end of the regular season to get in to a playoff berth. Failure to beat Barnsley would make that difficult over the three league games which precede the FA Cup 6th round match at Manchester City.

The pressure is on and the coming weeks will be a test of resolve for Rosler, but he has the squad to cope with what is coming up, providing injuries keep to a minimum. Beating Barnsley tomorrow will be a step in the right direction.

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Sheffield Wednesday Preview

In mid-December a Wigan Athletic team in transition traveled to Hillsborough to play Sheffield Wednesday. Uwe Rosler had just won his opening Championship match, with a tight 3-2 win over Bolton, following an unfortunate dismissal from the Europa League at Maribor.

I noted in my match preview of the time that  “..not only will it be Latics’ third match in a week, but they are also adjusting to a new style of play. The high pressing that Rösler expects is physically demanding for players who have not managed to keep up such a pace up till now. The question is whether the lineup Rosler puts out will be able to do what he wants most of the time.”

In the event Wigan’s high pressing game proved a powerful weapon against a Wednesday team that was struggling near the bottom of the table. Wednesday were relieved that the rain caused the match to be abandoned early in the second half with Latics a goal up. Since that day their fortunes turned. Wednesday have now lost only one of their ten matches since then. Their victories include a 2-0 win at promotion candidates Reading on Saturday and a 6-0 thrashing of Leeds United on January 11th.

Wigan Athletic too have had a better run of results since then, losing only two of the nine league games in that period. However, although fitness levels may be improving many players are still finding it hard to keep up the pace needed for Rosler’s high pressing game.  The ability of a player to perform the high pressing role clearly comes into Rosler’s thinking prior to choosing his starting lineup, as Callum McManaman found on Saturday, losing his place to Martyn Waghorn, despite looking sharp in the previous game against Charlton.

It will be interesting to see Rosler’s tactical approach to the rematch tomorrow. Wednesday will be ready for the high press and full of confidence following recent results.

The German tends to go more cautiously into away games and he might well opt for his solid midfield trio of James McArthur, Chris McCann and Ben Watson in front of a flat back four. He is unlikely to be able to call upon Ivan Ramis, Thomas Rogne and Markus Holgerrson in the centre of defence, the first two only recently having returned to training and the Swede not having played since the end of his MLS season in November.  That means Emmerson Boyce continuing to partner Leon Barnett at centre back, with James Perch on the right and either Stephen Crainey or Jean Beausejour on the left.

Rosler will have to decide whether to start with his two pacy wingers, McManaman and McClean, or to play with just one. Given Waghorn’s promising performance at Huddersfield it would not be surprising to see him start, possibly in his more natural role as a central striker.

There have been concerns among fans about the lack of flair in Latics’ play over recent games. Latics certainly have flair players but the chemistry has been lacking. It is unlikely that Rosler will risk Nick Powell tomorrow and Josh McEachran is still not one hundred percent fit, although he could come off the bench. However, the mouth-watering prospect of Powell moving on to McEachran’s incisive passes is something we hope to savour fairly soon.

When Rosler has all his players match fit he will have a very strong squad and be able to operate with a flat back four or three central defenders. Other teams might be geared up to deal with his high pressing tactic, but he will be able to alter the shape of the team at his whim. He will continue to rotate his squad, but will still have a very strong bench whichever starting lineup he chooses.

It promises to be a fascinating contest tomorrow – playing Wednesday on Tuesday at Hillsborough.

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