Can the Dream Come True Again?

Martinez

I don’t know if I will ever tire of watching the highlights of that FA Cup Final. I continue to be in love with the flowing football played by Roberto Martinez’s team and Ben Watson’s goal still brings tears to my eyes. It really was a dream come true.

Highlights can so often paint a false picture of a game. Watching the whole ninety minutes-plus can tell a different story.  But in this case the highlights were pretty close to representing a fair reflection of the match.

The key moments that stick in the mind? The superb interplay early on between Callum McManaman and Arouna Kone that almost led to an early goal for the youngster;  Joel Robles somehow getting his legs to Carlos Tevez’s shot that had “goal” written all over it; Shaun Maloney’s free kick  that hit the crossbar; Pablo Zabalata’s red card after McManaman went bursting through;  the celebrations after Watson’s goal.

The statistics showed that Latics more than matched their illustrious opponents. Possession was a close 52-48 in favour of City, both teams had 12 attempts on goal. Wigan had three corners, City had five. City had three yellow cards and a red, Latics had one yellow.

Incredibly for an underdog,  Wigan committed only five fouls (City had eleven). Latics’ football was sublime.

Who could have believed that a team built from bargain signings could compete on an equal footing with the City megastars? Will Wigan Athletic ever produce a display of such class again? How did Latics neutralize the threat of the star-studded midfield and forwards that City possessed?

Latics had been playing a 3-4-3 system, but an horrendous injury situation left Martinez short of defensive options. In the event he played midfielders James McArthur and Roger Espinoza as wing backs, with James McCarthy and Jordi Gomez in the midfield holding roles.  But he did have his first choice front three in Kone, McManaman and Maloney.

McManaman and Watson are the names that stick in the mind, as ‘Man of the Match’ and ‘Match Winner’, but it was the performance of the back three that was the cornerstone of Latics’ victory.  Antolin Alcaraz had come back from yet another injury to join Emmerson Boyce and Paul Scharner. The trio was absolutely superb in snuffing out the menace of Tevez and Aguero.

So what bearing does what happened in May have on Sunday’s sixth round tie at the Etihad?

City have moved on under Manuel Pellegrini and have scored forty three goals against nine in thirteen home matches in the Premier League so far this season.  That would not have happened in the regime of the more defensively-minded Roberto Mancini.  Moreover City thrashed Owen Coyle’s side 5-0 in a League Cup tie in September. Tevez has gone, but the Citizens now have Alvaro Negredo, Stefan Jovetic and Jesus Navas as potential threats together with Edin Dzeko and Sergio Aguero.

It will be an emotional return for Uwe Rosler to the club where he made his name. However, City can count on no favours from the pragmatic German. Rosler has shown himself to be tactically astute and he will not want to play into City’s hands. More than anything he needs to nullify the threat of City’s midfield and forwards. Doubtless he will adopt the high pressing game that has become the hallmark of his tenure so far at Wigan. Stifling the service to City’s talented midfield will lessen the goal threat, but he also has to keep their forwards on a tight leash.

Rosler is not afraid to vary his team’s shape and at times he has used a backline of three central defenders. It might well be his best bet in this match. An experienced central defensive three of Emmerson Boyce, Ivan Ramis and Leon Barnett is a distinct possibility. The defence becomes a back five with the wing backs – most likely James Perch and Jean Beausejour – dropping back. It is a tactic that has worked against City before.

Before the FA Cup Final the question being asked of Latics’ supporters was whether they would prefer Premier League salvation or an FA Cup win. Now it is a matter of promotion back to the big league or reaching the semi-final of the Cup.

Winning the FA Cup was the best thing that ever happened to Wigan Athletic.  But going out of the competition, with dignity, on Sunday would not be a tragedy with promotion a possibility.

The players that remain from the Wembley victory will be keen to confront City again. Roger Espinoza could not make the Honduras game yesterday because of injury, so might not make it. Jordi Gomez was ‘Man of the Match’ at Nottingham and will stake a strong claim for a place in midfield, with the excellent James McArthur and Chris McCann. If Callum McManaman is fit he will surely play upfront.  With Martyn Waghorn and Nicky Maynard cup-tied, Marc-Antoine Fortune will probably start up front, unless Nick Powell reappears from injury

Although the odds are once again heavily stacked against Latics, only a fool would count them out.

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Rosler’s loan signings can make the difference

transfer window

An unknown third choice goalkeeper from Spain, an end of contract midfielder from Kansas City and a 32 year old unwanted by Hamburg. Such were the loan signings made by Wigan Athletic a year ago.

The feeling at the time among Latics supporters was of being “underwhelmed”. Was this the best that Roberto Martinez could do? Why wasn’t Dave Whelan opening his wallet and bringing in players that could really make a difference?

In the event Joel Robles, Roger Espinoza and Paul Scharner did make a difference. It was not enough to save Latics from relegation, but all three were to go on and play in the lineup that won the FA Cup for the club.

That same underwhelming feeling has surfaced again.

Who on earth was Tyias Browning? Why would Latics want to sign a crock from Cardiff, who had not started in a league game this season? Why go for a player from Chelsea who had already been on loan at three other clubs? But most confounding of all – why would Latics take a player who had never made it in a team from their own Championship division?

Nicky Maynard was sought by Roberto Martinez while at Bristol City. In the event he went to West Ham who sold him on to Cardiff City for a fee around £2.75m in August 2012. Unfortunately he tore his anterior cruciate knee ligament in only his third game at the Welsh club, which was to keep him out of action until May 2013.

The 27 year old central striker is a Cheshire lad who came up through the Crewe Alexandra academy. His most successful year as a goal scorer was in 2009-10 when he scored 20 goals in 40 starts for Bristol City in the Championship division.  Maynard has struggled since the injury, his appearances for Cardiff this year being two starts in the League Cup and eight times off the bench in the Premier League.

Maynard is clearly a player of some pedigree and a proven goal scorer at Championship level. If he can regain an optimum level of fitness he will be a threat to Championship defences. Maynard is likely to alternate with Marc-Antoine Fortune for the centre forward spot, although there will be times when Rosler will play them together.

Latics fans saw what Josh McEachran can do yesterday when his superbly judged pass put Fortune through for an 89th minute goal yesterday. He made his Chelsea debut as a 17 year old. Still only 20 he has played for Swansea, Middlesbrough and Watford on loan. McEachran can play as a holding midfielder but his best position is in the hole between the midfield and the central striker.

McEachran is not fully fit at this stage, but he has so much quality that he can add the cutting edge that has been lacking in Latics’ play in recent weeks.

Rosler’s signing of Martyn Waghorn has been questioned by many Latics supporters who were hoping the club would sign a player with a proven history as a goal scorer.  They are unimpressed that Leicester City are willing to let him go out on loan although they are challenging for automatic promotion to the Premier League. Moreover Waghorn will be a free agent in summer when his contract runs out.

However, Waghorn is still only 24 years old and can play in any of the three front positions. He played for England at both under 19 and under 21 levels.  Leicester paid a fee of around £3m when he arrived from Sunderland in a permanent deal in August 2010. He had been voted young player of the year at Leicester the previous season when he had been on loan with them. See his goals during that season here.

Waghorn has had his ups and downs and played for five clubs before coming to Wigan. However, he had a successful spell on loan at Millwall this season, making 12 appearances and scoring 3 goals. Millwall boss Steve Lomas wanted to sign Waghorn permanently, but it was not to work out.

Waghorn will be keen to impress at Wigan and show that his success at Millwall is not a flash in the pan. He has a good left foot and is no mean penalty taker.

The 19 year old Tyias Browning was signed on a one month loan from Everton on January 10th. A day later he made a strong impression after coming on as a second half substitute in the 3-0 win against Bournemouth. A week later he was to concede a penalty in the disappointing 3-0 defeat at Doncaster. Browning is clearly one for the future, but the value of having a young player join the club for such a short loan period is open to question.

Following the last-gasp victory over Charlton yesterday Latics remain within reach of a play-off place.  Only one player – Nouha Dicko – left permanently during the transfer window. Grant Holt has gone on loan to Aston Villa, but Ivan Ramis will be staying at least until the end of the season following his failure to pass medicals at Cardiff and Crystal Palace. It could be a blessing in disguise for Latics.

A fit Ramis would make a big difference to the promotion push. Not one of that skilful trio – Jean Beausejour, Jordi Gomez and Ben Watson – left during the transfer window, although their contracts terminate in summer.

All in all, Latics have a better squad now than they had before the January window began. Moreover if loan players like Maynard, McEachran and Waghorn were to reach their optimum levels they could swing the balance and get Wigan into that play-off place.

Like Martinez last year, Rosler seems to have made ‘underwhelming’ loan signings in the transfer window.

But then again maybe they are better than they seem at first glance.

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Why Scharner Makes Sense

2013-scharner

With confirmation of his return to Wigan seemingly imminent and Wigan circles on Twitter ablaze with Paul Scharner-related discussion, we take a look at what promises to be an intelligent piece of business by Roberto Martinez.

1) Wigan needs an experienced centre-back

We’ll start with the obvious. The long-term injury to Ivan Ramis and continuing absence of Antolin Alcaraz have placed Martinez in a pickle. Roman Golobart did admirably in his league debut yesterday but is still unproven at this level. An up-and-coming centre back on loan such as Sebastian Coates would be better than nothing, but what Latics really need is someone who knows their way around the league and can slot in seamlessly. At 32, with some seven Premier League seasons under his belt, Scharner is just that.

2) The loan move suits both parties

With Gary Caldwell, Maynor Figueroa, Alcaraz, Ramis, Lopez and Golobart on the books, Martinez doesn’t need another centre-back on the books. Scharner has not been playing for Hamburg and is in desperate need of minutes to earn himself his next move.

3) The “new” system will suit him

While his desire to play in midfield hastened his move in the first place, he has presumably agreed to sign as a central defender. With Caldwell and Figueroa mainstays in the centre and centre-left respectively, the Austrian would likely slot in at centre-right in Martinez’s back three. Playing on that right side will allow him to occasionally get forward as Figueroa does on the other side, which should appeal to him.

4) His aerial ability is much needed

At 6’3, he is taller than both Caldwell and Figueroa and will surely help shore up a defence with an appalling record from set plays and open play crosses. He used to occasionally pop up with headed goals, a tendency that would be very warmly received in this new era.

5) Wigan is his footballing home

The reunion should be a warm one. Few of us have forgotten his warmth and enthusiasm as a player, usually spelled out in his hair. Despite the delusions of midfield maestro stardom he suffered from towards the end of his first stint at the club, his return is likely to be a nice event and can only morale. For the player, a return to the place where his best football was played can only have a reinvigorating effect.

Conclusions:

While the return of a former player is always a tricky transaction, Scharner’s is only temporary and is mutually beneficial. Martinez knows the Austrian, having overlapped with him briefly. Wigan’s football has come a long way since then, but Scharner always fancied himself a ball player, and he should slot in nicely. Now he just needs to stay fit.

Wigan Athletic vs. West Bromich Albion: Last chance saloon at the DW


Let us know if these previews are starting to become a bit ridiculous with their constant references to must-win fixtures, but I think it’s time to face reality — barring any major miracles against the big boys, if we lose to West Brom this weekend it’s game over. A draw would be pretty bad news too. Three points would give us a chance.

The gloom is founded in our ensuing fixtures, which involve Liverpool, Stoke, Chelsea, Man United and Arsenal — three of them away — followed by in-form, new-look Fulham (also away), and tricky though beatable Newcastle. The only saving grace, if survival is still mathematically attainable by then, is that the final two matches of the season are against direct rivals Blackburn and Wolves.

When we wrote our survival analysis several weeks ago, we were banking on a real point return from the recent fixtures against Villa, Swansea and Norwich. We should have emerged with six points from those nine, and instead got two.

The interesting thing is that I would argue that recent performances — excluding the Swansea match when key players were jetlagged or benched — have been on par with those that saved us in the run-in last year. The defense has pulled together as it did last year, with Gary Caldwell and Antolin Alcaraz hitting form over the last 5-6 matches, and the Jimmy Macs strong in midfield. The desire is there.

The difference of course, is in the goals. We don’t have Charles N’Zogbia. Hugo Rodallega was bright enough against Norwich but was a substitute for most of the season due to his clear desire to be somewhere else. Victor Moses took his goal very well against Norwich, as he did the last time we met West Brom — but those were both exceptions to his generally sub-par finishing. Mo Diame could have won the game for us twice last Saturday but fluffed his lines. It’s tragic to watch.

I’m just not sure what to think about this one. West Brom have been in decent form and will be out for revenge after Latics came from behind to beat them at The Hawthorns not too long ago, but really ought to be beaten at home. Except of course, for our poor home form.

From a selection perspective, there is good news. Influential defender Jonas Olsson is suspended, and Peter Odemwingie is apparently doubtful. Just about everyone is fit for us, the most inspirational of whom could be Shaun Maloney, who made such an impact with his incisive passing and sharp footwork when replacing Jordi Gomez against Norwich. What might the season have looked like if he had been fit and involved all along? I’ve often felt that our attacking problems are in equal parts poor finishing and lack of service. The strikers live on scraps. Maloney, in his 30-odd minutes on the pitch, provided more defense-splitting passes than Jordi has all season.

Surely this will be the match Mohamed Diame reclaims his starting berth in midfield. He was by far the best outfield player in a Wigan shirt before leaving for the African Cup of Nations in January, but has not started a match since. One suspects that he has taken a leaf out of Rodallega’s book and focused his attention on a summer move rather than the Robin Park training ground during these winter months. But he’s still the best we have in midfield, and should be on the pitch.

Another of the real revelations of the season, Ronnie Stam, must be wondering what he’s done wrong. Given the opportunity to play in his  natural position at wing-back, the Dutchman excelled until the return to fitness of Emmerson Boyce. He is clearly not as good a defender at Boyce, but a much better attacker. Home fixtures against mid-table or lower teams like WBA present reasonable opportunities to take attacking risks. Beausejour and Stam have yet to feature in the same lineup, which is an absolute crime for a team struggling to score goals.

Last but not least, there’s Callum McManaman, who has barely featured since his return from a successful loan spell at Blackburn. He scored in his only start, the embarrassing loss at Swindon. Fellow Amigos’ writer Jakarta Jack suggested that McManaman’s performances for the reserves in the striker role should see him replace Rodallega. We could certainly use someone with some confidence in front of goal, someone who has scored some goals this season and doesn’t hesitate at the crucial moment. With reports this morning suggesting that the Colombian is doubtful, it could be an opportunity. Although Di Santo is likely to start ahead of him should those reports be true.

Keep an eye out for:

Shaun Maloney, if he plays. He was dynamite when he came on against Norwich. If he’s fit enough to start, fantastic. If not, I would hope for a McArthur-McCarthy-Diame midfield, with Maloney on in the 2nd half as an impact sub. Unfortunately, Jordi Gomez has produced too little to to retain his place in the starting lineup, despite a string of games over the festive period that suggested he had finally found his feet in a Wigan shirt.

Prediction:

My heart says we are finally going to break the jinx and win this one. My brain, or the tormented bundle of nerves and anxiety that is left of it, reserves comment.