What happened to Wigan? 10 thoughts

2012-survive

1. The current defensive injury crisis is extreme, but nothing new

This is the third year running that Antolin Alcaraz has missed substantial match time to injury in the first half of the season. In previous years, he had participated in a full World Cup and Copa America respectively, with little recovery time. On both occasions, he eventually returned to fitness around this time of the year to play a key role. His understanding with Caldwell and aerial ability is crucial to the solidity Latics’ positive results have been built on.

Meanwhile, Gary Caldwell has missed less match time but is prone to rushing back before fully fit — probably in part due to his role as skipper. He was clearly not at the races in the Newcastle fixture several matches back, and prolonged his absence by tweaking the injury before it had fully healed.

Then there are Ramis and Lopez, neither with a history of injuries in their Wigan careers, but owners of hamstrings with a bad sense of timing.

2. We’ve missed Moses more than we care to admit

Many Wiganers are quick to point to Moses’ often-frustrating final pass or finish, but he gave the team a lot more than that. One of his most important contributions was to relieve pressure by holding the ball up, dribbling and drawing people into fouls while his teammates regained their shape. The penalties and free-kicks have dried up in his absence. Aside from Jordi, who unfortunately lacks pace to be a consistent attacking threat, there are few players in the starting XI capable or willing to take on their man and unlock a defence.

3. Espinoza can’t arrive soon enough

If our Sporting Kansas City friends are to be believed, our new Honduran signing is nothing if not committed. More important than skill, he should inject an element of urgency and fight into the squad. I wouldn’t be surprised if we saw his first appearances in the right wing-back position, though he is destined to fill one of the defensive midfield slots. Injuries may force his inclusion sooner than anticipated.

4. Ali Al-Habsi desperately needs a clean sheet

The Omani international has been the club’s most consistent performer over the past two seasons. But a couple mistakes have seen a huge dip in confidence. The fact that there is a different set of defenders in front of him each week can’t be helping, but it’s clear he needs a clean sheet, a penalty save or similar, to get his head back where it was.

5. Arouna Koné’s participation in the African Cup of Nations could be disastrous, or a blessing in disguise.

The Ivorian is clearly a quality player but hasn’t quite got fully going. Scored a couple, missed a couple, he is now suffering from a dip in form along with his teammates. While his absence will be problematic, a good tournament could see the return of a confident in-form international striker. If Martinez can plug the hole with a January window signing, or by giving Mauro Boselli an extended run in the team, it may be a blessing in disguise. There are other options, albeit with some adjustment to the team’s attacking shape — Jordi and Maloney both have goals in them but do best when the other one isn’t on the pitch. Ryo Miyaichi still has a big role to play this season. Callum McManaman is waiting for his chance. Is a Nouha Dicko return from Blackpool a possibility?

6. Would it be worth a loan-move for Wilson Palacios in January?

If everyone’s fit, it would be hard to argue against the Jimmy Mac axis in centre midfield. But with the glut of injuries at present, surely it would be worth a gamble. Stuck out in the wilderness at Stoke, he would likely jump at the chance to be re-united with a set of supporters that loved him, two fellow Hondurans, and a system that would would very much play to his strengths. One could easily see a McArthur-Palacios defensive midfield, allowing James McCarthy a bit more license to push forward, with Maloney in behind Di Santo.

7. Mauro Boselli’s success depends on the form of the wingbacks

Finally given an opportunity to start against Norwich, Boselli was let down by poor performances by both Jean Beausejour and Ronnie Stam. He is a very different type of striker to either Franco Di Santo or Arouna Kone — a poacher who needs service into the box. The only decent delivery against Norwich came from Maloney. Give Boselli three of those a match and he’ll score goals.

8. Boycey looks a bit tired

In the wingback role, he was failing to get forward as he did to such great effect last season. As a centre-back, he has done admirably but is starting to look a little jaded. The defensive injury crisis has meant a lot of football. A young right wingback must surely be a priority on Roberto’s shopping list.

9. Will Di Santo sign a new contract?

The Argentine started the season in scintillating form, suffered a couple minor injuries, and has been used sparingly in recent matches. It would not be surprising to see his head turned after a first international appearance alongside Messi, Aguero and Higuain. But the hope in the Wigan camp is that Martinez has been restricting his appearances to keep him fresh for the period of time Arouna Kone is away — rather than using him sparingly with the knowledge he plans to leave in the summer as did Rodallega and Diame.

10. It’s an interesting league table this year

QPR are starting to get results under Harry, as one would expect. With the talent in their squad, and half a season to run, they should be able to escape. Reading look doomed. Southampton don’t have much to work with, especially with the recent injury to the excellent Adam Lallana. But the third relegation birth is very difficult to call. Sunderland have been very poor but it’s hard to imagine a Martin O’Neill team being relegated. Newcastle have far too much quality in their squad, surely. Villa have started to look impressive, if reliant on striker Christian Benteke. It’s hard to see many teams above them slipping too far. Wigan needs to improve.

Moving up a tier? Wigan and the Premier League financial league table

Over the years, Wigan Athletic have delivered performances ranging from the majestic to the downright nightmarish — none more so than the 2010 season opener against Blackpool. A 4-0 home defeat to anyone would have been bad enough, but to a team who the pundits had already condemned to relegation even before a ball was kicked? It was to prove a difficult season for Latics, only securing safety on the final game of the season. It also went down to the final game for Blackpool, who put up an amazing fight before eventually succumbing to Manchester United.

An old Bob Dylan song reminds us that “Money doesn’t talk, it swears.” The primary reason the pundits had tipped Blackpool for relegation that year was the perception that they did not have enough players of Premier League quality. Their Chairman, Karl Oyston, was not willing to splash money around like confetti and put the club at risk of insolvency. Blackpool’s salary bill that season amounted to just £14 million. Wigan’s was almost £40 million. During that 2010-11 season Blackpool were to do the home and away double over a team with a salary bill almost 10 times that of their own. That was Liverpool, at £135 million.

In the end Blackpool couldn’t quite avoid that relegation trap-door in the jungle of the Premier League, where clubs regularly make huge losses in an effort to keep up with the Joneses. You could say Blackpool got it right. Their salaries amounted to only around 25% of their income – compared with the league average of around 69% – and this helped them gain a positive cashflow for the season. They continue to be run on a sound financial basis in the Championship. Manchester City actually spent more on salaries than the revenues they had coming in, and even Aston Villa were leaking 92% of their revenue on salaries. No wonder Villa have since cut back, putting the emphasis on youth rather than established big-earners. It could be argued, however, that they have gone too far as the lack of quality and experience in this year’s squad makes them candidates for relegation.

Statistics show that the Premier League is financially tiered. In the 2010-2011 season club salary levels published by the Daily Telegraph ranged from £14 million to an absurd £190 million. The top three clubs in the table paid in the £150-£190m range. The teams finishing 4th and 6th paid in the £120-150m range, Tottenham bucking the trend by finishing 5th on a budget of “only” £91m. Fulham and Everton, with budgets around £58m managed to finish ahead of Aston Villa, who spent £84m on salaries. Then followed a clump of clubs paying between £40 and £60m, which included West Ham who were to be relegated despite a wage bill of £56m. Wigan Athletic, Wolves and West Bromwich had salary totals between £37 and £40 million, with only Blackpool below. It would be interesting to see salary levels for the current season, when these become available.

According to the Guardian “ The Premier League’s 20 clubs collectively made a loss of £361m last year, after spending all of their record £2.3bn income. Of the clubs which were in the Premier League in 2010-11, the year of most clubs’ latest published accounts, eight made a profit, of £97.4m in total.”  Dave Whelan wrote off Latics debts for £48m in August 2011. He advocated financial fair play to ensure that debt is maintained at “reasonable and sustainable levels”.

According to Alan Switzer,  of accounting group Deloitte, clubs with salary to revenue ratios of 70% and above are not likely to make a profit. He suggests that levels should go down to the low 60s. In 2010-11, Wigan Athletic were around the 80% level, according to the Daily Telegraph stats, which indicates a negative cashflow of £0.1 m.

The Daily Telegraph statistics show a clear correlation between salary levels and success on the field, although there are some exceptions. So how does a team stay afloat in a tiered Premier League? Do Wigan Athletic have to significantly increase salary levels in order to move up a tier in the league table? Would doing so make them financially less stable?

Last season both Mohamed Diame and Hugo Rodallega left at the ends of their contracts. A rough estimate might suggest that Wigan Athletic lost maybe £10 million in potential transfer money for the two. Whelan rightly insists that Wigan Athletic keep a lid on their salary payments so it is unlikely that either player was given an offer he could not refuse to stay on at the club. This season we have Franco Di Santo and Maynor Figueroa in their final year of contract. Both are key players. Figueroa has developed into an excellent left of centre defender in Martinez’ tactical system. He could prove costly to replace. Di Santo has now added goal poaching to his repertoire and could be worth in the region of £20 million on the open market if he continues to improve at this rate. When Roberto Martinez took over at the club various higher wage earners were sent packing to bring down the wage bill. He is now facing a dilemma in how to keep his top players from leaving at the ends of their contracts, given the total salary cap imposed by his chairman.

Given the factors above, is it possible for Wigan Athletic to consistently reach a mid-table position? Could they defy the stats on an annual basis, keeping a nucleus of good players, allowing a couple of stars to go for premium transfer fees each summer? In this way, the budget could be balanced. The first step would be to already have the replacements for the stars ready and in place. The second would be  to find a way to offer top players longer contracts at competitive rates, whilst maintaining a reasonable total salary cap. Food for thought for Bob and Dave.

Arsenal 1 Wigan Athletic 2: Giant-killers

Any concerns about the bubble being burst were laid to rest in emphatic fashion last night as Latics emerged from a traditionally nightmarish fixture with three points of gold and another famous scalp.

The scoreboard beggared belief after eight minutes of football, during which Franco Di Santo capped off a flowing breakaway and Jordi Gomez stabbed home a Victor Moses cross at the second attempt. Given the club’s dreadful record at the Emirates — no goals scored there since 2007, plenty conceded — this was a sight for sore eyes.

There is much to appreciate about Arsene Wenger, his teams, and his team’s form of late, but there was a dangerous air of arrogance evident in those opening passages of play. When asked about Wigan’s attacking threat a day earlier, the Frenchman err-ed and ahh-ed before mentioning Victor Moses, Emmerson Boyce and Maynor Figueroa. While inadvertently picking out three of Wigan’s top performers on the night, his response implied that he had not watched much of Wigan lately. Figueroa, of course, has been playing as a left-sided centre-back, while Boyce, an excellent defender, has not been a key contributor in attack. And Victor Moses — well, they clearly hadn’t watched enough of his recent play, because he ran rings around them all night.

Whether it was lack of homework or not, when James McCarthy nipped in to initiate a counter-attack on six minutes of play, it was clear Arsenal had committed too many men forward. The midfielder fed Victor Moses, who played Jordi Gomez into space. The Spaniard, back in the team after Shaun Maloney picked up a knee injury in training, threaded the ball into Franco Di Santo’s path, who poked at Arsenal keeper Szechzny, watched the ball balloon over him, then volleyed into the back of the net.

Moments later, with Latics’ first real possession of the match, patient build-up saw Victor Moses superbly spin past Bacary Sagna, drive a low cross into the box towards James McArthur. As with the first goal, the Scotsman’s first effort was blocked, but this time his teammate Gomez was ready to pounce, making it 2-0 after eight minutes of football.

Arsenal were shell-shocked, but quickly regained the initiative, with Tomas Rosicky looking particularly lively. Ali Al-Habsi made a superb flying save from a looping Yossi Benayoun header after sustained pressure. In the 20th minute, Rosicky shed his marker to deliver a beautifully balanced cross onto the on-running Vermaelen’s head. Al-Habsi was paralyzed, but there was little he could do such was the power behind the header.

The next stretch of play was crucial to the match as Arsenal piled on the pressure, urged to shoot on sight by their crowd. First, Van Persie struck a venomous shot straight at Al-Habsi from outside the box. Next, Johan Djorou went a fraction wide with a volleyed effort following a penalty box mixup. The key moment, however, came after James McCarthy — only seconds back on the pitch after receiving treatment for a knock — cheaply gifted Arsenal possession. With Rosicky and Van Persie bearing down on Caldwell and Al-Habsi things looked grim. But the Arsenal men fluffed their lines, not realizing it would be their best chance to equalize for the rest of the evening.

Wigan had a half chance on the stroke of half-time, with Jordi Gomez ballooning a shot from outside the box, but looked relieved to make it through the tunnel with their advantage intact.

The second half was a different beast. Arsenal dominated possession but Wigan defended exceptionally well and created three or four excellent goal-scoring opportunities. Victor Moses, who had already outwitted Bacary Sagna for the second goal, this time out-muscled him, barging into the box only to slam his effort straight at Szechzny. Minutes later, the Nigerian was barreling toward goal following a Maynor Figueroa long-throw, only to rush his shot at the Polish keeper. James McArthur, whose supply of energy and industry is bottomless, broke from his own box to release Moses down the left wing. The winger picked his head up this time, lofting a delightful far-post cross for Jordi Gomez, who mishit with his right boot.

Conor Sammon came on to replace the heroic Franco Di Santo, while Mo Diame relieved Jordi Gomez with about 10 minutes to go. Both subs made excellent contributions, injecting freshness of mind and body, providing relief for their tiring teammates. The big Senegalese midfielder might have added his name to the scoresheet in injury time after skillful dribbling opened up some space at the top of the box, but his left-footed strike failed to trouble Szechzny.

The final whistle predictably started a round of boos at the Emirates, but this was another terrific achievement for the Latics.

The Good:

We have gone from a team that needs 20 chances against weak opposition to score a goal, to a team that only needs one or two against a big team. It’s all down to confidence and a bit of luck. No one knows better than us — having spent most of the season in the relegation zone — that those two go hand-in-hand. It’s a been a pleasure and privilege to watch them come together against the biggest, most talented and most expensively assembled clubs in the land in recent weeks. The commentator assigned to the Manchester United match pointed out that Wigan’s entire starting XI costthe club  less than United’s Spanish goalkeeper David De Gea.

It’s now four wins out of five, including Liverpool, Arsenal, Manchester United. The 2-1 loss against Chelsea famously involved two offside goals. This is quite simply the best run of results and performances Wigan Athletic has seen at this level.

The defending had been absolutely terrific. Maynor Figueroa played the perfect match yesterday. Caldwell and Alcaraz were outstanding. Boyce and Beausejour plugged the wings. McCarthy and McArthur put in their usual shift. Di Santo works as hard for the team as any striker in the league.

No injuries or suspensions. Arsenal fouled us more than we fouled them.

The Bad:

Ironically — save for the goals — the first half was one of our weaker performances for a while. Understandable, playing away against an in-form Arsenal side. But the passing was at times sloppy, and we rode our luck in the period after Vermaelen’s goal.

Conclusions:

If you’d told me we’d get 6 points from 9 against Chelsea (away), Man United (home) and Arsenal (away) — with each of these clubs under pressure to get results for the title or a Champions League place — I wouldn’t have known how to respond. All the frustration from good performances earlier in the season that went without reward has been channeled into these characters wearing Wigan shirts. Their focus, determination, and talent is a delight to watch. Hard to imagine a prouder moment as a Latics supporter.

That said, we’re not quite there yet. The league table looks rosy, with Wolves pretty much already down and Blackburn six points behind, an inferior goal difference, and Chelsea and Spurs away in two of their last four matches. QPR also have a very difficult run-in against Chelsea, Spurs, Stoke and Man City — but like us, have produced results against the big teams that they have struggled to obtain against weaker opposition. Bolton may escape, with six winnable games to play, though they will have to improve dramatically. We face in-form sides Fulham and Newcastle, before a big one away at Blackburn, and Wolves on the final day of the season. Based of our rivals’ fixtures, three more points should do it. But there are surely a few more twists and turns to come. Lets hope Roberto’s men can maintain their superb form for another unforgettable end-of-season flourish.

Player Ratings:

Ali Al-Habsi: 9 — Made one amazing save from a Benayoun header, and several more important blocks throughout the game. Missed a punch for one scary moment in the second half, but the man is in inspirational form. He gives his the defense and team confidence from the back.

Antolin Alcaraz: 9 — Classy, strong defender in the best form of his Wigan career.

Gary Caldwell: 9 — Did what no one else in the league has been able to do this season — kept Van Persie quiet. The Dutch striker, in jaw-dropping form of late, was limited to a couple shots from outside the box.

Maynor Figueroa: 9.5 — Hard to single out a man of the match in such a team performance, but if there is one it was him. Five or six breathtaking sliding challenges, all perfectly timed, to deny Arsenal goal-scoring opportunities. Excellent in possession, and cool as you like bringing the ball out of defense. Even managed to contribute what might have been an assist for a third goal from a long throw-in. We’re docking 0.5 points for the dangerous challenge on Theo Walcott in the second half that might have led to a red card, if a foul had been given.

Emmerson Boyce: 9 — Fantastic defensive performance. In truth, the wing-backs ended up playing more as traditional full-backs in this match. Boycey’s tackling and work-rate was great.

Jean Beausejour: 9 — Looked less comfortable in possession than usual, but did some amazing defending, keeping Theo Walcott under control most of the match. Showed he can defend.

James McArthur: 8.5 — A bulldog in midfield. Was everywhere.

James McCarthy: 8.5 — Started the attack that led to the first goal. Made one mistake that could have proven costly, but put his usual hard-working but shift in, with a touch of class in his passing here or there.

Jordi Gomez: 9 — Many were concerned when Shaun Maloney’s absence was confirmed, but the Spaniard responded by setting up Di Santo for the first goal, and scoring the second himself. Squandered a real chance in the second half, but made a crucial contribution.

Victor Moses: 9 — Ran rings around Arsenal, as he had done to Manchester United and Chelsea before that. Finishing still needs a bit of work, although his cross for the second goal was great, as was the lofted ball he played Jordi in the second half.

Franco Di Santo: 9 — Very pleased for the Argentine, who finally got the goal his effort and skill deserved. Brilliant target man play, rarely loses the ball. Rodallega is going to have a hard time breaking back into this lineup.

Roberto Martinez: 10 — When things were looking very grim indeed, towards the end of 2011, our manager decided to temporarily scrap his beloved 4-5-1 / 4-3-3 for a wing-back system that can look like a 3-5-2 or a 3-4-3 depending on the players on the pitch. It immediately produced improved performances, most of which ended frustratingly in draws. But he stuck to it, brought in a player who truly specializes in that wing-back position, and has enjoyed the amazing improvement since. Roberto said we would beat Manchester United this season, that we would shed that “mental block” against the big teams. He was right.

Subs:

Conor Sammon: 8 — Great sub appearance, running around like a madman but also looking a useful outlet up front.

Mo Diame: 9 — Really enjoyed his 10 minutes on the pitch, skipping and dancing past Arsenal players as though they were training cones. Might have done better with an injury time effort — or might have walked it to the corner flag to ease our nerves! — but he is one hell of a useful substitute to bring on.

Wigan Athletic 2 Stoke City 0: Great escape on track as defenders lead the way

Wigan kept the dream alive with an emphatic victory over Stoke City on Saturday, although results elsewhere conspired to keep them in the bottom three. Once again it was a centre-back who dealt the killer blow, with Antolin Alcaraz providing the kind of assertive finish his more attacking teammates had failed to produce all season. The Paraguayan’s thumping header was just reward for his excellent performances of late.

Stoke’s direct style of play needs no introduction, so it was no surprise that Latics controlled possession early on — and indeed for most of the match. The surprise here was the sloppy defending on display from Pulis’ typically disciplined and tenacious men.

First, Franco Di Santo dispossessed  a sleepy Andy Wilkinson early in the game with a great burst of speed, only to be thwarted by Asmir Begovic in a one-on-one opportunity. Several minutes later, fantastic work from Emmerson Boyce and Victor Moses found Shaun Maloney, who tested the Stoke keeper once again with a firm left-footed volley.

The little playmaker is looking more and more comfortable in the advanced central midfield role, and was named man of the match despite being substituted with a substantial amount of game to be played.

Boyce and Moses were proving a handful for Marc Wilson and Matthew Etherington down Stoke’s left, and the best chance of the half was the result of their pressure. A driven ball into Di Santo was flicked beautifully wide, from which Moses played an intelligent low cross into the path of Jean Beausejour. So often the provider, the Chilean made a mess of the chance, miscuing what should have been a simple tap-in. The Chilean had endured a frustrating first half trying — successfully, but at the expense of a yellow card and ongoing confrontation — to contain Jermaine Pennant. His face — distraught —  at the half-time whistle said it all.

The second half started in much the same vein as the first, with Wigan applying pressure but unable to convert their chances. Dean Whitehead clearly handled in the box (twice, in fact) but no penalty was awarded. Just as the supporters were starting to think it was going to be another of those days, a bit of Maloney trickery freed Beausejour down the left, who played a beautiful first-time cross onto the on-rushing Alcaraz’s head. In a season seriously lacking headed goals, such a fine finish was a sight for sore eyes. You could see what it meant to this committed group of players in their celebrations.

Ben Watson was brought on for Shaun Maloney, who had put in an excellent shift but was tiring. Beausejour had another golden chance when the former Crystal Palace man’s floated cross found him unmarked at the far post — not an easy finish but a fantastic opportunity nonetheless. Stoke brought on Ricardo Fuller and Cameron Jerome, and Wilson Palacios minutes later, but only managed to muster a half chance well-cleared by James MacArthur. Jordi Gomez and Conor Sammon were both introduced to keep possession and run around energetically, respectively — but it was Victor Moses who would seal the three points in injury time, catching Andy Wilkinson dozing once again, nipping past the keeper, and tapping into the empty net.

The Good:

This was almost the perfect performance. Everyone on the pitch worked their socks off, played some good football, and deserved three points. Maloney has been a revelation since coming into the side with his inventive runs and passing — though possibly less silky on the ball, he is much more direct than Jordi Gomez. Antolin Alcaraz, like Gary Caldwell, has been excellent of late and took his goal brilliantly. The three centre-backs were excellent in coping with Stoke’s aerial threat throughout and deserved their clean sheet. The James’ in midfield were once again dominant. Victor Moses not only scored but showed he can deliver the intelligent killer pass, when he pulls his head up. Boyce and Beausejour had difficult defensive tasks but were involved — even if their finishing let them down — in attacking play. Full marks for Roberto, things have been coming together for some time now, but save the poor finishing, this was a near-flawless performance.

The Bad: 

It certainly appears that Wolves are doomed to relegation. But two other direct rivals, Bolton and QPR, achieved vital wins. QPR have now beaten Liverpool and Arsenal in their last two games and are growing in belief. They have some quality players. Bolton have enjoyed a boost in the last few weeks. So we remain in the bottom three. Margins are incredibly tight. Three difficult fixtures loom against Chelsea, Man United, and Arsenal.

Conclusions:

Chelsea are enjoying a good spell of form under caretaker boss Roberto Di Matteo, but have a congested fixture list. Any points at Stamford Bridge would be a minor miracle if you look at the squads and statistical odds, but our form is good, the belief is there, and we should have a go at them. Manchester United remain the only team we have never managed a point from in the league, but it has been very close a few times at the DW. Last season, Wayne Rooney should have been sent off for elbowing James McCarthy in the face. He wasn’t, of course, but if fair refereeing were to prevail, we’d have a chance. Arsenal away tends to be a nightmare for us, but we must see what happens in those first two — and with results elsewhere — before attaching too much importance to it. The final stretch offers promise:  Newcastle home, Fulham away, Blackburn away, Wolves home. Lets hope the good form continues and we’re still in striking distance after these brutal next three fixtures. Crucial to our chances is that we do not lose our heads if things are going poorly in the next three fixtures — we can’t afford three-match suspensions for any key players.

Player Ratings:

Ali Al-Habsi: 7 — Only touched the ball once or twice. Got an important fist to the ball early in the first half, but that was about it.

Antolin Alcaraz: 9 — Excellent defensively, fantastically taken goal.

Gary Caldwell: 8 — Accomplished performance marking Peter Crouch, who is at least a full head taller than him.

Maynor Figueroa: 8 — Did well. Perhaps he’ll be the next to pop up with a striker’s finish?

Emmerson Boyce: 7 — Involved in Wigan’s best first half moves, linking up well with Victor Moses. Had a good chance in the first half but took a bad touch. That said, panicked a clearance that Jonathan Walters first-timed into the side-netting.

Jean Beausejour: 7.5 — Interesting performance by the Chilean, who struggled at times with Jermaine Pennant and had to resort to a bit of professional fouling. But he stuck with him, nullified his threat, and still managed to get in goalscoring positions twice and provide the match-winning cross.

James McArthur: 8 — Did not put a foot wrong. Cleared Stoke’s only real chance in the second half. Superb tackling and closing down.

James McCarthy: 8 — One still wishes he would show a bit more of his attacking flair, but it shouldn’t take away from the strong, pacey and committed shifts he is putting in.

Shaun Maloney: 8 — Always looking to create openings with the ball at his feet or a cheeky through ball, he has revitalized the side.

Victor Moses: 8.5 — Took his goal very well, and should have had at least one assist to his name. It speaks to his outstanding fitness levels that he was able to chase the ball down on the midfield line, sprint towards goal, and finish as coolly as he did — all in injury time.

Franco Di Santo: 7 — What a shame he couldn’t tuck away his chance. Once again, you can’t fault the lad for effort, or skill in his build-up play.

Subs:

Ben Watson: 6.5 — He was brought on to help the team regain and keep possession and largely, it worked. Almost made a mess of a clearance when Stoke attacked late in the second half.

Jordi Gomez: 6 — Brought on in a defensive move to keep possession, but was played out on the right wing where he barely saw the ball. Did have the chance to make one deeply satisfying tackle though.

Conor Sammon: n/a — Can’t remember him touching the ball, but I was glad to see him come on for the last few minutes to help the cause with his workrate.

Liverpool 1 Wigan Athletic 2: Captain Caldwell stars as Latics claim historic win

Wigan’s strong run of recent form finally yielded the three point return it deserved on Saturday, in the least likely of places, and from the least likely of sources. Captain Gary Caldwell was the hero with the sort of poacher’s finish Anfield-goers came to expect of Robbie Fowler or Michael Owen. Indeed, everyone looked a bit bemused when the Scot recovered from the initial shock of finding himself with the ball in the box to turn Andy Carroll the wrong way and coolly slot past Pepe Reina. The Scot epitomizes the the determination and grit that has been on display in the club’s recent matches and his strike was well worthy of its place in the history books.

Earlier in the game, his compatriot Shaun Maloney had put Wigan 1-0 up from the penalty spot. Martin Skrtel, a bad choice for a babysitter, thwacked Victor Moses across the chest and face as he was trying to head a looping Gary Caldwell ball over Pepe Reina. It was clearly a penalty, but the type of decision Wigan too frequently don’t get awarded away against the big boys. Maloney took his opportunity perfectly, blasting low and left to claim his first goal for the club.

Moses, meanwhile, spent about 10 minutes on the sidelines, concussed, before it was determined he would not return. Reduced to ten men, Latics were forced to weather some Liverpool pressure, with Ali Al-Habsi making two fantastic saves from Luis Suarez and Steven Gerrard to keep things even before Albert Crusat was introduced to make numbers even again.

Kenny Dalglish must have done a fair bit of shouting in the dressing room at half time because Liverpool returned with urgency and dynamism. The second half had hardly gotten under way when good link-up play between Suarez and Gerrard led to an equalizer. Gerrard was in acres of space on the left when he squared for Suarez, who deposited the ball neatly into the same corner of the net Maloney had minutes earlier. Latics were shaken, and a pivotal moment would soon follow.

Suarez wriggled past Figueroa on the right wing, the Honduran tugged him back, earning a yellow card for his troubles. Steven Gerrard whipped in a trademark far post cross, which Martin Skrtel headed into the ground, over Al-Habsi, toward the Wigan goal. Luis Suarez ploughed into Gary Caldwell, ramming his knees into the Scot’s chest, and appeared to use his arm to send the ball across the line. Caldwell hit the ground, the ball went into the back of the net, and Liverpool celebrated. After a good 15 seconds of celebration, referee Lee Mason called the goal back, booking Suarez in the process.

The decision, once again, was clearly correct, but one suspects it might have gone differently at Old Trafford. The incident killed Liverpool’s momentum and let Wigan back into the match. Having struggled for possession in the second half, Martinez gambled by removing Jean Beausejour and introducing Ben Watson, changed the team’s shape to his more traditional 4-5-1. The tactical rethink was immediately effective, with Latics controlling possession for a sustained period before Caldwell struck the winner. It worked so well, in fact, that Latics went closer to a third through Conor Sammon, after a terrific diagonal through ball from Maloney, than Liverpool went to an equalizer.

Ali Al-Habsi was called to attention once or twice more but looked sharp. Exciting 17-year-old Raheem Sterling and his pace was a bright note for Liverpool but Wigan held on for three points of gold.

The Good:

The result, and the confidence and belief that should follow it. There was some sloppy passing in the first half, a backs-to-the-wall sequence at the start of the second half, but the defending was generally solid and four clear cut goal-scoring opportunities were created.

The Scots. Shaun Maloney and Gary Caldwell scored the goals and enjoyed strong performances. But James McArthur and James McCarthy (almost/arguably Scottish) have been instrumental to the Wigan revival of late. Their work ethic is second to none. Even Maloney, more of a flair player, showed he is willing to get stuck in with a lunging tackle in the build-up to the first goal.

The Bad:

Victor Moses’ selfish streak. Again, when presented with the opportunity to lay the ball off to a teammate for a tap-in, he decided to go it alone. That said — lets hope he recovers after his concussion,  there were no fractures or lasting effects, and we see him back on the pitch next week.

Conclusions:

Having spent the previous weekend peppering Ben Foster and West Brom’s goalposts only to emerge with a single point, this was a deeply satisfying reversal in which Latics converted two of their four  chances, were composed and solid in the lead, and came closer to a third than Liverpool did to an equalizer. Wins like this instill real belief in players. We’ve now only lost one in seven, and it shows. Jean Beausejour is starting to show tricks down the left wing. Shaun Maloney looks fitter. James McCarthy has started shooting again. Gary Caldwell scored a goal with his feet! These are all signs that our players are starting to believe, to regain their confidence. It is a shame, in a way, that the Stoke match is next, given the club’s historical difficulty winning two games in a row. Another huge match beckons.

Player Ratings:

Ali Al-Habsi: 8 — Made two or three top class saves to keep the Latics in the lead. Such an agile shot stopper, a pleasure to watch.

Antolin Alcaraz: 8 — Strong, solid, coped well.

Gary Caldwell: 9 — Another excellent performance, capped off with an unlikely goal none of us will forget anytime soon.

Maynor Figueroa: 6 — Struggled with Suarez. The goal came down his side, although not his fault entirely. He gave away the free-kick that led to the disallowed second goal.

Emmerson Boyce: 7 — Decent, hard-working shift down the right.

Jean Beausejour: 7 — Very neat footwork, looked confident but only had the chance to deliver two or three crosses. Substituted in the second half to allow for tactical re-shape.

James McArthur: 7 — I wouldn’t like to play against him, he’s like the energizer bunny, only tougher.

James McCarthy: 8 — See James McArthur, but gets an extra point for one or two lovely positive attacking passes.

Shaun Maloney: 8 — Took his penalty expertly, created a clear chance for Conor Sammon late on, neat with his passing. A breath of fresh air.

Victor Moses: 7 — Created and then missed a chance in the opening minutes, when he could have easily laid the ball off. Fouled and injured for the penalty. We wish him a speedy recovery.

Franco Di Santo: 7 — The lad doesn’t score many goals but you have to appreciate his work rate and sacrifice. Often isolated, he ran his socks off for the cause.

Subs:

Albert Crusat: 7 — Not much opportunity to show his attacking skill, and out of position for large chunks of time on the right, he tracked back dutifully and didn’t waste the ball.

Ben Watson: 8 — His introduction saw Latics regain possession. Nice to see him back.

Conor Sammon: n/a — Not on the pitch very long. Had a chance late on. Hard to say that he “missed it” but “might have done better”.