Is it time to break up a winning team?

With just four points from the opening six matches, this is Wigan Athletic’s worst start to a Premier League season. There was a win at Southampton, a home draw with Stoke, losses at home to Chelsea and Fulham and losses away at Manchester United and Sunderland. Despite our pre-season optimism, Latics are back in the dog fight zone, needing to scrap it out yet again. Where do we go from here? Is it time for the team that beat Arsenal, Liverpool and Manchester United within the space of a few weeks to be dismantled and rebuilt?

We started the season with optimism largely because of the fantastic achievements of the “great escape team”, but also because it looked like we had more strength in depth than ever before. Two excellent performances in the League Cup attest to that, with the “fringe” players staking their claims, although they have not yet come into fruition. Interesting to note how Liverpool have been bold enough to bring in exciting, if unproven, youngsters to arrest the lack of performance by too many of their senior professionals. Their 5-2 win at Norwich this weekend attests to the virtue of trying something new if the formula  is not working.

So is it time for fresh blood to be brought in or should Martinez stick with those players who performed miracles in keeping us up last season? So far Martinez has shown loyalty to those players, following the maxim of “Don’t break up a winning team”.

Callum McManaman first made an appearance in the Premier League under Steve Bruce in May 2009, as a substitute against Portsmouth. Since then he has been started in cup ties but has been limited to a handful of substitute appearances in the Premier League. Throughout his time at Wigan he has been the outstanding performer for the reserve team and did well on loan at Blackpool in first part of last season. He has been capped four times for England at under 20 level. He showed us his excellent technique with a beautifully taken goal in the recent League Cup game at Nottingham Forest. It was the kind of finishing rarely seen from a Wigan Athletic player in recent years. Mauro Boselli has scored three opportunist goals in the League Cup, his second against West Ham showing a touch of class and arrogance. Eager to keep himself sharp he asked the manager to give him a couple games for the under 21 team, first scoring a late equalizer and then a winner. Ryo Miyaichi is an exciting young player, with electrifying pace. All three have been limited to substitute appearances so far. Ronnie Stam is an excellent attacking wing back, if not as strong defensively as Emmerson Boyce. He has not even been appearing on the bench. All these players merit strong consideration for a place in the starting lineup.

So is it time for a real shake-up – to bring in fresh blood who can energise the team? Martinez’ approach over these years has tended to be cautious, packing the midfield when the team is not doing well. On Saturday Wigan Athletic played with a lone centre forward: a conservative line-up. Jordi Gomez was once again chosen to play in the nominal right wing position. Far too often Gomez is played in a wide role that does not suit his game. He usually ends up either turning inside or passing the ball backwards. More on that here. To be frank, I think it is unfair on Gomez to have him play wide on the right. A couple of years ago we would regularly see Hugo Rodallega being played wide on the left, a position for which he was unsuited. Rodallega was a central striker, never a winger. The end result was a loss of form by the player.

To be fair on Martinez there have been injury problems that have disrupted the rhythm of his first choice lineup. Antolin Alcaraz has only played twice, while Jean Beausejour and James McArthur have struggled to reach full fitness. Alcaraz’s absence was crucial in last season’s poor start as well. The Paraguayan is not only a good defender, but his understanding with the other centre backs is not to be under estimated. Add to that the absence of Franco Di Santo, a bright light at the beginning of the season, missing the Fulham and West Ham matches, coming on as a substitute on Saturday. Moreover there has been a dip in form by senior professionals, Gary Caldwell and Emmerson Boyce. Neither has performed anywhere near the levels they displayed near the end of last season. Arouna Kone has come in and showed his willingness to make a success of that difficult lone centre forward position. He has scored two goals so far and got into good positions on other occasions, if some of his finishing has been disappointing. Ivan Ramis is gradually settling in to the centre of defence after a nightmare start in the opening game against Chelsea. His terrific goal at West Ham last week will surely boost his confidence.

Martinez has a dilemma. He has players knocking on the door who merit an opportunity. On the other hand he does not want to tamper with what had been a winning formula. Having Alcaraz, Beausejour and McArthur fully fit again would certainly help matters. However, underperforming players need to get the message that they are not automatically selected. A shake-up, even if it is a little one, might benefit the team.

Norwich City 1 Wigan Athletic 1 – Good, but not good enough?

Was this going to be the turning point in our season? It’s the 85th minute, all equal at 1-1, Wigan Athletic dominating and Norwich on the back foot. Mohamed Diame has just come on as a substitute. Shaun Maloney skillfully beats the right-back and plays a lovely ball across from the left, leaving an open goal for him. Diame somehow kicks it over the bar.

It was an all-too-familiar pattern. So many times this season Latics have been the better team but have not been able to kill off the opposition. The result — Latics remain in the mire, glued to the bottom, with very difficult fixtures against top teams fast approaching. Norwich continue to punch above their weight, 15 points ahead of Latics this season with a squad that is certainly no better than ours. They seem to be experts at getting goals out of the blue, as did Hoolahan in the 10th minute when he somehow got a poke of the ball ahead of Caldwell from a speculative cross. In the 68th minute, Victor Moses had leveled the score after latching on to a lovely through ball from Shaun Maloney, finishing with aplomb. A far cry from the wretched finishing we have seen from him in previous games. One of our two main strikers, he has now scored 3 goals in 28 appearances. The other striker on the day was Hugo Rodallaga, energetic and involved,  going close on several occasions. He has scored 2 in 22, although half of those appearances were made as a substitute. But goalscoring is not merely in the strikers’ domain. The midfield sadly lacked a goalscoring touch in this match, Diame the main culprit on more than one occasion, but he was not alone in his profligacy.

Match statistics show that Wigan enjoyed 55% of the possession and committed 8 fouls to Norwich’s 12. Although it was not a rough match, each team ended the match with four yellow cards. Wigan had 20 shots (7 on goal) to Norwich’s 14 (2 on goal). Ruddy made 6 saves, Al Habsi just one, thought it was a brilliant one, keeping out a goal-bound header from Morison in the last minute.

The Good

Latics did not lose and played with some degree of confidence. They were clearly trying to win, rather than not to lose. They showed commitment and played some good football in an entertaining match.

The substitution of an ineffective Gomez for Maloney brought forth a much more creative midfield. Maloney was a risky signing over the summer, given his previous injury record. In this match he looked classy and for once Wigan had a midfield player who could put forward a defence splitting pass. The question is whether he can stay fit long enough to make a real impact on the end of the season.

The Bad

This was a point gained, but in reality two points lost. You have to be able to beat lower mid table teams like Norwich if you want to maintain your Premier League status. Three points were needed. Perhaps if we had beaten Everton, Swansea or Blackburn at home, this result could have been viewed as a success. But our poor home form has meant we need maximum points from all fixtures against teams mid-table or lower.

The lack of finishing tarnished an otherwise good performance. Rodallega continues to struggle with his finishing and none of the big clubs is going to want him on current form, even as a free agent. If Diame was a better finisher a top tier club would have paid serious money for him several transfer windows ago. He has huge potential, but is out of contract at the end of the season. Much though I admire his skill and technique he has repeatedly wasted goalscoring opportunities in his stay at Wigan and rarely puts through the killer pass for his strikers. The irony is that he is only 24 and we will probably only see him at his best when he goes to another team and matures there.

Much of the Wigan fans’ frustration continues to be vented at Jordi Gomez. For several matches now he has been below par, but has still made the starting lineup. Roberto Martinez’s shows a lot of faith in players, Gomez in particular. However, there comes a point at which you need to make some changes. Given current form Gomez does not merit a place in the starting lineup.

Our best wing back, Ronnie Stam, has been noticeably absent from recent lineups. Playing Emmerson Boyce at right wing back gives us more defensive strength and this could be key in the matches coming up against the top teams. However, against mid range teams Stam’s attacking skills should be used to effect. Why was he not brought on against Norwich?

Player Ratings

Ali Al Habsi: 7 – An outstanding save in the last minute saved a point. Otherwise solid.

Emmerson Boyce: 7 – Solid in defence but limited going forward.

Antolin Alcaraz: 8 – Back to form, looks a good player again.

Gary Caldwell: 7 – Playing well at the moment, although shares some blame for Norwich’s goal.

Maynor Figueroa: 8 – A good performance. Seems to play better as a third centre back than as a left full back where his distribution can let him down.

Jean Beausejour: 5 – Not his usual self. Apparently he was carrying a slight injury, sustained during the warm-up.

James McCarthy: 7 – Worked hard in front of the defence, but still not showing the kind of attacking flair we need. It is time he got on the scoresheet. Taken off after 85 minutes.

James McArthur: 7 – Worked hard as usual in closing the opposition down and putting through passes.

Jordi Gomez: 4 – Poor, justifiably taken off after 56 minutes for Shaun Maloney.

Victor Moses: 8 –. Played well, taking his goal beautifully and causing headaches for the Norwich defence.

Hugo Rodallega: 6 – Energetic enough but let down once again by poor finishing.

Substitutes

Shaun Maloney: 9 – Provided the kind of midfield creativity that has been sadly lacking previously this season. His passes should have led to more goals.

Mohamed Diame: – Came on after 85 minutes for McCarthy and immediately involved. Went on a fantastic mazy run only to trickle his shot into the keeper’s hands. Then had an empty net to tap into, but put the ball over the bar. Should have won the match for Wigan.

WIGAN ATHLETIC 0 MANCHESTER CITY 1 – A VALIANT DISPLAY FROM LATICS

A valiant display by Wigan Athletic, but in the end not enough to share the points. It was heartening to see the amount of fight and conviction shown by the Latics against a team way beyond their league in resources and sheer footballing talent. This was certainly no capitulation: no player could be faulted for effort from my viewpoint.

Latics switched their tactical lineup to the old 4-2-1-3 system, with Albert Crusat coming in on the left wing and James McArthur brought in to play the holding midfield role with James McCarthy. Mohamed Diame was absent on Senegal duty and David Jones out injured. Manchester City played Dzeko and Aguero up front and they were to give the Latics central defenders, Caldwell and Alcaraz, a very testing afternoon.

The first 20 minutes or so were really quite open with Wigan attacking with some verve and City promising, but not quite delivering. There was a warning sign after 10 minutes when a cross from Clichy found Dzeko unmarked, but luckily for Wigan he headed wide. It was therefore no surprise when he scored an opportunist header in the 22nd minute from Silva’s free kick. Neither Caldwell nor Alcaraz were close enough to challenge him in his leap. It was a pity to lose a goal like that because Latics had played some good football and had some half chances. Al Habsi made a great save from the dangerous Aguero as the first half was coming to an end.

The first part of the second half saw increasing City pressure, only the excellence of Al Habsi keeping them out. His double saves from Aguero, then from Silva, were absolutely outstanding. Not long after that Aguero skated through the Wigan defence, but somehow Dzeko got in his way and Wigan were let off the hook. Despite this pressure Wigan had still not thrown in the towel and seemed to grow in confidence. Watson and Di Santo were brought on to replace the tiring McArthur and Crusat and Wigan began to attack with some gusto. Their best effort came when a fine pass by Rodallega put McCarthy through, only for his cross shot to be blocked by Hart’s foot.

In the 88th minute Maynor Figueroa deliberately handled the ball when Aguero would have been clean through. He was fortunate to escape with a yellow card, although much has been made in the press since of Mancini’s cynical waving of the imaginary red card at the refereeing team. Mancini should have no complaints about the refereeing: practically every time City went down they got a foul whereas they were not afraid to stifle any attacking intent from Latics with tactical/professional fouling. City average over 12 fouls per game this season, significantly higher than those other clubs in the top six. The match stats read 17 fouls committed by Wigan and 15 by City, but those figures could have been easily reversed given the number of calls he made for 50-50 challenges, almost all of which went against Latics. Both teams finished with 3 yellow cards.

The Good

Martinez showed tactical flexibility in reverting to the old system and the lineup was well balanced. He played with three front players plus Jordi Gomez in the hole behind the centre forward. A bold move against such formidable opposition. Latics played some good football at times and, with luck, could have snatched a result in the last 20 minutes. There was certainly no capitulation and they were taking the game to City in that last quarter of the match. A spirited performance.

The Bad

The defence looked leaky throughout, despite really gritty efforts from the back four to hold back the floodgates. Having said that Dzeko and Aguero are two of the best strikers in the league and are going to cause problems for any defence. However, failing to challenge Dzeko in the air led to one goal and it was lucky it was not two in the first half.

Player Ratings

Ali Al Habsi: 9 – Another superb display. Kept Latics in the game with outstanding saves.

Ronnie Stam: 5 – Has been outstanding in recent games as a wing back, but in this game he had to revert to full back, where he struggles.

Antolin Alcaraz: 4 – The poorest game I have seen him play for Latics. We rely on him to win the ball in the air and he did not do it enough in this match.

Gary Caldwell: 4 – At times looked out of his depth. Tends to really struggle against the quality strikers of the top teams.

Maynor Figueroa: 5 – Not one of his best days, but as always he hung in there and tried his hardest. Lucky not to be sent off.

James McCarthy: 8 – Worked tirelessly in shielding his defence from the City onslaught, showing good skills. Good to see him getting forward, unlucky with his shot on goal in the second half.

James McArthur: 6 – The perennial substitute was given a starting role in the Premier League for only the second time this year. Given his lack of match practice he did a pretty good job. Although he misplaced some passes he did a lot of solid defensive work and put some nice balls forward. Showed his technique with a good snap-shot in the first half.

Jordi Gomez: 7 – Worked hard to try to engineer Latics attacks. Put in some nice touches and covered a lot of ground.

Victor Moses: 5 – Was too greedy in this match, too many times opting to dribble when teammates were in better positions awaiting a pass.

Hugo Rodallega: 7 – Worked tirelessly as the lone centre forward. Gradually regaining his form.

Albert Crusat: 6 – Hardly got the ball. Looked good when he had it. Showing improvement in the defensive side of his game.

Substitutes

Ben Watson: – Surprising to see McArthur preferred to him in the starting line-up. Did a useful job after coming on in the 68th minute.

Franco Di Santo – Tried hard but to no end result after coming on in the 68th minute.

Callum McNamaman – Only came on in the last 10 minutes and had little chance to shine.

STOKE CITY 2 WIGAN ATHLETIC 2: A HARD EARNED POINT

Ben Watson made a welcome reappearance off the bench to salvage a well deserved point for Latics. A 10 man Latics team were trailing 2-1 when Hugo Rodallega was pulled down in the penalty box. The usual penalty taker, Jordi Gomez, had already been substituted so Martinez had a tough decision to make. It turned out to be an inspired decision, Watson hitting home the penalty with aplomb after being pulled off the bench to take it.

As expected Latics had to withstand the usual aerial bombardment from Stoke with multiple long throws form Rory Delap, although the wing backs did well in keeping in check the dangerous wingers, Pennant and Etherington. The stats tell us that Stoke only had two shots on target the whole game, whereas Wigan had six. Moreover Ali Al Habsi did not have a direct shot to save whereas Stoke’s Sorensen had four, although Wigan had a slice of luck in the 60th minute when a header from Huth hit the post and fell into al Habsi’s welcoming arms. In between the aerial bombardment we saw the usual ruthless tackling from Stoke, with Latics getting minimal protection from the referee. Victor Moses in particularly was heavily marked.

Latics had taken the lead in the 45th minute after Ronnie Stam fed Hugo Rodallega who put in a low cross from the right wing for Victor Moses to score with clinical precision. Stoke restarted in the second half in their usual style –or lack of it – with further aerial bombardment. The ineffective Etherington was taken off in the 73rd minute to be replaced by Cameron Jerome, who had an immediate effect. His 77th minute header was going towards goal to be blocked by a flayling hand by Gary Caldwell. Jonathan Walters scored the penalty and Caldwell was sent off. In Caldwell’s absence Jerome scored a beautifully taken second, running through from a flick-on to score. However, the 10 man Latics refused to give up and got their just rewards through Watson’s equalizing penalty in the 87th minute.

What a pity Stoke City want to play predominantly ‘route one’ football. Although most of the defenders who played for them yesterday are thuggish in their approach they nevertheless have a good squad of very capable footballers. Their squad is much more expensively put together than that of Latics – Kenwynne Jones, a high quality central striker was brought on only in the 90th minute, the kind of luxury Wigan Athletic cannot afford. In fact Stoke have at least five top class strikers – Crouch, Walters, Jerome, Jones and Fuller – to call on.

For some reason the referee played 5 minutes of additional time a t the end of the 90 minutes. I am not sure where this came from. Did he allow added tine to compensate for the accumulated time wasted by Rory Delap every time he took a long throw? Surely referees should take action against Delap who spends time drying the ball before he throws it? For the sake of argument let’s say it took Delap two minutes to deliver each throw and he put in 15 of them. The staggering total is 30 minutes in a 90 minute period. Referees should insist on him taking his throws quickly. Although it is Stoke’s main goalscoring weapon the sheer frequency of these throws and the time lost makes for a disjointed match for the neutral observer.

The Good

Sterling defensive work by Latics, withstanding the aerial bombardment for most of the game. Hats off to Latics for continuing to try to play good football against a team that takes no prisoners.

The Bad

The penalty and sending off of Gary Caldwell. The defence has been working well as a unit in recent games and Caldwell has been pivotal. One can never be sure but it looked like deliberate hand ball to me and if this is the case then Caldwell let his team down.

A Neutral Might Say

Two teams with different styles made for an entertaining game by and large. A draw was a fair result.

Player Ratings

Ali Al Habsi: 7 – Persevered when the balls were flying into his box. Not an easy game for him.

Ronnie Stam: 8 – Snuffed out the danger of Etherington, showing a determination in his tackling that we have rarely seen before. Got forward and supported the attack, setting up Rodallega for Moses’ goal and having a good shot turned away by Sorensen.

Antolin Alcaraz: 7 – A key member of a defence. Sometimes he can make the game look easy.

Gary Caldwell: 6 – Excellent until his sending off that could have lost Latics the game.

Maynor Figueroa: 7 – Quietly confident, did the simple things well.

David Jones: 7 – One of his better performances defensively, keeping Pennant on a tight leash.

James McCarthy: 7 – Worked tirelessly for the team, making decisive defensive interventions. Covered a huge amount of ground.

Mohammed Diame: 7 – Classy. Worked hard against a combative Stoke midfield.

Jordi Gomez: 7 – Once again played the role of midfield general. Worked hard for the benefit of his team.

Victor Moses: 7 – Stoke did their homework and marked him closely.Took his goal like a seasoned campaigner.

Hugo Rodallaga: 7 – One of his better performances this season. Worked hard with little support. Assisted in both goals.

Substitutes:

Steve Gohouri – Not on the field long enough to make an assessment of his performance.

Ben Watson – What a pleasure to see this fine player back on the pitch showing great coolness with his penalty.