An hour before any Wigan Athletic game is due to start I like to trawl along to the official club website and look for news of the team lineup. I did it last weekend and got an immediate sense of foreboding. Gohouri in for Alcaraz and only one winger in the lineup. A return to playing Jordi Gomez on the right wing? A question of pack your team with midfield players to stifle the opposition? Then maybe bring on another attack minded player later? Was this to be the way to get a good result against another struggling team?
My sense of foreboding was to be temporarily lifted in the first few minutes with Latics going close to scoring on a couple of occasions. However, this was to be only a temporary respite. Wigan were playing without any attacking player on the right. Gomez would track back to help Boyce when the opposition attacked on their left, then move back to a central midfield position to receive the ball. As the half progressed a nervy QPR started to get on top. Their nerves were calmed after 32 minutes when James McCarthy idiotically palmed the ball away from a Barton corner. Helguson scored the resulting penalty with ease. The situation was exacerbated in the 45th minute when Gohouri ‘s trip on Campbell gave Buzsaky the chance to curl a wonderful free kick in off the post.
Martinez brought on Conor Sammon after the break for McArthur – an attacking move but still leaving Wigan with only one real wide player, Victor Moses. However, Albert Crusat was to be brought on the 61st minute, with Latics scoring four minutes later. Set pieces really have not been Wigan’s speciality in the Martinez era and when I saw Hugo Rodallega stride up to take a free kick it did not ease my sense of foreboding. I had visions of his kick hitting the spectator on the back row of the stand behind the goal, but had a pleasant surprise as he stroked the ball home with aplomb from 25 yards. Well done, Hugo! However, after 73 minutes the referee gave QPR a ridiculous second penalty, once more against Gary Caldwell, but Al Habsi pulled off a wonderful save. Once again the goalkeeper had been Latics best player and kept us in the game. The nail in the coffin came when Tommy Smith hit a beauty from 30 yards from open play in the 81st minute.
Another goal for Hugo Rodallega who is regaining his form. Yet another excellent goalkeeping display from Ali Al Habsi.
The last time I had that same kind of foreboding feeling was when I saw the team sheet against Bolton in mid October. We had only one wide player – with James McCarthy nominally on the left wing – and the end result was a 3-1 defeat to a struggling team. This was like déjà vu.
Who knows what might have happened had James McCarthy not palmed away the ball after 32 minutes. It changed the game, giving QPR that confidence that they did not have before. However, let’s not beat about the bush here. When you play with a lone central striker you need two natural wide players to provide an attacking threat and to give balance. The sight of Emmerson Boyce moving into the opponent’s half and putting in long crosses was depressing. No blame attached to Boyce here – what else could he do with nobody else supporting him on that side of the pitch?
During the Martinez era we have seen some good football mixed with farcical errors. More often than not individual errors have lost us matches, or their mistakes have proved to be turning points in converting potential victory into defeat. It is hard to blame the manager for individual errors. This is largely down to the players, probably related to their lack of self confidence. Martinez has to operate a relatively low budget, being unable to bring in the kind of experienced, hardened Premier League pro who demands exhorbitant wages. This means developing players within the club and getting others from overseas leagues or the lower divisions in England. Given the club’s financial restraints – and I applaud Dave Whelan on his insistence on coming close to balancing the books – it means that the club needs to operate a “farm system” to survive. Put simply we need to develop players and sell the odd one each summer to keep the whole thing going. The trick is to have the replacement player groomed to take over from the one due to depart. Last year Charles N’Zogbia was to be the departing star, Victor Moses his potential replacement. Unfortunately Moses struggled with injury for part of last season and just did not get enough appearances under his belt. The result has been that this season he has shown huge promise, but so often the final pass or shot has been lacking. Centre forward has been a problem position under Martinez. This season Rodallega has been off form and has not signed a new contract. Neither Di Santo not Sammon has shown sufficient consistency or self belief to command a regular place.
The manager has a difficult job in terms of the tight budget he has to work within and in getting players to come to what is perceived to be a small club. The irony of the situation is that this year we have probably as good a squad as we have had in the past seven Premier League seasons. It is that self-belief that remains lacking among the players, following an accumulation of horrendous thrashings against top four clubs and the frustrations of individual errors giving the points away against average, and often less than average, teams. A few weeks ago I commended Roberto Martinez on his tactical innovation of playing with three central defenders. It was a welcome change from a manager who had not shown such tactical flexibility in the past. If he has an Achilles heel as a manager then it is in this area.
So Martinez has shown that he is able to adapt his tactics to suit the players he has at his disposal. He will almost certainly continue to pack his midfield and play with a lone centre forward. That is something I do not love, but which I can live with. However, I have to admit my frustration at his repeated tactic of playing either a centre forward or central midfield player on the flanks. Hugo Rodallaga has time and time again shown that he is not a left winger. He simply does not have the dribbling skills or the pace to play in that position. Neither do I want to see Franco di Santo or Conor Sammon assigned to the wings. If we have a lone centre forward let’s at least have two genuine wide players to pose an attacking threat on each side of the pitch. Please, please, please – let’s not see Jordi Gomez nominally on the right wing! Play him in his natural position in the centre of midfield.
Ali Al Habsi: 9 – Another excellent display. Kept Latics in the game.
Emmerson Boyce: 5 – Had to go off after 69 minutes. Has made too few appearances in the past two seasons. Let’s hope he can get back to the match fitness that is required for him to be a regular fixture.
Steve Gohouri: 5 – Lacks confidence. He has never had a long run inn the team in his natural position as a centre half.
Gary Caldwell: 5 – Is this controversial player a target for referees? I doubt whether the second half penalty given against him would have happened with most centre halves.
Maynor Figueroa: 5 – Once more tried hard but was left exposed at times.
James McCarthy: 5 – Giving away the penalty was not typical of him. He is a mature player for his age, but maybe the nerves are getting to him too.
Ben Watson: 5 – Solid, but uninspired.
James McArthur: 6 – Industrious as usual. Taken off at half time.
Jordi Gomez: 5 – Ineffective in his hybrid role. Substituted after 61 minutes.
Victor Moses: 6 – Tried hard despite the lack of good service coming to him.
Hugo Rodallega: 6 – Worked hard, scored an excellent free kick.
Conor Sammon: 5 – Huffed and puffed, but no end result.
Albert Crusat: – Did not get a lot of the ball. What a shame he was not on at the start.
Ronnie Stam: – took over from Boyce, but had a frustrating time.