Gomez and Maloney: wingers or playmakers?

How did Wigan Athletic stay up last season? Was that incredible late run due to a tactical transformation? Or was it due to new players coming in and changing things? The acquisition of a specialist left wing back – Jean Beausejour in January – certainly helped the system flow more effectively. However, if you were to ask a room full of Latics supporters which player made the biggest difference the answer would surely be Shaun Maloney.

Maloney’s season had not really started until he came on as a substitute against Norwich in March 2012. He put through a fantastic pass to Victor Moses to get the goal that earned an invaluable point at Carrow Road. Following that match, his ex-Celtic colleague , Gary Caldwell, dubbed Maloney as “Our Secret Weapon” quoting that “He picks up the ball in the final third and he can either beat his man and he can pick out that killer ball – like you saw with the goal.” Caldwell was proved to be right.

Maloney was later to score the Latics’ goal of the season to defeat Manchester United. His ice cool penalty in the victory over Liverpool at Anfield sticks in the memory, as does his cutting in from the left and putting a brilliant narrow angled finish in the 4-0 drubbing of Newcastle. But more than the goals he scored it was that role as a “playmaker”, linking between defence and attack that helped transform the quality of football Latics were able to play.

Maloney had come to Wigan following  a difficult final period at Celtic. His career had been blighted with injury. Moreover he had been struck by homesickness during his previous spell in the Premier League — at Aston Villa in 2007-2008. These factors made it unlikely that a Premier League team would come for him, until Roberto Martinez knocked on his door. During his two spells at Parkhead he had won five SPL Championships, Scottish Cups and three Scottish League Cups. His acquisition by Wigan Athletic is summer of 2011 was therefore a calculated gamble. For the first half of the season, he made four appearances as a substitute and played in two awful team performances in the FA and League Cups. Fitness remained the issue. It was through sheer hard work and dedication that Maloney got back to a level of fitness that would help him be able to showpiece his skills in the Premier League.

Wigan Athletic’s starting lineup last Saturday included both Jordi Gomez and Shaun Maloney. Normally, only one of them makes the starting lineup, with the other coming on as a substitute. Both are playmakers, who need to receive a lot of the ball to be effective. However, each has learned during his time at the club that defensive duties are also required. Neither is a natural tackler but they both do their share in trying to win the ball back. Both cover huge amounts of ground during a match. Both are cool penalty takers. Both score goals which are not from the penalty spot.

Jordi Gomez is a player who divides Latics fans. He is derided by those “Darksiders” who prefer more the more traditional English approach of “up and at ‘em” . The fans who appreciate him will say he is a skilful player who can bring order to a game through his cultured technique, keeping the ball while under pressure and drawing fouls. I have heard it said that we will never see how good Gomez can be until Latics are playing the level of skilful football that Roberto Martinez seeks. We have seen some really magic moments from Gomez during his time at Wigan. At Arsenal in April he put through the pass that sent Di Santo through to score then got an opportunist goal himself. He has been unlucky so many times with fine efforts that have hit the woodwork – last Saturday against Fulham was another example.

How do the playmakers – Gomez and Maloney – fit into the current tactical system? Are they wingers or central midfielders? Can they play together?

Maloney still finds it difficult to complete 90 minutes. Gomez is the natural replacement. Their styles differ greatly. Maloney will dribble with the ball more than Gomez who will seek the wall pass more frequently. Gomez does not have the pace or dribbling capacity to be a winger. When played wide on the right he inevitably turns towards the middle where he is going to be more comfortable and effective. However, he is not afraid to shoot – he has a good technique and can hit the target. Maloney was used mainly as a left winger by Aston Villa. Although right-footed he can cross the ball with his left foot. He can dribble past defenders and cause danger. However, it is when they move into the “hole” in midfield – behind the central striker- that both Gomez and Maloney are most effective.

Playing Gomez and Maloney together is unlikely to be effective because their basic function is too similar. They are players who make themselves available to receive the ball, providing the link between defence and attack. Both are good players. Let’s not forget that David Jones can also play in that position and is a capable and creative player. He added the incision in the Capital One victory at West Ham last night.

Let’s play the playmakers in their natural position in central midfield, ahead of the holding midfielders, but behind the forwards. Martinez has done well to adjust the tactical system following the loss of Victor Moses. The presence of two big central and pacy strikers is a real plus. There remains the possibility of playing without the central playmaker and having two wide players supporting the central striker. Well done, Roberto, in being open-minded towards further tactical innovation. But please – let’s not see Gomez and Maloney playing wide, flanking a single centre forward.

Wigan Athletic 0 Chelsea 2: Fatal five minutes mask a promising display

There was a time, not long ago, when conceding two goals in the first few minutes against a top six side almost guaranteed a hammering. Indeed, Chelsea have inflicted two such high-scoring morale wreckers in the last three years. Say what you will about the first five minutes in yesterday’s season opener, this team is lights years ahead of where it was, even a single year ago.

If you’d picked up the match seven minutes in (and ignored the scoreboard), you would have witnessed a pleasing first-half display of cultured possession football. Crosses were flying in from both sides of the pitch, Victor Moses was enjoying himself, the midfield looked comfortable, and but for a heavy first touch, Di Santo might have scored.

Unfortunately, as Roberto did in his post-match interviews, we must acknowledge those hapless opening exchanges. The match had barely gotten underway when Eden Hazard skilfully — but all too easily — turned Ivan Ramis near the midfield circle and found Branislav Ivanovic with a perfect through ball down the right wing. Chased by Figueroa, who was playing at left wing-back rather than his customary left centre-back position due to an injury to Jean Beausejour, the Chelsea fullback finished coolly past Al-Habsi to make it 1-0. Moments later, Chelsea’s marquee summer signing was causing panic once again, tempting Ramis into a lunge in the penalty box. Referee Mike Jones pointed to the spot and Frank Lampard rarely misses.

It was a tough start for the Spanish centre-back, who is not only adapting to a new country and culture, but a new tactical system with three centre-backs, and faster pace of play. All only a week or so after joining the club, and against the defending European Champions. Midfielders and strikers often get the benefit of being given 15-20 minutes at the end of the match to bed in, as new Ivorian striker Arouna Koné did later on. For Ramis, it was straight into the fire. But he improved as the game went on, and indeed cleared off the line brilliantly to deny Fernando Torres a second-half goal. Despite the mistakes — which were not characteristic of his game in Spain — he showed enough to suggest that once adapted, he will be a good addition.

Jean Beausejour missed his first match through injury since signing for the club in January. In his place, Maynor Figueroa performed well enough to suggest we now have cover, not only for the three centre-back positions, but for the wing-backs on both sides as well. Emmerson Boyce, down the right, was great and just seems to get better with age.

Much of Wigan’s momentum was lost when Shaun Maloney had to be withdrawn with a groin injury early in the second half. Roberto has since admitted both Maloney and MacArthur were taken off with little niggles as a precaution rather than due to serious injuries. Jordi Gomez, Maloney’s replacement, drew fouls and got himself in good positions, but ultimately failed with his finishing. Ben Watson, on for MacArthur, looked a little rusty but is a fine option from the bench. Neither of them filled the void left by Maloney, who along with Moses, has become our creative spark.

Things started to turn Chelsea’s way and a third goal looked likely. But some exciting end-to-end stuff produced Ramis’ aforementioned goal-line clearance and a surging Victor Moses run and cross down the other end. By then Arouna Koné had come on for his Wigan debut, and showed great promise with a trio of decent half-chances. He immediately appeared to have what Di Santo lacks — the movement and instincts necessary to know where to be when a cross comes into the box. Di Santo has just about everything else, but seldom gets on the end of crosses to head, poke, prod, or hammer home.

Wigan finished the match in the ascendancy and were quite unlucky not to emerge goalless. The usual questions will emerge about profligacy in front of goal, but Chelsea won the Champions League on the back of excellent defending (and a healthy slice of luck). They are not easy to break down.

All things considered, this was an encouraging performance. News outlets have of course focused on Hazard and Chelsea’s exciting new strikeforce, but Latics enjoyed more possession, created 15 goal attempts to Chelsea’s six, seven corners to the visitors’ one. The boys played in much the same way they ended last season — minus the defensive intensity in those first few minutes — and the news signings got a game under their belts.

Southampton promises to be a tricky fixture after their near-miss at the Etihad on Sunday. But if we play the way we did for 80 minutes, we’ll be in with a good chance to notch our first points of the season. Stay tuned for The Good, The Bad and Player Ratings, coming soon.

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.

 

Fulham vs. Wigan Athletic: In-form Latics visit bogey team Fulham

There are no two ways about it — Fulham are a pain in the neck. The last time we beat them was in 2006. They signed Clint Dempsey the following year, and he has feasted on us since. It’s not a case of outplaying or outclassing us, it’s just that no matter the manager from Hodgson to Hughes to Jol, their keeper always has a man-of-the-match performance, and their striker — usually the Texan — can’t miss.

Present circumstances promise for this to be quite an interesting iteration. Wigan are in dreamland, having produced their best every Premier League displays to earn wins over Liverpool, Stoke, Manchester United and Arsenal in their last five games. Fulham meanwhile, are about where you would expect them to be, playing well at home, dropping points on the road, but doing it with a pleasant continental style Martin Jol has brought to Craven Cottage. While classy Costa Rican striker Bryan Ruiz is out with a broken metatarsal and both Andrew Johnson and Pavel Pogrebnyak are doubtful with injuries, Clint Dempsey is enjoying his best ever season with 21 goals to his name and will likely start up front. Which could be trouble.

Hugo Rodallega and Shaun Maloney should be fit to make their comebacks, which should prove timely boosts given the exhausting fixture list Latics have just come through against the traditional top four and the most physical side in the league, Stoke City. Roberto said last year that one of the keys to the club’s survival run was their youth and endurance when the going got tough. The midfield engines of the Jimmy Macs and attacking outlets Victor Moses and Franco Di Santo have certainly provided evidence to that claim.

One would expect Roberto to name an unchanged lineup after the away day heroics at the Emirates. If he does, a bench involving people like Mo Diame, Shaun Maloney, Ronnie Stam, Ben Watson and Hugo Rodallega must surely go down as the strongest in the club’s history. Albert Crusat would be there too if he hadn’t suffered an injury in training before the Arsenal match.

But it’s a difficult one to call, this one. The amazing results against United and Arsenal have eased the pressure on this game, and although the players and manager are all saying the right things about maintaining the same level of intensity, it is hard to imagine that being possible against Fulham, away. But our Wigan heroes have done nothing if not earn the benefit of the doubt from us, their supporters. Long may this glorious form continue.

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.