Season in review: One step back but a giant leap forward

Wigan celebrate FA Cup win with parade shortly after Premier League relegation - video

No sooner had the dust settled on Wigan Athletic’s FA Cup semifinal success over Millwall a month ago than a notion started circulating that the Latics could become the first club to win the FA Cup and suffer relegation during the same season.

Deep in their hearts, most Wigan supporters suspected that the combination of defensive injuries and late season fixture congestion would probably make the dream double of survival and FA Cup a step too far. By the time a ball was kicked in the FA Cup final, just about every Latics supporter in the world had been asked what they would prefer: stay up or win the cup?

Though a complicated question, the answer was never really in doubt. Thirty thousand people — three eighths the town’s population — coloured the town of Wigan blue for yesterday’s FA Cup victory parade, emphatically putting ignorant and outdated “rugby town” stereotypes to bed. They sang and cheered, and even drowned out their manager, on-stage with a microphone, with chants “Roberto Martinez, we want you to stay.” There was not a boo or a negative word to be heard — not at the parade, nor at the Emirates last Tuesday when the team was consigned to relegation. The enduring sentiment was and is one of sheer pride.

This is not to say that relegation doesn’t hurt. Football, and the Premier League in particular, is a game of fine margins. Matches turn on a single incident, and there were a host of them this season, that if reversed, probably would have kept Wigan up. James McArthur’s missed opportunity to seal the game against Swansea, Tottenham’s incredibly fortunate last-gasp equaliser at the DW, Joe Hart’s unbelievable save to deny Franco Di Santo — all recent — stick in the memory.

But relegation from the league was always a possibility — no, a probability — and has been for years. Sunderland, who finished three points above Wigan, signed Steven Fletcher, Adam Johnson, Alfred N Diaye and Danny Graham within the past year alone for a total of 30 million pounds. Fellow relegation rivals Aston Villa, for context, signed Wigan’s best player two seasons ago for 9.5 million and kept him on the bench for most of the campaign — next to 18 million Darren Bent. They could afford to leave them out because they’d signed a gem of a player in Christian Benteke for 10 million pounds the previous summer. Newcastle spent more than 25 million this season. Southampton almost 33. Wigan’s total spending amounted to 9 million on four players, all of which were covered by the sale of Victor Moses to Chelsea. Conor Sammon’s 1.2 million deal to Sheffield Wednesday earned the club a net profit on transfers, something none of the aforementioned achieved. (Source: http://www.transferleague.co.uk/)

The good news when it comes to league status, as Martinez has said, is that it can be rectified. Not many teams bounce back up to the Premier League immediately following relegation. But not many teams that go down were living within their means during their Premier League stays like Wigan was. How many clubs have we seen promoted, overspend, get relegated and disband upon the realization that they cannot afford to keep paying the players they overspent on?

Sure, Latics will lose some of their stars — and those players deserve the chance to move to a top flight club. They were brought to Wigan on the promise that they would be allowed to move to a bigger club when the time was right for both parties. The stable financial footing Dave Whelan and Martinez have guided Wigan Athletic to means that they are not obligated to sell any of their players. They will, but only because it is beneficial to the club’s future. For every N’Zogbia or Moses — or this year probably McCarthy — that goes, four or five young talents are signed. Four such youngsters — Roman Golobart, Eduard Campabadal, Nouha Dicko, Fraser Fyvie — are likely to play big roles next season and cost Whelan very, very little.

A popular claim at the moment says that league status is temporary while trophies are forever. While certainly true, it does not quite sum up Wigan’s emotional season, or explain the absoluteness of their fans’ pride. If it had been QPR that had won the FA Cup but been relegated, it is highly doubtful that the overwhelming feeling at their parade would have been one of pride and progress. Their team has been messily run since being promoted two years ago, thrown money — a lots of it — at the problems and assembled an overpaid, overrated team of opportunists who will likely be sold off auction-style during the summer as they try to slash the astronomical wage bill they’ve created for themselves.

With apologies for harsh words to supporters of QPR, the point is that celebrations at yesterday’s parade were not solely focused on the amazing, unimaginable fairy-tale story of little Wigan spectacularly toppling the richest team in the land and defending league champions to lift the oldest football competition in the world. They were an acknowledgement of how far Wigan Athletic has come as an institution and the work of the last decade. The team will play in the Charity Shield and Europa League for the first time next season. A product of the youth and reserve squads was named man of the match in the FA Cup final. The New York Times has featured the Latics three times in the past month. Thirty thousand people came out to support the team. State of the art training facilities are on the horizon. Wigan Athletic won the FA Cup. Wigan won the FA Cup. The Latics won the bloody cup!

Relegation may be a step back, but the infrastructure is in place to keep this club in the Premier League or thereabouts for years to come. Of course, much hinges on the future of the iconic hero of this Wigan revolution, from player in the lower divisions to the manager who lifted the FA Cup, Roberto Martinez. But for now, it is safe to say that despite going down, Wigan Athletic is on the up.

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1/4 Season Report Card: Al-Habsi, McCarthy & Maloney the top performers

With eleven matches played, we’ve entered the second quarter of the season. This post takes a look at the performances that have earned us a point a game — on track for safety — but left us rueing missed opportunities for more.

The numbers below were calculated by averaging the performance scores we dole out after every match. They are obviously subjective, but provide some insight on the areas of the team that are — at least in the eyes of the writers on this site — performing to, below or beyond expectation. Ali Al-Habsi is perhaps unsurprisingly our stand-out performer, followed by James McCarthy and Shaun Maloney. The strongest area of the pitch was the centre of midfield partnership of James McCarthy and James McArthur, while the weakest was the centre of defence. Only players who have started more than five matches were included.

By Player

Ali Al Habsi: 7.4 — Mostly 7s and 8s, with a 5 on an off-day and a 9 on a particularly excellent afternoon.

Gary Caldwell: 6.45 — Like Ali, has had one standout 9-worthy performance against Spurs, but a few more off-days.

Ivan Ramis: 6.65 — Nightmare debut, but steady improvement since then.

Maynor Figueroa: 6.55 — One of the more consistent performers. Had a bad day at Swansea post-international break, and a good one at Sunderland. Otherwise 6s and 7s.

Emmerson Boyce: 6.45 — Mr. Reliable, with nothing higher than a 7.5 but rarely letting his team down.

Jean Beausejour: 6.78 — Good performances without reaching his best.

James McCarthy: 7.2 — Very good season so far, has been dominant in midfield. Imagine if he adds goals to his game.

James McArthur: 6.78 — Stop-start campaign with injuries, but has been good when available.

Shaun Maloney: 7.05 — Some high numbers, but lack of finishing is probably losing him points. He makes this team tick, but is starting to be identified as the man to mark.

Arouna Kone: 6.75 — Very good average given these have been his first 11 matches in Premier League football, with a new team and surroundings, and no adaptation period.

Franco Di Santo: 7 — A big number for Franco, who has scored some well-taken goals, continued to put in the hard work, and been rewarded with an Argentina call-up.

By Area

Defence (including Al-Habsi): 6.76

Centre of Defence (without Al-Habsi): 6.55 — weakest

Centre of Midfield: 6.99 — strongest

Wingbacks: 6.61

Attack: 6.93

On probation: Latics quarter-season report card

Technically, we’re one and a half matches late for a quarter-season analysis. Like most Latics supporters, I tend to need a few days to recover from the latest loss. Fulham and Wolves took a bit longer than usual. But along came the international break, allowing me the space and time to cycle through all five stages of grief — denial, anger, bargaining, depression, acceptance — and a new one, faith-based optimism. Warning: this final stage may set you up for another round of the previous. But what if it doesn’t?

I’ll stop short of predicting a turning point in our season this Saturday against Blackburn, as I’ve made that mistake before. But it certainly seems an appropriate time to look back at our disastrous start and assess the individuals involved in it. First, we’ve averaged each player’s match performance ratings this season (which are admittedly subjective and only based on those given by Los Three Amigos writers, but serve as an interesting starting point for discussion). There are some surprises in there, but all interesting and insightful. For instance, defying all emotion, the struggling Gary Caldwell scores the same as reliable Emmerson Boyce. But while Emmerson has been steady and Gary Caldwell poor of late, it was the latter that scored highest (8) points in matches against Swansea and Newcastle. We try to make sense of it all below:

Player Ratings

Ali Al-Habsi: 7.1 — With Moses, our best regular performer. His score would have been higher but for the costly mistake against Norwich on day one, which cost the team 2 points, and probably cost Ali at least 0.2 in this assessment.

Emmerson Boyce: 6.2 — Our most consistent defender, the only one we seem to be able to rely on. He’s one of the few players who seems to be improving as the season goes along. Had a tough day at Villa but otherwise 6s and 7s.

Gary Caldwell: 6.2 — On the whole has looked slow and past it. But he had a couple cracking games, versus Swansea and Newcastle away, defending well and displaying the qualities you look for in a captain. A lot of fans have made him something of a scapegoat, but Roberto has asked a lot of him. So far, he’s had Lopez, Gohouri, Boyce, Alcaraz and Figueroa partner him — five players in 11 matches. The central defensive partnership is the most important on the field and has been completely disrupted. It is telling that his best performances came with Alcaraz/Boyce at Swansea, and then Alcaraz at Newcastle.

Antolin Alcaraz: 6 — Missed the opening part of the season to injury and will miss the next three matches for spitting at an opponent. Started poorly against Bolton, looked good in a couple, then brought shame on himself and the club with the spitting incident at Molineaux. A shame, since he’s the club’s best centre back.

Maynor Figueroa: 6.2 — Was given a few generous ratings when filling in at centre back. Has looked low on confidence recently, his attacking is better than his defending and goals often start down his side. Recently admitted to an Honduran newspaper that he is not in a good moment of form.

Ronnie Stam: 6 — Largely limited to substitute appearances, has done reasonably well when he has come on, but isn’t the solution. Not good enough going forward to be a winger, not good enough at defending to be a right back.

Patrick Van Aanholt: 7 — Was excellent against Everton when Maynor Figueroa was pushed inside, but has since featured very little.

Adrian Lopez: 4.75 — Latics’ lowest rated performer largely thanks to a nightmare against Norwich on opening day. Looks uncomfortable whenever he plays.

Steve Gohouri: 5 — A bit of a nightmare season for him. Sent off trying to mark Gareth Bale, then gave away the crucial goal against Bolton on his return, and looked wobbly at centre half. He’ll need to improve if he remains there throughout Alcaraz’s suspension.

Ben Watson: 6.7 — Consistent. Latics problems have not been in the midfield passing department. Truly masterful against Newcastle — my favourite performance of anyone in a Wigan shirt this season — but otherwise in the 6 and 7s. The question still lingers: is he best-suited to that deep midfield role?  If he tackles like he did at St. James Park yes, if not, no.

Mo Diame: 6.7 — Started slowly but has grown into the season, scored a couple very well taken goals, and looks our best midfielder.

James McCarthy: 5.5 — We expect more. Was probably playing with niggles in the early part of the season, before getting more seriously injured and losing his place to Dave Jones. Lets hope the spell on the sidelines has allowed him to heal. His performances were a catalyst in the team’s turnaround last year, we’ll hope he can do the same this time around.

Dave Jones: 6.9 — Highest-rated midfielder, although he has played fewer matches than the others. He has injected energy and intelligence into the midfield, with four of his five performances 7s.

Jordi Gomez: 6.5 — Started the season well, with an excellent performance at Swansea. But eventually lost his place and hasn’t been seen since.

James McArthur: 5.9 — Hasn’t let the team down in his substitute appearances, but also hasn’t provided much that the other midfielders at the club didn’t already.

Victor Moses: 7.1 — If he’d scored a few goals by now we’d be raving about him. (We’d also not be bottom of the league). His dribbling, pace and strength are unplayable. But his final pass, cross or shot lets him down every time. Is too young and raw to be playing such a crucial role at the club, though he has been extremely unlucky, hitting the post about 4-5 times.

Albert Crusat: 6.4 — Has looked lively in his five appearances, good pace and touch, but needs someone to get on the end of his crosses. Doesn’t seem direct enough to score himself.

Shaun Maloney: 7.5 — His rating is based on a cameo at Villa Park, during which he immediately changed the way the team attacked. Other appearances have been so brief they went unrated. Would like to see more of him.

Hugo Rodallega: 5.9 — Has gotten worse and worse. Desperately needs a goal, but chances won’t come easier than the one he missed at Wolves last week. Are contract talks affecting his form? Frustrating to watch at the moment.

Franco Di Santo: 6.8 — Has played well this season as the lone frontman, but all three goals have come from deflections, and he never seems to be in the right place at the right time. Would probably gel very well with Hugo in a 4-4-2, but we know that’s probably not going to happen.

Conor Sammon: 6 —  10 minutes here and 10 minutes there, hard to judge him. But he certainly deserves his chance. His pace, energy and heart lift the stadium when he comes on.

Conclusions

The exercise has confirmed the obvious. Our defense has been unsettled and inconsistent. The club’s goalscorer is having a bad season. And the man we were banking on to match Charles N’Zogbia’s contribution has played well, but not produced the numbers the Frenchman did. Last season, Hugo and Charlie shared the burden of scoring our goals. But neither Hugo nor Victor Moses has scored this season. Sure, the defense has not played well — but by far the bigger concern is at the other end of the pitch.

Goals conceded, per match, this season: 1.8

Goals conceded, per match, last season: 1.6

Goals scored, per match, this season: 0.63

Goals scored, per match, last season: 1.05

2011-2012 Season Preview

Quiet Summer: It has been far and away the quietest summer in the club’s Premier League history in terms of transfers, with Charles N’Zogbia the only high profile player out (Aston Villa, 9.5 million) and Ali Al-Habsi the only high profile arrival (Bolton, 4 million). Several players have been released and a couple have come in on free transfers, more on that later, but the relative stability in the squad, particularly given their youth, can only be a good thing. As disappointing as N’Zogbia’s transfer fee was (when you consider Stewart Downing went for 20 million), he wanted out, and it should pay the wages for another year. Such is the unfortunate reality for a small, though fast growing club like Wigan. Attendances and shirt sales are not going to cover the wage bill until that stadium is full and the club shop ships outside the UK. But the young support base is growing, and growing up, so if the team can hang on to Premier League status on this business model, the future is bright. And with talents like James McCarthy, Victor Moses, and Mohammed Diame at the club, you can be sure there will be some big fees coming the club’s way for some time to come.

Roberto Stays: Despite the quiet summer on the player front, Latics were at the center of the one of the biggest summer stories when Roberto decided to turn down Aston Villa’s approach, saying his job was not done at Wigan. Having spent two seasons weeding out the misfits from the Bruce era (my words not his), imposing his style of play, planning for the future and vastly improving the reserve and youth teams, he wanted to stick around and see it through. It is very rare to see a player or manager in football display such loyalty toward a club, particularly one with limited financial resources. It is testament to the genuine relationship Martinez has developed with Dave Whelan and the club itself since his arrival in 1995 as one of the Three Amigos. Even back then, he spoke glowingly of Mr. Whelan.

Players Out: Charles N’Zogbia (Aston Villa), Stephen Caldwell (Birmingham), Antonio Amaya (Real Betis), Jason Koumas, Daniel De Ridder, Mauro Boselli (Estudiantes, loan)
Of the permanent departures, only N’Zogbia and Stephen Caldwell played a match last season. The big Scot stood in for his brother and Antonlin Alcaraz, and will be fondly remembered for his professional performances at centre back, but was always more a stop-gap than long-term solution. He’ll get a lot more football for Birmingham in the Championship. Expect young Spaniard Roman Golobart to take his place in the squad as fourth choice center-back, behind Caldwell Jr., Alcaraz, Gohouri. Mauro Boselli heads back to the club where he made his name in Argentina on a one-year loan after a disappointing season in England and Italy. I would love to see him return to Wigan and succeed, but it looks more likely he is on his way out.

Players In: Ali Al-Habsi (Bolton), Dave Jones (Wolves), Nouha Dicko (Strasbourg)
Bringing in Al-Habsi permanently will be hugely important if the team is to carry over its momentum from last season. Save for his one blunder at Man City last year, he was probably the best keeper in the league. The fans love him, and he seems to love being at the club. Money well spent. Dave Jones, released by Wolves after they failed to agree a new contract, could prove to be a very astute signing. A left-footed, cultured central midfielder, I could see him easily slotting into the midfield triangle in the attacking role usually occupied by either Mohammed Diame or James McCarthy, when needed. Here’s a cracker he scored for Wolves last year. Apparently he looked right at home in the 3-1 win against Preston. The Wolves fans love him. “Great footballer, nothing left to say” and “Good player with a nice creative streak, good delivery and an eye for goal” were comments on TeamTalk.com after he signed for Wigan. Finally, the unfortunately named Nouha Dicko, who has been on trial at the club in recent weeks and looks to be coming in on a free after Strasbourg were forced to release their players due to financial difficulties. We don’t know too much about him, except he’s a French 19-year-old forward (probably destined to play on one of the wings ala N’Zogbia/Cleverley last year), and Roberto describes him as he does Victor Moses — “a player with that rare special talent.” Lets hope he’s unearthed another gem.

Still Missing: Two forwards, or at least one. With both N’Zogbia and Cleverley gone, the team only has one natural player for that position, Victor Moses. I think we need at least one established modern winger/forward, and another promising player to come off the bench (perhaps that is Dicko, or Callum McManaman). There are still rumors about Sean Wright-Phillips, although one tends to think he will opt for bigger wages or “bigger clubs” in Bolton or Sunderland. Other rumors gone by are the Paraguayan Haedo Valdez and Tranquilo Barnetta, from Switzerland, Mexicans Pablo Barrera and Gio Dos Santos, all of whom would have been excellent but seem to have fallen by the wayside. Valdez wanted to stay in Spain, Barnetta suffered an injury, Dos Santos is probably too big a fish after his big summer at the Gold Cup and Copa America, and West Ham have held on to Barrera. Carlos Vela’s agent recently said he might be sent out on loan again and could be a good option. Watch this space.

Starting Lineup: Assuming James McCarthy is fit and Rodallega and Alcaraz are cleared after their summer exertions at the Copa America, I would assume Roberto will go with the same players that finished last season (with Moses in for N’Zogbia). Al-Habsi; Figueroa, Alcaraz, Caldwell, Boyce; Watson, McCarthy, Diame; Rodallega, Sammon, Moses. I could see him opting for Di Santo rather than Sammon based on pre-season match lineups.

Norwich Prediction: The starting lineup will be very similar to the XI that learned a hard lesson against Blackpool last season. I don’t think they will make the same mistake again. Newly promoted teams are very tough opponents in the first quarter of the season (Latics face all three of them in the first three matches). But Latics have a lot more quality than Norwich, and they know what to expect. Tight, but I think Wigan wins this one.

Season Prediction: After coming so close last season with N’Zogbia, it’s hard to say with any confidence that this season will be better without him. But I think it will. There is stability at the club. Young players coming through, improving. This time last season, the captain was injured, best player on strike, and there were a number of new faces, players who had never played with each other or in the English league. The team now has an established style, defensive consistency, and they work for each other. Plus the league is, in my opinion, less even. The top teams have strengthened but none of the promoted teams have the quality that West Ham or Birmingham had, and squads like Wolves and Blackburn remain unconvincing. Mid-tablers like Villa and Newcastle, that Latics will be targeting, look weaker. That said, the fixture list has been brutal. Playing the promoted teams in the first three fixtures is tough, but playing Arsenal, Liverpool, Chelsea and Man Utd in the month of December is criminal. We all know Wigan is not the most fashionable and doesn’t make the league or sponsors buckets of money, but the fixture list this year certainly smells fishy. So — I think it will be another battle, if less dramatic than last year. I expect a more consistent season, rather than a season of two halves. 15th. 13th if a top quality player like Wright-Phillips arrives.

New Kits / Nuevos Uniformes

Home, Away, and Third

Sharp looking home kit, the first solid blue shirt in the top flight. Not convinced by the away kit, though that may be the choice of model. I mean I like Ben Watson, but he wasn’t made for modeling. Third kit not bad though. I might be wrong, but isn’t this the first time the club has had a third kit?

Los nuevos uniformes del Wigan para el año 2011-2012. Primera vez desde que se ascendió a la Premier League que se juega con un azul sólido. ¿Que piensan?