Stoke performance reveals strength in depth

Wigan Athletic’s Gavin Massey (Photo by Adam Davy/PA Images via Getty Images)

On paper the Wigan Athletic starting lineup at Stoke City looked good enough to compete with the Championship team on an even keel. This was despite the fact that only two players who had started the previous League 1 game against Oxford United were included, those being Gavin Massey and Max Power.

In reality Leam Richardson had used his squad to put together a team that looked well- balanced. But being so hastily cobbled together it was always going to struggle to show the cohesion needed to seriously threaten the home team. Jason Kerr’s slip was unfortunate, but it gave the home team an early lead that was going to be hard for Latics to pull back. Wigan held their own until a very well taken goal by Jacob Brown after 62 minutes was to seal Stoke’s victory.

Newcomers Ben Rea and Jamie McGrath made good starts to their Wigan careers. Rea worked hard in central midfield and certainly let Nick Powell know he was around. Since Sam Morsy’s departure Laics have not had a player of his ilk in their line-ups. McGrath slotted in comfortably and could well compete with Will Keane for the number 10 role, although he can also play in the wide positions.

Tom Bayliss has had a hard time since his arrival in Wigan but had one of his better games yesterday. Josh Magennis toiled with little end-result until being replaced by Stephen Humphrys after Stoke’s second goal.

Gavin Massey was excellent throughout, working hard, rarely wasting the ball and, most notably, showing the bursts of acceleration that were the hallmark of his game before he was dogged by a series of hamstring injuries. Richardson has faced criticism for his loyalty towards Massey, so often playing him ahead of others who were knocking on the door for selection. However, if Massey can display this kind of form, staying fit, he can play a key role in the bid for promotion.

Joe Bennett completed a full 90 minutes plus for the first time since playing for Cardiff City against Middlesbrough in late February last year. It has been a long recuperation for Bennett following the ACL injury that threatened his career. Yesterday he showed us glimpses of the player who made over 300 appearances in the two highest tiers of English football. However, it is going to take time before we see the player approach anything like his best.

The current squad is certainly well blessed with central defenders. Curtis Tilt and Jack Whatmough are the current first choice pairing. Jason Kerr (24) and Kell Watts (22) were a young centre back duo yesterday. With the full backs so often pushing forwards the centre backs can be stretched when the opposition counterattacks. That was the case for Stoke’s first goal, but both players have shown that they can be fine players in League 1 level and possibly at a level above. Given the quality of the centre backs he has at his disposal it is to be hoped that Richardson will more frequently go for a line-up of three central defenders with wing backs.

Latics have another 20 league games to play before the season ends on April 30. It is a tough and demanding schedule, but much will depend on how the manager utilises his full resources and adjust his tactics according to the situation. Richardson is not a manager known for his squad rotation, but if he does not rotate players, he runs the risk of injuries that will prove costly in the long run.

Richardson’s decision to reshape his team’s formation during the first half of the Oxford game was a welcome surprise. The changes he made had an immediate effect.

Promotion is in the air at Wigan, but much will depend on the manager’s ability to choose the right players at the right times, adjusting his tactical approach when needed. He has a very strong squad at his disposal.

Stoke City 2 Wigan Athletic 2: Brilliant Latics bounce back

Two top quality strikes capped a stylish second half comeback after a freak goal and isolated breakaway had given Stoke City a 2-0 lead.

Given the scarcity of defenders and strikers at his disposal, Roberto Martinez fielded a midfield-heavy XI reminiscent of the Spanish national team in makeup. If the first half was sloppy and disjointed from both sides, however, the second was all Wigan, with the type of calm possession football that would have done Spain themselves proud.

The first goal was perhaps the best piece of football in Wigan’s season thus far, Franco Di Santo cushioning a driven ball to Roger Espinoza, whose perfectly weighted one-time pass was elegantly finished by the on-rushing James McArthur. One touch football at its finest.

It rightly gave Wigan the kind of confidence we haven’t seen since that run of form last season. It was the same trio that created the equaliser — Espinoza floating the ball towards McArthur, who nodded it back for an emphatic Di Santo finish.

McArthur, Maloney and Di Santo would go close as Latics went in search of victory, but it wasn’t to be. The point, however, is a good one, and the second half performance has us dreaming again.

The Good:

Midfielders in the Martinez era have been goal shy. Although James McCarthy had a conservative match, it was fantastic to see both Roger Espinoza and James McArthur takes some risks and get into scoring positions. The goals came when they drove forward.

Espinoza had a wobbly first half, but an excellent second one. He certainly looks a useful signing. He is positive with his passing, energetic, and willing to try something different.

Roman Golobart had a sound match, defensively speaking. With Emmerson Boyce hobbling off with a hamstring injury, it was a huge boost to witness the young Spaniard make a satisfactory Premier League debut.

The Bad:

Both goals conceded were arguably errors that need to be wiped out. While the first had an element of bad luck to it with Jean Beausejour’s clearance bouncing off the back of McCarthy’s head, a more assertive clearance would have prevented the goal.

Ali Al-Habsi’s new habbit of saving the ball into the path of an on-rushing striker has cost Wigan several goals this season. It was a difficult save to make on a wet pitch, but a confident Ali would have steered it away from goal.

Conclusions:

While an opportunity to take three points was lost, any draw at the Britannia is a valuable one. The football Wigan played in the second half — and the quality goals they scored — should give them the confidence boost needed to prevail over Southampton in Saturday’s crucial match.

Player Ratings:

Ali Al-Habsi: 5 — Just isn’t inspiring confidence. Didn’t have much to do, but spilled the second goal into Peter Crouch’s path.

Roman Golobart: 6 — Some nervous passing in the first half, but got better and made one vital tackle in the second half. His distribution improved as he grew in confidence.

Gary Caldwell: 7 — Did very well to cope with the physical and aerial threat of the Stoke attackers. His passing was excellent.

Maynor Figueroa: 7 — Average first half but classy in second. Drives the team forward when he attacks.

Emmerson Boyce: 5 — Went off with a hamstring injury, which might explain why he was being beaten so easily by Matthew Etherington in the first half.

Jean Beausejour: 6.5 — Mixed bag. His best game for some time, he delivered two or three lovely crosses and played some good football but still not confident. Poor clearance in the build-up to the first goal, however.

James McArthur: 8 — One of the few to put in a good full 90 minutes. Scored a cracker, set up the equaliser, and almost struck a winner.

James McCarthy: 6 — Steady but wish he would take the match by the scruff of its neck. He could dominate.

Roger Espinoza: 7.5 — Some dodgy passing early on, but was outstanding in the second half. Influential.

Shaun Maloney: 7 — A constant menace but no end product today. He did supply a gorgeous, Beckham-esque cross for Di Santo towards the end that deserved to end up in the back of the net.

Franco Di Santo: 7 — Took his goal very well and almost got a second, but drifted out wide often away from the box. Should take on defenders more frequently. Needs to be more arrogant, as Martinez would say.

Subs:

Ronnie Stam: 6.6 — One fantastic cross, otherwise held on to the ball well and didn’t let the team down defensively.

Does size matter? A look at Premier League pitches

 

Wembley Stadium

I paid my first visit to Wembley Stadium in 1967 when I went to watch Skelmersdale United – locally known as “Skem” – play Enfield in the FA Amateur Cup final. I had harboured visions of it being a wonderful stadium – it wasn’t –but the pitch really impressed me. It was like a bowling green, a great achievement by the ground staff in those days before the advent of pitch technology. I recalled watching FA Cup finals at Wembley when teams would visibly tire as the match progressed, players suffering severe leg cramps. The same happened in that Wembley final, particularly with the match going to extra time. The underdogs of Skem were to put up a wonderful performance, drawing 0-0, after Alan Bermingham could not put away a penalty. Exhaustion probably played a part in his miss. After playing on the biggest and most energy-sapping pitch in English professional football, Skem were to go on and lose the replay at Maine Road, 3-0. They were to win the same cup four years later.

My father used to say that Springfield Park’s pitch was as big as Wembley’s. He was close to the truth. In fact it was around 107 meters long and 66 meters wide, longer but narrower than Wembley’s. Latics’ non-league opponents at the time were clubs whose home pitches were typically around the regulatory minimum size of 100 by 64 meters. They faced a physical challenge when playing at Wigan on the big Springfield Park pitch. In those days pitch sizes also varied significantly in the First Division — West Ham and Tottenham typically had the smallest.

Premier League pitches are standardized  for the first time this season. Rather than go by the previous broad parameters (between 100-110 meters long and 64-75 meters wide) clubs are now required to have a pitch meeting the UEFA standard of 105 by 68 meters. However, there is a get-out clause in that clubs may be allowed to have pitches of differing sizes if the nature of construction of their ground prevents them meeting the new criteria. West Ham and Tottenham will once again have the smallest pitches, measuring just less than 101 meters long and 67 meters wide. Given the style of football his teams play, Sam Allardyce will not be unhappy that Upton Park cannot accommodate a regulation size pitch.

As one might guess, Stoke City have had the biggest adjustment to make, having previously reduced their pitch size to the previous minimum parameter of 100 by 64. Stoke are now going to play in a playing area which is now almost 12% bigger (7,140 square meters compared with 6,400). Other clubs had consistently complained to the Premier League about Stoke’s choice to play to minimum pitch size parameters. It will be interesting to see if this affects their style of play. Several other clubs have had to follow suit, being unable to cite the get-out clause.

When Latics moved from Springfield Park to the JJB Stadium in 1999 they were to find a pitch that was shorter but wider. It was quality, not size, that was to become the issue. The poor state of the pitch- which would churn up so frequently – began to give the club some degree of notoriety. In February 2011, Latics had the pitch dug up and relaid following a cup tie against Bolton. It was the second successive year that they had needed to do this. Some clubs might have left the pitch in a churned up condition until the end of the season, actually using it to their advantage. However, Roberto Martinez’s insistence that his team play good football made it paramount that they have a smooth playing surface. Dave Whelan clearly backed him up, commenting that “You don’t want to go into a game where the players cannot express themselves and cannot play the game they want to play or we want to play.” Whether the damage had been caused by geological or rugby-driven issues, Latics took advantage of the type of technology that allows for rapid repairs.

Since then the pitch has been much better. Hotels-n-Europe.com is a site that helps you find accomodation close to football stadia. In their information about the DW Stadium they tell us: “The pitch is a state of the art design and construction utilising a sand based matrix which contains an irrigation and under soil heating system. The pitch itself is a natural grass pitch with a 2% synthetic fibre infusion which helps to stabilise the pitch profiles.” Let’s hope that the reinforced grass pitch continues to hold up to the pressures put on it.

Wigan Athletic’s style of football is well suited to a larger pitch, with the wing backs able to hug the touchlines, stretching opposing defences. However, there is no evidence to prove that a larger pitch contributes to a better standard of football. Let’s wait and see if the new ruling has any effect on the quality of play from long ball sides such as Stoke and West Ham.

In Wigan Athletic’s case it has been pitch quality – rather than pitch size – that has mattered.