WIGAN ATHLETIC-READING PREVIEW

  • Injury-hit Wigan Athletic face newly promoted Reading at the DW Stadium this afternoon. Wigan are currently in 16th place with 11 points from 12 games. Although they have won only one league game all season – last week at home to Everton – Reading are in 17th place, with just two points less than Wigan. A win for the visitors would allow Reading to leapfrog over Wigan, plunging Latics into the relegation zone. The phrase “must-win game” tends to be overstated in the media, but in this case it comes pretty close to describing the importance of three points to Wigan Athletic.

    Ben Watson’s broken leg must have impacted on Wigan’s performance and morale last week at Liverpool. It was so unfortunate after he had waited so long for his chance to get back into the team and had regained his form. James McArthur remains injured, so David Jones will partner James McCarthy in the centre of midfield. The injury to Gary Caldwell is a blow since it is not only his playing ability that will be missed, but his organizational skills in the centre of the back three. The most obvious option is to move Emmerson Boyce across to the central three and bring in the attacking Ronnie Stam. However, reports in the media have suggested Martinez might change the shape, which would likely mean playing with a conventional back four. This would allow him to bring in a winger, such as Ryo Miyaichi – if fit. There is some doubt over the fitness of Franco Di Santo. If he does not play the obvious replacement would be Mauro Boselli, but Jordi Gomez might jump ahead of him in the pecking order.

    In contrast, Reading have better news regarding injuries, with forward Jimmy Kebe fit again after missing the Everton game. Old Wigan favourite, Jason Roberts, now 34, will probably start for the visitors. Reading’s win last week will certainly boost them although rumours regarding manager Brian McDermott’s position are not going to help. A failure to get a result at Wigan might well push him closer to the edge. Reading play an energetic, physical type of football and Wigan can expect the crosses to be teeming in. Ex-Watford midfield player, Jobi McAnuff, made 11 assists last season when Reading won the Championship and he has already made 4 more assists this season. Their leading goalscorer is Adam Le Fondre with 3 goals.

    Critics would say that there has been a need for a shake up in the Latics lineup for some weeks. Martinez has kept stubborn faith in his first choice players, many of whom have disappointed up to this point. This time he is going to be forced into making changes because of injuries. Too many times in key relegation tussles in the past Wigan have gone into the match with a cautious team selection. Let’s hope Martinez puts on a positive lineup from the start in this match.

    Reading have not won an away game this season, drawing 2 out of their 5. Wigan have won 1 out of 6 games at home. The logical prediction would therefore be a draw. However, football does not always work like that and it could be that a soft goal, penalty decision or red card could make the difference in this encounter. Wigan are due for a little bit of luck – maybe it will come today?

  • TOTTENHAM 3 WIGAN ATHLETIC 1 – BACK INTO CAPITULATION MODE

    It was sad to see Wigan Athletic revert to capitulation mode again on Tuesday evening. Capitulation mode has been typified this season by allowing a “monopoly” team to completely dominate the match without any significant physical intervention. As reported in this column in previous posts Wigan’s foul count this season has typically been 8 or 9 per game against these teams, as opposed to averaging 13 to 14 against other opposition. It was therefore no surprise after this performance that the foul count against Wigan was only 7, with Tottenham committing one more. The irony is that Latics have committed more fouls this season than any other team in the division. So what happens in these matches? Nobody here is counting a foul as a positive thing, but the stats give much cause for conjecture.

    It was something we have seen too often before this season against the big boys. A defence stuck really deep and minimal effort to show any attacking intent in terms of putting men forward, especially in the first half. The scoreline was kind to Wigan – Spurs could have scored a lot more. In the last 20 minutes we saw some spirit, typified by the inspirational Ronnie Stam’s lone and unsupported forays into the Tottenham half. With better finishing his terrific crosses would have resulted in goals, but this was not to be.

    Wigan had reverted to their three centre halves formation, with Jean Beausejour put in as left wing back. Nominally a left winger he did pretty well in his defensive role until failing to mark Gareth Bale who scored an opportunist goal in the 29th minute. The goal came as no surprise. Only 5 minutes later Latics suffered that kind of ill luck that happens to struggling teams – or bad play depending how you see things – that saw Maynor Figueroa’s clearance hit Jordi Gomez and bounce back nicely for Modric to hook in Tottenham’s second goal. The scoreline would have been much worse for Wigan at halftime – and throughout the whole match – without another fine goalkeeping display from Ali Al Habsi. Bale and Assou Ekottu form a terrific left sided attacking front for Spurs and they overwhelmed Latics in that first half. A memory sticks in my head of Ronnie Stam being swamped by their attacks with no other Latics player in sight for support. I cannot recall a Premier League match, where for so long, two players seemed to “own’ one sector of the pitch, with so little collective challenge to their dominance.

    Wigan rallied to some extent in the second half, but the home team was clearly in command. Once again it was therefore no surprise that Gareth Bale scored a simple goal in the 63rd minute, ignoring Watson’s challenge and stroking the ball home. You could say it was the goal of a genius or a soft goal to give away – your choice. Nobody had marked Bale all evening and he had a field day.

    James McArthur came on for Jordi Gomez and he scored an opportunist, if deflected, goal in the 80th minute. Latics then rallied and put Tottenham under pressure in a way that did not seem possible before. Unfortunately their finishing was not to be apparent. Albert Crusat came on after 87 minutes for Ben Watson, but Wigan were a beaten force well before then.

    There was controversy in the 73rd minute when Assou Ekotto committed a horrible red card foul against Franco Di Santo, who had to go off to be replaced by Conor Sammon. The referee and his assistant were so close to the play, but neither reacted. Not even a yellow card! One wonders what would have happened if a Wigan player had done this.

    The stats reveal Tottenham having 20 shots or target and Wigan 9. Tottenham enjoyed 62% of the possession. There was one yellow card, for Albert Crusat in the 90th minute.

    The Good

    One could say that the scoreline suggests that Latics did not get “thumped”. Moreover they escaped without anyone being sent off and only one belated yellow card. A goal for James McArthur was a reward for his persistence and endeavour.

    The Bad

    This dual mode of damage limitation/capitulation  is hard for supporters to take. One could argue that  the end result of 3-1 does not look so bad, but the reality was something else. The woeful lack of ambition in the first half played into Tottenham’s hands and they were allowed to look impressive. The shortage of “steel” in midfield was plain to see.

    Tottenham have a vastly superior squad to Wigan. They spend big monopoly money to do it. However, the gulf between Tottenhams’ collective self confidence and the paucity of self belief among Wigan players looked way beyond the difference in technical levels. No surprise, one supposes, with Spurs in 3rd place and Wigan 20th. It is the lack of self belief that is keeping Wigan glued to the bottom of the table.

    Player Ratings

    Ali Al Habsi: 7 – Another good display. Kept Latics in the game with fine saves.

    Ronnie Stam:7 – Struggled defensively in the first half when swamped by left sided attackers, but hung in there and never gave up. An example to his teammates in his “never say die” approach.

    Emmerson Boyce: 6 – Showed poise and technique, but did not offer enough support to the right side of defence in the first half especially.

    Gary Caldwell: 6 – Tried hard to steady a sinking ship.

    Maynor Figueroa: 6 – Also tried hard to hold back the Tottenham tide.

    Jean Beausejour: 6 – Showed skilful touches, but this was a baptism of fire being asked to play at wing back.

    James McCarthy: 5 – Disappointing.

    Ben Watson: 5 – Disappointing.

    Jordi Gomez: 5 – Ineffective, taken off after 71 minutes.

    Victor Moses: 6 – Lack of service gave him little opportunity.

    Franco Di Santo: 5 – Did not reach his usual level in terms of holding the ball up as a lone striker. Unconvincing as a finisher.

    Substitutes

    Conor Sammon: 4 – Visibly lacking in goalscoring confidence. Desperately needs a goal somehow.

    James McArthur: 6 – Showed his usual commitment and got into good positions. His goal was somewhat fortunate but well deserved.

    Albert Crusat: – Hard to prove your point when brought on in the 87th minute.

    Better late than never: a look back at Chelsea, Liverpool and Man Utd results

    Having found ourselves internet-less during the festive period, we look back on two of the best performances of the season, and another the standard treatment from an intimidated referee at Old Trafford. Overall, a pleasing festive period during which Roberto’s team has started to show its real potential.

    Wigan Athletic 1 Chelsea 1

    The home side were more than a match for Chelsea, who had strung several wins together before this fixture. Daniel Sturridge scored a beautifully taken goal early in the second half against the run of play, but Latics persistence paid off when Petr Cech fumbled Rodallega’s shot straight to Jordi Gomez for the equalizer.

    The Good:

    The entire performance, but special mention to the tackling in midfield, defensive solidity, and Jordi for being in the right place at the right time at the end of a very tiring match.

    The Bad:

    Shame it couldn’t have been three points.

    Player Ratings:

    Ali Al-Habsi: 7; Antolin Alcaraz: 8.5; Gary Caldwell: 8; Maynor Figueroa: 8; Ronnie Stam: 7; Dave Jones: 7; James McCarthy: 8.8; Mo Diame: 7; Jordi Gomez: 7; Victor Moses: 8; Conor Sammon: 6

    Wigan Athletic 0 Liverpool 0

    After surviving an early period of intense pressure, Latics were unlucky not to take the lead. Ali Al-Habsi proved the savior with a penalty stop, but both teams might have gotten on the scoresheet in an exciting match.

    The Good:

    Jordi Gomez and Victor Moses looked absolute quality against a very good team. Sure, Liverpool played an attacking game, allowing them a bit more space on the break. But in their very different styles, they were outstanding. Maynor Figueroa put in an excellent defensive performance but also managed to get forward with some dangerous shooting. Ali Al-Habsi takes man of the match for his well earned clean sheet and penalty save.

    The Bad:

    Dave Jones is an excellent footballer, but not a left wing back. Time and time again, he was beaten for pace. Got better as the match went on, but surely Patrick Van Aanholt — so exciting when he made his first appearance against Everton back in autumn — will be considered for this position sooner than later.

    Player Ratings:

    Ali Al-Habsi: 9; Antonlin Alcaraz: 7.5; Gary Caldwell: 7.5; Maynor Figueroa: 8.5; Ronnie Stam: 8; Dave Jones: 6; James McCarthy: 8; Mo Diame: 8; Jordi Gomez: 8; Victor Moses: 8; Conor Sammon: 7

    Manchester United 5 Wigan Athletic 0

    Park Ji-Sung gave United an early lead after Patrice Evra skipped through Latics defense in the opening minutes of the game. Wigan passed the ball well, however, and went close through a couple excellent Ronnie Stam crosses before Conor Sammon was inexplicably sent off for colliding with Michael Carrick. The FA would later rescind the suspension, but that damage in this game was done. Berbatov went on to score a hat-trick, Phil Dowd would award a penalty for a foul that occurred outside the box, and the game would finish 5-0.

    The Good:

    Ronnie Stam’s crossing when the game was still 11 vs. 11. He delivered three or four delicious crosses from the right wing that had Hugo Rodallega’s name all over them. Unfortunately, Hugo was not on the field and Conor Sammon was unable to make contact.

    The Bad:

    Unlike the previous two matches against Chelsea and Liverpool, Latics’ midfield pressure was absent, and they let United play. Once again the team was afraid of United, which is a shame, because both Chelsea and Liverpool had fielded stronger lineups against us. Conor Sammon should never have been sent off but would likely have been substituted anyway. He will always endear himself to the Latics faithful with his hard-working displays, but he appears to need an extra touch to get his shot away, and does not look comfortable attacking Stam’s crosses with his head. That said, it was the referee that killed this tie.

    Player Ratings:

    Ali Al-Habsi: 6; Antolin Alcaraz: 6; Gary Caldwell: 6; Maynor Figueroa: 7; Ronnie Stam: 7; Dave Jones: 6; James McCarthy: 6; Mo Diame: 6; Jordi Gomez: 6; Victor Moses: 7; Conor Sammon: 5 (Franco Di Santo: 5)

    WITHIN STRIKING DISTANCE OF SALVATION – END OF YEAR REVELATIONS – A LOOK BACK AT WIGAN ATHLETIC IN 2011

    Christmas is past and it is the time of year when we reflect back on events of the past twelve months and make our resolutions for the coming year. As a Wigan Athletic fan I have to admit that 2011 has been an extremely stressful, frustrating year. But the fact is that we are still in the Premier League – even if the establishment might not want us there and is doing us no favours. It is going to continue to be an uphill battle for us to hang in there, but we are within striking distance of salvation. We have got through an horrendous December fixture list with pride intact and have maintained our status quo in the table.

    What revelations we have seen since the Wolves defeat in November. Revelation number one was Roberto Martinez changing his tactical system in a way that has got better performances from the players he has at his disposal. However, for me the biggest revelations have been the form of the previously unfavoured Ronnie Stam and the much maligned Jordi Gomez.

    Ronnie Stam joined Latics after helping FC Twente win their first ever Eredivisie championship in 2009-2010. He was their player of the year that season. He was called up for his first Netherlands cap at the end of the season but was unable to make it through injury. Clearly an accomplished player noted for his strong motivation and work ethic. Taking over from his fellow Dutchman – the elegant Mario Melchiot – was never going to be easy and Stam was unable to provide the level of combative tackling required for a Premier League full back. However, at wing back he has the energy and drive to shield his central defenders whilst making surging runs upfield and providing tantalizing crosses. What a transformation!

    Jordi Gómez is a product of the superb Barcelona youth system. He left the club when 22 years old in 2007 to join their city rivals Espanyol. He was later recruited by Swansea in a season-long loan in summer 2008, scoring 14 goals in the Championship division. Steve Claridge provided a scouting report of Gomez for the Guardian newspaper in February 2009 where he quotes that “Roberto Martínez has certainly used his knowledge of Spanish football to get Jordi Gómez on loan for the season from under the noses of three La Liga sides. Languid was a word that sprung to mind after I watched Gómez play as he is rarely rushed into doing anything, even in tight situations, and instead remains cool, calm and collected on the ball, making at times a difficult game look easy.” It is that languidity of style that has helped make Gomez the butt of frustrated fans who demand a more high action approach. In his first Premier League season at Wigan he was constantly fouled, prompting comments that he was slow on the ball. He was lambasted for his lack of tackling ability. Earlier this season he was asked to play on the right wing, clearly not his best position. This did not help him look good in front of the fans. However, I would challenge anyone who could criticise the man after his recent performances, where he has looked every ounce a Premier League player, playing the midfield general role with panache, but also covering a huge number of yards in each December game. I once heard a quote that we would only see Gomez show his real self when Latics were playing well. Hats off to Jordi for hanging in there, despite the pressure on him.

    Going back to our tactical lineup. Having three central defenders is really helping to provide more stability in defence. Some weeks ago there were many who questioned the class of our captain, Gary Caldwell, some suggesting that he was a Championship player out of place in the Premier League. His recent performances have proved so many people wrong. It is no coincidence that the stats place him among the highest in the division for interceptions made: who is more likely to put his body in the way to save his team but this determined Scot? Maynor Figueroa had a difficult start to the season, playing as an orthodox centre half, but has been excellent in his new position of left centre half. Antolin Alcaraz has had a topsy turvy season, but for me, remains our best defender. The best is yet to come from him.

    So what is our revelationary new system? How does it work and who plays where? We seem to have a legion of midfield players, a lone centre forward and another player with licence to roam in Victor Moses. In the Chelsea game I recall seeing Victor Moses haring down the left wing with David Jones running on his inside. Although one might have expected Jones to be the one going down the left wing and Moses inside the whole thing seemed to work. No matter what the system you have to have players coming into the penalty box for you to score most of your goals. Our old friend, Garry Birtles, pointed out the lack of support for the lone centre forward in the Arsenal match. Since then there has been a significant improvement, the midfield players getting further forward in support. However, the question remains whether the implementation of the system provides a consistent and adequate level of support for the central striker. Moreover orthodox wingers do not fit into that system, so one wonders whether the role of Albert Crusat is nullified by the system. It has been disappointing not to see more of Shaun Maloney, but this system may well suit him, if he can get back in there. However, Martinez retains the option to move to the old 4-3-3 setup, if the situation demands. All in all, a good situation where you have tactical flexibility. Well done, Roberto!

    What kind of quality do we have in the Latics’ squad? A tough question to answer, but the bottom line is that we have enough to be edging towards mid-table. We have a lot of players who can be considered “a work in progress” . Some of them are good enough to play for a top four team with comfort. Our goalkeeper, Ali Al Habsi, competes with the best in the division. James McCarthy has become an excellent “Makelele” although we miss his attacking prowess. Ben Watson is a fine footballer who has fallen foul in some way – maybe the perception that he would not fit so well into the new system or perhaps something off-field? Victor Moses is potentially an international class player, but is young and lacks definition to his exciting runs. He needs more time. Mohammed Diame has probably been our best outfield player this season. A complete player who would fit comfortably into any of the top four teams. We have players like Franco Di Santo, with wonderful technique, but not the confidence to go with it. Alcaraz is potentially a class above his partners in defence, although this is not yet fully proven. The on-loan Van Aanholt is clearly a class player and we may well see him step into the left wing back position, as a stronger player defensively than David Jones. We have no real problem players in the squad – a far cry from recent years when we have had some people who were happy to pick up fat cheques for minimal work. Over the past two years Martinez has patiently unloaded such players. There are some real good pros there who work hard and do their best. Callum McNanaman will challenge for a position following a successful loan spell at Blackpool. Roman Golobart, a potential defensive giant, is doing so well at Inverness they want to extend his loan until the end of the season. Still only nineteen he could be the revelation a year from now.

    Well done, Roberto Martinez, in sticking to your guns and having an expectation of good football. Your long term planning is exceptional and you have managed to keep Wigan Athletic in the Premier League despite the financial restraints you have had to deal with. You are to be commended on your faith in players, such as Stam and Gomez, and in your belief that we can compete at this level. We remain the in the mire, but there remains more than a glimmer of hope that we will be in the Premier League again next season. A week or two back I was getting pessimistic about our chances of hanging in there. Now we are within striking distance of salvation and there have been genuine revelations in player performances. My New Year Resolution must be to “KEEP THE FAITH” and not waiver. We can do it, despite the obstacles the Premier League puts in our way.